Johnny Depp’s stupid joke about assassinating President Donald Trump was merely the latest salvo in what has become a pathetic game of one-upmanship. It won’t turn anybody new against Trump, but it probably will provide inspiration to Trump’s devoted defenders. It’s a vicious cycle.
By now, you’ve heard about the right-wing protesters who rushed the stage and disrupted a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar last week. “Stop the normalization of political violence against the right!” shouted blogger and stage jumper Laura Loomer. “You guys are just as bad as ISIS.”
The production featured a Caesar that intentionally looked like The Donald (“Orange Julius,” the joke goes). The idea of mixing current events and theater isn’t new. Orson Welle’s 1937 black-shirted version of Julius Caesar bore a strange resemblance to Benito Mussolini. And, in 2012, the production of Julius Caesar featured a title character who looked a lot like Barack Obama. Now, granted nobody charged the Guthrie Theater’s stage when Obama moaned, “Et tu, Biden?” and that’s sort of the point.
Today’s political scene is a powder keg. And today’s right, once content to turn the other cheek, is ready to rumble. (I say "right" instead of "conservative" because the modern activists described here aren't conservative. The true conservative values tradition and wisdom and virtue. He believes in reform and prudence--not revolution. Today's activists are not conservative temperamentally, nor are they terribly interested in political philosophy, to begin with.)
In fairness, this incident also came on the heels of comedian Kathy Griffin’s posing with what looked like a decapitated Donald Trump—and the shooting of Republican Rep. Steve Scalise and four others. This is all to say that the decision to protest against this particular production of Caeser wasn’t a complete non-sequitur, but it also wasn’t organic.
Right-wing, err, internet personality Mike Cernovich had been using his platform to urge New Yorkers to obtain tickets for the express purpose of rushing the stage. He called the idea for this stunt “performance art,” and that sounds like an accurate description to me. We already have a reality star president, so why wouldn’t conservative activists also be in the show business racket?
To be sure, there have always been right-wing cranks and fringy activists attracted to politics, but they were generally shut out by the mainstream media filter. In the old days, most conservatives were generally harmless and boring. Then came talk radio, Fox News, and—most importantly—the internet. People who grew up with a million TV channels and an iPhone at their fingertips viewed the world differently from those who grew up with a mere three networks and a party line.
This freedom of choice made us more individualistic. It didn’t make us more conservative. As David Foster Wallace observed, “The ever increasing number of ideological news outlets creates precisely the kind of relativism that cultural conservatives decry, a kind of epistemic free-for-all in which ‘the truth’ is wholly a matter of perspective and agenda.” As “conservative” Tomi Lahren recently tweeted, “I speak my truth.”
Another thing that changed was that technology meant we all had a shot at our 15 minutes of fame. Why be content to just watch other people on video when we could do it ourselves? Tomi Lahren might not be a conservative, but posing as one has made her a minor celebrity. It's possible to become a famous right-wing activist now, which is sort of hilarious if you think about it.
Now, it might be a tolerable—or even salutary— tradeoff if the lure of fame and wanderlust spawned more effective conservative activists. But today’s right-wing activists are neither effective nor conservative.
It has been said that Barry Goldwater’s activists fought with their ideas (believing they could win elections by arguing and proving their ideas were superior) while Reagan’s activists fought because of their ideas. Today’s right-wing activists generally fight without ideas. (“But at least they fight!”)
The one idea they seem to have settled on is that you have to fight fire with fire. This means aping the social justice warriors on the left. I started noticing this trend a few years ago, around the time the hashtag #war began popping up in your Twitter timeline. It was about the same time when conservatives quit disdaining Saul Alinsky, and instead began esteeming him.
By now, most people know that Alinsky was a Chicago organizer who wrote Rules for Radicals, a book that essentially argues the ends justify the means. To achieve his goals, Alinsky endorsed all sorts of unseemly activities. But the difference between these people and Alinsky is that Alinsky's radicalism aimed to radicalized the public, if only a little at a time.
Kathy Griffin's stunt is a prime example of what I’m talking about. Why would conservatives want to replicate that kind of behavior? It was stupid and inane. It was guaranteed to generate publicity for herself, but it was also guaranteed to create a backlash. She didn't demonstrate the perceived damage Trump' s policies are doing to the country, she basically just said "I hate this guy so much I wish it was socially acceptable to behead him and make his noggin a trophy."
Too much of the anti-Trump commentary has lacked any grounding in reason — and has lost its effectiveness as such. All that does is validate the passions on that side, just like the Shakespeare play-interrupters do on the right. It’s hard to be effective when your primary goal is outrage and provocation and buzz.
Alinsky might have rushed that stage, but he would have had a bigger goal in mind.