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30 May 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:21pm

Tommy Robinson, Roseanne, and the right-wing outrage-machine

The right proved beyond all doubt that it is comfortable with its own hypocrisy. And guess what: Don Jr just had to get involved.

By Nicky Woolf

Outrage! Outrage for days! An assault on free speech! Orwellian! A police state! Such cries are common in America: they are the noise of the complex and interlinked network of Fox News hosts and talk-radio bloviators, right-wing bloggers and Twitter personalities, and alt-right communities on message-boards like Reddit and 4chan, all of which together form the American right’s outrage-machine, its aggrievement-engine.

But the din swelled to another ludicrous crescendo over the weekend and then again on Tuesday. The fuel in the engine’s tank came from two events which were both entirely reasonable to any honest observer, but for the aggrievement-engine of the alt-right and Fox News it was another golden opportunity to take the outrage-machine and take it for a spin, truth be damned.

First, the ire of the right coalesced around the jailing by a British court of English Defence League founder Stephen Yaxley-Lennon – known by his self-consciously Anglo-proletarian pseudonym Tommy Robinson – on charges related to his wilful breaking of reporting restrictions surrounding another trial.

After the news broke about the imprisonment of Robinson, never mind that he is a famous toxic racist, or that he had knowingly and wilfully committed a crime; the US right wing saw an opportunity to make a fuss. It didn’t matter a jot that they had the wrong end of the stick. Why let the facts get in the way of a good outrage?

Infowars, the web-TV show of conspiracy-theory demogorgon Alex Jones – this rundown by John Oliver is well worth a watch if you haven’t heard of this appallingly fascinating figure – is the pressure-whistle on the aggrievement-engine. Jones devoted hours and hours of airtime to Robinson, saying that he was sentenced to be “tortured” in prison and that Britain was now a “police state,” and referring to the sentencing as a “Soviet-style disappearance of a journalist”.

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Jones’s headline was then picked up by the giant right-wing news aggregator Drudge Report. It also caught fire on Reddit, especially the Trump-supporting r/TheDonald subreddit community – population, over 600,000 – as well as on other usual haunts of the alt-right like /pol/, the “politically incorrect” section of the anonymous and ephemeral message-board site 4chan. Soon, “#FreeTommy” began trending on Twitter. An online petition demanding that Theresa May release Robinson was circulated; by Tuesday evening it had garnered half a million signatures.

The whole story, with its febrile blend of aggrieved ethno-nationalism and inscrutable legal complications was perfect fodder for the right-wing American blogosphere, and as James Ball wrote for the New Statesman on Tuesday, reporting restrictions imposed on the British press by the court made it all too easy for the machine to portray it all as an establishment cover-up while more responsible publications were unable to dispel their myth-making.

Glenn Beck, the bombastic former Fox News host, wrote that by “silencing” Robinson the government was “setting up a dangerous future.” On his show, while admitting that Robinson “did technically violate a judge’s order”, right-wing talk radio behemoth Rush Limbaugh went on to say that the UK has “lost control” andwas  suffering “the destruction of their culture.” Limbaugh continued: “The immigrants are actually in now positions of power to actually determine policy, and they are enforcing authoritarian, autocratic policies.”

Of course Donald Trump Jr, the president’s eldest – and demonstrably also his dumbest – son, for whom no bandwagon is too stupid to jump aboard, waded into the fray:

One of those who tweeted in support of Robinson was comedian and TV star Roseanne Barr, who was about to go on to provide the second part of the right-wing outrage double-whammy. “Pedos and their agents are now arresting those who oppose them, in ENGLAND”, Barr, who has been a vocal supporter of Trump, tweeted on Saturday.

Following that, she went on something of a rampage. On Monday, she hit out at Chelsea Clinton, the daughter of 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton: “Chelsea Soros Clinton,” Barr tweeted, referring to George Soros, a billionaire who has become a bugbear of the right for his support of progressive political causes. When Clinton corrected her, Barr veered to attack Soros, with an ugly and long-debunked conspiracy theory, tweeting that the financier, who is Jewish, was “a nazi who turned in his fellow Jews 2 be murdered in German concentration camps & stole their wealth”.

A tweet which – because, of course he did – Donald Trump Jr promptly retweeted.

Barr’s car-crash Twitter tirade (she later claimed that she had been under the influence of the sedative Ambien, despite the fact that the tweets were spaced out across four days – which would be a lot of Ambien) culminated on Tuesday morning, when she wrote that “Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj”, referring to Obama aide Valerie Jarrett, who is African-American.

In response, ABC cancelled Barr’s eponymous show, which had re-launched just months ago to huge audiences. But this set the whole outrage-machine back into motion all over again. “This is how free speech dies”, Infowars bombastically proclaimed. On Fox News, host Harris Faulkner said “I don’t understand it to be anything other than free speech … it was a joke. It was a miscalculated joke.” One of her guests, Republican strategist Noelle Nikpour, chimed in to bemoan that “we live in a politically correct world right now.”

Among extreme right-wing Twitter accounts and with help from high-visibility alt-right trolls like Jack Pobosiec and Gavin McInnes, the hashtag “#boycottABC” began to trend Tuesday evening after the news about Roseanne broke. Bill Mitchell, a radio host and high-profile Trump supporter (no-one is quite sure if he’s real or not because of the sheer absurdity of his pronouncements) produced another command performance in the field of logical gymnastics:

If the American far right has an original founding myth – not those they lay claim to with paeans to American exceptionalism and freedom and all that bunk, but their real core identity, the thing that first grabbed them and coalesced them and made unlikely allies of evangelical Christian fundamentalists and gamergate culture warriors – it lies in the war against so-called “political correctness”.

Framing their ideology as a battle against “political correctness”, this new alliance of the right, united largely by a sense of ethno-nationalistic white supremacy pride that was taboo to speak out loud – because it was, and is, racist – were able to co-opt the idea of free speech to their side. We’re just exercising our first amendment rights, man! We’re standing up for you! Never mind that political correctness is just good manners by another name, the sufferer of little more than bad branding, the outrage-machine was created – or evolved – to feed and harness that antipathy.

In the early days of this new almost postmodern right-wing coalition the machine glommed-on to social media to build its profile, and, taking advantage of the woefully inadequate protections against hate-speech in place on sites like Twitter, created a kind of perpetual motion machine of outrage and offense. The cycle goes like this. 1) Say something deeply offensive, totally bat-shit crazy, or, ideally, both. 2) Wait for it to inevitably go viral or be spread by the media, usually along the lines of hand-wringing columns saying things like “has x gone too far this time?” 3) Ride the backlash-to-the-backlash wave in the name of free speech, building a national media profile in the bargain. 4) Repeat.

The pioneer of this method was Milo Yiannopoulos, who discovered that you can gain enormous attention very quickly with inflammatory statements (“Feminism is Cancer”, “If white privilege is a thing, why are people working so hard to be black”, “Muslims are allowed to get away with almost anything”) and then ride that wave all the way to fame, or at least, infamy; but it also bears mentioning that the Trump campaign used a largely similar formula to hijack the news cycle and get free press. It is perhaps no coincidence that both Trump and Milo were proteges of Steve Bannon, the chief of the alt-right site Breitbart who went on to become the mastermind of the Trump campaign and wand then chief White House strategist before being pushed out in the summer of 2017.

But in the post-Trump age, the argument that no-platforming provocateurs like Yiannopoulos or Barr impinges on their free speech has careened down the path to visible absurdity. The argument often made on the right is that free speech means being exposed to “other ideas and opinions,” as US education secretary Betsy DeVos put it in a speech in February.

DeVos was talking about college campuses, obliquely referring, presumably, to protests by students across the US against speakers like Yiannopoulos or his former Breitbart colleague Ben Shapiro which were condemned by conservative media like Fox News host Jeannine Pirro, who called the protesters “snowflakes” and “wimps”. Ann Coulter, a conservative firebrand and an important piston in the outrage-engine, who chose to cancel her talk at the University of California, Berkeley, part of a “free speech week” organised by Yiannopoulos, because she thought she’d be embarrassed by the paucity of her audience, subsequently turned around and accused the protesters and university administration of “Nazi tactics”. The sheer gall of it is shocking.

Obviously the no-platforming argument holds no logical water. The much-misunderstood first amendment to the US constitution protects abridgement of speech by the federal government, not by private companies like ABC or even public universities like Berkeley. There is no constitutional right to turn up at a university campus and demand to be given a platform. How would you even enforce such a law? Ironically, it is the protests about which DeVos and her ilk are so upset about which actually come closer to the free speech the first amendment was designed to protect.

In Britain, similar distinctions obviously apply. As Ball explains, Robinson’s crime was well-defined:

The UK has strict rules on what can be reported between the point of arrest and the subsequent conviction or acquittal, with any material that could make it harder for someone to get a fair trial strictly forbidden. Trials have collapsed – at the cost of hundreds of thousands of pounds – because such rules have been broken, and defence solicitors and barristers often seize upon such opportunities: breaking these contempt laws make it harder to get justice for anyone.

Yaxley-Lennon was thoroughly aware of these laws because he had already been convicted of breaking them last year, and told in no uncertain terms that if he did so again he would go to prison.

The idea that this could somehow be a unique abrogation of free speech is ridiculous; apart from anything else, people are charged all the time in the US as well on contempt of court charges – which are similar to the British law Robinson wilfully and publicly broke. The idea that the US first amendment would or should cover contempt of court is preposterous. Nonetheless, the aggrievement-engine revved to the redline as always.

The tactic of the machine when faced with condemnation is always to go on the offensive, always accelerating, always going pedal-to-the-metal Neal Cassady-style. For the aggrievement-engine, the only good outrage is its own; when anger is pointed at their team, rather than at their opponents, it’s nothing short of an assault on the deepest core of American values, how dare you, how dare you.

Trump can insult his political opponents or brag about sexual assault and it’s “locker-room talk” or “just a joke”. Roseanne, being team Trump, also gets that cover from the machine. But when, for example, comedian Michelle Wolf joked about the president at this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner – where joking about the president was literally her only job – the machine fired up in paroxysms of rage.

This is not, despite what they might claim, merely a matter of reciprocity to all the offence the right-wing goes out of its way to cause liberals. Sure, neither side is free of virtue-signalling to its base, but the left’s legitimate outrage at the undisguised and vicious racism of Robinson and Barr is in no way equal to the right’s performative outrage at racists facing consequences for their racism. To claim anything else with a straight face is radically dishonest; to do so systematically, as the outrage-machine does, is nothing short of dumbfounding.

What the American right has is a cognitive dissonance problem. Or rather, it is truer to say that the cognitive dissonance is being forced upon the rest of the country: the right is just comfortable with its own naked hypocrisy.

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