Republicans take trolling to "trigger the libs" to the next level

Republicans settle on their rhetorical strategy for dismantling democracy: Trolling the left

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published April 14, 2021 12:53PM (EDT)

Ted Cruz, Tucker Carlson and Josh Hawley (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Ted Cruz, Tucker Carlson and Josh Hawley (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Tucker Carlson recently got oodles of attention — which was what he wanted — for unleashing a literal neo-Nazi argument on his highly rated prime time Fox News show last week and, when called on it, doubling down Monday night. Carlson's "argument" is basically a rehash of the same idea that drove white nationalists to riot in Charlottesville in 2017. At its core is a belief that social and demographic changes in the U.S. are due to a shadowy conspiracy of "elites" (Democrats in Carlson's telling, Jews in the more forthright white nationalist version) trying to deprive conservative Christian white people of their god-given right to control the country. 

"[T]he Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World," Carlson said, eyes glinting with impish delight. He circled around again on Monday, whining, "In order to win and maintain power, Democrats plan to change the population of the country."

Carlson's arguments are, of course, utter nonsense, starting with the fact Democrats already win the majority of votes in national elections, and only lose power because votes of conservative whites are more heavily weighted in our electoral system. Here at Salon, Heather "Digby" Parton recently pointed out that it's ridiculous "to believe that immigrants are 'replacing' real Americans in a country where the only people in it who aren't the descendants of immigrants or trafficked African slaves are Native Americans."

Immigration foes have never come up with a satisfactory explanation for why it's anything but racist to argue that immigration was good in the past but is bad now.

Want more Amanda Marcotte on politics? Subscribe to her newsletter Standing Room Only.

Carlson doesn't even really try to hide his core appeal, using overtly racist terms like "Third World" and acting like feigning umbrage at the use of the word "racist" is sufficient rebuttal to the accusation. Instead of trying to actually defend his anti-democratic, racist arguments, Carlson instead chooses a much simpler tactic: Trolling. 

His trolling comes in two forms, the "trigger the liberals" type and the more classic "neener neener" type. Neither really constitutes an argument in the traditional sense of the word. Both, instead, focus the attention of Carlson's audience on the emotional rewards of irritating liberals, instead of on the incoherence of what he's trying to argue. 

The full quotes from Carlson's rant defending "replacement theory" really underscore how central liberal-triggering is to selling his audience on this nonsense. After offering a fake laugh, Carlson noted that he's "laughing" because "the left and all the little gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if you use the term 'replacement,'" and "they become hysterical because that's what's happening actually." The joke being that "replacement theory" may not make much sense, in other words, but it's guaranteed to make liberals upset. As making liberals upset is the prime directive of the modern conservative, that's a good enough reason to embrace what is literally a neo-Nazi conspiracy theory. 

Carlson went on to claim that this is merely a "voting rights question," and that more voters in the system means "I become disenfranchised as a current voter." But Greg Sargent at the Washington Post did a noble job of pointing out the incongruity of "Carlson's underlying presumption that if representatives chosen by U.S. voters allow more outsiders admission to an expanded polity, this cannot be a democratic outcome by definition." Parton also took a shot at this silliness, noting "we are all going to be 'replaced' by the generations that come up behind us." Carlson, notably, isn't arguing against the practice of childbirth, which also "dilutes" his vote by adding new voters to the populace. 

But Carlson isn't really trying to make sense. This is just a "neener neener" argument, drafting off the fact that liberals have been heavily focused on protecting actual voting rights against a wave of GOP voter suppression. Basically, it's Carlson saying, "You libs say you're for voting rights, but what if I said my voting rights depends on other people not getting to vote? Checkmate, libs!" It's not really an argument. It's about injecting noise into the discourse and is meant to confuse people, waste time by forcing liberals to carefully debunk it, and give his viewers something to say to rationalize their racism, even if it is literally nonsensical. 

Want more Amanda Marcotte on politics? Subscribe to her newsletter Standing Room Only.

This "neener neener" type of trolling is swiftly becoming central to the entire GOP strategy around dismantling voting rights.

Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri are proposing using anti-trust laws to break up Major League Baseball to punish the organization for pulling the All-Star Game out of Georgia in protest of the anti-voting law just passed there. This isn't because Cruz or Hawley believe in anti-trust laws. It's a neener-neener move of weaponizing liberals' own beliefs against them. It's part of a larger push by Republicans to parrot liberal criticism of corporate influence in politics by whining about "woke" corporations. No one actually believes Republicans have suddenly become concerned about monied power in politics. It's just a "neener neener" troll to derail debate about the actual anti-voting law, which conservatives know is indefensible. 

Indeed, the efforts to roll out "checkmate, libs" deflections beat new records in idiocy this week, when not just one, but two senior writers at the National Review — which is supposed to be the home of "intellectual" conservatism — tried to "gotcha" New York magazine writer Jonathan Chait on his pro-democracy writings. They did this by arguing — wait for it — that democracy is bad because it gave us Jim Crow and slavery. Yep, you read that right. 

It makes us all stupider that it has to be said, but the flaw in this argument, of course, is that enslaved people and Black people living under Jim Crow did not, in fact, have the democratic right to vote. Indeed, Jim Crow functioned just like the Georgia law that these conservative "intellectuals" are defending, which is by undermining democracy in order to preserve white supremacy. As the Atlantic's Adam Serwer and the Washington Post's David Weigel pointed out, this is the equivalent of arguing that apartheid South Africa was a "democracy" despite disallowing the majority of Black citizens from voting. 

But these kinds of tactics from conservatives shouldn't be understood as arguments. Instead, it's all just flat-out trolling. None of these "arguments" are offered in good faith. The point is, as Steve Bannon once famously said, "to flood the zone with shit," which is to say to derail efforts to inform and engage the public by pumping out so many dumb arguments, trolling tactics, and other distractions that few people can pay attention to what really matters. 

Fighting back against these tactics isn't easy. Ignoring the trolls isn't good enough. If bad arguments like Carlson's aren't rebutted, they can spread even more rapidly, as not everyone has the critical thinking skills to spot the flaws right away. But it's also important not to let trolls waste too much of liberals' time and energy debating arguments offered in bad faith. Instead, the key to fighting back is to go meta, by pointing out as often as is necessary, that conservatives resort to such sleazy strategies because they know their arguments can't stand on their own. Going meta instead of taking the bait is the only real way to beat back the trolls. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

MORE FROM Amanda Marcotte