We in the media are sometimes told not to write stories about Donald Trump’s latest Twitter tantrum, and that’s often good advice. But the latest one shows something incredibly troubling, and which is likely to be an ongoing feature of his presidency. We’ve long known that Trump is so petty and insecure that he can’t stop himself from lashing out at anyone who criticizes him.
But now we have to seriously ask how long it’s going to be before his vindictiveness gets somebody killed.
Yesterday, Trump took offense when Chuck Jones, the head of the Steelworkers Union local that represents the Indiana Carrier plants where Trump negotiated for some 800 jobs to keep from moving to Mexico, criticized him publicly. Jones had said that Trump lied when he claimed to have saved 1,100 jobs there, which Trump did. Jones is obviously upset that 550 of his members are still losing their livelihoods.
You can probably guess what happened next: Trump took to Twitter to unleash an attack on Jones.
Naturally, as soon as Trump sent those missives out to his millions of followers, Jones’ phone started to ring with threats against him and his family.
We saw this again and again during the campaign: Trump would get criticized by someone like Khizr Khan or Alicia Machado, and instead of just brushing it off like someone with a modicum of sense or class would do, he’d get into an extended battle with them. He’s so petty and insecure that he simply can’t help himself, even when it’s doing him political damage. And now that he’s about to become president, nothing has changed.
So think for a moment about what it means when the president of the United States, the most criticized person in the world no matter who is occupying the office, is routinely getting into nasty squabbles with ordinary citizens. We expect a high level of dignity and decorum from our president, and that expectation isn’t just about his own image. What Trump is doing could have very serious consequences.
Let’s bring in the story of Comet Ping Pong, a pizza restaurant in Washington that was the target of a bizarre conspiracy theory claiming that Hillary Clinton and her campaign chairman John Podesta ran a pedophile ring out of the restaurant’s basement. As the story spread, not only did the restaurant receive a torrent of threats and harassment, but so did most of the other establishments on the same block. Eventually, a young man drove to Washington with his assault rifle, entered the restaurant and terrorized the customers and staff, firing off shots and believing that he was about to save the child sex slaves he imagined were held captive in the basement.
Even if you’re familiar with the story, I’d encourage you to read this chilling article about it, which explains how the rumor spread with the help of a small army of Trump supporters and conspiracy theorists. What may be most critical to understand is how these rumors get fed at multiple levels. First, you have the denizens of forum websites who trade information and speculation, whipping each other into a frenzy and coordinating their efforts to push these insane tales as widely as possible. They’re then promoted by people with larger platforms like the conspiratorial radio host Alex Jones:
The notion quickly moved to other social-media platforms, including 4chan and Reddit, mostly through anonymous or pseudonymous posts. On the far-right site Infowars, talk-show host Alex Jones repeatedly suggested that Clinton was involved in a child sex ring and that her campaign chairman, John Podesta, indulged in satanic rituals.
“When I think about all the children Hillary Clinton has personally murdered and chopped up and raped, I have zero fear standing up against her,” Jones said in a YouTube video posted on Nov. 4. “Yeah, you heard me right. Hillary Clinton has personally murdered children. I just can’t hold back the truth anymore.” Jones eventually tied his comments about Clinton to U.S. policy in Syria.
According to YouTube, that video has been viewed more than 427,000 times.
Jones is a complete lunatic, but he is also a favorite of the President-elect of the United States. Trump has appeared on his show and praised him effusively. He probably got his allegation that millions of people voted illegally from Jones. Jones’ ravings and similar conspiracy theories are routinely passed along by people around the President-elect, including his sons and his choice for national security adviser.
This three-level structure is what enables the most ridiculous false stories to spread: an internet network for individual citizens to devise the story and communicate; media figures like Jones who widen the reach of the story; and then influential people like Michael Flynn or even Donald Trump himself to validate it. There’s no reason think this isn’t going to be a constant feature of the Trump presidency.
Donald Trump presents real dangers of the abuse of official power, given his contempt for democratic norms, his vindictiveness, and his evident taste for violent retribution. But we should also be very concerned about his eager encouragement of hatred and violence that bubbles up from below. With a president who will be regularly propagating crazed conspiracy theories and singling out individual citizens as targets of his displeasure, it’s only a matter of time before another of his well-armed supporters decides to take matters into their own hands, and this time finishes the job.