“What a ridiculous thing for an ‘educator’ to say,” wrote conservative columnist Kassy Dillon. (1,348 retweets.)
“This is why we have a Professor Watch-list!” tweeted Charlie Kirk, the founder of the grass-roots conservative group Turning Point USA. (1,138 retweets.)
“Hey @DrexelUniv: You ok with employing a professor wishing death upon whites?” tweeted the Texas Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak.
The last tweet was barely shared at all, but Mackowiak had tagged the accounts of the Philadelphia Inquirer, which was already on the story, and “The O’Reilly Factor,” which — luckily for the professor — was on a holiday hiatus.
In another kind of slow news week, Ciccariello-Maher might have become a cause celebre, the latest critic of President-elect Donald Trump who had earned a pummeling on social media. The university did talk to him about the tweet, but only to “reiterate their support for faculty participating in vigorous public debate as well as their concerns for the safety of everyone involved in this unpredictable post-election environment.”
Still, the surprise defeat of Hillary Clinton has thrown the conservative media, which grew massively during the Obama years, into an experimental mode. It had expected to cover at least four years of Clinton scandals, intra-Republican squabbling and dangerously progressive legislation.
Instead, for now, the Democratic Party has slid into political irrelevance, and Republicans are set to remake courts, regulations and the welfare state. Stories about that don’t light up conservative media. What have, since Nov. 8, are stories of Democrats, academics, celebrities and journalists face-planting as they grasp for ways to criticize Trump.
The interplay isn’t new. A few weeks after the 2004 election, the last one that produced a unified Republican federal government, then-University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill was invited to speak at New York’s Hamilton College. A student newspaper dug out the essay Churchill had written after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, in which he characterized some people working in the World Trade Center as “Little Eichmanns.” The resulting controversy raged across Fox News, especially “The O’Reilly Factor,” for months, and effectively ended Churchill’s career.
Four years later, the left learned to appreciate this sort of news. When Rush Limbaugh told listeners that he wanted President Obama “to fail,” progressive media institutions, led by David Brock’s Media Matters and the Center for American Progress’s ThinkProgress, covered the backlash and the shambling responses of Republicans. State lawmakers, or even their staffers, drew national attention when their attacks on the president careened into racism.
The political effect of these stories was hard to gauge; in the first midterms after each election, the president’s party was shellacked. But microcontroversies, starring people whose political power was much smaller than their media or social media reach, provided cheap and easily replicated highs.
“Truly outrageous things from leftists (in this case, communists) require attention,” explained Mackowiak, who flagged the “white genocide” tweet to media outlets. “Outrageous things from the right are always reflexively highlighted by existing institutions.”
Since Nov. 8, conservative media has teemed with these kinds of stories. At the Blaze, whose founder Glenn Beck is one of Trump’s most prominent critics on the right, viral stories have included Boston Mayor Marty Walsh blaming racism for Trump votes and former MSNBC and ESPN host Keith Olbermann raging against Trump in a Web video. Lena Dunham’s comment that she wished she’d had an abortion blew both of those stories away, even after she apologized.
On Fox News, no Trump critic has been too obscure for five or 10 minutes of derision. Tucker Carlson’s prime-time show, which debuted after the election, frequently begins with the experienced journalist and commentator tearing into a progressive who’d embarrassed themselves on Twitter.
The week before Christmas break, when the biggest stories in Washington had to do with Trump’s Cabinet picks or conflict-of-interest troubles, “Tucker Carlson Tonight” usually began with a combative takedown. Last Tuesday, it was a commentator named Tariq Nasheed, who Carlson accused of “whipping people into a frenzy of fear” by warning about white nationalism. On Wednesday, it was a Harvard graduate who favored affirmative action. On Friday, it was Lauren Duca, a Teen Vogue writer who Carlson accused of defending a JetBlue passenger’s harassment of Ivanka Trump.
“You should stick to the thigh-high boots,” Carlson said, accusing Duca of covering politics without the rigor of her fashion writing. “You are better at that.”
That last confrontation went viral, with Duca winning praise and followers on the left and Carlson being venerated on the right. “Tucker Carlson Takes on Ivanka Trump Hater, Then Drops Mic on Her,” reported the viral financial news site ZeroHedge. “Tucker Carlson Embarrasses Lauren Duca For Ivanka Comments,” reported the Daily Caller, which was founded in 2010 by Carlson. It got the same treatment at Breitbart, the news site whose chief executive Stephen K. Bannon is becoming the Trump administration’s top political strategist.
Ciccariello-Maher’s tweet, when it made Fox News, was covered less comprehensively but with much more drama. “A university now responding after a professor with a history of hating white people sparked outrage nationwide,” said one of the network’s weekend anchors, reporting on Drexel’s statement on the “reprehensible” tweet. The story worked through the ecosystem, from outrage to obscurity, in record time.
But that ecosystem has never seen a president like Trump. Surprised by the president-elect, again and again, his critics on the left now see his habit of breaking controversies open with tweets as a “mass distraction.” A presidential administration is difficult to cover.
Instant Twitter controversies are easy. The threat of the microcontroversy had become double-edged — it can cut into attention for critical stories, and it can ruin lives. In the most-shared statement of defense for Ciccariello-Maher, the Brooklyn College political scientist Corey Robin asked for fellow believers in academic freedom to get over the content of the tweet and consider the stakes.
“I know there will be an impulse to have a long debate about how far our principles of tolerance should extend, with a whole array of hypotheticals marshaled at either end to test the limits of our principles,” Robin wrote. “I ask you to resist that impulse and to recognize that there really are extraordinarily powerful forces arrayed now against George, newly empowered by the results of this election.”
Many academics did not need the reminder. Sometimes, it did not take a tweet to start a fire. In Wisconsin, titling a course “The Problem of Whiteness” had already produced funding threats from the Republican-run legislature. In a Dec. 21 letter to the Scholars Strategy Network, founded in 2009 to connect the work of academics to public challenges and mainstream media, the Harvard professor Theda Skocpol warned that academics who went “way overboard” with arguments “that most white Americans were racist,” or that America was doomed, were hurting everyone who agreed with them.
“Extreme doomsday claims are simply not true — most Americans, by far, voted for other than the outcomes that squeaked into the Electoral College this November,” Skocpol wrote. “Authoritarians actually want liberal university people to go overboard, so that such behavior can be used as an excuse for mockery and crackdowns.”
In a statement he gave to The Washington Post and other media this week, Ciccariello-Maher said he worried that Drexel’s speedy response to the outrage could have a chilling effect on academic speech. It would not have that effect on him.
“I teach regularly on the history of genocidal practices like colonialism and slavery—genocides carried out by the very same kind of violent racists who are smearing me today,” he wrote. “White supremacy is on the rise, and we must fight it by any means. In that fight, universities will need to choose whether they are on the side of free expression and academic debate, or on the side of the racist mob.”