Trump knows a controversy tailor-made for his base when he sees one. And this gives us an opportunity to step back and consider what function a conflict such as this serves in our current political atmosphere.
The reaction to this incident has moved through a few stages: an initial liberal outrage; a conservative backlash premised on the idea that the initial reaction was based on a misreading of the situation; a media mea culpa that itself seems based on little to no evidence that they actually got anything wrong in the first place; and now a backlash to the backlash as liberals assert that the media is being pressured and manipulated by a right wing practiced at this sort of thing.
I’m not going to get deep into the details of what happened, except to offer what I think is a brief and fair summary of the events. The students, who were in town for a march to oppose women’s reproductive rights and many of whom were wearing “Make America Great Again” hats to proclaim their devotion to President Trump, were on the steps for a long period of time, during which they were yelled at by fewer than a half dozen Black Israelites, a small but noisy cult that most people have the sense to just walk past as they perform their belligerent street preaching.
During that time there were periods of relative calm and periods when the boys got extremely rowdy, shouting and chanting. As Phillips has explained in interviews, he thought the situation was getting out of control and sought to interpose himself between the two groups. Videos show the boys all around him in a state of extreme excitement, sometimes chanting, laughing and doing tomahawk chops. One boy in particular stands very close before Phillips, unmoving and with either a friendly smile or a rancid smirk on his face, depending on your interpretation.
A chaotic situation that played out over an extended period of time will at the very least allow room for those who are motivated to come up with their own tendentious interpretation to do so. The video at the top of this post provides a good explanation if you want to see more.
But here’s the important point: The right, and President Trump, are overjoyed that this has become such a big deal.
That’s because this story slots in so perfectly with the same metanarrative they’ve been feeding their constituencies for years. It says that white people, men and Christians are the only remaining victims of racial discrimination; that when liberals attempt to call out what appear to be racist incidents, in fact they are lying to oppress conservatives; that the media is also out to get conservatives and will purposely lie to do it; and that this is all part of a broad effort to destroy everything that is good about American society and replace it with a new system in which white Christians will become a permanent underclass.
Here’s how Rush Limbaugh described it on his radio show Monday:
The only innocent people on Saturday morning in Washington were the kids from Covington who end up being blasphemed and impugned and destroyed all over America! And they’re the total, full-fledged innocent ones! They didn’t do anything! Except show up at a rally for life wearing their “Make America Great Again” hats. They’re from a Catholic school; so they had everything going against them. They’re white, they’re teenagers, they’re wearing Trump hats, and they are Catholics. They believe in Jesus Christ. They are the enemy. They have to be destroyed.
You’ll hear the same message of conservative victimhood if you tune into Fox News, read conservative websites or listen to any of Limbaugh’s hundreds of local-market imitators. It’s all part of a conservative media infrastructure that exists in large part to create and maintain outrage over incidents such as this one. That doesn’t mean liberals aren’t capable of this, too, but the liberal outrage system is much more decentralized and ad hoc, while the conservative system was built for this very purpose.
One of its primary goals is to keep conservatives in a state of perpetual agitation, because that keeps them tuning in and keeps them voting Republican. And it works: Polls regularly find that conservatives, and Trump voters in particular, believe that men, Christians and white people face greater discrimination in the United States today than women or racial and religious minorities, which by any objective measure is utterly bonkers.
There’s another echo worth taking note of: Brett M. Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. There, too, we were confronted with a story about a young white man of a certain type — privileged, entitled, moving through the world as though it was made for him (because it was), engaging in boisterous and rude behavior of the kind that other people get punished for with the assumption that no accountability will be forthcoming.
Conservatives acted as though a seat on the Supreme Court was Kavanaugh’s by birthright, and an attempt to deny him that seat was not just wrong but an injustice of such monumental proportions that the only appropriate response to it was to unleash unrestrained rage. They cheered Kavanaugh’s rage, they cheered Sen. Lindsey O. Graham’s rage, and they poured their contempt down on the women who dared to question the nominee’s supposedly impeccable character.
In an alternate reality, those boys would watch all those videos and ask themselves why they acted the way they did. The adults around them would use it as an opportunity to teach them about respect and maturity. But that won’t happen, because now they’re being told by those who raised them that they’re the real victims. And, of course, the person whose hats they were wearing tells them all the time that when faced with someone different from you or whose views you disagree with — particularly if they have less power than you — you should be as cruel and contemptuous as possible, then go back to your buddies for a round of high-fives.
They obviously learned that lesson already. This has just been a refresher.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Native American activist Nathan Phillips fought in the Vietnam War. Phillips served in the U.S. Marines from 1972 to 1976 but was never deployed to Vietnam.