The Limits of Outrage

First, I must hold up my hands, palms defensively out, under the accusing arc lights that anti-Trump supporters will shine on me when I refuse to walk lock step with the liberal notion that Trump’s attacks on the corrupt media is an attack on a vestal virgin

Yes, yes, I will say, sweating as the arc light gets closer, I am a Northern California liberal; Trump is loathsome; I will work to unseat him and his supporting Republicans.

But let me also say this: In our reaction to Trump’s outrageous set of decisions, we have turned him into a commodity. He is now a free content provider for any number of comedians, comedy shows, and, on the same stage, the opinion leaders that live on outrage: Rachel Maddow, Bill Maher, John Oliver, Maureen Dowd and others.

How easy to be outraged by Donald Trump and how easy to elide the truth in its service. One of Trump’s recent remarks — “Look at what happened in Sweden yesterday” — fit easily into our stereotypes,Trump the Ignorant v. Sweden the Good. We can all enjoy a moment of brotherhood as we chorus, “Can you believe he said that? About Sweden!”

Well, nothing untoward occurred in Sweden yesterday. But, indeed, Sweden did have difficulties with migrant men attacking women in 2016, and if it was not widely reported it was because Swedish officials, finding this not so difficult, swept the issue under the rug. (Spectator Feb. 21, 2017).

And now, I have to remind the operators of the arc light, this is not to support Trump’s notions of marauding immigrants as to make the point that truth will always be lost if we continue to view Trump only in one-dimensional cardboard.

Buet how to deal with the reality that outrage is a satisfying emotion for the outlet of frustration and political commentators on the left, as much as those on the right, feed off the willingness of their consumers to enjoy its pleasures. To ensure the pleasures continue, the broader the message the better.

Nothing has brought more outrage than the pressure on undocumented workers. The outrage was recently assisted when undocumented immigrants and legal immigrants were elided into the same pool with the recent call for all immigrants to shut their businesses or not go to work for a day to mark the importance of immigrants to the nation.

That idea that immigrants are important to the country is hardly in jeopardy and it was exactly because there can be little objection to the role of immigrants in America that it was a strategic choice to represent the case of undocumented workers. The fact that there is a huge difference between undocumented immigrants and legal immigrants was swept away.

A more exact framing might have been a call for legal immigrants to stand in solidarity with their undocumented brothers and sisters. But that would assume legal immigrants were outraged by new restrictions on illegal immigration. Immigrants who have themselves undergone severe vetting long before Trump came to office (and I am one of them) do not automatically believe that the nation’s borders should be permeable for large numbers of people, despite our own difficult legal routes.

There could not have been more shock when Trump suggested there was not much difference in the killing fields of Putin’s Russia and that of the U.S. Yes, again, it was a comment that deserved shock and horror, but some of that horror might have been reserved for the reality that much of the Trump base (whom he was serving) does indeed believe the United States has for years conducted a killing campaign against a portion of its citizenry and point to Ruby Ridge and Waco as proof. If not by gunshot, fellow travelers consider the nation’s leaders are committed to their death by economic strangulation.

But these kinds of pauses that examine Trump’s rhetoric close down easy routes of outrage and certainly interfere with the easy-to-follow thrust that fill a half-hour of television rant or a column of print. These rants are sometimes hard to distinguish from comedic takes, as the boundary between satire and political comment have merged. News from the Trump camp has become another form of entertainment. Indeed, does the audience even know that SNL is a comedy show, not a conduit of news? Even before Trump, students in my classes tended to think they were up on the news of the day because they watched Jon Stewart. No, they were being entertained by broad strokes from a news coloring book.

Before his election, our mainstream media diligently turned up truth after truth that appeared to disqualify Trump from winning. But Trump’s style was so remarkably unfazed, the subsequent step of portraying him in charcoal was perhaps predictable. It also turned out to be helpful for building audiences for commercial gain. Thus, Trump has become a kind of soylent green, material to feed the masses at whatever cost.

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