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The dangerous troll under the Republican House bridge

Kevin McCarthy’s embrace of right-wing propaganda has ugly effects

Noah Berlatsky
Wednesday 18 January 2023 20:31 GMT

Republican Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy has repeated his intention to keep Democratic representatives Eric Swalwell, Adam Schiff, and Ilhan Omar off the House intelligence committee. The move is widely seen as revenge for Democrats removing Republicans Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar. It is also, though, a reiteration of Republican commitment to government by trolling.

The substantive case against Swalwell and Schiff is so weak it is virtually nonexistent, but both men are much loathed on right-wing media and right-wing social media. As much as McCarthy’s move may be about payback, it’s also a media stunt, signaling once again that the GOP has been almost entirely consumed by its propaganda wing, at the expense of substantive policy, logic, truth, and ethical commitments of any sort.

Greene was removed from her committee assignments for statements encouraging violence against Democratic politicians, including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi. Gosar was removed for sharing an animated video showing him murdering New York Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

McCarthy isn’t even pretending that Swalwell, Omar, and Schiff have called for violence. Instead, the case against them rests on vague right wing conspiracy theory nonsense.

McCarthy claims that Schiff, the former head of the Intelligence Committee, “openly and repeatedly lied to the American people” by pursuing the impeachment against Donald Trump over his efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate then candidate, now president, Joe Biden.

Of course, there’s plenty of evidence that Trump did try to pressure Ukraine, including the fact that he did so on national television. Schiff’s role in the trial was high profile and made him a loathed figure on the right. McCarthy, in trying to keep him off the committee, is playing to the right wing media ecosystem, and to Trump himself (who is largely indistinguishable from the right wing media ecosystem.)

Swalwell, an outspoken critic of Trump, is also much loathed on the right. A common attack on him has to do with a suspected Chinese spy, Christine Fang or Fang Fang, who attempted to get close to members of Congress from 2012 to 2015. She posed as a supporter of Swalwell and recommended an intern to his office. Swalwell cut ties with her as soon as he was informed that she was a spy in 2015 and has cooperated with the FBI investigation of her. There’s no evidence he was involved in wrongdoing of any sort.

Nonetheless, Republicans have created a full-fledged moral panic around the incident. McCarthy has leaned into the right-wing attacks, claiming he is acting on an FBI briefing he received on Swalwell (a briefing that is conveniently classified.)

As for Omar, there’s barely been any excuse provided for removing her. As a Black Muslim woman, she’s long been a particular target for the right. Her criticism of the Israeli government has led to charges of antisemitism—but she’s said nothing as inflammatory as Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has been returned to her committees despite her claims in the past that forest fires are caused by “Jewish space lasers.”

McCarthy, in short, is following right-wing media. He’s targeting Democratic representatives who are loathed on Fox and its clones, not because of anything they’ve done, but simply because it plays well for an audience cued to scream and froth at the names Schiff, Swalwell, and Omar. Fox is generally seen as unreflectively boosting the GOP. But increasingly, it’s the other way around. GOP politicians in key positions of power let Fox set their agenda and govern as if their main goal is to provide juicy headlines.

Electorally, and in terms of policy, letting television entertainers run the Republican party has not been a very successful strategy for the GOP. Fox’s blaring crime coverage in 2022 (which dropped off immediately after the election) failed to resonate with voters, just as its migrant caravan scare failed in 2018. Making up nonsense conspiracy theories excites people who are going to vote for you anyway. But attacking Swalwell based on obscure right wing talking points isn’t going to endear you to the electorate more broadly.

McCarthy’s embrace of the right propaganda has other ugly effects, though. His decision to reinstate Gosar and Greene is a direct boosting of and apology for violent rhetoric. Greene, again, endorsed violence against Nancy Pelosi—whose husband was beaten in a politically motivated assault before the election. Swalwell has been targeted with death threats that he believes are linked to McCarthy’s smears. Omar has also been deluged with credible death threats throughout her career. And of course Republicans now are largely united in support for violent insurrection.

Fox News outrage and symbolic rabid posturing can look ridiculous and somewhat ineffectual, but centering politics on adrenaline and hate intentionally shifts the focus of political action from elections to violence. Government by troll is ultimately government by cruelty and sadism. McCarthy’s partisan committee trolling is yet another indication that his first allegiance is not to the Constitution or the country, but to Fox News.

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