By Tom Ehrich
“Speaking the truth to power” has always felt a little risky. The powerful can push back: cut off your salary, find ways around “whistleblower” protections, shun you in business venues and stymie your career, or shun you in social venues and render you unwelcome.
But I have never seen anything like the retribution arising among the powerless – the trolls who feast on Trump’s tweets and go charging after any enemy he names. They unleash a torrent of vicious social media messages, emails and, if they can get your number, telephone calls. They threaten death to the truth-teller and his/her family.
This is different from random bigotry, like the subway rider who suddenly launches a tirade against a Muslim woman in hijab, or the white driver who shouts at a black diver. These trolls are engaging in calculated attacks designed to intimidate and to make an entire family feel endangered.
It will only be a matter of time – maybe the day after January 21 – before they make good on their threats and start bringing violence to the homes and workplaces of people with whom they disagree. This is what happened in Nazi Germany. It happened in the South when lynch mobs suddenly invaded a black neighborhood. It happened in union neighborhoods when Pinkertons suddenly wheeled machine guns into firing position. It happened the other day when a white customer who was displeased with fast-food service pulled out a pistol, swore at the clerk, and shouted, “Go back to Africa!”
The single-shot tweet-induced firestorm against a union official in Indiana who dared to question Trump’s honesty looks like a proof-of-concept, a further testing out of how to push buttons among the rabid. When the trolls get going, we could see vigilantes like those executing citizens in the Philippines, under the delighted eye of Trump’s new friend in Manila. We have already seen one nut carry an assault rifle into a pizza parlor. Next could come the targeting of, say, an entire chain of pizza stores, and nationwide vigilante activity.
Trump seems to enjoy pushing the trolls’ buttons. He calls them his “people.” This is how the Nazi brownshirts got their start. It’s a heady thing to know you can reach tens of millions of people by keying in a few words and pressing Send – and to know that some of those recipients are so deranged that they consider it their patriotic duty to go after the now-named enemy.
How far will this go? Trump has already sequestered journalists in pens at his rallies and goaded his people into shouting at them. It’s a small step to take aim at a reporter on assignment or to walk into a newsroom armed and ready. Some journalists like Fox’s Megyn Kelly are already feeling the trolls’ wrath.
Also vulnerable would be members of the Electoral College, Democratic legislators who consider challenging Trump’s agenda, and organized labor leaders. I know it sounds crazy to raise such an alarm, but these are crazy times.
What should truth-tellers do? Tell the truth. Tell it loudly, tell it boldly, tell it all, tell it even as the trolls are mounting their assault. They can’t be allowed to win.
Bullies back down if decent people stand up to them. It could take more courage than most of us usually expect to need. But the future of our communities depends on decency in action.