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Shrugging in the shadow of a monster
The right-wing media despises its own supporters. That's dangerous for all of us.
The Daily Wire’s Michael Knowles made national news last week when, during a speech at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, he called for the “eradication of transgenderism from public life.” In response, several publications reported or put in a headlines that Knowles had called for the eradication of trans people — which sounds pretty Hitlery. Or at least, say, Milosevician.
Knowles and his defenders have since howled that these publications had libeled him. He only called for the complete eradication of an ideology, he claims, not of actual people. This in turn led to conservatives — including at least one sitting U.S. Senator — to (again) call for the U.S. Supreme Court to repeal NY Times v. Sullivan, the 1964 case that lays out the parameters of U.S. libel law.
This is all performative bullshit, and in normal times the smart advice would be to withhold from Knowles and Lee the attention for which they’re so desperately pining.
But we aren’t living in normal times. We’re in the midst of a surge in neofascism around the world, and here at home, of a well-orchestrated, well-funded moral panic against trans people and against non-straight people more broadly. We know from history that if left unchallenged, moral panics can leave wide swaths of destruction. Knowles and his fellow merchants of panic the Daily Wire infotainmentplex alone have already provoked threats of violence against hospitals, both here in Nashville and across the country.
I use the term merchants deliberately. Anti-trans pundits and activists are deploying the almost cliched authoritarian move of pushing laws all over the country aimed squarely at suppressing the First Amendment rights of a vulnerable group of people while simultaneously claiming they themselves are the real victims of an elite cartel of intolerant censors. And they’re making a lot of money doing it.
That’s the thing about anti-trans panic that makes it unique, exhausting, and if it didn’t have such serious, real-world consequences, darkly amusing: The people pushing it have blanketed themselves in the First Amendment, even as they try to set fire to it.
But to get many of those policies to pass, they’ll have to change the laws in a way that would destroy the very platforms currently amplifying them. So they don’t actually believe what they’re advocating.
All of this Knowles business played out just as text and email messages from the Dominion Voting Systems lawsuit have demonstrated a similar phenomenon on a much larger scale — Fox News’s producers, executives, and on-air personalities simply don’t believe the daily bullshit they spoon-feed their audience. And for a long time, they did just fine profiting from those feedings.
But we’ve learned from the last couple email and text dumps that in the process of fomenting all of that anger, they’ve whipped up the rage the point where they themselves are now afraid of what they’ve created. Prior text message dumps showed that shortly after January 6, even Trump end-gamers like Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham realized they’d built a monster. In theory, a large audience should empower you to influence the public debate. A huge audience can give you the power to dictate it. But there’s also the threat that your audience could capture you, at which point you no longer control anything. They do. And that’s what’s happened at Fox.
This is why rhetoric like Michael Knowles’s is so dangerous. I don’t think Knowles yearns to personally murder trans people. I don’t think he longs to direct other people to murder trans people on his behalf. I don’t think he fantasizes about the prospect of trans people being murdered.
But I do think he and too many like him knowingly, willingly, and eagerly court the praise, likes, follows, speech attendances, and novelty gift budgets of people who do.
And that’s plenty bad enough.
Michael Knowles’ eradication event
Let’s start with Knowles’s comments that ignited all this. And let’s start with the word that the heart of it all: transgenderism. Scientific sources define that term as “the state of being transgender.” The scientific community does not use trasngenderism to describe pro-trans activism or the political ideology surrounding it. When journals do discuss trans politics or pro-trans advocacy, they use phrases like “the politics of transgenderism,” suggesting that the term on its own is commonly understood to refer to being trans, and not to any particular ideology.
LGBQT rights groups don’t either. In fact, they discouraged using the word entirely, not because it isn’t accurate, but because people like Knowles have been so successful in using it pejoratively.
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Knowles himself can claim to use the word to describe some broader political movement. But that simply isn’t what it means.
There’s also the word eradicate. That’s an older and more widely used word, so there’s obviously more variance in how it’s used. But words don’t exist in a vacuum. Their definitions take on the meaning we associate with them when we use them. And when we talk about ideas or political opponents, we tend to use words like defeat, perhaps even crush or destroy. The word eradicate is far more typically associated with diseases, pests, or vermin.
Knowles of course knows all of this. His outrage is contrived. Three days before his CPAC speech, he claimed in an interview that trans people could never be the victims of genocide because trans people “are not a legitimate category of being.”
Just to make sure this is abundantly clear: In response to claims that the anti-trans panic could result in the murder of trans people, Knowles can only say that if someone were to murder a bunch of trans people because they’re trans, we couldn’t categorize it as genoicde, because the state of being transgender isn’t a thing Knowles believes is legtimate, or should exist. It’s an astonishingly hideous thing to say about any group of people.
For most of my life, when a conservative public figure has been accused of implicitly inciting violence against a vulnerable group of people, they’d feigned offense or argued that the mere suggestion that they’d support such a thing is absurd — perhaps unconvincingly, but they at least made the effort. It’s quite something to see someone like Knowles answer the accusation that he’s using eliminationist rhetoric with rhetoric that’s even more eliminationist.
Finally, let’s look at the phrase “from public life entirely.” For this, let’s even give Knowles the benefit of the doubt, and assume he was using his bespoke definition of transgenderism” — that he’s referring to political ideology.
What would it mean to “eradicate” a political ideology “from public life entirely?” Well, if you’re going at least pretend to care about the First Amendment, you might try to bar public school teachers, principles, and counselors from discussing it. You could also try to bar other government employees from discussing it publicly as part of their jobs. You could try to restrict how the military handles trans issues, try to restrict trans care in government healthcare programs, and maybe even require some sort of anti-trans policy for government contractors. Conservatives are already trying to do many of these things around the country — not just with respect to trans issues, but for all LGTBQ people.
I think most of these policies do violate the First Amendment, but they’re at least policies someone like Knowles could in theory support while still convincing himself that he supports free speech.
But Knowles didn’t stop at demanding a halt to using tax dollars to support what he calls transgenderism. He didn’t merely say he didn’t want it taught in schools, or promoted in GSA-printed pamphlets. He said he wanted it “eradicated from public life entirely.”
What might that look like? Well, Knowles has helpfully clarified that he definitely does not support eradicating trans people themselves. So at least there’s that. He just wants to prohibit everything associated with trans people from public life.
So maybe you try to criminalize the culture associated with trans people, as Knowles’ own home state (which, sadly, also happens to be mine) has already done. You could harass, intimidate, or criminalize doctors and mental health professionals who treat trans people. You could make it illegal to publicly identify as trans, or to advocate for trans people. You could require public officials to address trans people in a way that reinforces your contempt for them and deliberately denies them their humanity. You could bar trans people from public service, or from positions of public influence. You could ban any language, rituals, or symbols of trans identity. You could make it impossible for trans people to transition.
All of which is to say that even if you take Knowles’ claim about what he meant by transgenderism at face value, the vision of “public life” he’s advocating very quickly starts to look pretty . . . Hitlery.
It isn’t hyperbolic to send up the distress flares when prominent figures in your society first begin using the same sort of rhetoric previous aspiring authoritarians deployed to lay the groundwork for what later became atrocious crimes against humanity — even if you think the odds of similar crimes happening here on a similar scale are pretty low.
No society goes from “not at all like genocide” to “full blown genocide” without passing through countless “not exactly like Hitler, but still unacceptably Hitler-like” phases along the way. You needn’t wait until the ovens are running or piles of spent Zyklon-B canisters to raise alarms. It’s perfectly okay to say, “It’s pretty fucked up that a guy with 400,000 followers who works for a network with an audience of millions thinks trans people don’t exist in an ‘acceptable state of being.’”
There’s also Knowles’s own history. He spouts the replacement theory garbage beloved by neo-Nazis. He has defended racist anti-Obama birtherism (and then did it again with Kamala Harris). He denies the genocide of Native Americans, attacks the “foreignness” of non-white Americans, and defends even the most egregious police attacks on black people (such as Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd).
And it isn’t as if Knowles doesn’t understand the danger of dehumanizing one’s political enemies. He has decried the “unpersoning” of Nick Fuentes, the white national twerp who still has nice things to say about Hitler.
The point here is that Knowles knows exactly what he was doing, and what he’s doing is as common among aspiring demagogue bigots as part lines and flop sweat. You craft a message that you know your nuttiest, most foaming-at-the-mouth supporters will hear as reassurance — but that also leaves you with plausible deniability should one of them resort to violence. “Stand down and stand by.” “Really fine people.”
If that bit of plausible deniability also allows you to martyr yourself when the rest of the world hears those lines in exactly the way you knew most people would hear them, well, all the better.
The libel facade
Let’s turn now to all this talk about libel law.
The original Rolling Stone headline wasn’t even false, much less libelous. It was a perfectly reasonable interpretation of what Knowles said. If there was any ambiguity about Knowles’s “eradicate” line, his previous comments about genocide are ample evidence that he either intended the line to be interpreted in precisely the manner his critics heard it, or he knew that’s how it was likely to be heard and went ahead and used it anyway. The only debatably objectionable thing about the Rolling Stone headline is that it took Knowles’ bait, and allowed him play the martyr.
But that isn’t how Mike Lee saw it.
Mike Lee is a sitting senator. He’s also not an idiot. He’s quite a bit smarter and savvier than Michael Knowles. Lee knows the Rolling Stone headline isn’t libel under current defamation law. That’s why he brings up repealing Sullivan.
But the thing is, Lee is just as shameless as Knowles, and just as willing to stoke resentment by saying things he doesn’t really believe. Lee knows Sullivan isn’t going to be overturned, at least not in the way he claims he’d like to see it happen. But Lee doesn’t want the ruling overturned, either. In fact, the last thing Lee wants is to make it easier for public officials to sue for defamation. Because he knows that it would destroy the right-wing media apparatus that provides him a platform.
The facts and context for Sullivan are as relevant here as the decision itself. So let’s review them: In 1964, an Alabama police commissioner sued the NY Times for libel over an ad the paper published in 1964. The ad, paid for by civil rights groups, was essentially a summary of the recent violence southern states inflicted on civil rights protesters.
The lawsuit focused on a few minor errors in the ad. The errors themselves weren’t defamatory (see Andrew Fleishman’s excellent thread about Sullivan below), and the commissioner himself wasn’t named in the ad. The purpose of the lawsuit was to deter newspapers from publishing accounts of state violence against the civil rights movement. The commissioner was awarded $500,000. The Supreme Court ruling overturned the award, and laid out the criteria for a successful libel claim against a public figure still in effect today. To win, a public figure must demonstrate that the claim is false, that it is defamatory, and that the target of the lawsuit showed malice or deliberate indifference to the truth.
It’s telling that MAGA conservatives — who clutch their pearls every time someone accuses them of racism by reasonably pointing out how often they keep getting caught hiring, conspiring with, funding, and associating with racists —have latched on to the cause of overturning a Supreme Court overturn a decision that preserved the right to accurately report on state violence against civil rights protesters, have done so even while casting themselves as the party of free speech.
Contrast their condemnation of Sullivan, for example, with their continued support for the ruling that created qualified immunity, which came at about the same time, and was one of the the more extreme demonstrations of judicial activism the court has ever undertaken.
(To be fair, Lee himself has advocated for reforming qualified immunity — but he’s a lonely voice in his party).
With QI the court invented a new doctrine out of whole cloth, and it started with the court’s desire to protect some Mississippi cops who had illegally arrested civil rights protesters. The ruling directly overrode the direct will of Congress and created a massive loophole to protect public officials in precisely the sorts of cases for which the overriding law was created in the first place — the law creating the right to sue state officials was passed in response to the outbreak of racial violence during Reconstruction.
The court has mostly expanded the ruling since, all but inoculating police officers and other state employees who violate the Constitution from civil liability. The qualified immunity issue is often, correctly, invoked in a police brutality context, but given conservatives’ self-appointed role as guardians of free speech these days, it’s important to remember the context in which it was created: the Supreme Court wanted to protect state employees (in this case, cops) who had violated the free speech rights of protesters.
It’s difficult to find any consistent legal principle here. Conservatives and Republican Party leaders continue to portray themselves as the victim of reckless, intolerant censors — almost always in response to what in reality are private actors voluntarily choosing not to associate with people and ideas they find repugnant. Meanwhile, they’re simultaneously demanding repeal of a decision that protects political speech as they pass laws across the country restricting access to books, ideas, and how college professors, teachers, and others teach about race, gender, and history.
There is a consistent principle that runs through al of these positions. But it isn’t a legal one.
Lee knows there’s no chance the current U.S. Supreme Court will make it easier for public officials to sue for defamation. Currently, two and at most three Supreme Court justice have at some point been critical of some aspect of Sullivan. But as Jacob Sullum points out at Reason, two of them — Gorsuch and Kagan — have made clear that they’d change the laws in very different ways than what Lee is advocating. There’s only one sitting justice receptive to what Mike Lee’s getting it, and it happens to be the same justice whose wife was working with Mike Lee to overturn the 2020 election.
But here’s the most relevant bit: Lee doesn’t really wants the court to overturn Sullivan. Unlike many of his simpler ideological allies advocating this position, Lee is smart enough to know that if Sullivan does goes down, Fox, Newsmax, OANN, and the broader network of the right-wing propagandists who prop up Lee’s party will be the first to feel the pain.
Again, as I type this, it’s increasingly looking like Fox News’ reckless embrace of Trump’s election lies could put the network on the losing end of what may well be the biggest libel lawsuit in U.S. history. And this comes on the heels of a series of historic defamation awards against Alex Jones. And there are more lawsuits in the pipeline.
All of this is with Sullivan. Strip away Sullivan’s protections, and the courts will be buried in filings by the long list of public figures defamed by Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson, and the MAGA propaganda machine.
Under the changes Lee is advocating, Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson would no longer be permitted to knowingly defame their political enemies and cast themselves as purveyors of great truths, even as their own lawyers argue in court that they’re such habitual, ridiculous liars that no reasonable person puts much stock in what they say.
If it weren’t actively undermining our democracy, there’d be something darkly hilarious about all of this — Republicans are decrying mainstream media lies, bias, and elitism and demanding the Supreme Court create a way to sue over such slights even as, at the very same time, a lawsuit against the very network on which they make those claims is producing emails and text messages showing that its executives, producers, and on-air personalities are so contemptuous of their own audience that they continue to shovel viewers propaganda they themselves know is bullshit.
Overturning Sullivan would be a First Amendment hellscape for all of us. But unless they can persuade the Supreme Court to carve out a Trump/Carlson exception for right-wing populist bigots (and I can’t imagine more than perhaps one justice going for that) a post-Sullivan world would be way worse for the right than it would be for legacy media outlets.
Nevertheless, a swath of the Fox/Trump right has latched onto this idea, and seems to think that “reforming the libel laws” will somehow allow them to bankrupt the NY Times and Rachel Maddow, immunize figures like Trump from criticism, and generally purge the news of left-wing bias, all with no consequences to their own purveyors of bullshit. See Florida, where a Ron DeSantis-backed bill appears to have been written explicitly to mount a court challenge to Sullivan.
My hunch is that the momentum for this idea comes from the right’s collective afterglow from the success of the Peter Thiel-led effort to sue Gawker into oblivion. They’re under the mistaken belief that the extremely case-specific results that doomed Gawker could be more broadly applied to, say, let Donald Trump sue every outlet that reported he cleared the protesters from Lafayette Park so he could stage his Bible-clutching photo-op.
(I don’t pick this example at random. It’s now canon on the right that the original Lafayette Park narrative has been “proven false,” and there’s ongoing outrage that the liars who perpetuated it were never held accountable. Never mind that the evidence still overwhelmingly suggest that the original narrative was accurate.)
It doesn’t really matter that the Gawker case had nothing to do with defamation or inaccurate reporting (it turned on Florida state privacy laws and the publication of a sex tape). All that matters is that elite media types were made to suffer.
But because this has become such a hot talking point for the far-right, and because Mike Lee knows very well that the Supreme Court isn’t about to “reform the libel laws,” he can tap into the anti-media fervor without worrying about pesky nuances like the fact that he’s pushing a position that would financially cripple his political allies. He gets to bash the media, assist in Knowles’ martyrdom, and appeal to a broad swath of bigots — from “What Is a Woman” types to people who are really, really into repealing Sullivan because of its context, if you know what I mean — all while claiming his only real goal is for the media to be more honest and trustworthy.
I actually agree with people like Lee when they criticize the “mainstream” media for cloaking their biases in the pretense of objectivity. But at least the bias in the legacy media is sincere. The truth is, Lee, Carlson, Fox News, Trump, the Yale-educated Knowles and the Daily Wire, and nearly all of the right-wing outrage industrial complex have as much disdain for their own supporters — and probably quite a bit more — than your typical NY Times reporter. I mean, you have to harbor quite a bit of hate for your viewers to willfully continue feeding them vaccine misinformation that is literally killing them.
Unfortunately, the few times these figures have been presented with the consequences of their actions — such as the texts from Hannity, Carlson, Ingraham, and others showing that they were indeed alarmed by January 6th, or were shocked by the absurdity of Trump attempted 2020 election mutiny — they learned precisely the wrong lessons. As Fox started bleeding viewers to OANN and Newsmax, they optd not to contemplate how they had created such a monster or — god forbid — to attempt to tame it, but to resume whipping the beast, continue to harness its power, and hope they can maintain at least enough control to direct its fury outward.