On Monday night, Clemson and Louisiana State University faced off in the College Football Playoff national championship game. LSU beat Clemson by a score of 42-25 to cap off a perfect 15-0 season, and though there was no shortage of highlights, it was something that happened off the field that had Fox & Friends atwitter the following morning. At one point during the game, ESPN cut to a shot of actor Vince Vaughn shaking President Donald Trump’s hand in one of the stadium’s private boxes. Tim Burke, a media consultant and former Deadspin video director, posted a video of the moment to his Twitter account, just one of several clips of the game he shared.
As Vaughn and Trump shook hands, Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” boomed through the stadium. It was a lighthearted tweet, seemingly meant partly as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the song’s reputation as a stadium anthem, once relegated to Boston Red Sox games but now expanding its reach, that people seem to either love or hate. Burke has tweeted about “Sweet Caroline” multiple times before, and he’s also repeatedly posted clips of celebrities talking to Trump. In a Twitter direct message, he said: “It’s like the gestalt of a celebrity gladhanding with Trump while ‘Sweet Caroline’ is playing at the COLLEGE FOOTBALL NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP that makes the entire thing so miserable.” He even added the words “All of it, every part of it” to his caption as a clue that people should watch the clip with the volume on.
Burke’s Twitter mentions began to fill with people angry at him for being “outraged” about Vince Vaughn shaking hands with Trump. It didn’t seem to matter that Burke wasn’t actually upset. Yes, there were some people unaware that Vaughn is a self-described libertarian who regularly endorses Republican candidates for office who were surprised by this news. Yes, several even tweeted that this changed their opinion of him or that they’d no longer watch his movies because of it.
But the people actually outraged about the clip seemed to be conservatives angry at Burke.
You’ll note that nowhere in his tweet did Burke call for anyone to be “canceled,” nor did he express anger. It was a joke. That didn’t stop right-wingers from having a complete and total meltdown over it.
“Oh no, cue the Apocalypse! Let’s all have a nervous breakdown because he -- for the love of God! -- shook hands with the president!” tweeted Fox News host Jedediah Bila. “Seriously, if this bothers you, seek professional help. And quickly. The end.”
Other prominent conservative voices flooded Burke with sarcastic messages of faux concern. “OMG, so sorry this is happening to you, are you OK?” wrote Daily Wire’s Ryan Saavedra. “Wow you almost died. Are you okay?” said conservative commentator Stephen Miller. “Not all heroes wear capes… Are you OK? Is there a GoFundMe for your therapy bills?” the Daily Caller’s Derek Hunter mockingly wrote.
Conservative media ran with a story based on this nonexistent outrage.
Fox & Friends aired three separate segments about the incident. White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley made an appearance on the show, ranting about the supposed widespread outrage over the clip. According to Gidley, “Democrats seem to be more upset at this exchange than they do over Soleimani killing American citizens.”
HOGAN GIDLEY (WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY): To see Democrats outraged because someone who loves football, Vince Vaughn, and … the president of the United States sat down and shook hands and shared a few kind words. What is the big deal? Democrats seem to be more upset at this exchange than they do over Soleimani killing American citizens. They go ballistic at the smallest little thing, the smallest little sign of civility, because they want everyone on their side of the aisle, who they perceive to be one of them, to completely cancel or attempt to attack this president from sun up to sun down, but that didn’t happen. … The left can be upset all they want to. This is a great country, and it’s better off now than it was under the Barack Obama administration, and they’re just going to have to deal with it.
None of the segments were able to cite a single prominent Democrat, or even a verified Twitter account, upset about the encounter. Naturally, once this narrative got covered on conservative media, it infected more mainstream outlets as well. This is how bad actors on social media can almost single-handedly drive the news cycle.
This isn’t the first time conservative media have tried to gin up outrage over other people’s supposed outrage. It won’t be the last time, either.
Rage bait is a core component of conservative media. It’s what keeps audiences feeling at once victimized while also thinking they’re the proverbial “adults in the room.” Conservative media need to invent scandals, to pretend there are targets on the backs of Republicans, and view their successes as coming in spite of existing power structures and not because of them. Right-wing media create phony threats to keep audiences vigilant.
The truth about the “snowflake” narrative is that it’s often completely backward. Fox News helped champion a successful movement to cancel the release of The Hunt, a movie whose plot had been misunderstood as anti-Trump (the supposedly pro-Trump characters actually appeared to be the film’s protagonists). If there are recent examples of shows or movies being canceled ahead of release due to liberal pressure, I’m not aware of them.
“But this is how the cycle works, right?” Burke said in a direct message on Twitter. “They misinterpret the primary source, prominent and permanently aggrieved right-wingers amplify it, which makes it news to Fox News (which never fact checks them), and now I have people calling at all hours to scream gay slurs at me.”
He adds, “I am today’s [target], and there will be someone else tomorrow.”