A slew of online trolls attacked Rosa Brooks for an article she wrote in Foreign Policy discussing possible consequences of Donald Trump’s historically abnormal presidency.
Before we get to the harassment, it is worth first briefly considering the important point she was making. Brooks, a professor at Georgetown Law who also has served as a senior adviser to the State Department, used the January 30 article to consider various ways Trump’s presidency could end. After discussing the 2020 election, impeachment, and the 25th Amendment, Brooks briefly considered the possibility of a coup in the event that Trump gives an order that is not just imprudent but actually illegal and wildly destructive:
What would top U.S. military leaders do if given an order that struck them as not merely ill-advised, but dangerously unhinged? An order that wasn’t along the lines of “Prepare a plan to invade Iraq if Congress authorizes it based on questionable intelligence,” but “Prepare to invade Mexico tomorrow!” or “Start rounding up Muslim Americans and sending them to Guantánamo!” or “I’m going to teach China a lesson — with nukes!”
It’s impossible to say, of course. The prospect of American military leaders responding to a presidential order with open defiance is frightening — but so, too, is the prospect of military obedience to an insane order. After all, military officers swear to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, not the president. For the first time in my life, I can imagine plausible scenarios in which senior military officials might simply tell the president: “No, sir. We’re not doing that,” to thunderous applause from the New York Times editorial board.
These illegal-order scenarios Brooks mentions have been discussed in regard to Trump in the past year. Brooks chose these over-the-top examples because they involve patently unconstitutional, and thus illegal, orders. This topic is of interest to her: Brooks herself wrote a piece in The Washington Post a year ago discussing whether the military would follow illegal orders issued by a then-potential President Trump.
Military leaders, pundits, and everyday Americans have not just a responsibility to ponder the possibility of Trump giving such an order, but a duty. Famously litigated at Nuremberg, the issue of how to handle illegal orders from leaders has also been an issue in the United States, going back to the first Adams administration; a Vietnam case reaffirmed that members of the military follow illegal orders on their own accord. Duke political science professor Peter Feaver explained this reality during the campaign in regard to Trump’s promises to bring back torture and also “take out” the families of terrorists:
Both of these proposed policies are clear violations of the law. Civilian deaths that occur as collateral damage incidental to strikes aimed at legitimate targets are always avoided but sometimes an unfortunate part of lawful warfare; Trump is talking about deliberately targeting the family members as a matter of policy. I do not know of a single law expert who would say this is legal.
Given that it would be illegal orders, General Hayden is absolutely correct: not only would the senior military leaders refuse to follow those orders, they would be legally and professionally bound to refuse those orders. Democratic civil-military relations theory further requires that they refuse these orders. Refusing these orders would not be a coup. It would be reinforcing the rule of law and healthy civil-military relations.
Put more bluntly: Trump has promised to give illegal orders. Every member of the military is supposed to refuse to follow illegal orders. Trump has begun his presidency by doing the very things his apologists during the campaign assured us that he would not do.
Which finally brings us back to Rosa Brooks and her thoughts about what the military should do should it be presented with illegal orders.
When first released, Brooks’ column got the kind of reaction you would expect, with many praising it as an interesting read and a few criticizing it. It was also briefly mentioned near the end of a Breitbart column defending Trump adviser Stephen Bannon on January 31. But perhaps correctly assuming that its audience does not read past the headlines, on February 2, Breitbart wrote up Brooks’ column again, using the headline “Ex-Obama Officials Suggests ‘Military Coup’ Against Trump.” This time, the post spread quickly among right-wing fringe propaganda outlets and fake news purveyors: Infowars, Gateway Pundit, Pamela Geller, 8chan, Angry Patriot, Mad World News, Eagle Rising, Conservative 101, America’s Freedom Fighters, Natural News, Epoch Times, UFP News, ENH Live, The Washington Feed, Conservative Tribune, Mario Murillo Ministries (whose piece was shared by Trump ally Wayne Allyn Root), Infowars (again), Ammoland Shooting Sports News, Personal Liberty, PJ Media, Before It’s News, and The Political Insider. The story also spread to right-wing outlets like The Blaze and The Washington Times, which attacked her column but did not even bother to hyperlink to it. Neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer also joined in, saying that “the increasing insolence of American Jewry in their brazen calls to kill, overthrow and illegally undermine the election of President Trump must be crushed.” The story was also picked up by Russian state outlets RT and Sputnik.
Brooks described what happened once these posts started:
Within a few hours, the alt-right internet was on fire. The trickle of critical email messages turned into a gush, then a geyser, and the polite emails of the first few days were quickly displaced by obscenity-laced screeds, many in all capital letters. My Twitter feed filled up with trolls.
By mid-afternoon, I was getting death threats. “I AM GOING TO CUT YOUR HEAD OFF………BITCH!” screamed one email. Other correspondents threatened to hang me, shoot me, deport me, imprison me, and/or get me fired (this last one seemed a bit anti-climactic). The dean of Georgetown Law, where I teach, got nasty emails about me. The Georgetown University president’s office received a voicemail from someone threatening to shoot me. New America, the think tank where I am a fellow, got a similar influx of nasty calls and messages. “You’re a fucking cunt! Piece of shit whore!” read a typical missive.
My correspondents were united on the matter of my crimes (treason, sedition, inciting insurrection, etc.). The only issue that appeared to confound and divide them was the vexing question of just what kind of undesirable I was. Several decided, based presumably on my first name, that I was Latina and proposed that I be forcibly sent to the other side of the soon-to-be-built Trump border wall. Others, presumably conflating me with African-American civil rights heroine Rosa Parks, asserted that I would never have gotten hired if it weren’t for race-based affirmative action. The anti-Semitic rants flowed in, too: A website called the Daily Stormer noted darkly that I am “the daughter of the infamous communist Barbara Ehrenreich and the Jew John Ehrenreich,” and I got an anonymous phone call from someone who informed me, in a chillingly pleasant tone, that he supported a military coup “to kill all the Jews.”
My experience is not unusual. Anyone who attracts the attention of the alt-right is in for a rough ride.
As Brooks notes, this type of harassment by the “alt-right” is all too familiar. As I wrote in December:
Harassment is a deeply entrenched aspect of the “alt-right” community. It came to prominence with Gamergate, and then there was a wretched, bigoted campaign against black actress Leslie Jones. “Alt-right” figure Milo Yiannopoulos has now taken his harassment tactics with him on a college tour. Another example is the recent smear campaign against satirist Vic Berger by “alt-right” figure Mike Cernovich. Cernovich is no stranger to such tactics, having bragged previously about his ability to game Google to get other outlets to pick up on his smears, spreading the lies to more false headlines and more viewers. Comedian and producer Tim Heidecker has also spoken out about abuse he has received, including death-threats, as a result of “alt-right” criticism.
Since then, we’ve seen harassment campaigns launched against a journalist who tied a white supremacist to white supremacy, a college professor who sarcastically tweeted about “white genocide”, undocumented immigrants who use social media, and progressive author Lindy West.
Now that Trump and former Breitbart chief Stephen Bannon are in the Oval Office, the “alt-right” sees its chance to break through to mainstream America. The movement’s adherents are huge fans of new Fox News prime-time host Tucker Carlson. Rape-promoting white nationalist Mike Cernovich was given a show on Right-Side Broadcasting Network, which has simulcast on Trump’s own Facebook page. Breitbart is starting to hire people from mainstream outlets.
And yet, Breitbart is still situating itself at the center of these sorts of unconscionable attacks. Will it get away with that? If it does, it’s easy to see how: Since he was first appointed to lead Trump’s presidential campaign, mainstream figures have repeatedly shied away from tying Bannon to Breitbart’s enabling of white supremacy. Mike Allen, a former Politico reporter who recently founded a new media venture called Axios, lavished praise on Breitbart during an appearance on the latter’s radio show. As Breitbart now tries to move into continental Europe, these problems are more salient than ever.
If Trump does give an illegal order to deport all Muslim-Americans, reinstate torture, invade Mexico, or even start a nuclear holocaust, the survival of humanity may come down to where the individuals in charge of executing it get their news.
Image by Sarah Wasko