Rachel Maddow Says Over-the-Top Right-Wingers Are "Trolling," But That's Not the Whole Story

A lot of folks -- Raw Story, Libby Spencer, Anne Laurie, Mediaite -- are linking to a segment from last night's Rachel Maddow Show in which Maddow dismisses a lot of provocative right-wing rhetoric as trolling. (Video of the segment is below.)

From Raw Story:

"Trolling is a key part of the conservative-entertainment/media business model," [Maddow] said. "These guys say stuff all the time that they do not intend to be persuasive. They're not trying to explain something, or bring people along to their way of thinking, they're just doing something to attract attention, and hopefully condemnation and outrage from the mainstream, and particularly from liberals. They want to offend you. They seek to offend you. That is the point."

I agree that that's one point of making provocative statements -- to induce liberal outrage, and thus attain hero status among right-wingers by boasting of liberal attacks on yourself.

But it's not the whole point. Provocative statements are also meant to rally mobs. The implicit message of these provocations is: if what I just said offended you, chew on the fact that, outside your comfy little elitist enclave, there are millions of people who agree with what I just said 100% -- now what are you going to do about that?

Consider a part of Maddow's segment, in which she presents clips from four prominent wingnut provocateurs:

ANN COULTER: "Okay, explain to me why 'retard' is inappropriate."
MICHAEL SAVAGE: "You want my health care? I'll give you the Savage health care -- take the chocolate out of that fat woman's mouth!"
RUSH LIMBAUGH: "There is a movement on to normalize pedophilia."
MARK LEVIN: "Since when the hell do we Americans believe in separation of church and state?"

I think the wingnut audience literally agrees with every one of these statements. I think that audience sees Coulter as a brave fighter against "political correctness" in language, sees Savage as a guy telling the truth about how our so-called health crisis is sick people's own damn fault, and agrees with Levin that America is a Judeo-Christian nation, dammit. As for Limbaugh, he had sources when he made this pronouncement, though not a particularly exhaustive list -- one Guardian article, the story of Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash -- but he probably didn't need those, because the wingnuts in his audience firmly believe academia and the entertainment business are cesspits of deviant fornication and pro-immorality brainwashing.

If you're offended by all this, Coulter will never stop pointing out the large, adoring crowds that greet her wherever she speaks; Savage and Levin and (especially) Limbaugh won't let you forget that their radio audiences are in the millions; and they'll all tell you they've written #1 New York Times bestsellers. Maybe the book sales are partly bulk buys, maybe the radio ratings are slipping -- but these people actually have had big audiences. At the peak of their popularity, that's what made Coulter and Limbaugh, in particular, so dangerous: they said all that awful stuff and yet they were untouchable. The more appalling their pronouncements, the bigger their audiences seemed to get.

Which brings us to the NRA. Maddow sees the group as a troll organization. She looks at recent inflammatory NRA videos and says,

"If you have to troll for it, if you're going for purposeful outrage and nothing more serious than that, it is also pretty good evidence that you are really not all that relevant to the discussion the adults are having."

But that's not true if the NRA is still powerful. It's not true if outrageous NRA statements attract more members, sell more guns, and empower the NRA to threaten more elected officials. The NRA isn't being tone-deaf -- it's deliberately trying to offend us to show that it has the power not to give a crap about what we think, because every time it offends our sensibilities, more people pay NRA dues, and more pols cower in fear.

The key question is whether that's still true. Maddow makes the point the NRA spent a lot of money this year backing candidates who lost. I agree with her that pointing out the NRA's diminished political power is important (but I sure hope that power is still diminished in 2014, when the electorate is likely to be whiter and more right-wing).

The point is, the NRA doesn't troll because it's weak -- the NRA trolls because trolling has always kept it strong. When the NRA sent out a fund-raising letter referring to "jack-booted government thugs" less than a month after the Oklahoma City bombings, that was "trolling" to rally supporters and demonstrate power. When Charlton Heston said "From my cold, dead hands" while brandishing a rifle at the NRA convention in Colorado less than two weeks after the Columbine massacre, that was "trolling" to rally supporters and demonstrate power. The NRA did this when the NRA clearly was powerful.

Maybe it's not going to work anymore. But it's worked in the past. In any case, it's not a sign of weakness.

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