Amanda Marcotte

Young Democrats are right: There is no reason to date or befriend Trump voters

You have to give it to Axios: They know how to throw out some tasty bait. Their latest is irresistible for conservatives, who love any story that frames them as victims, and gives them the chance to blame the left for "incivility." Never mind obvious counter-examples such as the storming of the Capitol, gun-waving Christmas cards, and the entire person of Donald Trump.

"Young Dems more likely to despise the other party," blares Tuesday's Axios headline, noting in the article that "5% of Republicans said they wouldn't be friends with someone from the opposite party, compared to 37% of Democrats," and "71% of Democrats wouldn't go on a date with someone with opposing views, versus 31% of Republicans."

Unsurprisingly, this delicious bait worked exactly as intended, at least in social media reactions.

On the right, there was a lot of trumpeting how this supposedly proves the left are the ones who are "really" intolerant. Radio talker Matt Murphy whined that liberals "don't believe in our republic cannot abide people who think differently than them." As if not getting to have sex with or go to parties with liberals is exactly the same as having your basic rights as a citizen stripped from you. "This doesn't bode well," complained GOP lawyer and ABC commentator Sarah Isgur, who previously defended the Trump administration's policy of separating families at the U.S.-Mexico border as a former spokesperson in the Justice Department.

"My most fascinating friendships have always come from 'the other side,'" MSNBC host Joe Scarborough tweeted, noting that, as a Republican, he "always benefitted" from those conversations. As many people pointed out in response, however, that a Republican like Scarborough gained from friendships with people like "John Lewis, Elijah Cummings, Ron Dellums, and Maxine Waters" doesn't mean the reverse is true. And that is most likely what this polling is picking up.

This is about desirability, not "tolerance." Democrats are desirable as friends and lovers, not just to their fellow party members, but to Republicans, as well. But Republicans? They apparently don't have much to offer to Democrats as friends, and certainly not as lovers. Digging into the polling shows why this is.

As the Axios write-up by Neal Rothschild notes, young Democrats believe that GOP positions "spearheaded by former President Trump — are far outside of the mainstream and polite conversation." In particular, "human rights, and not just policy differences, are at stake." Which, no duh. Just last week, the GOP-controlled Supreme Court made it clear they plan to strip basic bodily autonomy rights from everyone with a uterus. The Republican Party is rallying around violent and white supremacist rhetoric.

Relatedly, a Harvard poll from last week shows "[m]ore than half of young Americans feel democracy in the country is under threat, and over a third think they may see a second U.S. civil war within their lifetimes." This isn't about a dispute over marginal tax rates. If you — quite correctly — believe that Republicans are plotting to destroy democracy, then why would you want to be friends with people who support that?

Unsurprisingly, female Democrats were more likely than male Democrats to reject dating someone who "voted for the opposing presidential candidate," i.e. Trump. Which isn't just about personal taste, but safety. Trump not only bragged about how he likes to "grab 'em by the pussy," but has a long track record of aggressively defending men who have been accused of sexual or domestic violence. It's just common sense to refuse to be alone with men who are fine with that attitude, and no different than watching your drink at a party or having a friend walk you home at night. In addition, having sex with men who back the party of forced childbirth is just ill-advised.

And that gets to the crux of it: Dating and friendship aren't about merely tolerating someone, it's about inviting someone into your life, as a confidante or even on an intimate level. Relationships take work to maintain. Why waste that effort on someone who can't meet the baseline requirement of seeing you or the other people in your life as full human beings? And no, being "personally" pro-choice or pro-LGBTQ rights hardly counts, when you keep voting for the party that opposes both.

The anger on the right over this polling, in turn, shows that this isn't really about liberal "intolerance," but an ugly sense of entitlement among conservatives. It's fueled by a belief that they should be as obnoxious, cruel, and bigoted as they want, without having to pay any social penalty for it. That attitude is especially troubling when it comes to dating, and is tied to long-standing sexist assumptions that women owe men their time and attention, even when they don't find them attractive. Indeed, this entitlement itself is a red flag. Someone who doesn't respect the right to choose who you spend time with is someone who is likely to violate other boundaries.

That's what all this whining and crying about "cancel culture" from the right is about. It's very rarely, if ever, about actual government censorship. On the contrary, conservatives are all for government censorship, especially of books and other materials that tell the truth about American racism. Conservatives are angry rather over the social penalties for their repulsive opinions, like being criticized publicly, being excluded from certain conversations, and generally being disliked. It's conservatives in D.C. whining to the press that they can't get hot dates.

Sure, conservatives can and occasionally entertain the idea of creating their own social networks and even universities, so they can hang out with each other, instead of constantly demanding attention from liberals. But apparently, they don't like each other's company any more than liberals do, and so they always circle back to yelling at liberals, accusing the left of "intolerance" for finding right-wingers unpleasant people to be around.

Ultimately, however, it comes back to this: No one is entitled to anyone else's social attention or friendship, much less a dating relationship with them. If friendships and romantic relationships with progressive are so desirable — which, as a progressive, I totally agree is true! — then the way to obtain them is to suck less. (Which yes, starts with not voting for Donald Trump.) The strategy of whining about "cancel culture" and scolding Democrats for "intolerance" isn't going to open up those cocktail party invitations any faster. Yelling at people to like you isn't a way to be liked. It just reaffirms to progressives that, for mental health reasons, time exposed to right-wingers is best kept at a minimum. Good on young Democrats for seeing clearly what the Joe Scarboroughs of the world don't want them to see.

Destroying democracy can make you very rich

In any time before, leaving Congress to work for Donald Trump would be a huge financial step down in the world, like trading a job as a corporate lawyer for selling handmade Christmas ornaments in the park. Trump is, after all, one of the most spectacularly incompetent businessmen of all time. He is a man who was gifted a real estate empire and a billion dollars by his father and producer Mark Burnett, yet somehow managed not only to burn through all that money but also to go another one billion dollars into debt. Leaving your cush job as a congressman on the verge of chairing a prominent House committee to work for the guy who somehow lost $2 billion seems like a bad bet. But it's a bet that Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., is taking.

On Monday, the Trump loyalist announced that he's leaving the House to take a job as the CEO of the newly-formed Trump Media & Technology Group, even though, as Jon Skolnik reports for Salon, "Trump's new social media platform is reportedly under investigation by federal regulators." While it's tempting to snicker at Nunes and hope this business venture fails as badly as every other Trump business, the depressing truth is that Nunes is probably right that this is a cash cow. Due to the huge right-wing base that can be endlessly milked for profit, being a fascist stooge these days is like printing money.

For proof, look no further than this new report from the Washington Post, exposing how lucrative it was for Trump lawyer Sidney Powell to spread lies about President Joe Biden "stealing" the 2020 election. In the months after the November election, Powell raised an eye-popping $14 million "from donors inspired by her fight to reverse the outcome of the vote," the Post reports. Unsurprisingly, "questions about where the money was going" have led to "acrimony between Powell and her top lieutenants," as they scuffle over these ill-gotten gains.

Or take the example of former White House advisor Steve Bannon, who seems to be doing just fine, grifting-wise, even though he literally got arrested in 2020 on charges of defrauding donors for his phony "border wall" project. Bannon was pardoned in the hours before Trump was finally forced to leave the White House, but got right back to shaking down gullible MAGAheads for money. As a report by ProPublica published last month shows, Bannon has set up an elaborate scheme to make money off Google Ads, despite the company's policies against funding violently fascist propaganda. Bannon's front page on his website tricks the ad algorithim with "innocuous stock content, such as tips on how to protect your phone in winter weather." Right below, however, is a video player that "routinely portrays participants in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot as patriots and airs false claims about the 2020 election and the COVID-19 pandemic." All funded, inadvertently, by "prominent brands as Land Rover, Volvo, DoorDash, Staples and even Harvard University."

Right-wing politics have always been deeply intertwined with sleazy and even illegal grifting schemes meant to separate elderly racists from their kids' inheritance. Nearly every right-wing figurehead has an email newsletter that directs readers to dish out money for fake cancer cures, gold bug scams, and useless "survivalist" goods. But after the failed January 6 insurrection, there's expanded opportunity for pumping the right-wing base for money, with promises that democracy will be overturned and power restored to a shrinking conservative minority.

To be certain, Trumpists like Powell and Bannon are entirely sincere about their hopes that they can gut electoral systems and install Trump as an illegitimate authoritarian president. But they also recognize how the millions of Americans who share those hopes are only too happy to turn over their retirement accounts for the fascist cause.

Right-wing politics have always been deeply intertwined with sleazy and even illegal grifting schemes meant to separate elderly racists from their kids' inheritance. Nearly every right-wing figurehead has an email newsletter that directs readers to dish out money for fake cancer cures, gold bug scams, and useless "survivalist" goods. But after the failed January 6 insurrection, there's expanded opportunity for pumping the right-wing base for money, with promises that democracy will be overturned and power restored to a shrinking conservative minority.

To be certain, Trumpists like Powell and Bannon are entirely sincere about their hopes that they can gut electoral systems and install Trump as an illegitimate authoritarian president. But they also recognize how the millions of Americans who share those hopes are only too happy to turn over their retirement accounts for the fascist cause.

As Judd Legum of Popular Info reports, the people involved in this scheme seem less interested in building a company than "than fleecing retail traders for a quick buck," by artificially driving up the price of stocks and flipping "these stocks immediately." No wonder the whole shady deal is being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Still, Nunes is running towards this scheme and not away, and it's no wonder.

Even if, as it seems likely, the whole thing is a scam, there's no reason to think that it will backfire on the scammers. Trump and most of his buddies haven't paid a single legal penalty for trying to overthrow the U.S. government. Of course, they feel confident that they'll get away with shaking down a bunch of gullible investors who mistakenly think Trump, who couldn't manage his own checking account if he had to do so himself, is somehow going to create a major media company. Yes, some of the low-level fraudsters in Trumpworld do face legal penalties, but Trump's ability to skirt justice seems bulletproof, especially when Attorney General Merrick Garland seems afraid to actually deal with the former president.

On one hand, it's hard not to laugh. Who cares if Trump and his buddies separate MAGA fools from their money? On the other hand, the problem is these frauds aren't merely frauds. They really are financing what is so far an extremely successful effort to lay the groundwork for stealing the 2024 election.

The fascist movement is very real, even if there's a lot of fraud wound into it by leaders hoping to get their beaks wet while they end democracy. Our legal system's inability to deal with the fraud aspect is just a symptom of a larger problem, which is a failure to deal with these arsonists of democracy at all. If that doesn't change, this country will have a lot more to worry about than idiot retirees emptying out their bank accounts for the latest "stop the steal" scam.

MAGA moms meet Madison Cawthorn's challenge: Why right-wing women raise their sons as 'monsters'

There's much to be learned still about the role that James and Jennifer Crumbley played in the mass murder their son, 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley, is accused of committing in Oxford, Michigan last Tuesday. But, at a bare minimum, we know that the couple indulged their son's unhealthy fascination with guns and violence, even buying the boy the weapon he allegedly used to kill four teenage kids. In the name of MAGA politics, Jennifer Crumbley has left a long digital trail of evidence demonstrating how she celebrated her son's gun worship. In 2016, she posted a long letter defending her decision to vote for Donald Trump on the grounds that she could not let Hillary Clinton "have control over my son's future." She thanked Trump "for allowing my right to bear arms," and bragged about how she's not scared of Trump's "big personality and quick temper." Finally, she signed the letter as someone who is "sick of getting f*cked in the ass and would rather be grabbed by the pussy."

Crumbley's husband shared the letter by writing, "My wife can be spot on. Sometimes."

In the cult of MAGA, women need to be kept in their place. Yes, even loyal women who worship toxic masculinity to the point of pretending that being sexually assaulted is no big deal.

On the day before Ethan Crumbley allegedly killed four people, he was caught in class looking at pictures of ammunition. His mother's response, in text: "LOL I'm not mad at you. You have to learn not to get caught."

It is important to recall that in October, one of the more noxious trolls in the House's GOP caucus, Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina, gave a speech aimed at the mothers of MAGA in which he encouraged the women to raise their sons to be "monsters." Cawthorn claimed that "[o]ur culture today is trying to completely de-masculate all of the young men," and argued that it's on mothers — who he called "the most vicious in our movement" — to counter this supposed emasculation by training their sons to be "monsters and lions." Predators, essentially.

That Cawthorn only addressed mothers is no mistake, of course. In MAGA-land, fathers who are present in their kids' lives are viewed as emasculated. And a lot of MAGA moms were hardly waiting for Cawthorn's instructions.

Take the relationship of Kyle Rittenhouse and his mother, Wendy Rittenhouse. Every step of the way, she's been a proud MAGA mom, treating her son — who shot three people, killing two, at a Black Lives Matter protest — like he's a hero, and blaming his victims for their own deaths.

"A lot of people shouldn't have been there," she raved to NBC News during her son's trial. "He brung that gun for protection, and to this day if he didn't have that gun, my son would've been dead."

Last January, Kyle Rittenhouse was spotted in a bar partying with his mother and a group of Proud Boys. As the young Rittenhouse flashed white supremacist signs, his mother stood by, clearly unbothered that her 18-year-old was drinking with a group of men known for promoting violence in the name of authoritarian politics.

Or take Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, a prime example of a woman who waves a gun around in a bizarre psychological battle with her own tribe's belief in female inferiority. Boebert has been heavily criticized for her repeated shows of contempt for the idea of gun safety. But the worst moment was no doubt over the summer, when, as Zachary Petrizzo reported for Salon, Boebert released a video showing her 8-year-old son "singing, dancing and playing with cigarette lighters — while left alone in a room a few feet away from a high-capacity rifle."

By August, there were at least 259 unintentional shootings by children in 2021, which resulted in 104 deaths and 168 injuries. But raising boys to care about safety is viewed in the MAGA world as, to use Cawthorn's word, "de-masculating." Boebert has routinely blown off critics who point out how dangerous it is to leave loaded guns around, claiming they need to be "ready for use."

In a typical sexist fashion, Cawthorn framed his demand that mothers raise "monsters" in terms of female duty and even sacrifice. But, as these examples show, for a lot of MAGA moms, raising monsters is really more about living vicariously through their sons. And really, it's no wonder. In MAGA-land, being a woman sucks. Sure, as the Boebert example shows, plenty of MAGA women wave around guns and act the part of the tough guy. But at the end of the day, women are simply second class in the Trumpist movement. They are the pussy to be grabbed, not the pussy-grabber.

The ultimate example of the MAGA mom raising up a monster, of course, is the mother-and-son team that stormed the Capitol on January 6.

Video shows Lisa Marie Eisenhart and her son Eric Munchel in tactical gear, armed with zip ties, screaming nonsense about "treason" and vowing that they are done "playing nice" —apparently intent on kidnapping members of Congress. In MAGA mom fantasies, this is the ultimate goal: To not just raise a monster, but be able, through your monster son, to taste the power of political violence yourself.

It's a world where men are viewed as superior to women, and masculinity is defined in the most toxic way possible, in predatory and violent terms. Women can't be equal, so their only way to taste power is through men, especially their sons. That's what Cawthorn's speech was about: Instructing women to sublimate their "vicious" urges by raising boys who are themselves vicious monsters. All too many are already heeding the call.

There are several giant holes in the arguments against Roe v. Wade

In a sign of the utter bad faith shot throughout the conservative arguments for abortion bans, the lawyers defending Mississippi's pre-viability ban in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Clinic are claiming that women don't need abortion because — wait for it — of all the great social safety net programs supporting mothers that Americans enjoy these days.

Mississippi's lawyers argued before the Supreme Court on Wednesday that "numerous laws enacted since Roe — addressing pregnancy discrimination, requiring leave time, assisting with child care and more — facilitate the ability of women to pursue both career success and a rich family life." The Washington Post also gave Mississippi attorney general Lynn Fitch space to make the breathtakingly dishonest argument that women pay no professional or economic penalty for unwanted childbearing. "[I]t has become easier for women to reach the very pinnacle of our success, economically and socially" without abortion, she writes, because, um, "[m]aternity leave and even paternity leave are commonplace." Just in case you were unsure she is a big, fat liar, she also throws in, "Men and women are sharing responsibilities in the home." (No, they are not.)

These arguments are such self-evident nonsense that there's little chance that the intent is to fool anyone. Rather it's about propping facile justifications for abortion bans that are, in reality, rooted in a misogynistic desire to punish women for having sex.

Even having to debunk these arguments feels debasing, so hats off to Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times, who took on the task. "The United States stands out for its absence of national paid leave," she writes, and child care "is unaffordable for nearly half of American families." In addition, "access to abortion for young women with unplanned pregnancies led to higher earnings, more education and a higher chance of being a professional or manager than seen in women denied access to abortion." Studies show, time and again, abortion access materially improves women's lives.

But even if the U.S. were the socialist paradise that Mississippi lawyers are pretending it is, that would not justify abortion bans.

Abortion is not an insurance plan to protect against career derailment. It's about very basic human rights: To control your body and to make very basic decisions about your life. As Julie Rikelman of the Center for Reproductive Rights argued before the Supreme Court on Wednesday, "For a state to take control of a woman's body and demand that she go through pregnancy and childbirth with all the physical risks and life-altering consequences that brings is a fundamental deprivation of her liberty." Yes, even if you get to go back to work afterward.

The abortion debate is contentious not because of inadequate maternity leave, but because it cuts right to the heart of the larger struggle over whether or not women should be regarded as full human beings. It's why even having this debate over maternity leave and social safety nets feels debasing. It's undergirded by this assumption that women are too dumb to know what they need and want and so need a little coercion to understand the endless supposed bliss that awaits them after they are forced to give birth.

Fitch has been heavily promoting the claim that having a baby is always the best thing, and if a pregnant person doesn't agree, it must be because she's stupid and needs correction. She even told EWTN Pro-Life Weekly host Catherine Hadro that banning abortion is a gift because "the mothers that will get the chance to really redirect their lives," and women "can have these beautiful children and you can have your careers." The premise is that all women are in a permanent state of wanting to have a baby, and if they say otherwise, it must be under duress.

But this idea that women never truly want an abortion is a total and demonstrable lie.

In the U.S., 6 out of 10 abortion patients have already had a baby. They are fully educated in the joys and challenges of motherhood, and that knowledge is informing their choice to abort this particular pregnancy. In countries that really do have the social safety net that Mississippi is pretending exists here, abortion has not vanished. The abortion rates in countries like France and Sweden are comparable to the United States, even though they have much more generous maternity leave and child care policies. Wealthier countries do have lower abortion rates, but that's because contraception access leads to lower overall pregnancy rates. But as long as there's unintended pregnancy, there will be abortion.

That's because a very basic, unchanging fact about human nature: People want to have a lot more sex than they want to have babies. Yes, even women. People have sex when it's not the right time for a baby. People have sex with partners who aren't the right fit to have a baby with. People have sex even when they've had as many children as they want to have. Contraception makes this safer, but it's not foolproof. Which is why you can throw as many maternity benefits as you want at women, but they will still need access to abortion.

Conservatives get away with this bad faith, because of a larger cultural prudery. There's a general unwillingness, even among a lot of progressives, to defend women's sexuality without caveat. Conservatives want to prop up this ideal of women as asexual beings who only have sex to please men and/or have babies. Abortion's popularity, however, exposes the truth: Lots of women have sex with men they don't want to have a baby with — either right now or ever.

Rather that just let women be, the Christian right wants to use abortion bans to punish women for not adhering to their sexist demands. Progressives should not let red herring arguments about maternity leave or child care distract us from that fact.

The Supreme Court shows off its contempt for women

Despite all the legalese about "stare decisis" and "reliance interests," the abortion rights hearing held at the Supreme Court Wednesday morning came down to one question: Can women's rights simply be disappeared, with the ease of shaking an Etch-A-Sketch?

Unfortunately, 6 out of 9 members of the Court seemed to strongly believe that yes, it's time to hit the reset button on that whole "treating women like full human beings" experiment after nearly 50 years, since Roe vs. Wade, of women having full human rights.Through the two hours of questioning in Dobbs vs. Jackson Women's Health, one word came to mind to describe the stance of the conservative judges: Contempt.

Wednesday's oral arguments were full of contempt for women's lives, contempt for women's intelligence, contempt for women's privacy and contempt for women's very humanity. To be sure, Center for Reproductive Rights lawyer Julie Rikelman and Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar repeatedly emphasized that women are complex human beings who have as much a right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness as anyone. But it was like talking to a brick wall of misogyny offered by the Republican appointees on the bench. The Court now seems almost certain, as was requested by Mississippi Attorney General Scott Stewart, to overturn Roe v. Wade next year.

Perhaps the most repulsive moment of the morning came courtesy of Justice Sam Alito, who is always ready to act like the biggest mansplaining creep in the highly competitive field of GOP-appointed judges. In response to Prelogar's argument that American women have come to rely on abortion rights, Alito sneeringly argued that the South had also come to rely on "white supremacy" after Plessy v. Ferguson, but that didn't stop the court from overturning it in Brown v. the Board of Education. Yes, you read that correctly: Alito compared a woman's right to control her own body to upholding Jim Crow.

And this was far from the only bad faith comparison offered by the conservative justices.

At one point, Justice Brett Kavanaugh ran down a long list of cases he felt like overturned historical precedent, in the way he clearly would like to overturn Roe — including Brown and, more recently, Obergefell v. Hodges, the case that legalized same-sex marriage. Prelogar did her best to rebut this claim, pointing out that these decisions to overturn precedent expanded human rights, and overturning Roe would take them away. But the conservatives don't seem inclined to view women as humans with rights, and so ignored this crucial point.

Those were the most egregious, but the inability of the conservatives to imagine women as real people behaving in discernibly human ways defined most lines of questioning during Wednesday's arguments. At one point, Chief Justice John Roberts explored the possibility of setting the national abortion limits at 15 weeks, which is the current Mississippi law under debate, instead of overturning Roe entirely. He dug into Rikelman about how 15 weeks should be enough "opportunity for choice" for women seeking an abortion, even though it's actually only about 11 weeks since the missed period. The implication, of course, is that anyone who needs that long is somehow too lazy or stupid to deserve rights. (Though apparently not to lazy or stupid to be a mother!) But, as Rikelman pointed out, poverty and other abortion restrictions often drive women to spend weeks trying to find the time and money to abort. In addition, a huge number of medically indicated abortions happen after the 15-week mark.

Amy Coney Barrett, the token Aunt Lydia of the 6 conservative judges, kept circling around the argument that women don't need abortion rights, because "in all 50 states, you can terminate parental rights" after giving birth. It was a question that only makes sense if one assumes women are merely ambulatory uteruses, with no feelings or internal lives at all. In the real world, however, pregnancy is a difficult process, not just physically, but emotionally. Pregnancy isn't a houseplant you stick in the corner of your house and ignore until someone comes to pick it up. You carry it with your body. People ask you about it — indeed, as anyone who has been pregnant can tell you, it's basically all people can talk to you about when you're showing. It causes all sorts of hormonal and emotional reactions, and giving up a baby your body has created is notoriously wrenching, even for those who are ready to do it.

Barrett, who has kids of her own, should understand this. But other women don't seem to register as people to her. She even snickeringly compared forced childbirth to vaccination, as if a 3 second, risk-free shot has anything in common with the permanently life-altering experience of pregnancy and childbirth.

Realizing they weren't going to get very far with their conservative colleagues with arguments about women's humanity, the liberal justices largely focused on the issue of the court's reputation. The conservative justices have been openly defensive about (entirely correct) accusations that they are "partisan hacks," as Barrett unconvincingly swore she was not earlier this year. So the liberals centered much of their questioning around concerns that overturning Roe would further degrade the court's reputation in the public eye.

"Will this institution survive the stench that this creates in the public perception that the Constitution and its reading are just political acts?" Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked at one point.

But it's hard to imagine six justices are going to be that worried about being criticized in this way. They don't take women seriously as people, so it's unlikely they care much more for the opinions of people who do view women as full human beings. As with Kavanaugh whining and crying because he had to deal with a sexual assault accusation from Christine Blasey Ford, they are all likely to double down on their sense of grievance that they even have to waste time with the women-are-people crowd. Erasing women's rights will be as easy for them as stepping on ants.

Republicans are now bribing people to avoid vaccination as the Omicron variant looms

Little is known at this point about the Omicron variant of COVID-19 that is causing worldwide panic and last week's stock market crash — except that it's a reminder of the importance of people getting vaccinated. Vaccination can help prevent such variants from evolving in the first place, and vaccinated people are probably still much safer than unvaccinated people in the face of the variant. As President Joe Biden's office told the press, his top infectious disease advisor, Dr. Anthony Fauci "continues to believe that existing vaccines are likely to provide a degree of protection against severe cases of Covid."

Vaccines save lives and are the best path forward to ending the pandemic and returning to normal. Despite this — or really, because of this — Republicans not only continue to sabotage efforts by the Biden administration to get the public vaccinated, but are doubling down on the sabotage.

As Axios reported Monday morning, the concerted efforts to keep shots from going in arms have escalated in red states, with Republican politicians now openly bribing constituents not to get vaccinated. "Republican officials around the country are testing a creative mechanism to build loyalty with unvaccinated Americans while undermining Biden administration mandates: unemployment benefits," the short piece explains. "Florida, Iowa, Kansas and Tennessee have changed their unemployment insurance rules to allow workers who are fired or quit over vaccine mandates to receive benefits."

Since early spring, a number of commentatorsincluding myself have been pointing out that Republican politicians and media are deliberately undermining Biden's pandemic response by convincing their base to reject the vaccines. The reason isn't particularly mysterious. Republicans understand that if death rates remain high, the economic recovery remains stagnant, and unpleasant mitigation measures like mask mandates and school shutdowns continue into 2022, a pandemic-weary public is going to start blaming the guy in charge for not doing more to fix the situation.

But still, there are many who simply refuse to believe that Republicans could be that sinister, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

In August, Jonathan Chait of New York magazine scoffed that "Republican covid denialism is idiocy, not a plot." He continues to insist on this take, tweeting Sunday that to argue otherwise is overrating "the intelligence of the Republican party base." This is an incoherent argument, as Crooked Media editor Brian Beutler pointed out, as it requires believing that gullible people are somehow impervious to manipulation, when "easy to manipulate" is literally what defines gullibility.

But even the New York Times, which has a long-standing habit of refusing to accept the depths of depravity Republicans will sink to, is facing up to this grim reality. Last week, Jonathan Weisman reported that "Republicans have hit on a new line of attack" — blaming Biden for the pandemic — even though it's Republicans who "spent months flouting mask ordinances and blocking the president's vaccine mandates."

Breaking things and then blaming Democrats for things being broken is a long-standing GOP political strategy. It works because, as Paul Krugman of the New York Times recently explained, voters "tend to support the incumbent party when things are going well, oppose it if things are going badly." So, when the GOP is out of power, they do what they "can to make bad things happen," knowing Democrats will be blamed. So it has been on the economy, and so it is on the pandemic.

Now there's a scary new variant that could prolong the pandemic, and many Republicans can barely hide their glee.

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas continues to bash Dr. Fauci, tweeting on Sunday that he's "an unelected technocrat who has distorted science and facts in order to exercise authoritarian control over millions of Americans," and spreading a repulsive conspiracy theory insinuating that Fauci somehow had a hand in creating the virus. "I'm just going to do my job and I'm going to be saving lives and they're going to be lying," Dr. Fauci said in response to GOP conspiracy theories about him — theories clearly meant to undermine his authority when he continues to advocate for vaccination.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia also doubled down on vaccine discouragement in response to the Omicron variant, insisting that the horse deworming drug ivermectin is the real solution. She even encouraged her followers to sue hospitals for COVID-19 deaths because doctors won't prescribe this useless drug. That's the modern GOP in a nutshell: First, get people killed by telling them to refuse vaccines, and then blame the only people who actually tried to save those lives for the deaths.

That this is a deliberate strategy and not just idiocy was confirmed yet again over the weekend through the actions of Rep. Nancy Mace of South Carolina, who gave two separate interviews — one on Fox News and one on CNN — where she offered extremely different claims about the vaccine. For her Fox New audience, Mace claimed "natural immunity gives you 27 times more protection against future COVID than a vaccination." On CNN, while trying to hoodwink the Jonathan Chaits of the world into thinking Republicans aren't that bad, she claimed she wanted people to get vaccinated.

And Donald Trump Jr., always ready to be the sweaty id of the GOP, went on Fox News and praised the anti-vaccine rioters in Europe, claiming they're standing up for "freedom." In reality, it has little to do with freedom and more to do with far-right groups in Europe spreading the same conspiracy theories about the vaccine as the right in America does.

This is the same GOP that has supported Donald Trump despite his attempted coup and instigating a violent riot on the Capitol. Indeed, this is the same party that, inspired by Trump, is rewriting election laws and reorganizing election boards to make it far easier for Trump to succeed when he tries to steal the 2024 election. They care not one bit about this country or its people, just their own pursuit of power. So of course the emergence of a new COVID-19 variant, which could kill way more people, isn't giving them any pause.

The Republican strategy now is what it has been for months: Encourage the base to reject vaccination and to spread COVID-19, with the hopes that a weary public will blame Democrats and punish them at the ballot box in the 2022 midterms. The frightening thing is the GOP's nakedly pro-COVID strategy may very well work, especially if this new variant draws out the pandemic for that much longer.

The dark reason Trump exalts Kyle Rittenhouse

The strangest thing about Donald Trump and the GOP's increasingly open embrace of political violence is how unnecessary it is, even by the right's own grotesque standards.

Ever since Trump's failed coup that culminated in the January 6 insurrection, Republicans have been carefully laying the groundwork for a bloodless destruction of democracy. They've commandeered election offices and filled them with Trump lackeys eager to break the law for their leader. They've gerrymandered elections so that Republicans "win" even when Democrats have strong majorities. And they toss on a robust amount of voter suppression so Democrats can't get to the polls in the first place. Even Trump's path to retaking the White House despite quite likely losing in 2024 is laid out without the need to fire a single gunshot: Republican-controlled state legislatures and Congress could nullify the vote in districts Joe Biden wins and throw the election to Trump.

"Democracy's primary assailants today are not generals or armed revolutionaries," Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt explained in The Atlantic, but rather politicians "who eviscerate democracy's substance behind a carefully crafted veneer of legality and constitutionality."

But even though a bloodless fascist takeover is in the works, Trump and other leaders of the Trumpist movement have spent the past years ratcheting up enthusiasm on the right for political violence. For months, Trump and his allies have been trying to rewrite the narrative of January 6, casting the insurrectionists as heroes and martyrs. Now, in the wake of the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse — who shot three people, killing two, at a Black Lives Matter protest in August 2020 — they're doing the same. Rittenhouse is cast on the right as a noble hero, instead of what he is, an unsettling creep who had no business swinging an AR-15 around in a volatile situation.

As soon as the trial was over, Fox News host Tucker Carlson brought Rittenhouse on for an interview, praising him as "the kind of person would you want many more of in your country." (As a reminder, Rittenhouse was photographed in a Michigan bar in January, partying with Proud Boys and flashing a white nationalist hand gesture.) Trump also brought Rittenhouse to Mar-A-Lago to pose for pictures in front of a wall showily festooned with a photograph of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Trump called Rittenhouse — who shot and killed Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26 — a "nice young man."

Trump and Carlson are doing this, even though they know full well that it's encouraging more insecure men to view political violence as a way to ameliorate their own gnawing fears of mediocrity. Indeed, manipulating men into committing violence appears to very much be the point. As Mark Follman wrote in Mother Jones last week, "Trump has made freshly evident, in other words, that he is serving as the inspirational leader for a domestic terrorism movement."

But again, the question is why?

Most available evidence suggests that not only can Trump's desired fascist takeover happen without violence, it would actually be more likely to work if it was bloodless. The best weapon of the 21st-century autocrat is not violence, but demoralization — wearing down the opposition by making it seem there's no legal avenues to save democracy. As Michelle Goldberg explained Monday in the New York Times, there's a "growing hopelessness born of a sense that dislodging Trump has bought American democracy only a brief reprieve," and the result is "progressives retreating into private life to preserve their sanity, a retreat that will only hasten democracy's decay."

Without violence, the Trumpist right can pretend their gutting of democracy is above-board and grind their opponents into a state of learned helplessness. Violence, however, makes it very hard to pretend that rising fascism is anything but what it is. Without the Capitol riot capturing the public's attention, Trump's attempts to steal the 2020 election through bureaucratic corruption could have been shoved down the memory hole. Right-wing violence, on the other hand, is unambiguous. It solidifies the left's resistance instead of undermining it.

Part of the infatuation with violence is due to Trump's personality. Unlike his father, who was arrested in a KKK riot in 1927, Trump is a physical coward. He loves the idea of violence, however, and adores sending minions out to commit violence in his name. That was true when he praised rioting neo-Nazis as "very fine people" in 2017, when he sent cops to tear gas peaceful protesters in Lafayette Park in 2020, and when he incited the Capitol riot in 2021.

Trump likely understands that his most ardent followers also love violence and are also caught up in fantasies of beating and killing liberals — and of getting away with doing so. An analysis from Media Matters released Tuesday shows that the Rittenhouse verdict was a traffic bonanza for right-wing pages on Facebook. Such pages got nearly 30 million interactions on November 19, an especially high number since the verdict was announced late on a Friday, which is usually a low traffic period online. The only other days these pages got more traffic were in response to January 6 and its aftermath, Trump's acquittal for inciting the riot, and Biden's inauguration. Notably, 4 out of the 6 highest traffic days were due to Trump and his allies exalting or inspiring political violence. Clearly, the base is really into the idea of cracking skulls in the name of Trumpism.

To be certain, Republicans have other uses for political violence.

The beatification of Rittenhouse, like the tear-gassing of protesters in Lafayette Park, is about scaring progressives away from protest. That could matter if and when progressives take to the streets in response to efforts to steal elections. Cleaning house of honest election officials, to replace them with Trump stooges, is also being aided through violence, as demonstrated by the number of election officials quitting rather than put up with death threats.

But mostly, the violence seems to be about motivating the Trump base. The idea of a bloodless fascist takeover doesn't really get the right-wing juices going. What fires them up is memes celebrating the deaths of political opponents. A lot of these folks have been spending thousands of dollars for years, even decades, building up arsenals. Destroying democracy through paperwork probably feels unsatisfactory. As one man at a Turning Point event in October plaintively asked: "When do we get to use the guns?"

Keeping these folks activated and engaged means dangling the fantasy of political violence. Trump and Carlson get that, which is why they're determined to turn Rittenhouse into a right-wing hero.

The line between right-wing trolling and violence is collapsing

After the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse on Friday afternoon, right-wing trolls — many of whom are elected members of Congress — were ecstatic at this prime opportunity to trigger the liberals. Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida, Madison Cawthorne of North Carolina, and Paul Gosar of Arizona — all Republicans more interested in trolling than governance — made showily public offers of an internship to Rittenhouse. Cawthorne even took it to the next level, instructing his supporters to "be armed and dangerous." Never one to be out-trolled, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia let loose with some truly unhinged tweets about "radical Marxists" who are trying to start "a race war," proclaiming that "gun rights are the only thing holding back the Communist Revolution the Democrats are waging." And on the Senate side, Ted Cruz of Texas attacked the "corrupt corporate media," skillfully targeting the very people he needs to amplify his message and get that sweet trolling attention.

Right-wing pundits joined in on all the gleeful trolling, as well.

Ann Coulter tweeted a meme equating Rittenhouse with superheroes, and Donald Trump Jr., forever trying and failing at being a Twitter wit, wrote, "The Rittenhouse jury just gave Biden his second colonoscopy of the day." Multiple right-wingers on social media wrote songs to honor Rittenhouse. On Friday, popular and trollish YouTuber Steven Crowder celebrated the verdict by insisting, "it's so wrong that we teach young men that violence is immoral," and encouraged viewers to follow in Rittenhouse's lead by taking up arms against Black Lives Matter protesters. Tucker Carlson, King of the Trolls, will host Rittenhouse on his Fox News show and insisted that he's "not a racist person." This claim is impossible, of course, to square with the photos taken earlier this year in a Wisconsin bar where Rittenhouse partied with Proud Boys and flashed white supremacist signs at the camera.

All of these provocations worked as intended: They got attention and garnered liberal outrage. "Liberal tears" are the most valuable commodity in Republican circles these days, and nothing brings forth tears like senseless violence. For those who subsist on liberal outrage, the dunks were easy and plentiful, because it turns out those silly liberals really do make frowny faces over the celebration of political violence.

The right is reacting to this verdict like they're sports fans whose team just vanquished a rival team in the Superbowl. The excitement on the right was palpable, but also measurable. As an analysis from Raw Story shows, Facebook exploded with conservative celebrations of the verdict, with "18 of the top 20 most engaged page links in the world" originating with conservative American pages. And the pleasure of the moment was explicitly tied to joy over how upset liberals — or at least those perceived as liberals — were. Right-wing figurehead Dan Bongino, who is reliably one of the most popular figures on Facebook, posted a link claiming Chuck Todd "nearly cries" after the verdict. The post garnered over 3,000 shares and 68,000 reactions, the majority of which were the "laughing" emoji.

It's not just that this behavior is tasteless. It also illustrates how violence is the logical endpoint of the right-wing obsession with trolling liberals. If your goal is provoking a reaction, then violence is surely the most efficient way to do it. Unlike mean tweets and "f*ck your feelings" T-shirts, violence simply cannot be ignored. By celebrating this violence, congressional Republicans and right-wing media are openly inviting more of it, because the reward of upsetting people on the left is just so delicious. The distinction between right-wing trolling and violence is collapsing.

To be certain, the escalation of violence-as-trolling has been going on for a while now. As Eric Boehler wrote in his Press Run newsletter, "The flashpoints of Republicans and conservatives promoting political violence have become ceaseless, to the point of frightening normalization," to the point where polling data suggests "that as many as 21 million Americans think that the use of force is justified to restore Donald Trump to the presidency."

Much of the month has been dominated by a story about Gosar tweeting out a fan-made video that depicts him murdering President Joe Biden and Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. The Democratic-controlled House responded to this unsubtle threat by censuring Gosar and stripping him of his committee assignments, but nearly all Republicans stood by Gosar. The excuse used to defend Gosar's behavior was that he was just trolling liberals for fun. Gosar's digital director even put out a statement saying, "Everyone needs to relax. The left doesn't get meme culture. They have no joy."

However, right-wing "joy" is not mutually exclusive from violence.

Gosar's tweet was both trolling to get a reaction from the left and a threat of violence. Trolling is a crucial aspect to both amplifying violent threats and helping conservatives hype each other up for more violence. That's why Gosar doubled down by retweeting the video minutes after being censured for it. The message is clear: If you love outraging the left, then violence is the swiftest way to do it.

Even Rittenhouse's behavior prior to killing two people at a Kenosha, Wisconsin protest last year embodies this troll logic. As Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times observed, Rittenhouse's presence at the protest was clearly a provocation. Rittenhouse carried a showy AR-15 "in part because the rifle "looked cool," and the gun "seemed to invite conflict." Popular right-wing troll Drew Hernandez was at the protest that night, and testified in court that, when some protesters saw Rittenhouse and other men with guns, "they immediately attempted to agitate them, to try and start some conflict with them."

In other words, Rittenhouse's AR-15 functioned both as a troll and as a deadly weapon. The distinction between trying to "trigger the liberals" and actually pulling the trigger on liberals collapsed completely the night Rittenhouse shot three people, killing two. He certainly got what every right-wing troll wants, which is an outraged and dramatic reaction from people he perceived as liberals. The result was two dead bodies — and another opportunity for GOP leaders to troll some more, further reinforcing the idea that, for those who live for triggering the liberals, nothing works better to get a reaction than actual violence.

All Republicans care about these days is trolling — and Kevin McCarthy is hilariously bad at it

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy really thought he was going to own the liberals. Spoiler alert: The liberals were not owned.

The Democratic majority had scheduled a vote on President Joe Biden's Build Back Better bill for Thursday night, when suddenly, using an obscure rule that allows the minority leader to speak as long they wish during debate, the California Republican started droning — and he wouldn't stop. McCarthy kept droning, way into the night, and long past when Democrats decided to recess until morning. After all, he had to make absolutely sure that he beat the previous record for speech length on the House floor, set by now-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., when she defended the rights of young immigrants in 2018.

It's a weird thing for McCarthy to take a stand on, in part because the Build Back Better bill is popular with voters and it isn't really the sort of thing that excites the GOP base. Sure enough, McCarthy's stunt immediately was eclipsed by something that actually gets the right-wing juices going: Kyle Rittenhouse's acquittal.

To be sure, McCarthy's sincere opposition to the bill can be ruled out, as the bill is actually quite modest in its spending and taxation plans (at this point, it's about half a percent of overall GDP) despite the alarmist coverage that implies otherwise. It's especially weird in light of the fact that, even in its much-truncated form, Build Back Better is probably doomed at the hands of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., who has already queued up his new bad faith excuse to kill it.

No, I fear that McCarthy did not just talk himself hoarse over Build Back Better because of anything having to do with Build Back Better. Instead, all signs suggest his stunt was a pathetic attempt to get into the good graces of Donald Trump and the Trigger The Liberals Caucus, lest he lose his shot at being the Speaker when, as expected, Republicans gerrymander themselves into a House majority next year. And if there's one thing that crowd cares about, it's annoying Democrats. Kevin McCarthy's marathon speech was him trying, and failing, to be a right-wing troll.

It's no secret that McCarthy has been on the outs with Trump and the more insurrection-friendly members of Congress, who are all far more popular with the GOP base than a limp rag like McCarthy will ever be. Former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows lambasted McCarthy on Thursday for his lack of trolling chops.

"You talk about melting down, people would go crazy," Meadows said, if Trump, not McCarthy, became the next Speaker. Meadows was appearing on a podcast hosted by far-more-competent troll Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida.

McCarthy's shot at being the Speaker next year was also threatened by uber-troll Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia on Tuesday.

The most recent grievance from Trump and his most loyal sycophants is that McCarthy allowed 13 members of the House GOP caucus to vote for a bipartisan infrastructure bill. This has infuriated Trump, not because he opposes infrastructure, but because of his ever-fragile ego. See, Trump wanted to pass an infrastructure bill when he was in office, but was way too lazy to get it done. So he's been freaking out on Republicans who let Biden succeed where he failed. And while most of his ire has been focused on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — releasing a lengthy diatribe calling McConnell a "Broken Old Crow" — the message is clear. Trump is mad about the infrastructure bill and expects GOP leaders to work themselves into a lather to gain his forgiveness. (Which he'll never actually give.)

So it's no coincidence that Trump called McCarthy in the hours before the GOP leader pulled his fruitless delay tactic. McCarthy has been bending over backward to please Trump and the loudest trolls in the House GOP caucus. It's why McCarthy went to the mat for Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, even though the white nationalist congressman has lately been trawling for attention with blatant fantasies of murdering Democratic colleagues. It's why McCarthy promised to restore committee assignments to Greene and Gosar, even though they were stripped for such unbecoming behavior. The desperation radiates off him, and Thursday's speech was just more of the same.

But the truth is that talking for eight hours won't work, if only because that kind of thing is a try-hard move. McCarthy doesn't get that their laziness is actually an appealing quality of right-wing trolls like Greene and Trump to the base. Besides, as a trigger-the-Democrats move, the speech backfired. It was just way too fun for Democrats to make fun of McCarthy. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, for instance, spent much of the speech doing a Statler-and-Wardorf act on Instagram, drawing hundreds of thousands of views. Even Pelosi got in on the action, sending an email to reporters with the subject line "Is Kevin McCarthy OK?"

To be fair, getting mocked by Democrats is frequently rounded up by Republicans to be evidence of a successful liberal-triggering. That's why Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas doesn't care how many people dunk on him, and in fact seeks it out, because he knows his followers don't care how witty your rejoinder is. All they want is a reaction, which is treated as confirmation that liberal skin was gotten under. And it is true that right-wing media is trying mightily to spin McCarthy's wet dishtowel of a speech into an epic bout of trolling. Breitbart dutifully ran a headline declaring McCarthy "smashes" Pelosi's speech length record and Fox News tried to generate some excitement over Ocasio-Cortez "interrupting" McCarthy.

But long speeches over boring spending bills is just not the sort of trolling that gets the lather up in the right-wing base. Even before they started to celebrate the Rittenhouse verdict, right wing social media reacted to McCarthy's stunt with a big yawn. More to the point, there's very little chance this will move the needle with Trump, who is still quite salty over McCarthy's initial opposition to Trump inciting an insurrectionist riot on January 6. No matter how much work McCarthy has done to shield Trump and his co-conspirators from consequences, Trump will likely forever hold a grudge against McCarthy for this failure to instantly praise the insurrection as the greatest moment in human history. Plus, it's probably just fun for Trump and the meanest trolls in the GOP to constantly bully McCarthy, since he rolls over and offers his belly to them every time.

McCarthy may very well end up as Speaker in 2023. But it won't be because of his trolling skills, which are hilariously bad. It will be because it's a crap job that takes work and people complain at you constantly. That's not really what GOP standard-bearers like Marjorie Taylor Greene or Paul Gosar are into. It makes McCarthy's tap-dancing for Trump all the more pathetic because it's really not necessary at all.

The NRA gave us Kyle Rittenhouse

One thing is certain: If Kyle Rittenhouse had listened to Johnny Cash, and left his gun at home, Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber would still be alive today.

At age 17, Rittenhouse probably shouldn't have had a gun at all, though the defense was able to get the illegal gun possession charge dropped on a technicality. Indeed, Rittenhouse should have gone the next step and kept his whole body at home that August night in 2020, as the Antioch, Illinois teenager only made the drive across state lines to Kenosha, Wisconsin to live out his far-right cowboy fantasies of intimidating Black Lives Matter protesters with his showy AR-15. Instead, the now-18-year-old man is on trial for murder, having found exactly the kind of conflict that's entirely predictable when you go waving a gun at protesters. And there's a very chance he will be acquitted — despite the idiocy of his actions — because he's claiming "self-defense."

The same can be said of Greg and Travis McMichael, father and son, as well as their neighbor, William Bryan, all of whom are on trial right now in Georgia for the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed Black jogger who was chased down by three white men last year. The men filmed themselves arguing with and then shooting Arbery dead. They, too, are now claiming "self-defense."

McMichael took the stand on Wednesday to claim that he was justified because he tried to "deescalate" the situation, even though he admits he chased Arbery through the neighborhood in a truck and when that didn't work to get Arbery to acknowledge him, brandished a gun at him. He claims Arbery tried to take his gun, and complained from the stand, "He was all over me, he was still all over that shotgun and he was not relenting."

Arbery, of course, cannot claim to have been acting in self-defense — because he is dead.

In both cases, the prosecution is arguing that it was not the shooters who were engaging in self-defense, but the victims — that they were trying to disarm dangerous men, who used that as a pretense to kill them. In both cases, the shooters wept on the stand in self-pity, clearly outraged and shocked that they are facing even the possibility of punishment for killing men they should have never tangled with in the first place. They're banking on what conservative David French notes in The Atlantic is the "narrow nature of the self-defense inquiry" that only looks at whether the person reasonably believes he's protecting himself from serious harm in the moment. But that defense allows people to "escape responsibility for killings that are deeply wrongful in every moral sense," French argues, as it erases all the aggressive behavior that caused the conflict to happen in the first place.

The narrow reading of the law aside, in the cultural sense, there is nothing sensible about viewing these killings through the lens of "self-defense."

In both cases, white men hopped up on cowboy fantasies went out looking for trouble. When you want trouble, it's easy to find, especially if you go around chasing people and waving guns at them. These are not situations most people imagine when they think of self-defense, which is where you are minding your own business and someone attacks you. In both cases, if the shooters had not sought out conflict, they would have killed anyone.

Blame the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the gun industry, which has had a massive assist from the right-wing media. For decades, the gun lobby has fought a battle on two fronts — through law and propaganda — to redefine the American concept of "self-defense" away from the sensible one and towards one that encourages people to seek out violent conflict. They've empowered every insecure yahoo in the country to recast himself as a hero in an action movie, who goes out hunting for bad guys under the guise of "protecting" the community. Of course, in the real world, bad guys aren't as easy to find as they are in the movies, and so there's the ever-present temptation to round up people who aren't actually threats — lefty protesters armed with skateboards and Black men out for a jog — into the role of the villain, to make those violent fantasies come true.

We see this most clearly in the spate of "stand your ground" laws that the NRA spent years aggressively lobbying state lawmakers to pass. (About half of all states have some version of this law.) As the gun safety group Giffords explains, these laws "allow a person to use deadly force in public, even if they know they could safely avoid any need for violence by simply stepping away from the incident." They were passed with bad faith arguments that they would prevent violence, but in fact, they are linked to higher rates of violence precisely because they incentivize starting fights. With these laws, you can start a fight with someone and, if they punch back, you can now claim "self-defense" to justify shooting them. "In other words," as Giffords notes, "they make it easier to get away with murder."

This ugly reality was exposed in the 2012 killing of a teenager named Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in Florida. Martin had been out buying candy at a convenience store when Zimmerman spotted him. Zimmerman had a classic case of racist NRA brain, and notoriously had logged 46 calls to emergency services in the years before killing Martin, usually to report "suspicious activity," such as "children playing in the street," Black men driving through the neighborhood, Black teens hanging out, dogs sitting outside, and, of course, parties. That night in Florida, Zimmerman called 911 and chased Martin down, even as the 911 operator told him to leave Martin alone. The ensuing conflict led to Zimmerman killing Martin. Because we can never know who technically hit who first, Zimmerman was able to get away with it. (There's a strong reason to believe that Martin was acting in legitimate self-defense after being followed by a creepy racist, but he's dead now, so there's no way to hear his side of the story.) What we can say with absolute certainty is that, if Zimmerman had left Martin alone in the first place, none of this would have happened.

Wisconsin doesn't have a "stand your ground" law, to be clear. But the laws are just a symptom of a larger problem, where the gun lobby has aggressively promoted flashing guns, using guns for intimidation, and other such escalations and threatening behavior as "self-defense." That, in turn, empowers people like Rittenhouse, Bryan, and the McMichaels to grab guns and go looking for confrontations. It's why jackasses like Mark and Patricia McCloskey can come out of their house and wave guns at unarmed people who are merely walking past their house, and somehow argue that they are behaving in "self-defense."

Gun lobbyists love to claim that guns are frequently used in self-defense, but this argument depends on their definition of "self-defense," which covers people who instigate and escalate violence. As Harvard researchers have found, most "purported self-defense gun uses are gun uses in escalating arguments," not in situations where one has to fend off an unprovoked attack. Indeed, armed self-defense in an unprovoked attack is incredibly rare, researchers found, and when it does happen, guns prove no better than other forms of self-defense, such as hitting or throwing things at an unprovoked attacker.

That guns are so useless in real self-defense is no doubt why the gun lobby has been intent on redefining the cultural conception of self-defense to cover people who grab a gun and go looking for people to fight with. It's hard to get people all excited to spend money on guns, when the chances you'll ever need to defend yourself are low and throwing a chair at an attacker and running away works just as well, if it does happen. Instead, guns are marketed to people — mostly men, but increasingly women — who are insecure and often incredibly racist, and who enjoy the power fantasy the gun represents.

"If you can arm yourself because you have declared yourself a substitute for law enforcement and then you claim people were grabbing for your weapon so you killed them with it, are you always justified? Must we always assume that the dead victim, who cannot testify, was the aggressor?" Dahlia Lithwick lamented in a recent Slate article about the Rittenhouse trial. She quotes philosopher Renee Jorgensen, who notes that the proliferation of guns at the Kenosha protest created "a kind of a Wild West situation where it's not unlike armed combatants in war."

Indeed, the surviving victim of the Rittenhouse shooting, Gaige Grosskreutz, testified during the trial that he also pulled a gun that night, characterizing his behavior as an effort to stop Rittenhouse, who had already killed two people. Unfortunately, Grosskreutz's gun only served to strengthen the "self-defense" claims of the Rittenhouse defense team, proving Jorgensen's point: All the guns in everyone's hands just creates a lawless Wild West situation.

This is no doubt how the gun lobby wants it.

The more people there are out there waving guns and shooting at each other, the more others will start to believe they, too, need a gun to protect themselves. So more guns will be sold. Sure, the result is the ridiculously high murder rate in the U.S. — which is many times higher than that in comparable nations in western Europe — but what do gun executives care? They get their money and their yachts and their expensive designer suits. The cost is borne by everyone else and paid for in blood.

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