The Far Right’s rise to power has ignited a digital civil war that rages across multiple fronts and multiple platforms. It is waged with words and images that are designed to inflict psychological harm, to injure through verbal violence, to intimidate and incite, to wreak havoc with rhetoric. The combatants are citizens, activists, politicians, pundits, coders, conspiracists, trolls, agitators, hackers, and journalists. At stake are the nation’s bedrock principles: equal rights, fair elections, freedom of speech, racial justice, and the rule of law.
In Digital Civil War: Confronting the Far-Right Menace, Peter Daou, a veteran digital media adviser to major political figures, provides a firsthand account from the war’s front lines. He explains that the unceasing toxicity of social media—often treated as an aberration—is a feature, not a bug, of digital warfare.
A better understanding of how the underlying value systems and moral arguments of the warring parties play out online, Daou argues, aids us in confronting the Far Right’s takeover of the Republican Party and the consequent assault on truth, facts, and the foundations of our democracy.
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Digital Civil War: Confronting the Far-Right Menace
PROLOGUE FROM BEIRUT TO THE BELTWAY
War begins where reason ends.
On January 21, 2017, the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, women across America led the biggest single-day protest in U.S. history, marking the beginning of a movement that twenty-two months later swept Republicans out of their majority in the House of Representatives. The blue wave of 2018 put a dent in the GOP’s political dominance and gave hope to millions of Americans that democracy was not lost. But in the early days of 2017, hope was in short supply for Democrats. A shell-shocked majority grappled with Hillary Clinton’s electoral college defeat and with the looming prospect of minority white-nationalist rule. In that atmosphere of dread and despair, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson took to his company’s website to share photos of a smiling Barack Obama kitesurfing at Branson’s private Caribbean island. The pictures sparked a social media firestorm.
“What THE HELL #obama ! #kitesurf !!! Did you notice that the cheeto in chief #TRUMP is ruining my #America? GET BACK TO WORK MAN!!!” yelled Twitter user “Jon Snow.” “Da Trumpstah,” a commenter on the right-wing Breitbart News, sneered, “That smile says it all. i f’d over millions of Americans and they still love me.” On Facebook, Nicholas McKenzie posted, “Fun day of kite surfing after 8 years of murdering civilians in the middle east…enjoy life.” New York Times columnist Frank Bruni later wrote about “the robustness of Barack Obama’s appetite for celebrity and luxury,” arguing that Obama “gave unfettered vent to that once he left the White House and, in the months immediately thereafter, went yachting with Tom Hanks and Bruce Springsteen in Tahiti, kite surfing with Richard Branson in the Virgin Islands, rafting in Indonesia, golfing on the Scottish coast and biking under the Tuscan sun.”1
Supporters quickly stepped up to defend the former president. “Barack Obama has GIVEN ENOUGH. He doesn’t owe us a goddamn thing and it’s not up to him to clean up this horrific mess. Let the man live. Let him kitesurf with moguls/make movies with Netflix/enjoy his life,” tweeted writer Jennifer Boeder. “Love to see the smile on his face…the weight of the world has been lifted off his shoulders…Enjoying life as you should!! #ForeverMyPresident,” Obama supporter Vicki Charlot wrote on Facebook. Journalist Brandon Gates tweeted, “Whether you disagree with his politics, or not, everyone should enjoy a vacation. Geez.” On Reddit, “DarthRusty” wrote that if he were in Obama’s position, “every picture taken of me by some paparazzi would have my middle finger fully extended.” YouTube commenter “Julius Caesar” taunted Obama’s detractors: “Just here to read all the comments from the butt hurt redneck Obama haters.”
For online activists accustomed to a steady stream of vitriol, it was a typical day on the digital battlefield. But the Washington establishment was slow to grasp the breach in the body politic fueling these ferocious social media clashes. By 2018, however, mainstream pundits had begun to acknowledge what the online community had known for years—that traditional media narratives were no longer adequate to describe the severity of the red-blue split. Appearing on CNN, Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein declared that America was in a “cold civil war” and that Trump’s bellicose rhetoric had brought it “to the point of ignition.”2 Bernstein’s bleak assessment was echoed by NBC’s Chuck Todd, who tweeted, “Let’s be blunt, our political parties are waging a ‘cold’ civil war.” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman fretted, “I began my journalism career covering a civil war in Lebanon. I never thought I’d end my career covering a civil war in America.”3
Table of Contents
Prologue: From Beirut to the Beltway 3
1 Battle for Identity: The Real American 21
2 Battle for Truth: Enemies of the People 47
3 Battle for Trust: Democracy and Hypocrisy 69
4 Battle for Justice: The New Patriot 89
5 Battle for Faith: Un-Christian Values 109
6 Battle for Freedom: A Woman's Choice 131
7 Battle for Life: Blood in the Streets 153
8 Battle for Power: Obscene Money 169
9 Battle for Tomorrow: The Climate Warriors 187
Conclusion: Finding Our Moral Compass 203