The fuel in President Donald Trump’s rise to power has many ingredients, but they are all funneled through the same engine: TV and internet chatter.
The racism, xenophobia, and lizard-brain tribalism Trump tapped into over the past two-plus years of campaigning and slipshod attempts at governing find a natural intersection online — where anonymous message board flamewars have reshaped human conversational norms — and on cable TV debate shows. In either venue, what matters most to winning an argument is the appearance of superiority, the performance of victory. Information, evidence, and rhetorical prowess are secondary at best.
The web-shouting creche that nurtured Trump’s white-grievance politics into a wave strong enough to sweep him to 300 Electoral College votes last November has a few signature traits. Chief among them is the accusation that one’s opponents are simply oversensitive little babies, too thin-skinned to hack it in Real America, too motivated by their precious feelings and insufficiently tough to be worthy of playing a role in shaping a society shared by 320 million individuals.
These “snowflakes,” in the parlance of Trump fans, obsess about small things that don’t matter — racist behavior, for example — while ignoring the big things that do — terrorism abroad, hedonism at home — and encouraging a new generation of Americans to follow suit. The term is “simultaneously emasculating and infantilizing, suggesting fragility but also an inflated sense of a person’s own specialness and a naive embrace of difference,” Amanda Hess wrote in a New York Times Magazine piece on the “snowflake” renaissance.
Yet for all their derision toward the perceived hypersensitivity of liberals and leftists, Trump fans find themselves rooting for a guy who surrounds himself with snowflakes. Trump’s political power circle and actual cabinet are littered with these melting crystalline men who play tough among friends but go all wobbly when faced with disagreement.
Trump is himself given to flurries of snowy indignation, of course, as anyone unfortunate enough to follow the president on Twitter is well aware. The media is unfair, terribly unfair to his Donaldness. If the pundits aren’t getting under his skin, it’s the protesters, or the federal investigators piecing together his interactions with the Russian government during the election, or the GOP lawmakers who dared mumble out some mild criticism of his race-baiting stewardship of the American republic.
But to focus on Trump’s own high-profile blizzard risks missing the drifts piling up elsewhere.
Take Attorney General Jeff Sessions, for example. The nation’s top law enforcement official, the number-one cop on the beat for the man he says was “exceptionally proud to have run as the law and order President,” can’t stand criticism. He can’t even take being giggled at in public, as it happens: Federal prosecutors in his employ will try a second time to convict a woman arrested for laughing heartily at Sessions’ confirmation hearing after one senator praised the then-nominee’s civil rights record. A judge threw out Deborah Fairooz’s first conviction, seeming to put an end to the silly ordeal. But now Sessions’ troopers will “argue that, even if the officer was wrong to arrest Fairooz, she didn’t have the right to loudly object to her treatment,” as the Huffington Post’s Ryan Reilly puts it.
Bottom line: The United States Attorney General is committing federal resources and court system time to a second criminal trial for a woman who laughed at him. It’s a snowflake sundae with a wasteful-spending cherry on top.
Sessions is far from the only cabinet official to go all shaky knees and twitching spleen in the face of criticism. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke may be a Navy SEAL, but he’s packed on some snowflake pounds since leaving the service. Pressed on his snubbing of tribal leaders while mulling the fate of key national monuments in the American southwest, Zinke blew his top on a woman named Cassandra Begay. “Be nice,” Zinke said, wheeling on Begay and standing over her with a finger in her face. “Be nice. Don’t be rude.” He did not answer her question.
If Zinke popping his top at a taxpayer asking him a straightforward question doesn’t move you, consider instead his team’s reported intervention in the Senate debate over Trumpcare. With the Republican party’s long-suffering war against the Affordable Care Act just a few votes shy of triumph in July, the administration knew who it had to convince. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) wasn’t ready to go along with leadership’s plan. Rather than engage her disagreements and persuade her on the merits, Zinke — whose agency doesn’t run health care policy but does wield huge power over gigantic wilderness-heavy states like Alaska — jumped in with threats. Vote with Trump, the secretary’s office warned, or Zinke would close the federal faucet.
Then there’s David Clarke — no longer, from Friday at midnight, the sheriff of Milwaukee County, and a close political ally of Trump’s though not (yet) an employee.
Clarke’s reputation is built on swagger, all “large cowboy hats and fake medals” in the words of Reason’s C.J. Ciaramella. He routinely ridicules his critics in snowflake-adjacent terms, playing a game of tougher-than-you to swat aside enemies both generic (liberal protesters) and specific (the Milwaukee County official investigating him for abuse of power).
Which makes it strange that Clarke couldn’t handle when a Wisconsin resident saw him on an airplane last year and had the temerity to…stare at him and shake his head slowly in disgust. After the staring incident, which attorneys Clarke hired would later describe as “physically threatening” in court documents, the sheriff called for backup. He instructed on-duty deputies to come meet his plane at the gate, detain the man who’d dared convey his disapproval to the sheriff in person, and interrogate him. No need for an arrest, Clarke told his fellow public employees, “unless he becomes an asshole with your guys.”
“Question for him is why he said anything to me. Why didn’t he just keep his mouth shut?” the sheriff went on, detailing the pressing investigative necessity for the gate-side shakedown of a taxpayer.
If Trump had his way, Clarke would already be working for the White House. The sheriff was offered a job at the Department of Homeland Security back in May, which he ultimately declined. The top job at the agency is open again now, however, leading to speculation that Clarke’s abrupt resignation Thursday night might presage a gigantic promotion. A guy who sicced armed deputies on an airborne head-shaker could soon be running the largest domestic security staff in the country.
These are men of sleet, not steel. In time, this might come to annoy Trump’s “snowflake”-obsessed fans. But on the other hand, some of his biggest fans are given to the same pattern. Take Chris Cantwell, the neo-nazi co-organizer of the August rally in Charlottesville that left a woman dead. He’s not too thrilled at being dubbed “the crying Nazi,” after video of the Nazi crying went viral.
“I’m a goddamn human being,” Cantwell told The Daily Beast from jail earlier this week.