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Trump wins. Blame the Russians. Feminists are divided. Blame the Russians.
Is there nothing those trolls can't accomplish?
Today, the New York Times greeted its Sunday readers with this front page headline: “How Russian Trolls Helped Keep the Women’s March Out of Lock Step.” The women’s march in question includes the massive one that occurred in Washington, D.C. the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017. Reportedly, nearly half a million protesters participated.
The Times’ definition might also encompass similar demonstrations in other cities the same day. If so, millions participated in “the march.” Collectively, the marches are said to be the largest day of protest in American history.
The Times’ Ellen Barry contends that Russian social media trolls posing as Americans undermined the unity of the protesters and the prospect of the march leading to an important lasting movement. They did so by critiquing feminists from a black perspective and by ridiculing them from a conservative one. Most fruitfully, according to Barry, they focused their attacks on Linda Sarsour, a prominent anti-Israel activist, who served as national co-chair of the march.
The notion that the women (and men) who gathered to protest Trump’s inauguration could have marched in “lockstep” is ludicrous. Every sizeable rally will include people with significantly differing views about matters important to them.
The January 6, 2021 protesters in D.C. included some who apparently wanted to injure (or maybe even kill) D.C. political figures and (I gather) overthrow the U.S. government. It also included people who just thought Donald Trump would have won the 2020 election absent fraud and wanted publicly to express that sentiment. And this rally was less than 5 percent the size of the D.C. women’s march.
The “Unite the Right” Charlottesville protest of 2018 was significantly smaller still. Yet it included both far-right extremists (such as neo-Nazis and KKK members) and people who simply believed a statue of Robert E. Lee, highly regarded among many whites in Virginia, shouldn’t come down.
Heck, the few dozen protesters who occupied the administration building at my college in 1969 included some who wanted the U.S. government overthrown and some who just wanted it out of Vietnam.
The organizers of the women’s march against Trump not only understood the impossibility of “lockstep,” they didn’t want it. They sought diversity of backgrounds and viewpoints. That’s why they made Sarsour one of the co-chairs.
Sarsour’s radicalism was no secret. This report appeared in National Review (not a Russian publication) soon after the 2017 women’s march. It includes the following facts about Sarsour:
In 2012, she suggested that the would-be bombing of a Detroit-bound flight (the so-called underwear bombing) was “the CIA all along.” In 2015, she told Rachel Maddow that Muslim “kids [are] being executed” in the United States. At December’s annual convention of the Muslim American Society and Islamic Circle of North America (MAS-ICNA), she told an audience that “the sacrifice the black Muslim slaves went through in this country is nothing compared to Islamophobia today.”. . .
Sarsour seems to have no qualms about associating with outright extremism, either. At December’s MAS-ICNA convention, she posed for a photo with Salah Sarsour (no relation), a Milwaukee man who was jailed in Israel in the 1990s for using his Twin Cities furniture store to funnel money to Hamas, the terrorist organization that currently governs the Gaza Strip.
Linda Sarsour herself has used Twitter to encourage the stoning of the Israel Defense Forces. She has also pushed back against accusations of human-rights abuses in parts of the Arab world. And later this spring, she will appear at the Jewish Voice for Peace’s 2017 National Member Meeting alongside Rasmeah Odeh, who was sentenced to life in prison by an Israeli court in 1970 for her role in two 1969 bombings in Jerusalem, one near the British Consulate and another at a grocery store; the latter bombing killed two Hebrew University students and wounded nine others. Sarsour has previously championed Odeh on Twitter.
Many women at the anti-Trump protests would probably feel comfortable marching in lockstep with these sentiments. Fortunately, many would not.
If the organizers had wanted “lockstep,” they wouldn’t have given Sarsour a leadership role. If her selection undermined unity, it’s the organizers’ fault, not the Russians’.
Nor can it plausibly be argued that without the Russians, people wouldn’t have gotten wind that a radical anti-Israel activist co-chaired the march. Sarsour’s role was never a secret — in fact she was a speaker at the D.C. event — and neither, as just noted, were her radical views.
And there was no shortage of Americans willing and able to point out that a radical like Sarsour played a prominent role in the women’s march. I was one of them.
The same analysis applies to broader claims that Russians are undermining “our democracy” with divisive social media trolling. In a moment of sobriety, the New York Times itself once compared Russian internet meddling in our political discourse to “a drop in the ocean.” And there is nothing a Russian troll would say that’s too inflammatory, or indeed ridiculous, to be said by more than a few Americans.
Ann Althouse makes this point in her critique of the Times’ article:
There's so much speech that the part that's from Russian troll farms doesn't matter. Some of it isn't that different from home-grown speech, and some of it is overwhelmed by better quality speech.
I can see that the author Ellen Barry wants to characterize the Russian speech as adding a new or different element that catches on and changes the discourse, but she's identified nothing they've added that's different from the low-level bullshit we make on our own. Is some distinct Russian strain growing here? That sounds more like Cold War Era paranoia than anything happening now.
We should wake up and take responsibility for how degraded and divided we've become in America. That Russians are watching, cheering it on, enjoying the chaos, and throwing in little barbs is a distraction. I don't see how it helps to get irked at them.
I question whether Barry and the Times really are irked at the Russians. What irks them, I suspect, is that the promise the women’s march held of becoming an important movement going forward was undermined by internal divisions. It’s more convenient to blame the Russians than the organizers or Sansour herself.
In this regard, I’ll note that what really undermined the march movement as an ongoing force was the embrace of Lewis Farrakhan by Sarsour and some other leaders of the women’s march. This was revealed in 2018 and not courtesy of the Russians.
The Times is also irked, I imagine, that its Trump-Russia collusion narrative collapsed. Claims that even if Trump didn’t collude with Russia, the Russians still tilted the election his way by flooding American social media outlets with disinformation, have filled the post-Mueller void. An article claiming that Russians undermined feminist unity at the big anti-Trump protests helps keep alive paranoia about Russians allegedly “electing” Trump.
I doubt the Times and most others on the left really blame the Russians for Trump’s victory. I suspect they believe that Americans are racist, xenophobic, and (as they see it) stupid enough elect Trump on their own.
As for me, I believe American women, including feminists, are strong-willed and diverse enough to eschew, on their own, marching in anything close to lockstep.