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The theater of intimidation

The U.S.S. Nimitz under the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco Fleet Week, 2006. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

We all want to be as aware as possible of the political environment that we are immersed in. An important element to watch for is: Who is trying to intimidate us? How? Why? Are they trying to intimidate us with real power? Or are they bluffing? Intimidation is a key part of the right-wing playbook.

Consider what Madison Cawthorn wrote in an Instagram Post after he was defeated in a primary election on May 17: “The time for gentile [sic] politics as usual has come to an end. It’s time for the rise of the new right, it’s time for Dark MAGA to truly take command. We have an enemy to defeat, but we will never be able to defeat them until we defeat the cowardly and weak members of our own party. Their days are numbered.”

Cawthorn is a clueless amateur. His threats will appeal to other clueless amateurs, but Cawthorn has no power to make good on his threats. But intimidation may also come from real power, from those who are pros at the theater of intimidation.

Fleet Week is an annual event in San Francisco. Once I actually joined the crowd on the Golden Gate Bridge to watch an aircraft carrier loom up out of the fog over the Pacific and pass under the bridge, with its crew in dress whites standing at attention and lining the decks. The display of power was stunning and, I admit, even beautiful. I quickly recognized that it was theater. Part of the job of the U.S. Navy, during peacetime, is to display American naval power to the world. American naval power is certainly true power, but there is still an element of bluffing, as American military adventures in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan show. Vladimir Putin has true power. But he also got caught bluffing when his army encountered the power of Ukraine.

The news this week was dominated by yet another school shooting. This one was in Texas, in the little town of Uvalde. The Uvalde police, it seems, at first tried to fudge the truth about their response. It turns out that they never went into the building to confront the shooter because they were afraid they might get shot. Instead, those cowboy Texans waited for federal help, from the U.S. Border Patrol. Two years ago, the Uvalde police department had boasted about its S.W.A.T. team, with a photo of the team in full costume. The boast included a warning to people not to be alarmed at the scary sight of the S.W.A.T. team. After the photo of the S.W.A.T. went viral, more than one person pointed out in social media that the real purpose was not to make Uvalde’s Latin community feel safer, but, rather, to intimidate them.

Whether it’s the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017, the MAGA attack on the U.S. Capitol, militia rallies, Trump rallies, the practice of Trumpian politics, or just a dude with a gun on his hip, there is always an element of the theater of intimidation. Even the red MAGA caps are part of the costume in the theater of intimidation. It works. There are many people who still believe that Trump and his co-conspirators will never be brought to justice. I attribute that to the demoralization and intimidation that is such an important element of Trumpian politics. They want us to believe that we’ve already lost. But it’s theater.

In the present political environment, few pundits are willing to acknowledge that Trump and MAGA are in free fall toward the trash heap of history. One of the smartest pieces I’ve seen lately was in the Washington Post, “Why Trump’s 2024 chances are even worse than Georgia suggests.” The author, Jason Willick, quotes Richard Hofstadler: ” … [T]hird parties are like bees: once they have stung, they die.” Trump, having stung, is going down. And, as he goes down, the bluffing will be exposed.

I’m not saying that right-wingers don’t do real harm with every ounce of real power that they can get. But they also use bluffing to augment their power and to do damage that, except for the theater of intimidation, they would not have been able to do. They’re scary. But they’re not as scary as they want to be, and they’re not as scary as they think they are.

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