This submission was originally published as a guest opinion in Idaho Politics Weekly.
This last week, we saw an avalanche of instant media condemnation aimed at a group of high school students, only to have the students exonerated by extensive video evidence after the fact. In response to this, my good friend and Fox News commentator Buck Sexton wrote the following in an article published on The Hill:
“There is also a bigger lesson to be drawn from this. Social media mobs are a cancer on this country, and those in the news business have an obligation not to carelessly magnify malignant efforts at personal destruction. This affects all of us. It does not matter who you are, whether you are active online, care about politics, or keep to yourself. The social justice mob may come for you, your spouse or your child, and engage in a ritualistic destruction of their online reputation.”
This is relevant not only to our national discourse, but also to the health of political discourse in Idaho. I write this not to fan more reaction to that particular incident, but to strongly encourage consideration of the “bigger lesson” Buck shared, and its relevance to political life in Idaho.
This is personal for me, but not for me alone. Over the course of the 2018 campaign, my family and I were ruthlessly attacked, with our personal lives thrown about as political ammo. Others have experienced the same. They have been lied about, slandered, and ruthlessly assaulted on social media. It affects them, their families, and their children. All too often it is the family who bears the brunt of the visceral spite that is much easier to spew via a keyboard than in person.
Our cancer in Idaho is less left vs right, but those who claim to control the definition of “true” conservatism vs those who (as Justice Thomas lamented in his confirmation hearing) “deign to think for themselves.”
Those in Idaho who are most actively engaged in organizing and fanning social media mobs, precisely as described in Buck’s quote, are primarily pointing their attacks at other Republicans. They are actively surveilling, suing, doxing (Google it), paying for and propagating fake news and highly personalized attacks. Maybe they disagree with you. Maybe they just don’t like you. In some cases, they’ve never even met you. They need no reason to actively work toward destroying lives.
This is a group of unthinking, malicious hypocrites and their followers. They would agree with Buck’s critique of the Left and the Media, but then they turn around and do precisely what they pretend to rail against. They are a social justice mob, just from a different end of the culture war spectrum. They do exactly what Buck describes: come for you, your spouse or your child, and engage in ritualistic destruction of your public reputation.
This is not a call for pity or retribution. It is a call for sober reflection and to press all of us who claim to be Christian, conservative, Republicans to practice what we preach. To follow the Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and follow Justice Antonin Scalia’s famous motto – “I attack ideas, I don’t attack people.” That is what it means to be “true” Christians and “true” conservatives.
Ask yourself, nationally and locally, do the people you support or follow in politics engage in the destructive behavior described above? Do they align politically with those who do? If so, what are you doing about it?
Do the people you support or follow in politics speak out against this destructive behavior to protect the brand and heal the victims? What are you doing to make sure they do so?
There is a line between bare-knuckled, competitive politics, and gratuitous, maniacal malice. Good people have a sense for when that line is crossed, and endeavor to stay away from that line. As leaders in government, politics, and communities, we must own the impact of our actions (and inaction) and raise up those we interact with to the same standard.
Before long, the attention given to this recent incident will pass, but the need for real leadership will remain. We need less judgment and more service in our politics and communities. We need leaders to step forward to help protect the innocent against the social media mob. We need more leaders who actively exemplify the ethos made famous by Marcus Aurelius nearly 2000 years ago: “Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.”
Steve Yates is the former chair of the Idaho Republican Party and former Deputy National Security Advisor to Vice President Cheney. He is currently the CEO of DC International Advisory.