I distinctly remember the first time I saw a picture of my then-seven-year-old daughter’s face in a gas chamber. It was the evening of September 17, 2015. I had just posted a short item to the Corner calling out notorious Trump ally Ann Coulter for aping the white-nationalist language and rhetoric of the so-called alt-right. Within minutes, the tweets came flooding in. My youngest daughter is African American, adopted from Ethiopia, and in alt-right circles that’s an unforgivable sin. It’s called “race-cucking” or “raising the enemy.”
I saw images of my daughter’s face in gas chambers, with a smiling Trump in a Nazi uniform preparing to press a button and kill her. I saw her face photo-shopped into images of slaves. She was called a “niglet” and a “dindu.” The alt-right unleashed on my wife, Nancy, claiming that she had slept with black men while I was deployed to Iraq, and that I loved to watch while she had sex with “black bucks.” People sent her pornographic images of black men having sex with white women, with someone photoshopped to look like me, watching.
When we both publicized some of the racist attacks — I in National Review and Nancy in the Washington Post — things took a far more ominous turn. Late the next evening — while Nancy was, fortunately, offline attending a veterans’ charity event in D.C. — the darker quarters of the alt-right found her Patheos blog. Several different accounts began posting images and GIFs of extreme violence in her comments section.
Click on a post and scroll down and you’ll see pictures of black men shooting other black men, close-up images of suicides, GIFs of grisly executions — the kinds of psyche-scarring things that one can’t “unsee.” Had I not deployed to Iraq and witnessed death up close, the images would have shocked me. I quickly got on the phone with Nancy, told her not to look at her website, and got busy deleting comments and blocking IP addresses, but in the meantime a few friends and neighbors had seen the posts.
The next Sunday, friends from church approached, expressing concern not just for our safety but for theirs as well. We live in a community where most of the streets have similar names, and it’s common for UPS drivers, FedEx deliveries, and friends to end up at the wrong house. They interpreted the images as threats, and they didn’t want anyone to drive into our neighborhood, looking for the Frenches, intent on turning image into reality.
It took days — and hundreds of IP blocks and Twitter reports — but things finally calmed down. The racist images slowed from a flood to a trickle, I relaxed a bit at night, and life returned, I thought, to normal. I was wrong. Our “normal” had changed. This wasn’t the beginning of the end of our troubles, but rather the end of the beginning.
I share my family’s story not because we are unique or because our experience is all that extraordinary, but rather because it is depressingly, disturbingly ordinary this campaign season. The formula is simple: Criticize Trump — especially his connection to the alt-right — and the backlash will come.
Erick Erickson experienced his own ordeal more than a month before we did. After Erickson dis-invited Trump from his Red State gathering, angry Trump supporters showed up at his house. A grown man yelled at his children at a store, condemning their father for opposing Trump. Erickson wrote in the New York Times that his son is still fearful that Trump supporters will come back to their home.
In March, writer Bethany Mandel related her own experience. After tweeting about Trump’s anti-Semitic followers, she was called “slimy Jewess” and told that she “deserves the oven.” It got worse:
Not only was the anti-Semitic deluge scary and graphic, it got personal. Trump fans began to “dox” me — a term for adversaries’ attempt to ferret out private or identifying information online with malicious intent. My conversion to Judaism was used as a weapon against me, and I received death threats in my private Facebook mailbox, prompting me to file a police report.
The phenomenon got some attention in the spring, when the Daily Beast reported not just on Mandel’s experience but also on Erickson’s, Rick Wilson’s, and others’. It’s showing no signs of slowing down, either: Big names, small names, any names — if you attack Trump, no matter who you are, your life might just change.
Earlier this month, Mi-Ai Parrish, president of the Arizona Republic, wrote a powerful response to the deluge of threats and bullying prompted by the paper’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton. An Anti-Defamation League report identified 800 journalists who’ve been targeted with anti-Semitic tweets, ten journalists (including NR’s own Jonah Goldberg) who’ve borne the brunt of the attacks, and one — my friend Ben Shapiro — who’s received a staggering amount of hate:
Thanks to the Academy and to my agent. pic.twitter.com/RylzL4ZxBv
— Ben Shapiro (@benshapiro) October 19, 2016
Why Shapiro? Because he represents the worst of all possible anti-Trumpers — he’s a Jewish man who turned on the twin pillars of the alt-right, Trump and Breitbart.com. Shapiro famously resigned from Breitbart when it refused to support reporter Michelle Fields after then–Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski grabbed and pulled Fields in the press scrum at a Trump event.
More victims are coming forward. In a painful, vulnerable post, commentator Mickey White writes about how the alt-right came after her and her family, triggering a mental-health crisis. In the face of the abuse, she sought help, but help was slow to come:
I reached out to people I thought I could trust and to this day I’m not sure if that was the right thing to do. At the time I was desperate though, as the trolling had increased from mere tweets, to DMs from very random famous accounts. Then e-mails went out to people suggesting that I might harm myself, even though I’d indicated nothing of the sort. Anyone who responded to me would also be shamed or harassed. I was advised that I was about to be swatted. I contacted my local sheriff and eventually the FBI. As all of this was happening, the people behind these accounts made an ominous threat towards a family member. My sister. The single most important person to me in the world.
The fuse was lit.
The abuse is so common that I’ve lost count of other reporters and writers who’ve told me, often in confidence, of troubling late-night incidents at their homes, or of Tweets and other messages that went far beyond garden-variety Twitter trolling into disturbing threats and sometimes-horrifying images.
And it never seems to stop. It certainly hasn’t stopped for us. This summer, my name leaked to the press after I spoke with Bill Kristol about the possibility of mounting an independent run for the White House. As expected, Trump fans reacted — this time with an assist from the mainstream media. Politico reporter Kevin Robillard tweeted an excerpt from an interview about my deployment to Iraq, making it seem (wrongly) as if I had prohibited my wife from emailing or speaking with other men while I was downrange:
— Kevin Robillard (@Robillard) May 31, 2016
Online Trump world took that tweet and transformed it into a campaign of harassment directed against me and my wife that continues to this day — all of it sexually charged, all of it disturbing. My wife is a tough woman. She’s a survivor of sexual abuse and assault. The notion that she can no longer open her Twitter timeline without seeing men boasting about having sex with her while I was gone — or even while I’m home — is intolerable. It’s relentless, and it often gets under even her very thick skin.
Of course, no story would be complete without a truly ominous threat. The moment we landed back at home after I declined to run for president, she turned on her phone to see an e-mail from a Trump fan, a veteran who informed her that he knew the business end of a gun and told her directly that she should shut her mouth or he’d take action.
We contacted law enforcement, she got her handgun-carry permit, and life returned to the new normal of daily Twitter harassment, until the day this month when an angry voice actually broke into a phone conversation between my wife and her elderly father, screaming about Trump and spewing profanities. My wife was on her iPhone. Her father was on a landline. That launched a brief, anxious search inside my father-in-law’s home for a potential intruder and yet another call to law enforcement.
Online hate has become so common that it’s almost a point of perverse pride among some pundits. If you don’t get hateful messages, you must not matter. If you let the hate bother you, then you must be weak. Indeed, in a world where “feeding” the trolls only makes them stronger, admitting that they’ve hurt you at all represents a victory for the worst of the worst. They relish your pain, and you don’t want them to relish anything.
But I’ll be honest: It’s miserable. There is nothing at all rewarding, enjoyable, or satisfying about seeing your beautiful young daughter called a “niglet.” There is nothing at all rewarding, enjoyable, or satisfying about seeing man after man after man brag in graphic terms that he has slept with your wife. It’s unsettling to have a phone call interrupted, watch images of murder flicker across your screen, and read threatening e-mails. It’s sobering to take your teenage kids out to the farm to make sure they’re both proficient with handguns in case an intruder comes when they’re home alone.
The misery is compounded when longtime friends and allies dismiss my experiences and the experiences of my colleagues as nothing more than the normal cost of public advocacy. It’s not. I have contributed to National Review for more than ten years now, and have been deeply involved in many of America’s most emotional culture-war battles for more than 20. I’ve never experienced anything like this before.
I have to laugh when people accuse me of opposing Trump because it somehow makes me rich, or because I’m currying favors with guests at the “elite” cocktail parties that I never actually attend. I oppose Trump not just because he’s an ignorant demagogue and a naked political opportunist, but also because bigotry and intimidation cling to his campaign. Every campaign attracts its share of fools, cranks, and crazies. But Trump’s candidacy has weaponized them. Every harassing tweet and every violent threat is like a voice whispering in my ear, telling me to do all that I can to oppose a movement that breeds and exploits such reckless hate.
Two weeks ago Nancy and I were enjoying lunch with friends after church. My son’s football coach asked if “things had calmed down” after the tumult of the summer. I grabbed my phone, said “let’s see,” and opened my Twitter mentions. I laughed at the first one, a standard profane rant calling me a traitor for opposing Trump, but when my wife looked, her face twisted up in shock. There they were, just below, more tweets from more men, aimed directly at her. She burst into tears.
So, no, things have not “calmed down,” and I’m always amused when people tell me that I belong to Never Trump because it makes me feel good about myself. There’s nothing that gives me pleasure about this election season. But if I can do anything to expose and oppose this latest debasement of our politics and culture, and to defend my wife and daughter, then at least I will have purpose.