The United States feels like a nation of Karens these days, so it’s only appropriate that the president would be the Karen in chief.
A Karen, if you’ve somehow missed the memo, is the type of person who demands to see the manager or calls the cops, like the dog owner who summoned the NYPD to Central Park after an African American man asked her to leash her dog. As my colleague Kaitlyn Tiffany writes, “They’re obsessed with banal consumer trends and their personal appearance, and typically criminally misguided, usually loudly and with extreme confidence.”
The term is most commonly applied to middle-aged women—but why abide by that sexist standard? A man can easily be a Karen, as Donald Trump is proving this week. When Trump gets sufficiently angry about anyone who dares criticize him, he is quick to work the referees, attempting to use the force of the law to bully the critics into submission and to try to intimidate would-be critics from opening their mouths. That’s what Trump is doing in resurfacing old and spurious accusations of murder against the TV host Joe Scarborough, and in preparing an executive order to punish social-media companies after Twitter dared to fact-check his words.
Trump’s pressure can take forms both hyper-targeted and personal or broad and policy-based. For some time in May, but escalating over the past few days, Trump has been attacking MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, a friend and ally turned strident critic, and falsely accusing Scarborough of murder in relation to the 2001 death, from natural causes, of a staffer in his Florida office when Scarborough was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. The claim is not new; it has been made over the years, first by the left and now by the right, and has been repeatedly and authoritatively debunked.
Trump’s employment of the accusation is malignantly cruel, as my colleague Pete Wehner writes, but it is worse than previous examples because it features the president of the United States, the head of the executive branch, demanding a murder investigation into a political opponent. “As you know, there’s no statute of limitations,” he said this week. “So, it would be a very good, very good thing to do.” Because there is no new information, and no evidence to support charges, it’s clear that Trump is just bristling at criticism.
Trump’s attacks brought calls from many people—most poignantly, the late staffer’s widower—for Twitter to take down the president’s tweets or his account for abuse of Twitter’s rules (as well as of basic morality). The social network demurred on that count, but on Tuesday it did act when Trump once again spread false claims about voter fraud related to mail-in ballots. Twitter added a link reading, “Get the facts about mail-in ballots” to Trump’s tweet, sending people to fact-checks of the claims.
Even this minimal intervention infuriated Trump, and the White House is preparing an executive order targeting social-media and search-engine companies for supposed violations of free speech and targeting of conservatives. The order hasn’t been made public yet, though based on a draft that some reporters have viewed and previous comments, it would work by reinterpreting Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a foundational law that governs speech on the internet.
Legal experts are dubious that Trump can do much to bring the internet companies to heel without legislative action, which is unlikely.
“If I’m reading this correctly, the EO claims tech platforms are doing something they’re not, in violation of an incorrect interpretation of law, and tasks agencies it can’t task to look into the things that aren’t being done that wouldn’t be wrong,” the legal scholar Tiffany C. Li tweeted.
But in some ways it doesn’t matter whether the executive order is actually workable. The order directs the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission to scrutinize the companies, costing them potentially huge sums in legal and lobbying fees. Even if a court ultimately rejected the order, as has often happened after Trump overreaches, any litigation would take time and entail additional expenses.
The approach that Trump is taking with Scarborough is the same as that of Karens everywhere: Call the cops, even if there’s no actual violation, and make life miserable for the people having the cops called on them. In both cases, the point is to punish the people who dared to challenge him.
Trump has repeatedly used this technique against media companies that he feels have slighted him. Angry at CNN for negative coverage, he promised to block a merger between AT&T and Time Warner, CNN’s parent company. The Trump Justice Department attempted to prevent the deal, and lawyers for the companies argued it was a politically motivated step. A judge ultimately approved the arrangement, over the Justice Department’s objections.
Trump has also demanded that the United States Postal Service raise rates for Amazon, whose CEO, Jeff Bezos, also owns The Washington Post, another outlet that has frequently been critical. In tweets, Trump has explicitly tied his attacks on Amazon to Bezos’s ownership of the Post.
These are big policy maneuvers with potentially wide-ranging implications. In other cases, Trump has worked the refs in smaller, more personal ways, using his own voice more than the policy apparatus of the federal government to punish critical voices. He called on ESPN to fire Jemele Hill, now a contributing writer at The Atlantic, for criticizing him. The White House has also sought to revoke press credentials for journalists Trump deems insufficiently deferential. (Today, Trump tagged Twitter’s head of site integrity in a tweet, a method of directing abuse his way.)
The good news, from a checks-and-balances standpoint, is that many of these steps have failed, or are likely to fail. There’s little chance of a murder case against Scarborough, since there’s no basis for it. The AT&T–Time Warner merger went forward. Judges gave the credential revocation a skeptical hearing in March. The executive order seems destined to land on the same scrap heap as Trump’s first Muslim ban, eventually. The Amazon question is less settled; Bezos and the Post have not flinched, but Trump continues to pressure the post office, and just installed a loyalist as chair of its board of governors.
But Trump can still succeed, even if these individual moves fail. He’s testing boundaries, trying to figure out what he can and can’t get away with; he’s already learned in other spheres that he can get away with quite a bit. Beyond that, he’s keeping others in line. Any company or individual thinking of imposing even mild accountability measures on Trump—it’s hard to overstate how minimal Twitter’s fact-check was—has to reckon with what response he might offer.
To see how this works, look no further than Facebook, which seems to be in a defensive, and sycophantic, crouch as the executive order looms. CEO Mark Zuckerberg today granted an interview to Fox News—already a sign that he’s trying to reach Trump and his allies—in which he criticized Twitter’s move.
“You know, I just believe strongly that Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online,” Zuckerberg said. “I think, in general, private companies probably shouldn’t be—or especially these platform companies—shouldn’t be in the position of doing that.”
Trump could hardly have written the comments better himself, or seen a better testament to the efficacy of his strategy of appealing to law enforcement and regulators to keep his critics in line. Your ordinary Karen might seek to bully bird-watchers; the Karen in chief gets to bully billionaires.