THE BUZZ: A Storm Ensues

By on June 14, 2017

People from across the country react to Muldoon’s presidential portrait switch.

Cowboy snowflakes, find them only in Jackson Hole. (Illustration: Vaughn Robison)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – After Mayor Pete Muldoon replaced town hall photos of President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence with a photo of Chief Washakie, Muldoon’s inbox (and subsequently PJH reporters’ inboxes) flooded with emails from across the country denouncing the decision and pledging their tourist dollars to… anywhere but Jackson Hole. Many claimed that they had already cancelled their trips.

“My family and I ski and snowboard a lot during the winter but we will NEVER spend our money in Jackson again,” wrote Ricky Jackson. “Your stupid mayor has offended over half the country with his insulting childish behavior… Tell the faggot pete (sic) to knock off the Chuck Norris look because Chuck Norris voted for trump … Screw you and your craphole of an overpriced resort town.”

So far, that has not actually been the case, says Chamber of Commerce Vice President Rick Howe. Howe, who just returned home after a brief vacation, said his voicemail and inbox were also “inundated” with messages—but from people on both sides. Many called to express disdain, but many offered their support, too.

“People can choose to get involved in the kettle of boiling water, or they can choose to rise above it,” he said.

Howe said so far one business has expressed concern about the consequences of Muldoon’s actions, but there have been no verified cancellations.

The Travel and Tourism board has received two angry voicemails as of press time, and a handful of Facebook comments. But online outrage, members agree, is hardly cause for concern.

The vocal minority

Indeed, social media and internet scholars have coined a term for loud online commenters: the “vocal minority.” The theory goes that people who strongly disagree with something, or have a negative experience, are more likely to speak out than people who are receptive to whatever is being shared. It’s visible in online reviews, MIT Sloan Management Review reports: “When conversations in online product forums start to skew negative, they tend to stay that way.”

Scientific American identified a “perfect storm” of factors that make people on the internet act so mean: distance, anonymity, and the medium of writing (it takes a lot more courage to yell at someone to their face).

Its article “Why Is Everyone on the Internet so Angry” reports: “[commenters] are at a distance from the target of their anger … and people tend to antagonize distant abstractions more easily than living, breathing interlocutors.”

While email addresses often forfeit anonymity—in fact, most who emailed Muldoon proudly signed off with their name—sending something into cyber-space creates a buffer of time and space that real-time conversations don’t allow. And since Muldoon made national news when Fox, HuffPost and The Washington Post picked up the story, many of the emails literally come from far away: Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Indiana, Texas.

Steve Conn Sr.’s email is perhaps a perfect example of online vitriol: “Your maggot (mayor) is a piece of shit tell that fake cow puncher to list 1 act that has been put into law by POUTUS that has hurt a single American,” he wrote. “Oh really it’s about undoing your mayors (sic) god, the terrorist he loved so much, anti American and un American laws and actual dictator like EDICTS from osama Obama. Thanx a lot.

Other names hurled at the mayor included “small-minded metrosexual pajama pansy globalizer,” the increasingly popular “snowflake,” “pussies” (in reference to all Democrats), and “little girl.”

But not all emails were crass. Jackson resident Paul Gagnon encouraged Muldoon to pick his battles wisely. “I can understand your disappointment with the results of the recent election—but I do not believe using your elected position to voice your own personal grievance benefits the town of Jackson, or the hardworking people who try to make a living here.”

Free speech and identity politics

The common thread among those who disapprove of Muldoon’s decision is that to remove Trump’s photo is disrespectful to democracy and the office of president. Regardless of the mayor’s political inclinations, many argued, he should respect the leader of the free world. “I certainly find it acceptable to have the President’s picture in any public space, no matter who the President is,” wrote Rick Schaeffer of Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Muldoon has defended his decision, saying that such a display is an “honor that must be earned.”

“Donald Trump is an extremely divisive figure,” Muldoon wrote. “Whether you agree with his opinions or not, it’s undeniably true that many residents intensely dislike him, and find his political views odious. Our previous president, whether deserved or not, evoked a similar response from some residents.”

Indeed, many were outraged at the election of Barack Obama. “You know Pete, millions of us felt unrepresented by Barrack (sic) Obama,” wrote Kortney Dunkle of Pennsylvania. “I felt that he was a left-wing dictator but I respected the office.”

But the backlash to both elections is telling: in 2008, NBC reported that Obama’s election sparked a series of racially motivated hate crimes. Obama effigies hung from nooses. Racial epithets adorned buildings and car windows. Trump himself did his best to delegitimize Obama’s presidency, asserting that Obama was not American-born, and should be forced to show his birth certificate as proof.

Fast-forward eight years, and the scene is eerily similar. Reports of hate crimes spiked once again after Trump won the election. Southern Poverty Law Center reported 876 “hate incidents” in the first 10 days after the election, with the largest number occurring the day after the election. Elementary school students were told to “go back to Mexico.” This time, the crimes were celebratory.

Another angry email from Floyd Knobs echoed that Obama was a dictator. “Simply look at the executive orders signed by Obama,” he wrote. “Obama did more than any president in history with executive orders, bypassing Congress and the desires of the American people.”

Actually, Obama averaged fewer executive orders per year than any president in 120 years, according to Pew Research Center. Trump signed 32 such orders in his first 100 days. Obama signed an average 35 a year.

Regardless, Muldoon asserts his move was not partisan. “If Barack Obama was still president, I would make the same decision,” he wrote.

There were, however, a few congratulatory emails in Muldoon’s inbox. Will Sullivan from Tucson, Arizona, praised Muldoon’s decision to display Washakie. “My step mom was Navaho and Lakota Sioux, now as I am 72 in August, I do recall some teaching about the great Chiefs and his name comes to me. He belongs there, good for you and thank you,” Sullivan wrote.

A handful of Canadians also commended the mayor’s decision. In stark contrast to threats to pull tourist dollars in Trump’s defense, one couple from Ontario wrote: “We have made the decision to avoid spending the majority of our tourist dollars in any place that fully supported Trump. Your county’s courage in rejecting the hate is a beacon during a very dark time. We are hoping that, with careful planning, we’ll be able to visit your lovely town.”

Another signed off: “As we say in Canada … Way to go eh!” PJH

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