Eddie Gallagher is a soulless monster so violently sociopathic that he reduced his former colleagues — Navy SEALs who aren’t known for being the most tender-hearted of people — to tears. In video interviews of witness testimony obtained by the New York Times, some of these hardened warriors, so shaken by the things Gallagher had done, choked up, called the Navy petty officer “freaking evil” and claimed he particularly delighted in trying to murder women and children.
The picture that emerges from their testimony is of a sadist who ” just wants to kill anybody he can,” as one SEAL put it, and who saw the Navy as an opportunity to be a serial killer without facing the legal consequences that usually follow indiscriminate murder.
Gallagher has also become a hero on the right, so much so that he’s cashing in by launching a clothing line — called “Salty Frog,” after the slang term for retired SEALs — profiting off people who think murder is cool, as long as it’s done in the name of right-wing politics and the victims are people of color.
On New Year’s Eve, Dave Phillips of the New York Times published an article about Gallagher’s attempt to profiting from being accused of a stunning array of violent crimes while serving overseas. Phillips’ piece, unfortunately, also ended up illustrating how traditional mainstream media reporting methods fail to capture the true seriousness of the current moment.
The story isn’t bad, to be clear. Phillips does what he can to contrast the gory details of Gallagher’s alleged crimes with the incongruous world of a social media influencer who is “modeling his own lifestyle clothing brand” and “endorsing nutrition supplements.”
But still, the piece has an arch, bemused tone that ends up downplaying the ugliness on display here and, worse yet, fails to tell the bigger story of what it means that the American right — following Trump, who reversed Gallagher’s conviction last year — now sees an accused war criminal as a hero to their cause. This is not the story of American conservatives being a bit kooky in their understanding of patriotism. This is a story of how right-wing propaganda is converting American conservatism into a fascist movement.
It’s doubtful that Trump, who has called Gallagher “one of the ultimate fighters” and invited him to party at Mar-a-Lago, or Gallagher’s other right-wing fans, actually imagine that he is innocent of the charges against him. I don’t think they believe that the seven SEALs who testified against Gallagher, at great personal risk, are lying. Rather, Gallagher is being lionized because of what he allegedly did in Afghanistan.
This is about the American right embracing racialized violence against people they hate — in this case, Muslims. It’s about American conservatives adopting a fascist narrative of the redemptive, cleansing power of violence.
This love for Eddie Gallagher needs to be understood in the context of other grotesque moves toward fascism over the past few years.
There has often been a drumbeat of apologetics for racist violence in American conservatism, but things really started to escalate in 2012, when a man named George Zimmerman killed a black teenager named Trayvon Martin, who had been walking home from a convenience store after buying snacks. Zimmerman, who had a history of overreacting to the sight of black teens and men walking through his Florida neighborhood by making hysterical calls to 911, decided Martin was scary. He followed Martin, even after a 911 dispatcher told him not to, and ended up killing him.
Despite the obvious racism of that tragic incident, or perhaps because of it, the overwhelming response of American conservatives was to fiercely defend Zimmerman and to demonize Martin.
Ever since then, there’s been a predictable pattern, in which efforts by progressive activists to fight racialized violence are met with resistance and bad faith theatrics from conservatives. For instance, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement has created a counter-movement on the right of arguing that “blue lives matter,” which implies any effort to curtail police killings of black people will somehow make the streets less safe for police. When white supremacists rioted in Charlottesville, killing one anti-racism protester, Trump himself took to the podium to defend the honor of the “very fine people” who caused the riot.
Unsurprisingly, these defenses of racialized violence have led directly to more white nationalist terrorism, such as the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh and the Walmart massacre in El Paso. Every time such things happen, conservatives get huffy, denying that there’s any link between routinely defending racial violence — or, as in Gallagher’s case, celebrating it — and the fact that more racists are feeling empowered to kill people.
That’s why so many people online were griping about the New York Times’ coverage of Gallagher’s attempt to reboot himself as an Instagram influencer. The writing in the piece may have been wry, and the reporting accurate, but we need more than that to combat a conservative movement that is increasingly enthusiastic about lethal violence against black or brown people. Worse, the marketing of the Times story did even more to downplay the dire significance of the fact that someone as uniquely terrible as Gallagher has become a right-wing hero.
The Times headline, “From the Brig to Mar-a-Lago, Former Navy SEAL Capitalizes on Newfound Fame,” doesn’t even mention that Gallagher is famous because he’s been accused of serious war crimes. And the original tweet that accompanied the piece — which has since been deleted — made it sound like a light and fluffy story about a lifestyle brand.
The retired Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher has a his new apparel line called Salty Frog Gear, which is a described as a “coastal lifestyle brand with an edge”
Needless to say, none of this captures the depths of depravity on display in Gallagher’s brightly lit Instagram pictures, which include an image of a custom-made hatchet he told the maker he hoped he could use “on someone’s skull!“
A nearly incomprehensible darkness is billowing over our country, as the 40% of Americans who stand with Donald Trump increasingly adopt a sadistic, anti-democratic worldview where anything, even murder, is treated as a virtue, so long as it’s about thumbing their noses at “political correctness.” Unfortunately, the traditions of wry journalistic detachment when reporting on bizarre or unsettling cultural phenomena are no longer sufficient. Especially in these chaotic times, reporters need to focus not just on the facts of stories like this, but on the big-picture meaning. On its own, the story of Eddie Gallagher’s sudden metamorphosis into right-wing culture hero may feel like an odd little trend piece. Considered in the larger context of history, it’s about the growth of American fascism.