by Tom Sullivan
“This is what happens when party becomes almost a religion,” MSNBC’s Joy Reid told Chris Hayes last night on “All In.” Reid was commenting on the GOP’s defense of Alabama’s Roy Moore and acceptance of a Republican president with a lengthy history of sexual misconduct. “We don’t care how low he takes this country, how low he takes our party,” she said, or “what a scoundrel he is, what a scam artist he is, what a con man. And literally, it can be a child molester as long as it’s a Republican … Nothing comes before party ever. Ever.”
The Republican Party and the country didn’t sink to these depths overnight. The right has, over decades, acculturated its base to lies as one of the basic food groups. Our sitting president is simply the main course.
Fear has been a conservative staple from the early days of the Cold War, the Birchers, and before. Robert Kagan noted before the election last year how “resentment and disdain, intermingled with bits of fear, hatred and anger,” the core of the now-president’s message, had incubated inside the party for years.
I recounted how creepy the appearance of “Rush rooms” was in the early 1990s, and how the dittoheads at work marinated their brains in his toxic message all day, every day.
As Rush faded, Fox News ascended. Fox News has been a propaganda channel for decades now. The “Fair and Balanced” network has dropped that branding and, with few exceptions, any pretension that what it presents is news. Where once there were Rush Rooms at lunch, now every other bar, restaurant, and public space has a telescreen broadcasting the message approved by Minitrue and News Corp.
Conservative chain emails have faded as well, replaced by Facebook. Through the Cold War years, we’d been warned that the communists would try to undermine America from within using propaganda and disinformation. With the emails, fathers and uncles were trafficking in it, passing them on to family and friends as instructed at the bottom of each. What made chain emails popular was they maligned people senders hated. With forward after forward, they built a discomforting community of resentment. I have a collection:
Now, out of those 200 chain emails, maybe three or four are not outright lies, distortions, and smears. Easily debunked on Google in the time it takes to attach your email list and forward to all your friends. They are lies and, deep down, right wingers know it. Yet they pass them along dutifully, almost gleefully. They know it’s wrong and they don’t care.
Their purpose was to get people angry and keep them angry about real and imagined slights committed against them by political enemies. After last year’s election and the revelations about Russian ads on Facebook, one wonders if some weren’t once drafted in St. Petersburg. The First Amendment has been weaponized and used against us.
Mr. “And when you’re a star, they let you do it” is simply a walking, talking, tweeting version of the conservative chain email. His fans don’t care if what he says is true so long as he attacks the people they hate and gives them approval to do the same.
David Brooks argued the other day that “naked liberalism” has undermined the social contract. He defines naked liberalism as an assumption shared by both right and left that “if you give people freedom they will use it to care for their neighbors, to have civil conversations, to form opinions after examining the evidence.” The right wants to maximize economic choice while the left hopes to maximize lifestyle choice (in which Brooks glosses over both positions). This position, “all freedom and no covenant,” he believes, maximizes personal freedom while undercutting the bonds that hold a society together:
Freedom without covenant becomes selfishness. And that’s what we see at the top of society, in our politics and the financial crisis. Freedom without connection becomes alienation. And that’s what we see at the bottom of society — frayed communities, broken families, opiate addiction. Freedom without a unifying national narrative becomes distrust, polarization and permanent political war.
Or worse. “[P]eople will prefer fascism to isolation, authoritarianism to moral anarchy.” In pursuing individual and economic freedom, we have sacrificed the bonds that held human society together for millennia. “Congressional Republicans think a successful tax bill will thwart populism,” he writes. “Mainstream Democrats think the alienation problem will go away if we redistribute the crumbs a bit more widely.” These band-aids aren’t likely to hold back the erosion.
People under 40 get that these aren’t solutions, Brooks writes. I must agree. Steve Bannon wants to tear down the entire edifice and start from scratch, an answer not so different from one we heard from certain quarters on the left last fall. So far, Democrats haven’t offered a more compelling, healing narrative.
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