Political Culture: Lose Your Delusion
A week and a half past the 2012 election, conservatives predictably have formed the traditional circular firing squad; less predictably, but (I suppose) unsurprisingly, they’ve left the heavy artillery at home. They’ve apparently chosen to use paintball guns instead – making a big mess, but inflicting little in the way of real damage. They’re not particularly good shots, either: For every ball of glop that hits an easy Republican target – Karen Hughes threatening to “cut out the tongue” of the next GOP candidate who talks about rape, Bobby Jindal rejecting Mitt Romney’s sour-grapes “gifts” whine and demanding that the GOP “stop being the Stupid Party” – two or three veer wildly off course, from Grover Norquist’s “poopyhead” remark to the secession petitions that became this week’s outlet for right-wing petulance (and left-wing schadenfreude).
Meanwhile, pundits from the mainstream and left-wing media have focused on castigating/ridiculing Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and the other usual suspects for lying to their audiences throughout the fall. They have a point: The “conservative entertainment complex,” as repentant rightie David Frum labeled it last weekend, consistently misrepresented the state of the race and insisted Romney was headed for a landslide. Their utter certainty was based on utterly nothing – nothing beyond what Peggy Noonan called “all the vibrations” indicating that, polls be damned, Obama’s team couldn’t possibly put its 2008 coalition together again. Check out those rabid, lily-white crowds at Romney rallies, readying the torches and pitchforks! How about all those Romney/Ryan signs dotting the landscape in rural Florida!
The trouble is, few on the right have joined Frum (who is now ensconced at MSNBC — the last refuge for excommunicated conservatives) in calling out Fox and friends. And the right-wing pundits themselves have quickly moved on to spinning the next scandal (Obama must have known about Petraeus’ wick-dipping before Election Day!), feeling little compulsion to tweak their narratives in the slightest, much less apologize to those they misled. And why should they? Rush and Sean and Savage and the rest will get paid either way – whether or not their preferred candidate wins, whether or not their audiences are the most misinformed citizens in the country. And they’ll get paid even more if, now that last Tuesday’s defeat is in the books, they respond not with sheepish acknowledgment of their errors, but by ginning up even more outrage among their audiences at the horrid state of America Under Obama.
That perpetual loop of outrage is the bread and butter of the right-wing media, which was conceived two decades ago to earn ratings by making politics personal (and bitterly so) among conservatives. It began by targeting a subset of Americans — almost all white, mostly male — who had become increasingly aggrieved by the advances that women, gays, racial minorities, etc., were making (sometimes with government assistance) in a society those white guys used to dominate. The goal of post-Fairness Doctrine talk radio and Fox News was never merely to provide a platform for conservative viewpoints. It was to call into question the validity of “mainstream” viewpoints – to scream, “My opinions have just as much merit as yours!” even though those opinions were often ridiculous (and even when those ridiculous opinions were blurred into supposed “facts”). Over the years these media outlets and personalities, and their shared agenda of knee-jerk opposition and constant finger-pointing, have subsumed the Republican Party and cowed its politicians, draining them of policy ideas in the process.
Unfortunately, by now the Outrage Loop is not merely the driving force of Fox, talk radio, rightie book publishers and fools like Dinesh D’Souza, creator of the fact-free filmic screed 2016: Obama’s America. Today it’s the mindset that propels the entire conservative movement in America, from the guy stockpiling automatic weapons in Oklahoma to the Tea Party housewife in Tennessee who forwards hate-filled chain emails around the internet. All that negativity, practically none of it grounded in objective reality, has sapped the GOP’s ability to participate in governing the country. And it has driven many millions of voters – not merely minorities, or women, or the “47 percent” – away from the party in disgust, even during difficult economic times when the out-party should be expected to do well. The result is an event like last Tuesday – an election that conservatives (right down to their candidate) deluded themselves into believing they had in the bag, even as it was turning into a crushing rejection of their fictional world.
Delusional nastiness, in other words, no longer works. Not the bitter bilge of Limbaugh and Hannity, and not the teeming rage that rank-and-file Republicans display with their Tea Party rallies, town-hall meetings and frothing Facebook posts.
And that’s why reprimanding the right wing’s pundit elite for this autumn’s willful misrepresentations isn’t nearly enough. The soul-searching that’s required in the wake of the 2012 election can’t be restricted to politicians and talking heads, and it can’t be limited to finding excuses for Romney’s defeat that somehow confirm conservative biases. It must also become the central mission amongst the shrinking, aging, single-hued Republican base, which has spent the last four (or 12, or 20) years dreaming up cockamamie myths and conspiracy theories that help them rationalize why people and policies they despise have vanquished their own.
Far too many in the GOP rank and file, beyond merely consuming the delusions that are the stock and trade of the Outrage Loop, have become full participants in creating and distributing such junk. Social media has become the vehicle in which so many conservatives drive off the edge of reality – often even further than Hannity and O’Reilly and Rush and Laura Ingraham are generally willing to go. Some of it emanates from the cobweb of online swill merchants like the “Independent Journal Review” and “Free Republic” and “Pundit Press” and “American Thinker” (!!!) and Townhall.com – but much of it emerges, half-cocked yet full-blown, from individuals who, conditioned by their partisan media to believe just about anything that cements their jaundiced perspective, routinely examine the world through a funhouse mirror.
“Obama’s secretly funding mosques worldwide – with taxpayer dollars!” … “Obama supporters are threatening to riot if he loses, because they don’t want to lose their food stamps!” … “Obama dedicated a memorial to Hugo Chavez!” (it was Cesar Chavez) … “Facebook is censoring soldiers to protect Obama!” … “Obama’s using mind control to push the U.N.’s ‘Agenda 21’ on the public!” … endless Trump re-tweets … and, post-election, “Inner-city precincts in Ohio and Pennsylvania achieved 150% turnout – and they all voted for Obama!” That’s just the tip of a very large and very jagged iceberg …
And then there’s Benghazi. From Romney and Lindsey Graham on down to a few million Joe-Blow armchair generals, conservatives all-too-quickly made a (lost) cause out of second-guessing and conspiracy-theorizing the insufficient security apparatus and rescue operation that failed to stop Islamist militants from storming the Libyan consulate and killing four Americans. There are plenty of real, relevant questions to be asked (and answered) about why our security budgets were sliced at this particular moment in history, and whether it makes sense for our diplomats to leave themselves exposed in countries where the local security upon which we usually rely isn’t up to snuff. But when a conservative commoner these days demands “justice” for those deaths, he’s usually not talking about tracking down the militants. Instead he’s talking about tracing the blame as high as possible within the Obama administration – even if that means insisting, as “American Thinker” (!?!) and two or three of my Facebook friends did last month, that Obama himself was in cahoots with the Islamists. Even more likely, that conservative is less incensed over the attack itself than he is over the administration’s slow gathering of intelligence and its initial uncertainty over the attack’s source. “How dare Susan Rice tell a Sunday talk-show host it was about the video, when somebody else was already stating it was terrorism?” … “What was Obama hiding?” … “Wouldn’t Americans have voted differently if Obama had told us the truth from the beginning?”
Really? What, pray tell, was Obama’s motive for (supposedly) withholding facts about Benghazi? Do you really believe that, in the face of more-immediate evidence that violent extremists were afoot in the chaos of post-Gadhafi Libya, a plurality of voters might have chosen to put the guys with no foreign-policy experience whatsoever into the Oval Office? That more Americans might have decided that the guy who ordered Bin Laden’s killing and the decimation of al Qaeda’s leadership, who was Commander in Chief during the successful effort to oust Gadhafi in the first place, suddenly wasn’t the guy to deal with a band of Libyan dead-enders?
Even the least unreasonable of the GOP’s demands for more and better information about Benghazi have been pickled in partisan campaign politics, which made them irresponsible at best and damaging to national security at worst. (The congressional hearing last month, during which GOP House members thoughtlessly publicized the CIA’s til-then covert facility in Benghazi, exemplified the foolishness of rushing to turn the attack into a campaign issue.) But it is the seething, trumped-up rage amongst the GOP base that has been most unsightly, illustrating the sad fact that, for American conservatives, even foreign-policy tragedies are now merely grist for an Outrage Loop that contextualizes every event within their nightmare fantasies about their own president.
Obama and other Democrats repeatedly stated, through the closing stages of the campaign, their hope that his re-election might “break the fever” on the right – that it might clear away conservatives’ Grey Gardens of delusion and bring them to their senses (or at least to the negotiating table). But in the 10 days since Romney took his sweet time conceding, there’s been little to sustain that hope. Not with conspiracy theories about turnout fraud making the rounds on the internet, and with pundits (and defeated candidates) whinging about “people who want things” and a president who won by offering “gifts” to targeted constituencies. And not with far-right websites trumpeting this week’s secession petitions as coming from “25 states,” as though they were official requests, rather than coming from “crackpots in 25 states.”
On the other hand, at least there’s RedState.com guru Erick Erickson, who wrote in a column on Wednesday: “Let’s add dabblers in this latest [secession/election-fraud] nuttiness to birthers as a category of people we do not welcome at RedState … While we may not much care for him, President Obama is still our President and we are still quite happily citizens of the United States. If we must drain this fever swamp that’s taken hold of a few people on the right over this past week before we can drain the swamp in Washington, so be it.” That quote would be downright encouraging … if, in order to read it, I didn’t first have to confront a poll on RedState’s front page that asks, “Should Obama be impeached over the Benghazi tragedy?”
You may notice that I haven’t devoted a single word of this column to an actual issue confronting the American people – the fiscal cliff, say, or immigration reform, or entitlements. There’ll be time enough to deal with those subjects, and whether Hannity et al’s sprint to the center on immigration is anything more than grotesque pandering.
Besides, as I’ve told anyone who would listen throughout the fall, this election wasn’t so much about such big issues, but instead has been entirely about character. Not Obama’s, not Romney’s, but ours – yours and mine — and whether a majority of American voters had become mired in that “fever swamp” of hatred and delusion that Mr. Erickson laments. Well, the election results are in … but I would suggest that the skeeters are still skimming the fetid water, and the crocs are still lurking in the tall grass. Mr. Erickson – and red staters in general – for the good of the nation, Drain That Swamp!