You’ve got to hand it to America’s right wingers. They try to overthrow the US government in a violent coup d’état, one fomented by the highest levels of their political leadership, an act that they continue to defend even now……and yet they would have us believe that pronouns are the greatest threat to the republic.
For sheer chutzpah, that’s tough to beat.
Of course, it’s not surprising, given the oft-demonstrated Republican capacity for shamelessness. The conservative media, from fancy pants magazines like The Economist down to sewer dwellers like InfoWars, are engaged in a concerted campaign to try to convince America that the most pressing danger we face are trans kids who want to be addressed as they/them/theirs, teachers who have the temerity to believe there’s racism in America, and public health officials who want to bludgeon us with this sketchy thing called “science.”
Yes, it’s batshit. Yes, it’s beyond outrageous—stupefying in fact. But this is the Orwellian, up-is-down, freedom-is-slavery world in which contemporary Republicans live. And I got no problem with that; they can live in any old world they want.
The problem is that they want the rest of us to live in it with them.
THE BEST PROTECTION IS GOOD PROJECTION
Just so we’re all on the same page, here’s a reminder that the FBI and other Homeland Security experts continue to assess that white nationalist extremism is the greatest terrorist threat to the security of the United States. Not hybrid cars, Nikole Hannah-Jones or, pumpkin spice lattes.
But page one of the fascism handbook is to accuse your enemies of your own crimes.
We need not debate whether the Trumpist GOP does in fact deserve the “f” word (short answer: it does) to understand that Republicans have seized on projection as their best and perhaps only form of self-defense. That is why they are desperate for us to believe that woke college students are going bring on the American apocalypse, not the people who, I repeat, literally tried to mount a violent coup d’état just last winter, and on the whole have not recanted or abandoned that cause, nor seen their leaders punished for it.
Let’s begin our survey of this concerted propaganda campaign with what passes for credible, reason-based thinking in the modern conservative movement.
The Economist recently had a cover story screaming, “The Threat from the Illiberal Left,” subtitled, “Don’t underestimate the danger of left-leaning identity politics.” (Referring to liberalism not in the partisan American sense of Republicans and Democrats, but of Enlightenment-based Western democracy as a whole.)
What its editors seem to have their panties in a bunch over is a mode of thought that (wait for it) “has recently spread from elite university departments.”
As young graduates have taken jobs in the upmarket media and in politics, business and education, they have brought with them a horror of feeling “unsafe” and an agenda obsessed with a narrow vision of obtaining justice for oppressed identity groups. They have also brought along tactics to enforce ideological purity, by no-platforming their enemies and cancelling allies who have transgressed.
In other words, a bunch of old white guys don’t understand kids today.
In that same issue, the magazine laments,“Left-Wing Activists Are Using Old Tactics in a New Assault on Liberalism,” and “How Did American ‘Wokeness’ Jump from Elite Schools to Everyday Life?” Ho-hum, grandpa.
(But it could be worse. Two weeks before, that same magazine ran a piece by 98-year-old Henry Kissinger assessing the failure of the US campaign in Afghanistan….part of its periodic “What War Criminals Think” column.)
This is an absurd waste of ink—and pixels—not to mention brazen misdirection. Even the convocation of Statlers and Waldorfs at The Economist admit that “the most dangerous threat in liberalism’s spiritual home comes from the Trumpian right.”
Populists denigrate liberal edifices such as science and the rule of law as façades for a plot by the deep state against the people. They subordinate facts and reason to tribal emotion. The enduring falsehood that the presidential election in 2020 was stolen points to where such impulses lead. If people cannot settle their differences using debate and trusted institutions, they resort to force.
Yet they don’t put that on their cover, do they? After all, they’re trying to sell magazines.
To elevate political correctness to the level of “threat to the republic” equivalent to people wearing balaclavas and carrying AR-15s is not only ridiculous and misleading but wantonly irresponsible. Yeah, PC-ness can go too far, but this is worrying about a freckle on you arm when you’ve got a grapefruit-sized goiter growing out of your neck….a goiter that believes the election was stolen, we didn’t land on the moon, and fluoridation is sapping our precious bodily fluids, and violent rebellion is in order in response.
The authors even have the gall to engage in shameless bothsidesism, claiming that “populists and progressives feed off each other pathologically. The hatred each camp feels for the other inflames its own supporters—to the benefit of both.”
As if the people who wanted to lynch the Vice President and the ones who think Black people ought not be murdered by the police are on an equal moral plane.
ANNIE GET YOUR GUN
The longstanding conservative hue and cry over “political correctness” (recently re-branded as “wokeness”) boils to down to one very simple thing: powerful people—largely white, and mostly male—angry that they are being asked to behave in a decent and civilized manner toward others, instead of doing whatever the fuck they want, with impunity, a state of affairs to which they’ve been accustomed their whole goddam lives. And I know, because I’m a white male myself.
Accordingly, whenever I hear complaints about PC culture, or wokeness, I go into automatic snooze mode at this laziest and most dishonest of beefs.
Nearly every development toward a more progressive society has been met with anger and ridicule at first, from the term Ms to Title IX to an end to “whites only” drinking fountains. But eventually these things all come to seem routine and normal and even inevitable in their manifest justness and common sense.
“But Stalin!” cries the right wing intelligentsia. (Oxymoron? You be the judge.) “It starts with the collegiate thought police and ends with the gulag!”
Yes, we all know there have been horrific totalitarian regimes under the mantle of “leftism”; whether or not they represent “the left” as we currently understand the term, or have circled all the way around to authoritarianism more characteristic of right wing regimes, is a book length topic in itself—library length, in fact. But in the context of our discussion, the terms “left” and “right” have less to do with Marxism and capitalism than with democracy and autocracy, regardless of ideological trappings.
Even conceding that a left-wing regime—however you define it—has the potential to slip into autocracy, to suggest that liberals present the most pressing danger to Western democracy at present is beyond absurd: it can only be deliberate smoke and mirrors. Violent, right wing populism (personally I reject the very term, for those of you scoring at home) has been on the rise for more than a decade, from the Philippines to Hungary to the US, characterized by hypernationalism, xenophobia, jingoism, and all the other textbook trappings of “f-word” states, whether we use that tag or not.
I don’t think Rachel Maddow is an equal threat.
Still, this faddish notion of an “illiberal left wing scourge” has found traction in the chattering classes.
Two weeks ago I took issue with a hawkish article by The Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum that derided the idea that there is no military solution for the US in Afghanistan. It pained me, because as I stated at the time, I am a fan of Ms. Applebaum’s work. Now she has sent me rending my garments again with a piece for that magazine headlined “The New Puritans” (archived under the title “The Return of the Scarlet Letter”), a screed against what the right likes to call “cancel culture,” to which news outlets like MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” have devoted an eyepopping amount of airtime. (One thing the left does well is eat its young.)
Oh, Anne: I was such a fan, but I’m just a simple man, and I don’t understand your plan, both on this and Afghanistan. It leaves me wan.
While The Economist hyperventilates about the macro effects of wokeism, Applebaum’s focus is almost purely on academia. Largely she is bemoaning the lack of due process in what are not, after all, legal proceedings but social judgments, which are notoriously hard to police, as she herself concedes. She also takes admirable pains to distinguish her critique from the usual right wing blather about liberalism run amok in the academy.
Applebaum brings to the topic her considerable expertise on authoritarianism in Russia and Eastern Europe and elsewhere. But it’s ironic that the “whisperers” in academia that she decries as an extrajudicial mechanism for identifying transgressors—students especially, whom she compares to the revolutionary committees of Mao’s Cultural Revolution—are not unlike the citizens deputized by Texas to inform on women who seek abortions and anyone who helps them, or even thinks of helping them.
The logic of who gets canceled can indeed be hard to parse. Recently I heard Michael Jackson on the radio—“Off the Wall” I think it was—and I thought, “Why is Michael Jackson not canceled but Al Franken is?” The scope of their crimes is not even remotely comparable. Maybe it’s because Michael is dead; no doubt that is part of it. But really it’s because people love his music so much that they aren’t willing to cast it into oblivion, no matter what horrors he committed, and taking into account the physical and psychological abuse he suffered as a child himself. (This is a whole different debate.)
I do have sympathy for people in the midst of this great pendulum-swing who are falsely accused, or culpable but over-punished with penalties that don’t fit the crime. What I object to is the elevation of this problem to an unjustifiable level of hysteria where it can be used by the neo-authoritarian right as both a shield against accountability for its own far more serious crimes, and as a cudgel to counterattack its enemies.
It’s clear that we are still figuring out how to deal with new norms and mores regarding what is socially acceptable behavior, especially when it comes to race and gender, the workplace, and the rules of engagement for romantic interaction. There have been excesses, certainly, and injustices and inequities. There were a hell of a lot of all three, and far worse, in the opposite direction under the ancien regime as well.
I’m fine with this being explored in The Chair. I just don’t need it put on a par with people who wanted to lynch Nancy Pelosi.
THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS FOR THE REAL VICTIMS
In less august right-leaning media, you can hear a cruder and even more extreme version of this argument, in which conservatives (especially white men) are the real victims of persecution, and the “Democrat Party” is an authoritarian cult bent on taking your guns, instituting sharia law, and turning the NFL into a flag football league with its Dr. Mengele-devised concussion protocol.
This self-pity is deep in the right wing DNA. For a group of people who like to throw around the word “snowflake,” they sure are fucking fragile.
The same Republicans who just passed a law that subjects women in Texas to vigilante enforcement of its Atwoodian anti-choice laws are now foaming at the mouth at the alleged “tyranny” and “oppression” of a vaccine mandate for federal workers and businesses with over 100 employees. I presume these same folks have issues with measles shots, seat belts, Health Department inspections of restaurants, and the mere existence of OSHA too.
Hewing to the directive “know your enemy,” I have been on a Trump mailing list since the 2016 campaign, just to see the things they are saying. I recently got an email solicitation from them stating, with No Discernible Irony:
Joe Biden just announced a sweeping mandate that is designed to FORCE you and your family to undergo medical procedures whether you want to or not.
That is why the GOP is fighting back and planning to SUE the Biden administration for their un-American federal overreach, and we need your help.
Driving around the Jersey shore last weekend, where right wing talk radio is rife, I heard one of the many, many Christian channels (“Your station for faith, family, and freedom!”) telling its listeners that Dr. Anthony Fauci harvests the organs of live babies. Not long after I was in Bucks County, PA, north of Philadelphia, where my father lives, an area where strong progressivism co-exists cheek by jowl with some pretty extreme examples of what we call “Pennsyltucky.” In the latter camp: the guy with the sign on his rear window that reads “PLANDEMIC,” and the homeowner with the handpainted sign in his front yard reading, “Fake Pandemic, Real Tyranny.”
And this is a recurring pattern, fed both by the right’s innate predilection for Hofstadterian paranoia, and the opportunistic conservative elites who feed and exploit it.
Even as those of us on the left feel like the right has a chokehold on our democracy (because, gee, I dunno, we control the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives and yet Mitch McConnell gets everything he wants), the right sees itself as perennially under assault, or at least its mandarins paint that picture to fire up the rubes and keep the donations flowing.
As I say, that may be a function, at least partially, of the chronic paranoia that runs through American conservatism, but it’s also a strategy. Their advertising, their fundraising appeals, their nightly Fifty-Two Minutes Hate on Tucker Carlson are all organized around the notion that the liberals are coming, and Real America is up against the wall. Spurious online periodicals like City Journal, masquerading as mainstream journalism, specialize in horror stories about political correctness run amok in our schools, stories designed to scare the khakis off upper middle class center-right (and even center-left) parents who would not be so easily fooled by similar stories in Breitbart or Fox.
In the Washington Post, Greg Sargent seized on another standard Republican ploy, and a dirty and dishonest one it is: Sow doubt among conservative voters about Issue X, from the efficacy of the COVID vaccine to the legitimacy of Biden’s election, then cite that very doubt as justification for opposing common sense measures regarding the problem.
“A lot of people are skeptical about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine, and we need to respect their fears!” Yes they are skeptical—because you fed that skepticism.
“A lot of people think there’s massive election fraud in America (except in elections I won), so we need to suppress the vote!” Yes they do think there’s fraud—because you told them there was fraud.
This disingenuous plea for “understanding for all sides” and “respecting the choices of others” gives ammunition to anti-factual Know Nothings who reject empiricism and want to cast their selfish, reckless endangerment of our collective public health as “freedom of choice.”
Another of the right’s favorite new tricks is to make a specious argument on the grounds of “religious freedom,” seeking exemptions from the law that would allow them to, say, abrogate a woman’s right to control her own body, or discriminate against LBGTQ+ folks, or forgo routine immunizations and still want to avail themselves of public schools, or deny service to Black people in restaurants, or refuse to rent apartments to Jews. (Or Muslims. Or Unitarians.) And so on.
The furor over “critical race theory” is another doozy. In this reboot of the brouhaha over evolution, white people who are terrified of losing power are apoplectic at the idea that their children, or any children, might be taught that there is such a thing as racism, and that it has played a seminal role in the history of this country and the journey to where we are today.
Next up, outrage over teaching our children that water is wet, the sun is hot, and the Beatles are better than Nickelback.
THE MARTYRDOM OF MARK MILLEY
Here’s another example where there’s been a lot of linguistic confusion, if not deliberate up-is-down, day-is-night, disinformation. So let me set the record straight:
The insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol on January 6th to murder US government officials and try to overturn an election are NOT patriots, martyrs, or political prisoners, and certainly not heroes, even though the GOP has begun treating them that way. (See: the right wing rally in DC today in support of those being prosecuted.)
General Mark Milley who worked within his constitutional authority to forestall a coup and prevent the outbreak of “Wag the Dog” -style wars against Iran and/or China, IS a hero. Full stop, period dot, out here.
If you want to know what’s wrong with United States today in a nutshell, consider what it means that Mark Milley is under far more fire for his actions surrounding the events of January 6th and its aftermath than Donald Trump is. (It means that we are maxed out on disbelief at the depths to which Trump will sink, that his followers would find a way to excuse it—in fact, applaud it—even if he wiped his ass with the US flag, and that there is no God.)
My friend Erick Kelemen notes that “The uproar (over Milley) is largely manufactured by people wanting to obscure the fact that only days before, he had discovered that Trump was trying to go around everyone in his own national security offices to order the US out of Afghanistan.” And what was Milley’s response to that, and to Trump refusing to accept the results of the election? “To call everybody together to re-read the rules and make sure everybody followed them? To phone nervous adversaries and assure them that we would follow the rules and not be swayed by the whims of someone trying to cling to power in his last days? The outrage is ridiculous.”
Any conflict between civilian and military leaders is dangerous terrain, and questions remain around the context and details of General Milley’s actions. He has promised to answer those questions when he and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin—himself a retired four-star—testify before Congress at the end of the month, an event Republicans are sure to turn into a circus.
But whatever the answers, Milley can be forgiven for pressing up against the boundaries of his office considering the extraordinary circumstances he was in, with a dangerous and unhinged commander-in-chief desperately clinging to power and capable of doing almost anything. Famously, Mattis and Kelly—two more retired four-stars—had a “babysitting pact” throughout their tenure in the Trump presidency to keep him from setting the world on fire. Or recall August 1974, when SecDef James Schlesinger ordered the Pentagon not to obey any nuclear strike orders from a drunken and unstable Nixon in his final days without going through him or Kissinger first.
Could a rogue general take similar action to go around the President and try to start a war, rather than stop one? Of course; that is the nature of power. But the same demographic that is furious at Milley over this loved it when MacArthur defied Truman, and Singlaub defied Carter (both over Korea, as it just so happened).
Some—including retired LTC Alexander Vindman, whom I greatly respect—have suggested that Milley should have resigned instead. But the whole point was that someone needed to stand in Trump’s way; would it have been better, in that critical time, to give Donald the opportunity to install a lackey as CJCS, as he had already done with numerous other key officials in the national security apparatus, the exact kind of indicators one would seize on in anticipation of a coup?
The Republican hypocrisy is, as usual, mindblowing. Their tyrant manqué puts American democracy in lethal jeopardy, then they howl bloody murder when anyone takes any steps, any steps at all, orthodox or not, to protect it and mitigate the damage, accusing that person of—you guessed it—undermining democracy. Quite a neat trick.
It’s rich to hear the right wing complain about the military being politicized, when no one in American history did more to politicize it than Donald Trump, with his talk of “my generals,” his demand for a May Day-style military parade in his honor, and his repeated use of the armed forces as props. Now that the embattled US military has been forced to use politics to push back, suddenly conservatives are clutching their pearls? I don’t recall them being worried about General Milley “playing politics” when he found himself accompanying Trump on that reprehensible photo op at Lafayette Square, an act that Milley was caught up in almost accidentally, and was so mortified by that he considered resigning over that, and subsequently issued a public mea culpa.
WILL YOU TAKE ME AS I AM? (WILL YOU TAKE ME AS I AM?)
There was some good news last week, as reason prevailed in California and Gavin Newsom survived a recall attempt with a resounding 63% to 36% victory. Whatever one thinks of Newsom, as a referendum on science and reason versus the paranoid style, it was at the very least a reassuring sign that the majority of Californians are not in fact insane (and perhaps a blueprint for Democratic strategy in the midterms).
After losing, the leading Republican candidate Larry Elder told his supporters to be “gracious in defeat.” That is remarkable at a time when falsely screaming “fraud!” in a crowded movie theater has become de rigueur for Republicans, and doing otherwise risks excommunication from the party because it undercuts the Maximum Leader’s own specious claims of having been robbed.
Writing in The Week, Damon Linker notes, “A recent CNN poll reveals that fully 59 percent of Republicans consider it ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ important for members of the party to affirm that Trump won the 2020 election.” The pressure that puts on GOP candidates at all levels to toe the party line is immense, and is pushing that party even further into Cloud Cuckooland.
But this is how far the bar has been lowered. Conceding defeat used to be the norm, of course, and is in fact essential for democracy. As Heather Cox Richardson writes: “If losers in a democracy refuse to accept the legitimacy of elections, the system falls apart.” Which is fine with the GOP, which has been flogging the mantra that “government is bad“ for decades, and doing everything it can to make it so.
Elder’s welcome comments are all the more remarkable because they come after he had sown doubt about the legitimacy of the vote ahead of election day—also de rigueur for Republicans these days, thanks to The Former Guy.
So two cheers for Larry, and let’s be grateful that the voters of California had the good sense not to put him in office.
In that same piece, Linker called these Republican lies about election fraud “a ticking time bomb,” asking pointedly, “How do they think this will end?”
This is hands down the most dangerous political development in recent American history—a civic time bomb placed smack dab at the center of American democracy. It’s more dangerous than a reality-show demagogue ascending to the presidency. Or partisan gridlock in Congress making governing and passing legislation extremely difficult. Or constitutional disagreement about the scope of women’s reproductive rights. Or conflicts surrounding masking and vaccine mandates.
All of those issues are important, and some of them contribute to the degradation of American democracy. But none of them degrade it more than spreading the lie that elections in the United States are systematically untrustworthy and rigged against one of the country’s two parties. That’s the kind of claim that could ultimately make American self-government impossible.
That’s because this is a battle over the rules of the political game—the rules that enable the US to function as a democracy that is deemed fair by everyone, the winners as well as losers, in any given electoral contest. Once faith in that fairness has been undermined and obliterated, the peaceful transfer of power is bound to break down entirely. Where will it end? Nowhere good.
When it comes to threats to our democracy, seems like the wholesale delegitimization of the integrity of the vote in the eyes of tens of millions of Americans might be something genuinely worth worrying about.
Unless you’re on the team promoting it.
The increasingly radicalized, Trumpist GOP is precisely such an organization as Linker describes, no longer recognizable as a conventional political party at all, but only as a death cult-cum-neo-fascist insurgency. And people are noticing.
On the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 last weekend, George W. Bush gave a speech that compared the 1/6 Insurrectionists to the 9/11 hijackers. Good on him. I will never forgive Bush for Iraq, but of late he has not only looked good compared to Trump (NB: so does a rotting tree stump) but actually walked the walk, a little.
And that wasn’t the only head-spinning turn in Old Republican World.
The new book by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, Peril, the same one that got Milley in such hot water, also revealed the role Bush the elder’s vice president Dan Quayle played in dissuading Mike Pence from going along with Trump’s plan to reject the results of the Electoral College. If you told me 30 years ago that I’d be praising Dan Quayle for anything, I’d have turned off my C+C Music Factory cassette and laughed in your face. But, believe it or not, as some wit wrote on the Internet, “Dan Quayle stopped a coupe.”
Meanwhile Trump himself used the occasion of the 20th anniversary of 9/11 to make a speech attacking Biden on Afghanistan, and to collect a paycheck doing commentary on a pay-per-view fight between a 58-year-old Evander Holyfield and former UFC champ Jordan Belfort.
All class, that fella.
For an encore, two days before this new MAGA rally in front of the Capitol, Trump issued a statement siding with those terrorists, a statement that began: “Our hearts and minds are with the people being persecuted so unfairly relating to the January 6th protest concerning the Rigged Presidential Election.” (File under: “Florida retiree pours gasoline on the fire.”)
And why shouldn’t Trump feel entitled to do so? He’s never suffered any meaningful consequences for any of his actions throughout his entire life. (Losing reelection doesn’t count.) As many wise people said from the very beginning, if there are not repercussions for the people who incited this insurrection—not just the cosplaying Q believers who did the actual insurrecting, but the muckity mucks who sent them down Pennsylvania Avenue—we will surely see it happen again.
That process is already underway…..and it worries me a lot more than the Washington Football Team having to change its nickname.
WELCOME BACK MY FRIENDS TO THE SHOW THAT NEVER ENDS
The experts tell us that one of the most difficult and maddening things about trying to combat fake news is that repeating it at all, even to debunk it, only spreads it further. So in calling out this right wing disinformation, am I only abetting it?
Maybe. But how else to fight it? Besides, I trust my readership—tiny as it is, but intelligent—to be able to think critically. We are not afraid of the other guy’s ideas, and can readily dismember them. No misdirection, disinformation, or sleight of hand required.
Meanwhile the right wing gaslighting festival rolls merrily along and shows no sign of being shut down any time soon. There’s too much money to be had for the grifters, too many eager marks out there to be had, and too much at stake for whitey and the plutocrats (my favorite Southern rock band) as they try to make us think we’re the evil and crazy ones, not them.
Yeah, well, I was born at night….but it wasn’t last night.