As regular readers of this blog know, I occasionally dip into the right wing media, just to see what the other side thinks. Does that make me a masochist, or just someone who likes to be informed? Maybe some of both. I will ask my dominatrix.
In any event, on my occasional forays into the fever swamp that is the right wing mediasphere (wearing a hazmat suit and Dräger rebreathing apparatus), I have lately been struck by a new and worrying phenomenon.
THE VIRTUES OF MODERATION (SORRY BARRY)
During the early phases of the 2020 presidential campaign, Joe Biden took a lot grief in progressive circles for being too moderate, too uninspiring, too boring, too old school—too old full stop—too white, too male, etc etc. There was some credence to those complaints.
But lucky for us, it turned out that that was exactly what the American electorate wanted after four years of a screeching, racist, pussy-grabbing, rabid weasel in the Oval Office, especially in the midst of a global pandemic that cried out for sane, reassuring leadership. Biden was human comfort food who fit in nicely with 44 of the previous 45 POTUSes on a schoolroom chart. He was non-threatening enough to appeal to centrist voters—even some disaffected, anti-Trump Republicans—while still retaining the Democratic base and its core of Black and women voters who are really the ones, lest we forget, who delivered his victory. Given the razor thin margins in some of the swing states, anything even a millimeter further left—let alone a Sanders or a Warren—might have been a disaster, much as some like myself would have welcomed that sort of leftward shakeup.
During the campaign, Trump and the trolls who comprise the modern GOP tried mightily to demonize Joe they way they had demonized Hillary and Obama before him, but they just couldn’t do it. Biden’s own inherent decency and likability came palpably through and deflected the ad hominem attacks…..and without race and gender to fire up the bigots, the right wing effort fell flat. The Republicans just couldn’t make middle America see Joe Biden—whom we’d known and observed in the public eye for almost fifty years—as a foaming-at-the-mouth socialist radical. For once, finally, they had overstepped with their brazenness.
That attempt at character assassination continued into the first months of the Biden presidency, and still found little purchase. Try as it might, the Republican Party could not erase the deeply ingrained image of Joe Biden as a happy warrior. Conservative voters might not agree with every one of his positions—or in the extreme, any of them—but they could not be convinced that he was AOC in drag, let alone Angela Davis, Emma Goldman, or Madame Defarge. (Feminization very much intended.)
Biden appeared to be coated with Teflon, Reagan style, in a way that few Democratic politicians ever have been.
TOUCH OF EVIL
Based on a proprietary system I have developed known as the Highly Unscientific Not Confirmable Hypothesis™ (HUNCH), I think that still holds for a majority of Americans across the political spectrum.
But not all.
Lately what I see in the right wing press and social media is a depiction of Biden as Satan incarnate. “Evil,” “traitor,” and “monstrous” are some of the words that are frequently employed. (Republicans are not known for their nuance.) That portrait still fails to obtain in the part of America with measurable brainwave activity—which is to say, about six out of ten households—but it is prevalent in the remaining three or four.
This is generally the description the right wing applies to the entire “Democrat Party,” as they like to call it, so it’s in some ways natural that, as the leader of that party, it should be applied to Joe too. His presidency is portrayed as a “catastrophe,” the country in chaos, America we know it in ruins, dogs and cats living together….you know, Ghostbusters-style armageddon. Should we be surprised? A death cult that believes its leader can re-route hurricanes with a Sharpie, and would rather drown while clutching anvils Wile E. Coyote-style than get onboard the SS Pfizer, Moderna, or Johnson & Johnson and sail to safety, is not a group of people who are going to treat the opposition with fairness and decency.
And as I say, this trope is prevalent in conservative America.
In the past year I’ve taken several trips through rural Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and upstate New York, which is to say, deep into the heart of MAGAland. It’s a bit like Bavaria in the ‘30s: beautiful, pastoral countryside rife with some of the most odious politics imaginable. I saw barns adorned with murals deifying Trump; homes festooned with signs reading “TRUMP 2024 -TAKE AMERICA BACK”; and most pointedly for the purposes of this essay, banners attacking Joe Biden as “Looney Toons” (with the old Warner Bros. cartoon logo) and as the “Biggest Idiot Democrats Ever Nominated.” (Get it?)
And yet it all flies in the face of Joe Biden’s inherent benignness, affability, and non-stick coating, which may be why it flounders outside of the base. Biden’s approval rating remained largely consistent through the first nine months of his presidency—as did Trump’s throughout his whole four years (which is to say, at a record-breaking low in the modern era). It has dipped a bit of late, after Afghanistan, and Fox Nation is keen to make maximum hay out of that, noting that it is now lower than most of his predecessors at this point in their presidencies. (Though Trump never once cracked the 50% mark.) But the whole stat is pretty meaningless. More than a barometer of Biden’s true popularity or unpopularity, it is largely a measurement of how calcified American tribalism has become.
So what precisely are the “evils” that Joe Biden is promoting? Stopping a pandemic? Repairing the social safety net for poor families and hungry children? Making rich people pay at least as much in taxes as their secretaries? Perish the thought!
Some of the right wing fearmongering relies on a reductio ad absurdum fallacy of extremes. In this argument, Biden’s New Deal vision of American government will inevitably lead to sloth, laziness, the destruction of American ideals, and eventually of course, the establishment of re-education camps which will force-feed its formerly Fox-watching inmates “Free To Be You and Me,” Ludovico-style.
Such hysteria is not to be taken seriously.
Similarly, attacks on Biden over foreign policy—non-proliferation, China, counterterrorism, engagement versus isolationism (though that’s gotten very jumbled of late, partisan wise)—don’t bear explication here, as they reflect the age-old canards of American hawks.
Reproductive rights is of course the area where conservatives feel most justified in staking out the moral high ground, as they define it, and indulging in the most histrionic invective. (“Stop killing babies!”) That is very much why opposition to abortion, even in cases of rape and incest, is a central tenet for many conservatives—precisely because it allows for such self-reassuring self-righteousness. It’s no coincidence that QAnon also hinges on “protecting children” in its batshit conspiracy theory about Satanism, pedophilia, ping pong, and pizza.
I do understand that there are reasonable conservatives (an endangered species) who take issue with Biden’s policies….but the adjective “reasonable” self-selects out those whose concerns rise to the level of viewing him as having horns and a tail.
EXTREMISM IN THE DEFENSE OF EXTREMISM
As many have written, we have passed far beyond the point where the opposition is viewed as loyal fellow Americans who simply hew to a different set of political beliefs within a communally agreed upon commitment to representative democracy. Now the other side are treasonous monsters who must be stopped at all costs.
Such hyperbole is quite useful. Once the opposition has been branded in that matter, it becomes morally justifiable to use any means necessary to defeat them, to include not only abrogating “one-person, one vote” majority rule and other democratic norms, but even the use of political violence. Seeing the foe as Satan’s spawn and not just decent people who hold a different point of view makes it a lot easier to justify the use of the most extreme means to combat them. Like beating them to death with flagpoles.
Where once we could have civil disagreements and respect the views of the other side and still consider them our countrymen, the partisan lines are now drawn more starkly and with higher stakes than at any time since Bull Run. Where once we operated within a communally agreed upon framework of ideals and norms and principles, now we are in a cold civil war.
This, of course, is exactly the Republican retort. “You’re complaining about the demonization of Biden? Look at what you liberals said about Trump! And you’re one of the worst, King’s Necktie—if that is your real name!”
Fair enough. But calling someone a racist, misogynistic, megalomaniacal dictator manqué isn’t out of order when they really are a racist, misogynistic, megalomaniacal dictator manqué.
I do not buy the fairy tale—useful to and therefore widely propagated by Republicans—that this hyperpolarization is the result of bad behavior by both sides. It is not.
Part of the insidiousness of the right wing madness is a deceitful bothsideism, which is an old trick of anti-democratic forces. Behave in a brutal and indefensible manner, and accuse your enemies of the same crimes, then dismiss it as mere partisanship when they complain. But as I’ve written before, two people arguing about the shape of the planetare not automatically due equal credibility simply by virtue of staking out their claim.
The American right really IS engaging in a concerted, terrifying, violence-prone, unprecedented-since-1865 campaign to rattle the very foundations of democracy and put the republic at severe risk. You can’t cancel that by a false equivalence to similar claims about Biden, Kamala, AOC, and the Squad, any more than you can refute Galileo’s assertion that the Earth revolves around the sun by saying, “Well, the Geocentrists strongly believe in their theory, too.”
Now we have one functioning political party that believes in representative democracy, and one that has become a radical insurgency for which anything and everything is justified in the interest of raw power, even if it destroys the fundamental principles of this country which they claim to hold sacred. Since at least 1932 American conservatives have been on a mission to make the nation believe that “government is bad,” and have done everything humanly possible to make it so, and muck up the works, even at the expense of the good of country, then disingenuously point to the ensuing mess as if it is proof of their position, while pretending their grubby little fingerprints are not all over it.
How bad is it? This bad:
A study by the University of Chicago found that nearly 20% of American adults—about 47 million people—think Biden is an illegitimate president. (Another survey reports that fully 53% of Republicans feel that way.) Almost one in ten—about 21 million people—believe that the “use of force is justified to restore Donald J. Trump to the presidency.”
So please spare me your bleating that both sides are to blame, or engaged in equally scorched earth politics.
WHAT A DRAG IT IS GETTING OLD
I don’t think all conservatives are evil. Some certainly are, teleologically speaking: Stephen Miller, Steve Bannon, McConnell, Cruz, Hawley, Rand Paul, to name just a few, not to mention The Former Guy himself and various members of his grotesque clan. Below that there is an entire stratum of cowards, opportunists, and fellow travelers who might not merit the scarlet “E” but definitely aren’t getting an invite to my next bowling night.
But I’m not willing to categorize some 75 million of my fellow Americans as “evil.”
Needless to say, the majority of people on the conservative side genuinely believe in the righteousness of their cause, and have their hearts in the correct location in their chest cavities, even some of those who subscribe to what I consider wantonly batshit political beliefs that are gravely dangerous to the republic. Some of these people are—or at least were—friends and acquaintances and erstwhile colleagues of mine, as I used to be a conservative myself, 30 years ago anyway. I think they are horribly misguided, and it saddens me greatly. (They surely feel the same way about me.) They all have their own reasons for going to the dark side; some of those reasons are defensible, others anything but. But I don’t think they belong in the ninth circle of hell, if you believe in that sort of thing, or even in one of the aforementioned re-education camps-to-be. (Which is what Jimmy Carter and Habitat for Humanity have been secretly building all these years….we all know that, right?)
One step less crazy than the Biden-Is-Evil cabal is an even larger group of conservative- leaning Americans who firmly believe that Biden, while not necessarily a monster, is in the grip of dementia and cognitive decline.
This is a predictable and lazy line of attack on the oldest man ever elected president, at 78, beating the previous record holder—you guessed it—Donald Trump, who was 70. Few remember it today, but that was the standard knock on Reagan when he first won the office, at the age of 69, before he went on to beatification as a conservative saint.
(We later learned that Reagan did indeed suffer from dementia in the latter years of his second term, which ended when he was not quite—you guessed it again—78.)
It’s only honest to say that Biden has undeniably lost a step from his Senatorial prime, and does occasionally invite comparisons to a doddering grandpa, making this a natural thing for his morally bankrupt enemies to seize upon. But don’t we all love our grandpas, and prefer them to serial sexual predators and lifelong tax cheats and grifters?
The right wing image of a drooling old age pensioner who is the puppet of Kamala Harris is absurd, and beneath contempt. Even accounting for the occasional senior moment, Biden remains sharp and vital, and indeed frequently displays the accumulated savvy and wisdom of the long political experience that he brings to the White House. He certainly runs a tighter ship than his predecessor.
To that point, Republicans’ baseless allegation of cognitive decline is especially ironic in light of that predecessor and their own cult leader, the self-proclaimed “very stable genius,” whose multitude of mental deficiencies and psychiatric disorders would keep a team of world class neuroscientists busy for a lifetime. (Projection, as always, is the GOP’s default mode.) Look at video of Trump on the Letterman show from the ’80s; he’s not even recognizable as the same guy who sat on his fat ass in the Oval Office. He was already a narcissistic shitbag, sure, but he could at least speak intelligibly. The 21st century Trump, by contrast, could not form a coherent sentence: verbatim transcripts of the words that spewed forth from his piehole read like Williams Burroughs cutups, incomplete sentence fragments abandoned in midstream and spiraling off in random directions, desperately in search of connective tissue or a cogent point.
On top of that already sad state of neurological decline, he was also a textbook sociopath living in an alternate reality, consumed with paranoia, delusions of grandeur, and a persecution complex that made Nixon look like the Dalai Lama. So don’t talk to me about Biden’s Brain.
“Whataboutism!” you say? Yes and no. It’s true that Trump’s mental deficiency wouldn’t negate Biden’s, were it so. But the irony of Republicans deploying this unfounded attack after ignoring Trump’s far more evident and far more dangerous mental state demands calling out.
As I wrote last week, am I merely spreading this fake news by trying to refute it? Maybe. But I am hopeful that what I am doing is turning the kitchen light on the cockroaches of right wing dishonesty and sending them scurrying.
THE FIRST BLACK PRESIDENT
During the Obama years, Bill Clinton famously argued that he had been subjected to even more right wing vitriol than Barack. “Nobody’s accused him of murder yet, as far as I know,” Clinton quipped in 2014, referring to the Vince Foster conspiracy theory. And it’s true that Bill was impeached, which Barack never was.
Still, I never bought it. Bill had certainly been demonized by the right and unfairly attacked in the extreme, but the racist element of the abuse directed at Obama put the attacks on him in a completely different league. (Nobody accused Obama of murder, but nobody said Clinton as a secret Muslim or demanded to see his birth certificate either.) Likewise the irrational, foaming-at-the-mouth, misogynistic hatred of Hillary—from the time she first emerged on the national stage in 1992 as merely a candidate’s wife, all the way through and beyond her own 2016 presidential run—was an order of magnitude greater than anything her husband ever experienced.
But in retrospect, Bill did have a point. The ferocious vilification of Democratic standard bearers is now standard practice for the GOP. The attempt to turn avuncular, empathetic Joe Biden—a man widely beloved even by his Republican Senatorial colleagues—into the second coming of John Wayne Gacy shows it, and looking back, it clearly began with the Clinton era and the arrival of Newt Gingrich and his bloodsport approach to politics.
And where do we stand today? A few examples—all from a single, not especially noteworthy week—ought to suffice.
At Breitbart last week, its editor-at-large John Nolte claimed the “left” is tricking right wingers into dying of COVID, Br’er Rabbit style, by encouraging them to get vaccinated, knowing that right wingers would NEVER do anything progressives or liberals want them to do. Even if that were true—which it ain’t, remotely, not even in Bizarro World—it would amount to blaming the left for their own suicidal stubbornness.
Also last week Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) tweeted: “ALL House Democrats are evil and will kill unborn babies all the way up to birth and then celebrate”—her emphasis on ALL. (It’s true, I have several “baby-killing celebrations” in my Google Calendar for this week alone. I am bringing the potato salad.) Greene, of course, is also a prominent QAnon follower who in the past has physically stalked her colleagues, and called for the assassination of leading Democratic politicians like Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama.
But, you scoff, Greene is the lunatic fringe of the GOP, not its mainstream.
Oh, is that so? Who got kicked out of the party leadership for being insufficiently pro-Trump and denying the Big Lie, Margie or Liz Cheney? MTG is the face of the contemporary Republican Party.
Finally, last week saw the exposure of a memo from John Eastman, a high-ranking member of the Federalist Society and advisor to the Trump White House, outlining exactly how Trump & Co. intended to overturn the 2020 election and illegally retain power. We’ve known the broad outlines of this effort since January, but with the revelation of each new piece of the puzzle—like this one—the shocking scope of what went on becomes more and more appalling. This was the exact thing that “reasonable” Republicans snorted contemptuously that Trump would NEVER dare try. And not only did he try it, but he damn near succeeded.
And what is the GOP response now? To excuse it, defend it, deny it, obstruct efforts to expose the truth about it, and even more alarming, to continue that effort by other means going forward.
That sound you hear is glass breaking, because American democracy is in the midst of a five-alarm emergency. One that its perpetrators would love to distract us from with the idea that Joe Biden needs to be removed via the 25thAmendment.
It has not escaped my notice that over the past nine months, many of my blog posts wind up in the same area, belaboring a single, tiresome theme: the Republican Party’s ongoing attempt to undermine democracy in America and install itself as an unchallengeable autocratic power.
I apologize for being monotonous, but it’s the issue of our time. One of the two political parties in our country—one with tens of millions of voters, that stands a good chance of regaining power—has, over the preceding five years (or is it fifty?) turned fundamentally anti-democratic. Tunnelvision is in order when you’re in a tunnel, and especially when the light at its end is an oncoming train.
In The Bulwark, Mona Charen recently wrote that she is now a “single issue voter,” saying, “I’ll vote against the party threatening the republic—simple as that.”
The Republican party….has become a conspiracy of liars. As such, it threatens the stability of the republic.
It’s a cult dedicated to lying, rewarding liars, and punishing truth tellers. I won’t vote for it.
Writing in The Atlantic, Adam Serwer—who way back in 2018 coined the phrase, “The Cruelty Is the Point” in relation to the Trump administration—continues to demonstrate why he is one of the sharpest political observers around, most recently with a five-point summary of the ways Trump tried to overturn the election, much of it drawing on that Eastman memo. Serwer concludes with a pair of paragraphs that perfectly capture the state of the GOP and the crisis in which we find ourselves as a nation:
(To the Republican Party, winning majorities) is irrelevant to whether or not the party’s Trumpist faithful believe they are entitled to wield power. Win or lose, their claim to be the sole authentic inheritors of the American tradition means they are the only ones who can legitimately govern and are therefore justified in seizing power by any means. This is the modern incarnation of an old ideology, one that has justified excluding certain groups of Americans from the suffrage on the basis that their participation is an affront to the political process.
American traditions of unfreedom always represent themselves as democracy’s protectors, rather than its undertakers, and this one is no different. If Biden were allowed to take office, Eastman insisted in a longer version of his memo, “we will have ceased to be a self-governing people.” The catastrophe is not only that Trump tried to overthrow an election. It is that so many Americans were cheering him on.
I couldn’t have said it better myself. Not even close, in fact.
Funny thing about dipping into the right wing media to see how the other side thinks: it’s always a shock to come back and read sane, intelligent commentary in the non-right wing media.
Photo: Nathan Congleton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images