Creating a Monster

Conor Friedersdorf’s How the Conservative Movement Enabled the Rise of Donald Trump over at The Atlantic today is a must-read. In it he details something I have been shouting since last summer– that the space for Donald Trump’s vacuous populism was created by the GOP selling their soul to the right-wing infotainment complex.

Conservative establishment talking heads have been telling us that Trump has peaked and would soon flame out for nearly a year. It is finally beginning to dawn on some of them that this monstrosity is no passing fad. As Friedersdorf points out, the establishment made this bed. They were more than happy to egg on rabble-rousing obstructionists for the last 8 years, gobbling up seats in Congress and ramping up the vitriol against Obama and the Democrats. They gleefully viewed it as a re-energizing of their base. Yes, some of the stuff the new Tea Party and later Freedom Caucus people were saying was crazy, but surely they would be able to control that energy and put it to good use. They gravely miscalculated their own power and what was fueling the rage-filled populism of the right.

You see, the right-wing coalition has grown tired of the GOP for failing to deliver on their promises. Abortion is still legal. Immigrants continue to come into the country. Jobs keep disappearing overseas. Gay marriage is a fait accompli. This was the driving force behind the Tea Party earlier this decade and the forces it unleashed in the GOP– namely the anger of middle/working class white men. Despite the rhetoric about “Main Street,” “Family Values,” and the like the GOP coalition has always been dominated by the interests of the wealthy ideological-driven branch of the group (the Ayn Randian, pro-wealth, anti-regulation club). In short, the “Main Street” pitch Republicans have promised to pursue for their base has been a colossal failure.

As Friedersdorf points out, talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and websites like Breitbart.com have promoted misinformation, whined about the race card while promoting nakedly racist storylines meant to inflame tensions (remember Rush and Fox News campaign to convince you that in Obama’s America it was open season on white kids? Go take a look at crime stats find evidence for this 8 years later. Complete bullshit meant to convince white conservatives that liberals, Obama, and blacks were coming to destroy them), and engaged in a manner of paranoid thinking that even Joe McCarthy would have blushed at. Seriously, watch this unhinged nonsense from Glenn Beck in 2009:

 

How disenfranchised are you today– did Obama take your vote away or stay for a third term? Would it have been better if you had simply died in 2009? Are you a slave? Did our nation end four years ago? These are lunatic rantings. And not only have these not been condemned by establishment, they have been downright common on the right for the last eight years.

There have been critics. Conor Friedersdorf, Andrew Sullivan, and David Frum have beat the drum loudly (these are three political writers that I have a tremendous amount of respect for). And they have been ostracized by the movement, labeled respectively as a loony Paul-bot, a RINO, and an unrepentant neo-con. Voices like theirs have been drowned out, as formerly reasonable politicians and pundits tripped over themselves to pay homage to the Limbaughs, O’Reillys, and Coulters of the world.

Erick Erickson now complains that many Republicans are supporting “a man of mountainous ego” who “preys on nationalistic, tribal tendencies.” But this is what happens when millions of people spend a decade with Bill O’Reilly in their living rooms each evening and Ann Coulter books on their nightstands for bedtime reading. Let’s not treat it as a mystery that their notion of what’s credible is out of whack.

If you frequent Brietbart, The Blaze, or own an Ann Coulter book I can’t fathom how you fail to connect the dots from the inflammatory, hyper-partisan, villainizing tripe they publish and the crazy-talk of Donald Trump. He is basically lifting phrases from them whole-cloth.

Whatever the sins of the “mainstream media” are (and they are many), it believes in fact-checking, critical dialog, and the presentation of multiple view points. Go open the op-ed page of the New York Times. You won’t read any stories about Ted Cruz trying to reinstitute slavery or how Obama is selling us to China. Because these narratives are looney-tunes. But in the echo-chamber that right-wing infotainment has made, deluded nonsense reigns supreme.

Logic has no place in this world. Take this excerpt from Rush Limbaugh. Here he complains that the insidious left is unwilling to compromise with conservatives. He then turns around and says plainly that they cannot cooperate with liberals. That doing so would be cowardice.

The people on the left, they don’t want to reach common ground with us.  We are gnats to them, or worse.  We are the Gestapo to them.  We’re Nazis to them.  We are standing in the way of whatever they want.

These people have to be defeated.  They have to be overwhelmed.  And then after they’re defeated they cannot be allowed to bully whoever wins into cowardice and caving in… if you believe in a certain cultural America, it’s under siege.  There’s nothing to join with on the other side in preserving it.  They want to tear it down, transform it, and rebuild it.  They have to be defeated.  This is why the Republican Party’s worthless.  They don’t even think this way. The Republican Party’s thinking about showing they can work together, they can cooperate, make Washington work.

This is so illogical as to be comical. But for the forces of right-wing anger politics, this has been the mantra for the last twenty years. Eventually simply attacking the left wasn’t going to be enough. They would have to turn on the other members of their coalition that opposed the rigid worldview they wanted imposed on America. The “us vs. them,” take-no-prisoners approach spares no one.

Trump is not hijacking the Republican Party. Nor is he some perversion of the modern conservative movement. He is the logical conclusion to their mad science experiment. He is Trumpenstein, given life by the electric power of right-wing media, fed by the avarice of the establishment, and he has come to destroy his makers.

The road to Trumpenstein is paved with the bricks of obstructionism, personal profit, and absurd notions of purity. From Grover Nordquist seeking to impose control over taxation to Jim Jordan’s destruction of Boehner’s Speakership, party members have raced to out flank each other as the most “pure” candidate. You have to become the person who will never negotiate with liberals (as Rush demands). The goal is be portrayed as an unflinching ubermensch. It started as a devotion to ideological purity that capitalized on irreverent, politically incorrect, revolutionary rhetoric. It has been superseded by what Robert Kagen calls “a purer version… a less ideologically encumbered anarcho-revolutionary.” (Disclosure: I started writing this piece before stumbling on to Kagen’s article– it is no coincidence that multiple people view Trump as Frankenstein…)

That the monster would capitalize on bigotry is no surprise. The party has long rewarded such behavior. It is rooted in the Southern Strategy that birthed this coalition. It is made clear every time we debate crime, drugs, education, housing, and immigration. For god’s sake, this is a party that demanded the son of Cuban immigrants drop his personal story of the success of hard-working immigrants in pursuit of the American Dream (the “bootstrap story” is most ideologically conservative social narrative there is) to pander to populist opposition to immigration based largely on cultural grounds (again, look at the Rush quote from Friedersdorf’s article). Trump simply saw this position and raised it. He won’t mince words. He’ll simply tell you what you want to hear. No veiled references or dog whistles, just open xenophobia and bigotry. A purer form.

This was inevitable. Trump was the original birther. His opposition to Obama, a President the right delights in calling an extreme liberal (the fact is that his policies are largely indistinguishable from the last 30 years of liberal platforms– the only difference is his success in getting pieces of that agenda passed), openly embraced the Islamophobia and paranoid suspicions of Obama’s true allegiances that most on the right only hinted at or suggested in passing. Trump just takes your rhetoric and follows it to the logical conclusion. And the people love him for saying what they want to hear.

Rush, Coulter, and the Fox crew have been spewing this for years. Obama and liberals in Congress are not just wrong on policy issues, they are anti-American. They hate you and want to destroy your country. Trump hears your concerns. He feels your pain. And he’ll make America great again!

The moment Newt Gingrich hitched the GOP wagon to Rush Limbaugh this outcome became practically inevitable. The turn away from responsible governance and towards a perpetual culture war in which the right would play the indomitable defenders of a straight, white, Christian utopia was destined to fail. They couldn’t deliver on their promises. First they blamed the liberals. Just elect more Republicans and we will return things to the way they were! And when that failed, as it was always going to do in a largely bifurcated population, it didn’t take political opportunists on the right too long to figure out they could run the same playbook on incumbent Republicans. We’ll push them to accept our religious/racial/ideological positions, demand purity, and when that fails get ourselves elected! The charlatans and hucksters in the media had dollar signs in their eyes. They feed this rage machine 24/7. And then Trump comes along, the ultimate conman, and realizes he can take it a step further. Those guys at Fox are too cozy with the establishment. They are all bought and paid for. I’m the only one you can trust to really tell it how it is and follow through on my word.
As Trumpenstien rose, the Republicans did nothing. How could they? They have become so dependent on this nonsense that they lack a coherent alternative. Even now, the remaining GOP candidates have failed to develop any substantive argument that undermines Trump and restores a measure of sanity to their race. He is out of the dungeon and wrecking the village. And many of the townspeople are cheering him on. What the horrified members of the conservative establishment do next may well define politics for the next generation. Will they double-down, support Trump, and continue this madness? Mount a third-party challenge that hands the election to the Democrats, beginning an internal battle that might result in a generation or more of liberal rule? Or might they hold their noses and vote Democrat, potentially altering that coalition and sparking off substantial reorganization of the parties as we know them?

With any luck, we will rejoice, like the people of Geneva, to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of this ugly enterprise. Even should he take the GOP, there is still hope– indeed a great likelihood– that the general population will take up the torches and pitchforks to run him into the sea. Trumpenstien will be washed away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance, the only question is if the GOP will be lost with him.

 

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