November 2, 2020: Charlie’s Exposé, Part 1: When America’s Right-Wing Became What it Most Despised

Not long ago, America’s political Right could be defined by a host of principles and beliefs. Among them: respect for the Constitution; Edmond Burke-like esteem for traditions that bridle human nature’s negative inclinations; fiscal responsibility that considered excess debt as hazardous for the country as it was for the home; a strong national defense; respect for the teachings of Jesus; and since 9/11, sternly anti-terrorist.

Today, America's political Right—my old tribe— enthusiastically betrays the Constitution, from hostility to a free press to supporting non-State-regulated militias armed to intimidate in a perversion of the 2nd Amendment. Conservatism has been replaced by radicalism where compromise is treason. Human nature’s worst tendencies are embraced, foremost through their lies. Fiscal responsibility is so passé its once great purveyor, Rush Limbaugh, declared, “this concern for the deficit and budget has been bogus for as long as it’s been around.” [1] Trump enthusiastically added $8 trillion to the national debt in just 4-years; a feat that took Obama twice that long to complete. The nation’s defense is scorned as Right-wingers dodge America’s war effort to combat a viral enemy. As for the teachings of Jesus... Jesus who? While the Right welcomes terrorists, from the Proud Boys, Nazis, Klan, QAnon, and the “Texas Trump Train” to America’s #1 terror threat, Donald Trump. Think not? Reference [2]. Recall, this is the “law and order” party.

It is this right-side of America’s failure that old-style Reagan conservative Charles Sykes wrote his postmortem about. [3] “Among the many ironies of the conservative implosion,” writes Sykes, “was how the Right became what it once mocked.” [4] “Conservatives once recognized that politics was a means, not an end because they believed that we live in communities sustained by moral capital, recognizing…that moral communities are ‘fragile things, hard to build and easy to destroy.’ Somehow a movement based on ideas devolved into a new tribalism that valued neither principle nor truth…” [5]

Sykes’ focus is on the Right’s moral, ethical, and intellectual collapse. He hits a number of crucial causes, ignoring the Right’s economic debacles. Philosophical divisions were born early, says Sykes. “Fusionism” attempted to unify the countervailing conservative forces of freedom of the person with a Christian understanding of moral responsibility to others. Fusionists remind us that the “Constitutional Convention in 1787 had not embraced either the ‘libertarian’ vision of the Jeffersonian nor the ‘authoritarian’ politics of Alexander Hamilton, but instead steered a middle course laid out by James Madison…” [6] Conservative Russell Kirk resisted emphasis on individualism as “social atomism” incompatible with traditional Christianity. [7] One of the goals of the conservative flagship National Review was to reconcile these schools of thought, from traditionalists and libertarians to anticommunists. This required deliberation, analysis, and rational acumen. But anti-rationalism is a long-standing bone in the American posture. It only got stronger, and the Right now wields it like a weapon.

Echoing Allan Bloom, Sykes recognizes that prior ideas of conservatism and decency belonged to an age “when statesmen actually read books.” [8] “The American Founders… had in the main all consumed the same library of Greek and Latin classics, British and Continental literature from fiction to political economy… This did not lead to a uniformity of opinion [but] literate and enlightened argument.” [9] Today, the Right’s aggressive ignorance scraps the Founder’s Enlightenment while simultaneously lauding these very men whose expertise and science they reject. For Sykes, “Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy is only possible in a society that doesn’t read or think much.” [10]

While “dumbing down the electorate” is not a solely Right-wing phenomenon, “An ignorant electorate is not likely to hold ignorant politicians to account… So ignorance begets ignorance and the tolerance of it in high places.” [11] How expansive can ignorance get before its mere stupidity? Such people are also often emotional, easily duped. Frequently what Right-wing populists defend as Constitutional is its very opposite. Instead, they fervently hold to what they’re told to believe by their propaganda-silos.

Sykes sees this “rise of illiterati” on the Right as a “broader populist anti-intellectualism [that] rejected expertise and authority alike.” [12] Add to this the technology we created that now manipulates us from foreign shores through banquets of gullibility served on Twitter and Facebook, and conservatism became “more personal and less principled—more flippant and less thoughtful. It became mean. It became lazy. As conservatives cultivated their everyman anti-intellectualism [to] deliberately shun erudition, academic excellence, experience, sagaciousness, and expertise in politics.” [13] Logically, the old GOP transformed itself into the new “party of Sarah Palin and Donald Trump.” [14] Eventually, they would embrace foreign influence (from Putin), just as George Washington warned against in his 1796 Farwell Address.

When Sykes asks, “did we create this monster?” he provides a yes and no answer. While it was Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner who said, “We fed the beast that ate us”—fed by the liars of talk-radio and FOX—it’s also true that all social movements are counter-movements. As in warfare, where each technology is a response: the bow was a response to the spear, the cross-bow to the bow, the carbine to the cross-bow—measure, counter-measure, counter-counter-measure. Right-wing radicalism was a response to Left-wing radicalism, which was a response to Right-wing abuses like the poll tax, lynchings, and Vietnam War. In a society that peddles sensationalism for a dollar, radicals are hard to miss. Radical minorities overpower silent majorities, and it doesn’t take many. Like the handful of incompetent misfits or criminals Trump gathered, from Corey Lewandowski to convicted felon Paul Manafort, Adolf Hitler began his career with just four cranks. [15]

With molestation from so many quarters, conservatism could no longer draw an even strain. By hindsight, Sykes recognizes an unraveling commence with Newt Gingrich as a pioneer of obstruction in 1994, later purified during Obama. [16] Republicans steered away from deliberation, analysis, and problem-solving. Sound bites like “establishment” and “elites” substituted for thought, in parallel with “a surge in anti-intellectualism in American life.” [17] This abdication of thought was justified by Right-wingers like Sarah Palin because, “It’s really funny to me to see the splodey heads keep ‘sploding,” she quipped. [18] Sound governance, and support for Arnold Toynbee’s thesis that civilizations fail through the disappearance of rigorous political innovators. As conservative Christian, Peter Wehner wrote, it became easier for conservatives to confuse “cruelty, vulgarity, and bluster with strength and straight talk.” [19] As when radio-talker and profanity enthusiast Mike Levin “screamed at a caller that her husband should shoot himself,” or when race-baiter Rush Limbaugh said in Obama’s America, “white kids deserve to get beat up by black kids.” [20] With the Right’s re-education, conservatives “pivoted to embrace Vladimir Putin as an exemplar of white Christian civilization,” orchestrated by Putin’s guns and Bible campaign, when he slithered into the NRA before Trump arrived to follow suit. [21] A task made easier for Putin given the Republican base had become more Southern, where the worst primary and secondary state education systems reside in a nation that ranks near bottom in the industrialized world. Headed south, the party also became more evangelical, primed for creed without question. [22] A shift occurred, tilting from “freedom to authoritarianism, from American ‘exceptionalism’ to nativism [with] repudiation of Reagan’s optimistic agenda replaced by the darker paranoid side of the Right.” [23] “In this environment, conformity was demanded… since even the mildest of dissent was punished by withering fire on-air and through [asocial] media.” [24] A cult was forming. With Trump’s arrival, it coalesced. One so sanctified its members signal fealty by risking their lives and that of loved ones through defiance of protective masks and social distancing at “Donny Appleseed’s” rallies, seeding the Trump virus, while deaths sore in red states. [25]

For the Left’s part, the pejorative mantra “angry white male”—their only accepted racist, sexist slur—“was seldom used in the context of asking whether those white men had any legitimate reason to be angry," says Sykes. “Instead, it was used to argue we should pay even less attention to their voices and issues.” [26] “White privilege” became another chant “even as white working-class America entered a period of acute economic and social decline [as] blue-collar workers faced the loss of jobs, income, and cohesive communities.” [27] The spike in white male suicides was so dramatic that U.S. life expectancy declined. [28] And while we see resurgent racism and sexism, the Left’s hurling of “racist, sexist, homophobe” became so overused that the Right not only responds with a collective yawn but wears it as a badge of honor like their t-shirts announcing, “I’m deplorable!” As one juvenile to another, and no longer feeling a need to grovel at the foot of what Bertrand Russel labeled the “superior virtue of the oppressed,” the Right now responds with, “Yes I am, all of the above. Now let me prove it to you.” Like manmade global warming denial, racism has become another tribal identifier.

“But this [Left-wing bigotry] does not let conservatives off the hook,” writes Sykes. [29] The Right ignored conspiracy theorists after William F. Buckley Jr. and Ronald Reagan thought they’d defeated the John Birch Society decades before. That failure, says Sykes, became a tacit invitation, in the way Trump welcomes domestic terrorists with a wink, nod, and “stand back and stand by.” [30] Much as Hitler’s Brown Shirts had their own insignias, this phrase was turned into sleeve patches within hours available online.

While the Lincoln Project contributor in this chair (me) hopes our Carnival Barker and his party are eviscerated from every state legislature to the U.S. Senate and Executive in tomorrow’s election, their aberrant psychology is too rich to let alone. The Trump era is historic. It won’t be over even if Putin fails, even if Trump’s want-to-play-army misfits don’t intimidate voters at the polls, even if GOPP state legislators fail to corrupt the Electoral College. [31] With departure of the Greatest Generation along with their virtue and responsibility, this dark episode has peeled back the false layers of what Americans think we are. It exposed the naked fakes dominating still-Trump-supporting “Christians” as rank apostates. [32] And because much of this psychology is universal, it proved again just how dangerous humans can be. What better example of the need for proper governance when face-to-face with that? These and other topics make for fascinating analysis upon which action can be taken. But only if we’re able, freed from combat with cults.

[1] Billy Binion, Rush Limbaugh Abandons Fiscal Conservatism, Reason, 7.18.2019.
[2] Think Trump’s not a terrorist? Some definitions, commentary, and spleen-venting: “Terrorism:” the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes. “Violence:” damage through distortion or unwarranted alteration, rough or immoderate vehemence as of feeling or language, an unjust or unwarranted exertion of force or power as against rights or laws, rough or injurious physical force, action, or treatment. [] From Trump’s Secret Police beatings, his tear-gassing of peaceful protesters exercising their constitutional right for his photo-op with a Bible (upside-down), his daily assault on the rule of law, to his administration’s hunting of climate scientists early in his term, by these definitions and examples of his countless distortions, Trump is a terrorist. But who needs definitions? We've lived with this beast for four years. Like a dog's definition of a rat, the dog knows one when it sees it.

In Trump's position of authority, we label such people “tyrants,” which properly identifies tyrants as terrorists. A tyrant who invites his militias to terrorize voters, and “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” as Trump’s screwballs scheme to kidnap and execute state governors. It can’t get any clearer than that. Two days ago he lauded domestic terrorists—who also know enough to drive pickup trucks laden with Trump-flags as part of their “Texas Trump Train”—in their attempt to run a Biden / Harris bus off a Texas freeway. Ironically, many of those trucks also flew the U.S. Stars and Stripes. (If these people dislike being labeled “hayseed, hillbilly, hicks,” shouldn’t they stop acting like hayseed, hillbilly, hicks?)

Terrorists are also commonly associated with those who seek to kill innocent people. See SLATE’s The Trump Pandemic: A blow-by-blow account of how the president killed thousands of Americans. Tens of thousands of dead from Covid that would not have died were common-sense action taken to stop it. How many Americans have died and will die as Trump seeds the virus across this continent at his pep rallies where, in adolescent defiance and displays of loyalty, his disciples proudly pack close without masks? How many families have said the only thing their dead family members did wrong was to believe Trump’s dismissal of Covid-19? Instead of that, he told the public it was a hoax. Then he told people to ignore it after he was already recorded by Bob Woodward, saying it was a serious killer on February 10, 2020. Now he says our world-leading 100,000 cases per day and rising death rates (America First!) are numbers faked by the doctors “so they can make more money.” (And, how does that work, exactly? And do the people who buy this ever ask such obvious questions?) So far, at time of writing, that’s 240,000 dead, and at least another 40,000 uncounted, approaching 500,000 total deaths expected as the gift of Trump by Christmas. A tremendous death toll even ISIS would envy. Many fewer would have died if proper action were taken sooner. Still, even after Covid galloped into its first wave, as experts have suggested: $4T initial aid package coupled with four months nationwide shutdown with mandated mask-wearing and social distancing enforced by Federal law (which means coordinated action between Congress and the Executive—imagine that); Defense Production Act used to turn major manufacturers into test makers to test the entire or a satisfactory majority of the nation’s 330,000,000 people multiple times; then trace all infectious interactions and isolate the exposed and infected.

But Trump and his disciples are not problem solvers. Their solution is to lie about doing “a great job” as the dead pile up while Trump, Limbaugh, Hannity, FOX, et. al. say there’s nothing to worry about, Trump got it and look at him, the “strong man.” At least as late as September, Rush Limbaugh still claimed that Covid was less lethal than the flu with fewer than the flu’s 30k-50k deaths per year when Covid deaths were 150,000 by the day he said it, 9/4/20. (Have I said too many times that Limbaugh calls himself a “Christian”? In fact, 82% of “Republicans” call themselves “Christians.” The Apostle Paul said, “We no longer lie to one another, we only tell the truth.” Ephesians 4:25. Hmm…)

Are Trump’s Covid deaths as culpable as blowing himself up in a crowded market or pulling the trigger as he brags about being able to do on 5th Avenue with impunity? There’s an element of self-responsibility here. Someone has to be dumb enough to sucker themselves into Trump’s orbit and foolish enough to willfully stand near other potential coronavirus vectors to catch it. There are about 60 million such people in this country. They still call themselves “Republicans.” Oh… and did I say they still call themselves “Christians”? For weak men like Trump, who cover their weakness by pretending otherwise, the only power he has is what is granted by these people. It’s not his invisible intellect—one so powerful he paid other boys to take his college exams; it’s not his wealth, as we learn from his tax returns, he has none, but rather a mountain of debt owed to who we can’t yet say (Trump’s trail of money laundering for Russia is well documented by the U.S. Treasury and IRS as noted here before); it’s not even his physical abundance which might provide a caveman impression of power for the undereducated. He commands no innate respect nor fear. And yet, the cult persists, the lemmings follow.
[3] Charles J. Sykes, How The Right Lost Its Mind, St. Martin Griffin, 2018, pg. 25.
[4] Ibid., pg. 25
[5] Ibid., pg. xxxii, xxviii, 3.
[6] Ibid., pg. 37.
[7] Ibid., pg. 36.
[8] Ibid., pg. 28.
[9] Ibid., pg. 28.
[10] Ibid., pg. 29.
[11] Ibid., pg. 27.
[12] Ibid., pg. 28.
[13] Ibid., pg. 28.
[14] Ibid., pg. 28.
[15] William L. Shrier, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Touchstone, 1990. In the early 1920s the central figures were Rudolf Hess, Alfred Rosenberg, Herman Goering, Ernst Roehm, as well as lesser-known members Max Amman, Ulrich Graf, Heinrich Hoffmann, Christian Weber, Hermann Esser, Julius Streicher, described by Shrier as “crackpots of mediocre intelligence,” “confused and shallow philosophers,” “amateur wrestlers,” “lusty beer drinkers,” “scoundrels,” “Jew-baiters,” and “murders, pimps, homosexual perverts, drug addicts or just plain rowdies.” [pg. 50]. By 1931 Gregor Strasser, Joseph Goebbels, Herman Goering, Ernst Roehm, and Frick Wilhelm were central.
[16] Sykes, pg. xxv.
[17] Ibid., pg. 6.
[18] Ibid, pg. 7.
[19] Ibid, pg. 7.
[20] Ibid, pg. 9.
[21] Ibid., pg. 9.
Rosalind S. Helderman and Tom Hamburger, Guns and religion: How American conservatives grew closer to Putin’s Russia, Washington Post, April 30, 2017. CASEY MICHEL, Russians and the American right started plotting in 1995. We have the notes from the first meeting., Think Progress, JUN 19, 2018. Matthew Rosenberg, Maria Butina Pleads Guilty to Role in a Russian Effort to Influence Conservatives, New York Times, Dec. 13, 2018.
[22] Ibid, pg. 6.
[23] Ibid., pg. 5.
[24] Ibid., pg. 6.
[25] Erin Mansfield, Josh Salman and Dinah Voyles Pulver, Trump’s campaign made stops nationwide. Coronavirus cases surged in his wake in at least five places., USA TODAY, Oct 22, 2020.
[26] Ibid., pg. 14.
[27] Ibid., pg. 14.
[28] BBC, Drug and suicide deaths rise as US life expectancy drops., BBC, 29 November 2018. For extensive detail, see Anne Case & Angus Deaton, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, Princeton University Press, 2020.
[29] Sykes, pg. 14.
[30] MELISSA QUINN, "Stand back and stand by": Trump declines to condemn white supremacists at debate, CBS NEWS, SEPTEMBER 30, 2020.
[31] GOPP: Grand Old Putin Party, to designate Trump’s creation from Reagan and Lincoln’s GOP, Grand Old Party.
[32] Brett Williams, The betrayal of Christ: global warming denial, on Goodreads, November 5, 2018.
Brett Williams, The Collapse of American Christianity, on Goodfreads, January 18, 2020.
Brett Williams, Why my old Right-wing tribe betrayed everything it once stood for, on Goodreads, March 2, 2020.
Brett Williams, America’s history lesson: Seven truths Trump taught the world, on Goodreads, September 7, 2020.
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Published on November 02, 2020 10:24
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