Keeping track of the Jacksonians, Reformicons, Paleos, and Post-liberals.
I like to start my classes on conservative intellectual history by distinguishing between three groups. There is the Republican party, with its millions of adherents and spectrum of opinion from very conservative, somewhat conservative, moderate, and yes, liberal. There is the conservative movement, the constellation of single-issue nonprofits that sprung up in the 1970s —
- gun rights,
- right to work
— and continue to influence elected officials. Finally, there is the conservative intellectual movement: writers, scholars, and wonks whose journalistic and political work deals mainly with ideas and, if we’re lucky, their translation into public policy.
Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel (R) defends Trump’s attacks by claiming his voters see McCain as the “embodiment” of the sort of “lifetime career politician” who left them feeling “powerless and voiceless for many years,” until Trump arrived.
GOP consultant Mike Shields claims Trump’s attacks on McCain tap his voters’ frustration with “politicians that lie to them” and “aren’t real,” whereas these attacks show Trump is “real.” Trump’s outsider authenticity turns out to be a willingness to slime a dead man who can’t defend himself.
.. And in a new interview with Fox News, Trump himself makes similar claims. He rips into McCain as “horrible” for voting against Obamacare repeal, adding: “We would have had great health care.” And he slams McCain for turning over to the FBI the “Steele dossier,” which he claims was “paid for by Hillary Clinton and the Democrats.”
Thus, the narrative Trumpworld is spinning is that, in attacking McCain, Trump is standing up for his voters, by going after a symbol of the GOP elites he campaigned against and of the deep-state forces working against the will of those voters, and those who blocked him from delivering on his health-care promises.
.. My intention here is not to defend or exalt McCain, but rather to look at what all this says about what a con this whole presidency really is.
Trump did not merely promise to repeal Obamacare. He also vowed to replace it with “insurance for everybody.” He explicitly campaigned on the idea that his desire to give people health care made him different from GOP elites. But he sold out on this promise, by embracing the actual goal of GOP elites: rolling back Obamacare’s coverage and protections for millions without meaningfully replacing them.
Because this was so unpopular, Republicans employed extraordinary partisan tactics and secrecy to try to push it through. This procedural abuse is what McCain voted against. He blocked Trump’s efforts to conspire with GOP elites to sell out on his promise to his voters.
That’s of a piece with Trump’s broader selling-out of his economic populism. After getting elected by promising to drain the swamp of elite corruption and take on the plutocrats who rig our political economy to enrich themselves, he gave those elites a deregulation spree that further rigged the economy in their favor, and a corporate tax cut that lavished enormous benefits on top earners. (As it happens, this is an area where Trump and McCain broadly agree.)
Imagine you’re a member of the American elite. The poor and middle-class members of your society are suffering in a variety of ways: income stagnation, outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, increasing rates of opioid addiction, decreasing age of mortality – the list goes on and on. Meanwhile, life has never been better for you and your peers.
In such a situation, you might expect that the less well-off members of your society start feeling anger toward you. After all, you and your peers are the ones who control the dominant institutions of society – so if things are going badly, you must also be the ones to blame!
Short of actually fixing people’s problems, what do you do? Well, you need to redirect their anger away from you. And one of the easiest ways to do that is to convince them to redirect it at one another. Split them apart and set them against each other before they can rise up and unite against you. Divide and conquer.
And how do you do that? Well, Carlson argues that racism is one of the main ways in which the American elite have divided their subjects against each other. But this is not racism against people of color. To the contrary, it is a form of reverse racism against white Americans that is causing the division.
White people – especially working-class white men – are being demonized and scapegoated for nearly all of American society’s problems by the US media and academia.
This can be seen in media headlines that refer to white people in negative terms. For example, the progressive news and opinion website Salon published headlines that declared that “White Men Are the Face of Terror” and “White Guys Are Killing Us.”
Baron Cohen’s targets in his Showtime series, “Who Is America?,” are the élites, in the broadest sense of the word: nice upper-middle-class Southern conservatives, a contemporary-art curator, Senator Bernie Sanders. He has filmed N.R.A. hacks voicing support for giving guns to kindergarteners, Republican politicians reading utter gibberish off a teleprompter and making asses of themselves in ways imaginable and not, and the art curator earnestly discussing fake art made of apparently real excrement by a fake ex-convict.
Every segment of every episode is designed to leave the viewer feeling not so much appalled—something a sentient being in today’s America experiences many times a day—as finally enlightened: the ultimate explanation for what’s happened to us is that everyone is a moron.
.. Most recently, a hypothesis has emerged, laid out by Ryan Broderick at BuzzFeed, that Q is, in fact, an elaborate lefty prank intent on duping conservatives into following cockamamie theories. If this is true, Q is a cousin, rather than a mirror, of Baron Cohen.
.. September 11th gave rise to truthers, the election of Barack Obama brought forth the birthers, and school shootings enabled Alex Jones.
.. The QAnon message to its followers is that someone is in charge, that reality is knowable even if it is convoluted—and that someone, reassuringly, knows much more than you do. The Q theories acknowledge that the state of the country is awful, but they promise that the insanity is temporary because the great leader is conjuring order from chaos.
.. Baron Cohen’s message is equally clarifying. He demystifies power to an unprecedented extent. He shows that idiocy and incompetence are all there is. Here, the person who knows everything is Baron Cohen himself—and because we viewers are in on the secret, it makes us feel competent. The state of the country is, as in Q’s theories, horrifying, but also temporary, because these buffoons can’t possibly stay in power. We, the more intelligent people, will somehow prevail.
.. “Who Is America?” may appear as if it exposes evil, when really Baron Cohen is exposing the extreme flexibility of social norms. What the art curator, the nice Republican couple, and most of Baron Cohen’s politician targets have in common is their willingness to humor a visitor.