The right’s success in media is not a shadowy conspiracy; it has been achieved out in the open, largely through ordinary politics. Much of it can be countered the same way.
At his first official press conference in 2017, Press Secretary Sean Spicer made a telling choice. After giving the first question to the New York Post, he then called on Jennifer Wishon, who was sitting at the back, in the seventh row. He didn’t mention the news organization she represented, but it was no secret: since 2011 she had served as the White House correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network.
The consumption of ideological media has been a core part of conservative identity in the United States for two generations.
That President Trump’s press secretary chose to highlight CBN, the evangelical network started by Pat Robertson in 1960, may come as a surprise. After all, even the network’s top official, Gordon Robertson, laughs at the notion that Donald Trump is a devout Christian. But the Trump-CBN partnership dates to well before Spicer took the podium, back to 2011 when Trump was weighing a presidential bid. In the intervening years he has been interviewed on the network about twenty times, including several times as president.
Yet that relationship has received relatively little attention in the press, save a handful of articles a few years ago. While journalists have zeroed in on Fox News and Sinclair Broadcasting and even the upstart network One America News, they have largely ignored CBN and the network of conservative evangelical radio and television stations that crisscross the nation.
Has that relationship simply been overlooked, or has it been deliberately concealed? That is the question that stalks the pages of Anne Nelson’s new book Shadow Network: Media, Money and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right. The “secret hub” at the heart of the book, the Council for National Policy (CNP)—for which CBN founder Pat Robertson served on the board of governors—is a banal-sounding organization with significant conservative political ties. Everyone from presidential candidates to big-money donors to movement organizers has attended the annual meetings or sat on the organization’s board. Add the CNP’s air of secrecy—the meetings are private, and it won’t reveal who attends—and you have the perfect set-up for Shadow Network’s central argument: that a shadowy organization has been coordinating a secret assault on democracy and truth for the better part of forty years.
What Nelson describes as a “shadow network” could better be understood as a political movement.
That argument is not entirely wrong, but it is wrongly framed. What Nelson describes as a “shadow network” could better be understood as a political movement. To be sure, it is a political movement that has worked to undermine faith in media, democracy, and facts. But if we detach the argument from Nelson’s conspiratorial framework, it is much easier to see how the right built a coalition capable of restructuring American politics and doing lasting damage to democratic governance.
Broadly speaking, Shadow Network is the story of how white conservative evangelicals became a core part of the Republican base. In Nelson’s telling, that story begins in the 1960s with the New Right, a set of political operatives who saw an opportunity to mobilize white evangelicals by emphasizing religious and social issues. Using targeted political messaging—one of the founders of the New Right, Richard Viguerie, was an innovator in direct mail—these political operatives turned evangelical devotees into evangelical voters. The New Right used these voters first to transform the Republican Party, then the country.
When the New Right looked at liberals’ elite connections, they saw a clearinghouse of American power. And they wanted in on the action.
The Council for National Policy played a central role in achieving this goal. Modeled after the Council on Foreign Relations (of which Nelson is a member), the CNP sought to bring together conservative donors, politician, and grassroots organizers—to connect “the donors and the doers,” as one member put it. In practice, that largely meant setting a political agenda through regular closed-door meetings—an agenda that would then filter out through organization leaders and right-wing radio—and channeling funds to political initiatives such as the Values Voter Summit, conservative media outlets, and now the Koch-funded i360 data platform, a new data platform developed to target and mobilize Republican voters.
It is telling that they modeled the CNP after the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), which was a who’s-who of the American elite, especially during the Cold War. Scholars, politicians, journalists, diplomats, presidents—they all found in the CFR a place to connect to other elites and to the deep pockets of the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations. So influential was the CFR that it staffed a good chunk of the foreign policy leadership for three consecutive administrations (Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson). When the New Right looked at this configuration of elite connections, they saw a clearinghouse of American power. And they wanted in on the action.
Copying the liberal establishment of midcentury America was a common tactic of the conservative movement long before the CNP was founded. Many conservatives saw their marginalization in American politics as a function of having been out-organized. When William F. Buckley Jr. founded the National Review in 1955, he explicitly credited magazines such as the New Republic and the Nation for the success of the New Deal, and he hoped to start a similar political revolution with his new conservative magazine. Likewise, the American Conservative Union was modeled after Americans for Democratic Action and the National Association of Evangelicals after the mainline National Council of Churches.
Copying the liberal establishment of midcentury America was a common tactic of the conservative movement long before the CNP was founded.
That’s not to say that the right simply copied the institutions of liberalism. More often, they copied their fever-dream version of what they saw as overtly liberal institutions. Seeing the powerful political influence of liberal organizations in twentieth-century America, they assumed that those organizations had been designed precisely to transform American politics: that New Republic editors wrote only to advance a liberal political agenda, or that universities were dedicated to propagandizing Keynesian economics and secularism. So Fox News became a right-wing fun-house-mirror version of CNN, the Koch Foundation of the Ford Foundation, and the CNP of the CFR.
As that lineage suggests, the CNP was not particularly unusual as a right-wing organization. Like all the above organizations, it was founded with explicit political goals and systemic political strategies already in place. And in fact, though the shadow organization lurks throughout the book, the broader phenomenon Nelson is describing is not a semi-secret network but rather the institutional core of the conservative movement.
That becomes clear in the way Nelson describes the influence of the CNP. She does this primarily by signaling how someone influential, such as Pat Robertson or Mike Pence, was connected to the CNP. These connections become looser later in the book, as Nelson moves into the 2000s and 2010s: CNP founders give way to “CNP members,” “CNP donors,” “CNP affiliates,” and finally “friends of the organization.” But the proliferation of CNP connections often feels like a substitution for a broader argument. Ties to the CNP ultimately serve as a narrative device rather than evidence. Aside from founders and board members, it is not clear that being connected to the CNP means anything for conservatives other than another membership in one of the myriad umbrella organizations that proliferate in politics, such as the American Conservative Union, the Young America’s Foundation, the Council on Foreign Relations, or the Democracy Fund.
And much of what is actually being done by the CNP and “friends of the organization” is not particularly scandalous. Nelson writes that, for the CNP to achieve its goal of a vastly more conservative government, they would need “a long-range strategy to target critical districts and activate previously unengaged voting blocs.” Later, she lays out the right’s new model of grassroots mobilization:
Identify an invisible, disengaged group of potential voters. Find a hot-button issue to activate them. Keep them riled up with targeted media and direct mail. Facilitate their interactions in gathering places they frequent, to reinforce their commitment with groupthink. Follow up with onsite voter registration and transportation to the polls on Election Day.
That . . . sounds a whole lot like run-of-the-mill politics. Even the threat of theocracy doesn’t quite land. For instance, Nelson acknowledges that materials like the Family Research Council’s iVoter guides are used by countless groups, but darkly warns about the role of religious leaders in conservative evangelical organizing: “By making pastors and churches their vehicles of distribution, the iVoter guides gave their recommendations the imprimatur of spiritual leaders—perhaps even an air of divine authority.” But church-based organizing is hardly limited to the right. “Souls to the polls” might sound frightening if deployed by someone like Jerry Falwell, but it is a regular part of Democratic voter turnout.
Set the conspiratorial framework aside, though, and there is something deeply important that Nelson’s work is doing. By focusing on the way central political institutions, especially the press, fractured in the post-Reagan era, she helps explain why right-wing organizations and politics have flourished in the past few decades.
Why did the collapse of journalism benefit the right far more than the left? In part because the right had been hard at work since the 1940s establishing alternative media institutions.
For Nelson, who has held leadership positions at the Columbia School of Journalism and the Committee to Protect Journalism, the “colony collapse” of journalism in the past few decades is a key factor in that explanation. That is partly due to the economic and technological changes that have decimated local news and transformed national outlets, and partly due to changes that have happened to the practice of journalism with the rise of right-wing media in the second half of the twentieth century. Why did the collapse of journalism benefit the right far more than the left? In part because the right had been hard at work since the 1940s establishing alternative media institutions, from magazines to radio shows to television networks. They paired these new institutions with a novel and effective argument about existing news outlets: that these purportedly objective outlets were riddled with liberal bias and could not possibly be trusted.
As a result, the consumption of ideological media has been a core part of conservative identity in the United States for two generations, something that has no parallel on the left. That built-in base allowed conservative media not only to survive the colony collapse of journalism in the late twentieth century, but to thrive—especially after the elimination of the Federal Communication Commission’s Fairness Doctrine in 1987 opened up the radio dial for the proliferation of right-wing voices.
In tying the transformation of media to the transformation of politics, Nelson is advancing an important argument. Our media environments and our political environments constitute one another; they cannot be separated. This is as true today as it was at the founding, when a free press was seen as vital to a healthy republic. The current fractured, factious, and fact-challenged landscape of political news both reflects and promotes the same qualities in our politics.
The right’s undermining of democracy has not been the function of a secret cabal of conservative elites—who are often forced to bow to the desires of their base, rather than brainwashing the base into following their lead.
The institutional decline that Nelson is less attuned to, and which helps explain the rise of organizations such as the CNP, is the decline of political parties. Yes, the Democratic and Republican parties still exist. But their traditional function, as Nelson ably charts, have been outsourced to other institutions. On the Republican side, that means the conservative movement has largely taken over for the party. The party’s fundraising function now belongs to foundations, Super PACs, and dark-money peddlers. The messaging function now belongs to right-wing media. And the mobilization function now largely resides with groups such as Americans for Prosperity and Turning Point USA.
The collapse of these core institutions of American democracy is deeply worrisome, highlighting the fragility of democracy. A few technological changes, a few tweaks to the institutional apparatus of elections, and suddenly the whole structure of democracy has been weakened. Not just weakened, but willfully undermined. The American right has taken aim at key parts of the democratic process: access to the ballot box, accurate information, checks and balances.
But that undermining has not been the function of a secret cabal of conservative elites. It has been as much, if not more so, about the desires of the base—the grassroots that organizations such as the CNP are “registering, indoctrinating, and mobilizing,” as Nelson puts it. It is far from clear that these conservative evangelicals are in as subservient a position as Nelson suggests. Their theology and politics are largely absent from Shadow Network, but the evangelical base is a powerful force in American politics. Yes, organizers help find a language and urgency that drove white evangelicals to the polls in the 1980s and 1990s. But to call that “indoctrination” is to posit a unidirectional line of political influence that simply does not exist.
In fact, as the durability of Trump support suggests, conservative organizations and media are often forced to bow to the desires of their base, rather than brainwashing the base into following their lead. Trump led in the polls well before he led among conservative elites. A base-driven perspective undermines the idea of a “shadow network,” but it is far more in line with how GOP politics have functioned in the past decade or so.
The dislocations of the Trump era have stoked a hunger for books like this: works that try to find Patient Zero for the dramatic reorientation of the American right away from the now familiar conservative politics of the Reagan era and toward those of 2016. Pinpointing a shadowy conspiracy behind that transformation is comforting: if it was something that happened out of sight, then we couldn’t have known about it, and therefore couldn’t have stopped it and aren’t responsible for it. Yes, the norms of democracy have been violently violated, but it was done in secret, so we can be forgiven for not understanding what was happening.
Pinpointing a shadowy conspiracy behind the transformation of conservative politics is comforting. But it lets us off too easily.
That lets us off too easily. The attacks on America’s democratic institutions and processes have not been happening in some secret hub of the radical right. They have been happening out in the open, little by little, with too few people paying attention. In the early days of conservative organizing, right-wing activists were dismissed, understandably enough, as fringe figures with no real relevance to American politics. And at the time they were, in fact, a small contingent. If journalists and liberal activists could be forgiven for missing the organizational strength of conservatives in the 1950s and 1960s, however, there was no excuse for dismissing it in the 1980s and 1990s, after Reagan had won two landslide elections and Republicans had swept the 1994 elections. That they were continuously caught offguard by conservative political success, and regularly overlooked conservative organizing, marked a catastrophic failure to understand the core operations of American politics.
By the time liberals started to take conservative organizing seriously, they were several decades behind and often failed to understand the broader ideological rationale that gave conservative institutions their power: the belief that all institutions are ideological, and that any institution that purports to be objective is untrustworthy. Without that, it is almost impossible to build reliance on ideological media. That became clear when Air America launched in 2004. It was supposed to be the left’s answer to conservative talk radio. Though a few commentators such as Rachel Maddow launched their careers out of Air America, by 2010 it had collapsed. There just wasn’t enough demand for left-wing talk.
The liberal-left has had more success in copying right-wing institutions in other arenas. In 2014 Democratic activists launched SIX, the State Innovation Exchange, as an answer to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which has developed model legislation for conservative state legislatures across the country. Founded in 1973, ALEC had a forty-year head start, but it is significant that left-wing activists are finally following its lead.
There is, finally, a growing awareness of how effectively the right has organized to seize control of American politics—an awareness Shadow Network will help spread. But now that a critical mass of people is waking up to the assault on American democracy, we need to be straight with them: this wasn’t some secretive plot against America. It has been happening out in the open the entire time, largely through the normal functioning of politics. And as a result, much of it can be countered the same way.
Elliott Abrams was once an innocent child. And then he decided to spend the rest of his life covering up brutal atrocities and defending right-wing dictatorships.
Elliott Abrams once said the animating force behind his and Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy was that the world is “an exceedingly dangerous place.” And this is true, largely because men like Elliott Abrams exist in it.Last month, Abrams was tapped by Trump to serve as his special envoy to Venezuela, to essentially help steer the Trump administration’s slow-burn effort to topple that country’s government — or as Mike Pompeo put it, “restore democracy” in the country.
It should go without saying that the idea the Trump administration is pursuing regime change in Venezuela for the sake of democracy and human rights is as laughable as calling Jamal Khashoggi’s murder a surprise party gone wrong. But in case you need to explain this to politically confused friends and relatives, here are eight good reasons why the appointment of Abrams, in particular, makes a mockery of any such high-minded rhetoric.
1. He was knee-deep in human rights atrocities
Let’s start with the most obvious point, which is that Abrams’ chief claim to fame is his role in Ronald Reagan’s blood-soaked foreign policy in Central America in the 1980s, for which he earned the nickname, “contra commander-in-chief.” The contras were the brutal right-wing paramilitary groups in Nicaragua who terrorized civilians throughout the decade, cutting a swath of torture, rape, and murder aimed at everyone from the elderly to children. Their methods were similar to those of right-wing paramilitaries in the other countries of the region, including El Salvador and Guatemala, all of which were supported by the Reagan administration. If you have the stomach to read about them, there’s no shortage of sources that outline their barbarity.
To Abrams, however, they were “freedom fighters,” their work in El Salvador was a “fabulous achievement,” and he mocked critics of Reagan as people forced to “run the risk” of arguing that such groups were “doing something wrong and ought to stop it.” He himself had no illusions about what it is that the contras were doing. “The purpose of our aid is to permit people who are fighting on our side to use more violence,” he said in 1985.
This “micromanagement” at one point also involved Abrams secretly delivering military equipment to the contras under the guise of humanitarian aid. As commentators have noted, this is particularly relevant now, when the Trump administration attacks Maduro for refusing to let humanitarian aid from the US into Venezuela.
2. He covered up brutal acts of terror
Key to Abrams’ role under Reagan was playing down and denying the copious human rights abuses being committed by the forces and governments he and the administration supported.
As Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar pointed out in her grilling of Abrams earlier this week, part of the Reagan administration’s “fabulous achievement” in El Salvador was the horrific El Mozote massacre, which took place shortly before Abrams took up his post. In his attempt to convince the Senate to certify that El Salvador’s government was improving its human rights record — a precondition for receiving US aid — Abrams testified that the massacre had been “publicized when the certification comes forward to the committee,” and was “being significantly misused, at the very best, by the guerrillas.” He claimed he had sent military officers to investigate the reports, and that the massacre couldn’t be confirmed.
Another incident was the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, killed on the orders of Major Roberto D’Aubuisson, one of the administration’s partners in the country. “Anybody who thinks you’re going to find a cable that says that Roberto d’Aubuisson murdered the archbishop is a fool,” said Abrams. In fact, two such cables existed. Abrams would later insist that any criticism of the Reagan administration’s activities in El Salvador were simply “a post-Cold War effort to rewrite history.”
Meanwhile, as Guatemalan dictator Ríos Montt embarked on a campaign of genocide in the country, Abrams said he had “brought considerable progress” on human rights. He defended Reagan’s lifting of a military aid embargo on Montt’s government, claiming the slaughter of civilians was “being reduced step by step” and that it was “progress” that had to be “rewarded and encouraged.”
3. He’s an unrepentant liar
Abrams told Omar that it is “always the position of the United States” to protect human rights, including in Venezuela, and he stressed the US didn’t want to arm anti-Maduro forces. Besides his well-documented record of doing exactly the opposite, Abrams’ words are even less relevant when you consider his history of outright lying.
We’ve already seen how Abrams regularly lied to cover up or play down abuses by the right-wing forces he supported. This practice would ultimately land him in trouble when he misled Congress about the Iran-Contra affair with statements that ranged from outright lies (“we’re not in the fund-raising business”), to lawyerly parsing of the truth (“I said no foreign government was helping the contras, because we had not yet received a dime from Brunei,” he would write later).
Abrams would forever maintain he did nothing wrong, later writing a sanctimonious book that painted himself as the victim of an unjust, vindictive system that had criminalized “political differences.” “This kind of prosecution is something new in America, and it is wrong,” he wrote, before bleating about the “bloodsuckers” and “filthy bastards” who wanted to do him in.
Abrams rained ire upon Lawrence Walsh, the special prosecutor tasked with investigating the Iran-Contra scandal: “You, Walsh, eighty years old, and nothing else to do but stay in this job till the grim reaper gets you. Is this your idea of America?” Abrams insisted the independent counsel law under which Walsh (along with Watergate prosecutor Archibold Cox) served was unconstitutional, despite the fact that the Supreme Court had upheld it 7-1, with even the conservative chief justice Rehnquist affirming (Scalia dissented). It didn’t matter anyway, because the late George H. W. Bush pardoned him.
Abrams managed the trifecta of showing contempt for the truth, the constitution’s separation of powers, and the concept of checks and balances, all in one fell swoop. There’s no reason to believe any of his assurances now.
4. He hates democracy
Abrams has also shown a lifelong contempt for the very thing he’s now meant to be advancing: democracy.
When the Uruguayan military government imprisoned Wilson Ferreira, the country’s most popular politician and a fierce liberal opponent of its rule, Abrams defended the Reagan administration’s meek response, which the New York Times had called “stunning.” Abrams explained that “the transition [to elected government] itself is more important than the immediate situation of any individual politician.” Abrams had earlier insisted there was no evidence the Uruguyan military was stifling political freedom, even as it
- closed newspapers,
- arrested its opposition, and
- continued to ban political leaders, among other things.
Around this same time, Abrams was one of a number of Reagan officials who supported Oliver North’s call to pardon Honduran general Jose Bueso Rosa, despite his having received a relatively lenient sentence. Rosa had been convicted after being caught in Florida plotting to overthrow the Honduran government.
In 2002, Abrams reportedly “gave a nod” to the military coup that attempted, ultimately unsuccessfully, to remove the democratically elected Hugo Chavez from power. The Observer, which broke the story, called Abrams “the crucial figure around the coup.” Abrams has had his eye on toppling Venezuela’s government for some time.
When Hamas defeated Fatah in the 2006 Palestinian election, Abrams, then the point man for George W. Bush’s Middle East policy, helped implement a scheme to nullify the results by fomenting a Palestinian civil war which, they hoped, would remove Hamas from power. When the plan backfired, with Hamas emerging victorious and in full control of Gaza, Abrams accused Hamas of staging a “coup.”
5. His only political principle was anticommunism
Abrams’ disregard for democracy is part and parcel of his general philosophy, which views left-wing governments uniformly as threats to be stamped out.
Abrams, who once told a reporter that he’s “been a counterrevolutionary for a long time,” cut his teeth opposing student protesters at Harvard in the 1960s. He believes the idea that human rights extend past the political and into the economic realm to be “nonsense” and “old Soviet bromides.” As such, he viewed defeating the Soviet Union as the greatest US priority, telling one interviewer that “the greatest threat to human rights is the Soviet Union, not Guatemala or the Philippines.”
In 1984, Abrams quite candidly explained to Policy Review that his human rights policy was one of double standards: fierce opposition to communist rights abusers, and coddling of oppressors friendly to the US.
“Liberalization for purposes of letting out steam always involves line drawing,” he said. “How much steam should you let out? At what point do you risk anarchy and destabilizing the regime?” He went on to explain that “the line drawn varies from country to country,” and that “even a highly imperfect regime may well give a much better prospect of democratization than would the Communist regime that might follow.”
In other words, no matter how brutal or outright fascist a government, it was by default preferable to a communist one, a philosophy he applied in obvious ways to his work in the Americas. It was also evident in his treatment of Cuba, whose prisons he denounced in 1984 as “barbaric” and whose leader, Fidel Castro, he labeled “oppressive” and accused of “betrayal.” He attacked human rights groups, politicians, reporters, and church groups who praised Cuba as “apologists” who “will never take off their rose-colored glasses” and had spent “years defending tyrants” and “years obfuscating the truth.”
At literally the same time he was doing this, Abrams publicly defended Turkey, a key regional ally, from criticism of its human rights record. Abrams praised Turkey, which had recently been pilloried in an Amnesty International report for widespread torture of its people, for “extraordinary progress,” charging that “some who criticize Turkey’s human rights situation have no interest in human rights in Turkey or anywhere else,” but “simply use this issue as a weapon with which to attack a vital member of the Western alliance.” He dismissed Amnesty’s claims as “false history,” criticized human rights groups for “an appalling shallowness of analysis” that ignored social, political, and historical context, and charged that the Turkish people “resent the activists’ shrill and uninformed criticisms of their country.”
As Abrams had earlier said, “the line drawn varies from country to country.” If you played nice with the Reagan administration, your human rights record was tempered by nuance and context, and it was getting better anyway. And if you didn’t, you were beyond redemption.
6. He dislikes journalists and accountability
Abrams no doubt sympathized with Turkey’s rulers because he himself had first-hand experience dealing with pesky journalists and human rights groups.
He said critics of Reagan’s support of the contras would have “blood on their hands,” and accused human rights groups of having communist sympathies. He hopped aboard the Reagan administration’s McCarthyite attempt to shame congressional critics into giving him a blank check in Latin America, claiming that there was an “elaborate and skillful” campaign by Nicaragua’s Sandinista government to “manipulate Congress and the press.” When the GAO released a report alleging contra corruption that was inconvenient for the administration’s attempts to secure aid, Abrams dismissed it as a “smear campaign” cooked up by Democrats.
While Abrams didn’t have a police state at his disposal, that didn’t prevent him from lobbing heavy-handed broadsides against reporters he didn’t like. He refused to be questioned by or debate certain journalists he perceived as critical. Most infamously, from 1986 to 1987, Abrams accused left-wing Colombian journalist Patricia Lara of being a “Cuban agent” and “an active liaison” between Colombian terrorist organization M-19 and “the Cuban secret police.” In October 1986, Lara was stopped by New York immigration officials and imprisoned, before being sent back home, without explanation.
Abrams claimed to have “concrete evidence” that Lara was “heavily engaged” with M-19, but when challenged to reveal evidence, claimed it was based on “intelligence information” that he couldn’t reveal. The Colombian Defense Ministry, then battling M-19, categorically denied they had any such information, and assigned her a bodyguard because Abrams’ accusation had put her in danger. The country’s foreign minister said “we don’t know where the US government obtained” such information.
Abrams also granted a “meritorious honor” award on the Office of Public Diplomacy, a government body responsible for waging an illegal domestic propaganda campaign, in which Iran-Contra architect Oliver North was closely involved, that disseminated Abrams’ preferred narrative about the region. Abrams praised it for “setting out the parameters and defining the terms of the public discussion on Central America policy” and countering the “formidable and well established Soviet/Cuban/Nicaraguan propaganda apparatus.”
7. He’s a fan of regime change
Like any neoconservative worth his salt, Abrams has an abiding faith in the US government’s ability to simply remove world leaders it dislikes at will. (He’s also continued the neocon tradition of never personally fighting in any war, avoiding Vietnam thanks to a hurt back that happened to clear up once the war was over.)
When Abrams wanted to remove former ally Manuel Noriega from power in Panama, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Reagan wrote, he threatened sanctions, then actually imposed sanctions, then established a Panamanian government-in-exile on a US military base. Abrams finally called outright for the US military to topple Noriega, in an op-ed titled “Noriega Respects Power. Use It,” which is what George H. W. Bush ultimately did. It was a chilling preview of where US policy on Venezuela may now be heading if Maduro stays in power.
Reflecting on the mistakes of Reagan’s Latin American policy in 1989, Abrams’ regret was that it hadn’t been more forceful. “You can make a very good argument that after the successful rescue mission in Grenada the president should simply have said, ‘Look, we have to enforce the Monroe Doctrine, we cannot have a Communist government in Nicaragua,’ and done whatever we needed to do to get rid of it, including a naval blockade or possibly even an invasion,” he said.
In 2007, Abrams blessed Bush’s plan to launch a covert operation to destabilize Iran’s government. Two years later, he mused about what should happen if Iran develops a nuclear weapon. “Responsible leadership cannot allow this to happen,” he said. “Preventing it through military action perhaps is the second worst decision we could make. The only worse one being to say it’s all right now, it’s acceptable, we will not act.” But this wouldn’t involve regime change or the killing of civilians, he stressed; just a strike on nuclear facilities. Iran, Abrams warned, was one to three years away from developing a nuclear weapon.
In 2013, Abrams told a House Armed Services Committee hearing that the US had to get militarily involved in Syria. Why? Because “a display of American lack of will power in Syria will persuade many Iranian officials that while we may say ‘all options are on the table,’ in reality they are not — so Iran can proceed happily and safely toward a nuclear weapon.” Two years later, he said at a Council of Foreign Relations event that Netanyahu had two options: either strike Iran right then, or wait two years and see if an administration willing to take a tougher line, or sanction an Israeli strike, would be elected. Abrams, it seems, got his wish.
8. He’s beloved by the Right
In case anyone still believes the fiction that “anti-Trump” conservatives actually oppose Trump, Abrams is a living reminder that there’s no daylight between Trump and the establishment Right that pretends to dislike him.
Abrams was once an “anti-Trump” Republican who signed a letter opposing his candidacy in 2016. He tutored Paul Ryan in foreign policy when he was Mitt Romney’s 2012 running mate, and served on Marco Rubio’s so-called National Security Advisory Council in 2016. It’s no surprise the Florida senator, long viewed as an establishment-friendly, “sensible” conservative alternative to Trump, is now all but directing Trump’s Latin American policy, sounding virtually indistinguishable from Abrams.
Abrams has now served in every Republican administration since he first entered government bar one. In between, he’s worked at the Heritage Foundation (whose head of Latin American policy just called him “a patriot and dedicated voice for repressed communities”), helped found “anti-Trump” Bill Kristol’s Project for the New American Century, was a fellow for the Council on Foreign Relations, and was a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the US government’s arm for foreign political meddling.
Meanwhile, just look at who came to Abrams’ defense after his grilling by Rep. Omar. The National Review — which not long ago put out a much-celebrated “Against Trump” issue whose purpose, according to its editor, was to say, “He’s not one of us. He’s not a conservative, and he’s not what conservatism is” — just published an editorial calling Abrams “one of the wisest, most experienced foreign-policy heads in this country,” and “a steadfast advocate of freedom, democracy, and human rights.”
A former Bush administration official and current Harvard professor defended Abrams as “a devoted public servant who has contributed much of his professional life to our country.” The newly rebranded neocon Max Boot, who very publicly proclaims he’s seen the error of his ways and broken with the ugliness he now sees in the GOP, deemed him “a leading advocate of human rights and democracy.” Unfortunately, it’s not just the Right; the Center for American Progress’ vice president of National Security and International Policy called him “a fierce advocate for human rights and democracy” who simply “made serious professional mistakes.”
That someone like Abrams, who’s now leading Trump’s regime change efforts in Venezuela, is warmly embraced by the coterie of establishment and “never-Trump” conservatives should tell you everything you need to know about these groups.
Why do Republicans enable right-wing extremism?
Why has the Republican Party become a systematic enabler of terrorism?
Don’t pretend to be shocked. Just look at G.O.P. responses to the massacre in El Paso. They have ranged from the ludicrous (blame video games!) to the almost honest (who would have expected Ted Cruz, of all people, to speak out against white supremacy?). But as far as I can tell, not one prominent Republican has even hinted at the obvious link between Donald Trump’s repeated incitements to violence and the upsurge in hate crimes.
So the party remains in lock step behind a man who has arguably done more to promote racial violence than any American since Nathan Bedford Forrest, who helped found the Ku Klux Klan, a terrorist organization if there ever was one — and who was recently honored by the Republican governor of Tennessee.
Anyway, the party’s complicity started long before Trump came on the scene. More than a decade ago, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report warning about a surge of right-wing extremism. The report was prescient, to say the least. But when congressional Republicans learned about it, they went on a rampage, demanding the resignation of Janet Napolitano, who headed the agency, and insisted that even using the term “right-wing extremism” was unacceptable.
This backlash was effective: Homeland Security drastically scaled back its efforts to monitor and head off what was already becoming a major threat. In effect, Republicans bullied law enforcement into creating a safe space for potential terrorists, as long as their violent impulses were motivated by the right kind of hatred.
No, not exactly. No doubt some members of Congress, and a significant number of Trump administration officials, very much including the tweeter in chief, really are white supremacists. And a much larger fraction — almost surely bigger than anyone wants to admit — are racists. (Recently released tapes of conversations between Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon reveal that the modern G.O.P.’s patron saint was, in fact, a crude racist who called Africans “monkeys.”)
But racism isn’t what drives the Republican establishment, and my guess is that a majority of the party’s elected officials find it a little bit repugnant — just not repugnant enough to induce them to repudiate its political exploitation. And their exploitation of racism has led them inexorably to where they are today: de facto enablers of a wave of white supremacist terrorism.
The central story of U.S. politics since the 1970s is the takeover of the Republican Party by economic radicals, determined to slash taxes for the wealthy while undermining the social safety net.
With the arguable exception of George H.W. Bush, every Republican president since 1980 has pushed through tax cuts that disproportionately benefited the 1 percent while trying to defund and/or privatize key social programs like
- Social Security,
- Medicaid and the
- Affordable Care Act.
So how do Republicans win elections? By appealing to racial animus. This is such an obvious fact of American political life that you have to be willfully blind not to see it.
For a long time, the G.O.P. establishment was able to keep this game under control. It would campaign using implicit appeals to racial hostility (welfare queens! Willie Horton!) but turn postelection to privatization and tax cuts.
But for some reason this bait-and-switch started getting less effective in the 2000s. Maybe it was the reality of America’s growing racial diversity; maybe it was the fact that American society as a whole was becoming less racist, leaving the hard-core racists feeling isolated and frustrated. And the election of our first black president really kicked hatred into overdrive.
The result is that there are more and more angry white people out there willing to commit mayhem — and able to do so because those same Republicans have blocked any effective control over sales of assault weapons.
A different, better G.O.P. might have been willing to acknowledge the growing threat and supported a crackdown on violent right-wing extremism, comparable to the F.B.I.’s successful campaign against the modern K.K.K. in the 1960s. A lot of innocent victims would be alive today if Republicans had done so.
But they didn’t, because admitting that right-wing extremism was a threat, or even a phrase law enforcement should be allowed to use, might have threatened the party’s exploitation of racial hostility to achieve its economic goals.
In effect, then, the Republican Party decided that a few massacres were an acceptable price to pay in return for tax cuts. I wish that were hyperbole, but the continuing refusal of G.O.P. figures to criticize Trump even after El Paso shows that it’s the literal truth.
So as I said at the beginning, the G.O.P. has become a systematic enabler of terrorism. Why? Follow the money.
The molten core of right-wing nationalism is the furious denial of America’s unalterably multiracial, multicultural national character.
The Republican Party under Donald Trump has devolved into a populist cult of personality. But Mr. Trump won’t be president forever. Can the cult persist without its personality? Does Trumpist nationalism contain a kernel of coherent ideology that can outlast the Trump presidency?
At a recent conference in Washington, a group of conservatives did their level best to promote Trumpism without Trump (rebranded as “national conservatism”) as a cure for all that ails our frayed and faltering republic. But the exclusive Foggy Bottom confab served only to clarify that “national conservatism” is an abortive monstrosity, neither conservative nor national. Its animating principle is contempt for the actually existing United States of America, and the nation it proposes is not ours.
Bitter cultural and political division inevitably leads to calls for healing reconciliation under the banner of shared citizenship and national identity. After all, we’re all Americans, and our fortunes are bound together, like it or not.
Yet the question of who “we” are as “a people” is the central question on which we’re polarized. High-minded calls to reunite under the flag therefore tend to take a side and amount to little more than a demand for the other side’s unconditional surrender. “Agree with me, and then we won’t disagree” is more a threat than an argument.
The attackers — the nature-denying feminists, ungrateful blacks, babbling immigrants, ostentatiously wedded gays — bear full responsibility for any damage wrought by populist backlash, because they incited it by demanding and claiming a measure of equal freedom. But they aren’t entitled to it, because the conservative denizens of the fruited plain are entitled first to a country that feels like home to them. That’s what America is. So the blame for polarizing mutual animosity must always fall on those who fought for, or failed to prevent, the developments that made America into something else — a country “real Americans” find hard to recognize or love.
The practical implication of the nationalist’s entitled perspective is that unifying social reconciliation requires submission to a vision of national identity flatly incompatible with the existence and political equality of America’s urban multicultural majority. That’s a recipe for civil war, not social cohesion.
Yoram Hazony, author of “The Virtue of Nationalism” and impresario of the “national conservatism” conference, argued that America’s loss of social cohesion is because of secularization and egalitarian social change that began in the 1960s. “You throw out Christianity, you throw out the Torah, you throw out God,” Mr. Hazony warned, “and within two generations people can’t tell the difference between a man and a woman. They can’t tell the difference between a foreigner and a citizen. They can’t tell the difference between this side of the border and the other side of the border.”
“The only way to save this country, to bring it back to cohesion,” he added, “is going to be to restore those traditions.”
Mr. Hazony gave no hint as to how this might be peacefully done within the scope of normal liberal-democratic politics. “It’s not simple,” he eventually conceded. Mr. Hazony notably omitted to mention, much less to condemn, the atrocious cruelty of America’s existing nationalist regime. Indeed, roaring silence around our Trumpian reality was the conference’s most consistent and telling theme.
The incoherence of an American nationalism meant to “conserve” an imaginary past was not lost on everyone at the conference.Patrick Deneen, a political theorist at Notre Dame, pointed out that American nationalism has historically been a progressive project. The nationalism of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, he noted, arose as the United States began to establish itself as an imperial power of global reach. Building nations has always been about building armies, regimenting the population and centralizing political control.
Yuval Levin, the editor of National Affairs, similarly observed that nationalist projects meant to unite the diverse tribes and cultures of large territories generally involve a program of political mythmaking and the state-backed suppression of ancestral ethnic and community identities.
Mr. Levin suggested that a genuinely conservative nationalism, in the context of a vast national territory with an immense multiethnic population, would refrain from uprooting these traditions and communities and seek instead to preserve them in a vision of the nation as “the sum of various uneven, ancient, lovable elements,” because we are “prepared for love of country by a love of home.”
But what, today, do Americans call “home”? The next logical step would be to observe that the contemporary sum of rooted, lovable American elements includes the
- black culture of Compton, the
- Mexican culture of Albuquerque, the
- Indian culture of suburban Houston, the
- Chinese culture of San Francisco, the
- Orthodox Jewish culture of Brooklyn, the
- Cuban culture of Miami and the
- “woke” progressive culture of the college town archipelago, as well as the
- conservative culture of the white small town.
But Mr. Levin, a gifted rhetorician who knew his audience, did not hazard this step.
Barack Obama claimed resounding victory in two presidential elections on the strength of a genuinely conservative conception of pluralistic American identity that embraced and celebrated America as it exists. Yet this unifying vision, from the mouth of a black president, primed the ethnonationalist backlash that put Mr. Trump in the White House.
The molten core of right-wing nationalism is the furious denial of America’s unalterably multiracial, multicultural national character. This denialism is the crux of the new nationalism’s disloyal contempt for the United States of America. The struggle to make good on the founding promise of equal freedom is the dark but hopeful thread that runs through our national story and defines our national character. It’s a noble, inspiring story, but the conservative nationalist rejects it, because it casts Robert E. Lee, and the modern defenders of his monuments, as the bad guys — the obstacles we must overcome to make our nation more fully, more truly American.
To reject pluralism and liberalizing progress is to reject the United States of America as it is, to heap contempt upon American heroes who shed blood and tears fighting for the liberty and equality of their compatriots. The nationalist’s nostalgic whitewashed fantasy vision of American national identity cannot be restored, because it never existed. What they seek to impose is fundamentally hostile to a nation forged in the defining American struggle for equal freedom, and we become who we are as we struggle against them.
Whether couched in vulgarities or professorial prose, reactionary nationalism is seditious, anti-patriotic loathing of America hiding behind a flag — our flag. We won’t allow it, because we know how to build a nation. We know how the American story goes: We fight; we take it back.
We ask Andrew Sullivan:
Do you still consider yourself a conservative?
Andrew Sullivan replies:
Absolutely. I wrote a book on my conservatism, ‘The Conservative Soul.’ But in so far as the word has been hijacked by religious fundamentalists and emotionally arrested Randians, I am not one of them. I’d fit easily into a conservative party in any other western democracy. But the GOP is a rogue in the western world – the most extremist right-wing party in any modern democracy by a mile. Banning all abortion and all gay marriages? Denying climate change science?
They’re not conservatives, they’re the loony right.
P.S.: [William F.] Buckley favored legal pot. Where are the celebrations of freedom at [the National Review]?
From Australia to Europe, the signs are multiplying that conservative populism is on the rise.
Sometimes political revolutions occur right before our eyes without us quite realizing it. I think that’s what’s been happening over the last few weeks around the world, and the message is clear: The populist “New Right” isn’t going away anytime soon, and the rise of the “New Left” is exaggerated.
Start with Australia, where Prime Minister Scott Morrison won a surprising victory last week. Before the election, polls had almost uniformly indicated that his Liberal-National Coalition would have to step down, but voters were of another mind. With their support of Morrison, an evangelical Christian who has expressed support for President Donald Trump, Australians also showed a relative lack of interest in doing more about climate change. And this result is no fluke of low turnout: Due to compulsory voting, most Australians do turn out for elections.
Or how about the U.K.? The evidence is mounting that the Brexit Party will do very well in this week’s European Parliament elections. Right now that party, which did not exist until recently, is in the lead in national polls with an estimated 34% support. The Tories, the current ruling party, are at only 12%. So the hard Brexit option does not seem to be going away, and the right wing of British politics seems to be moving away from the center.
As for the European Parliament as a whole, by some estimates after this week’s election 35% of the chamber will be filled by anti-establishment parties, albeit of a diverse nature. You have to wonder at what margins the EU will become unworkable or lose legitimacy altogether.
Meanwhile in the U.S., polls show Joe Biden as the presumptive front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. He is one of the party’s more conservative candidates, and maybe some primary voters value his electability and familiarity over the more left-wing ideas of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. That’s one sign the “hard left” is not in ascendancy in the U.S. Biden’s strategy of running against Trump is another. It’s hard to say how effective that will prove, but it is likely to result in an election about the ideas and policies of Trump, not those of Democratic intellectuals.
Meanwhile, the U.S. economy has remained strong, and Trump’s chances of re-election have been rising in the prediction markets.
One scarcely noticed factor in all of this has been the rising perception of China as a threat to Western interests. The American public is very aware that the U.S. is now in a trade war with China, a conflict that is likely to provoke an increase in nationalism. That is a sentiment that has not historically been very helpful to left-wing movements. China has been one of Trump’s signature causes for years, and he seems to be delighting in having it on center stage.
The Democratic Party is not well-positioned to make China a core issue. Democrats have been criticizing Trump’s tariffs for a while now, and it may be hard for them to adjust their message from “Tariffs Are Bad” to “Tariffs Are Bad But China Tariffs Are OK.” Their lukewarm support for free trade agreements — especially the Trans Pacific Partnership, which could have served as a kind of alternative China trade policy — also complicates matters. The net result is that Republicans will probably be able to use the China issue to their advantage for years to come.
Elsewhere, the world’s largest democracy just wrapped up a lengthy election. The results in India aren’t yet known, but exit polls show that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling coalition — and his philosophy of Hindu nationalism — will continue to be a major influence.
In all of this ferment, I am myself rooting for a resurgence of centrist cosmopolitanism. But I try to be honest about how my ideas are doing in the world. And in the last few weeks, I’ve seen a lot of evidence that a new political era truly is upon us.