Liberals in the US spend an inordinate amount of energy fact-checking the other side, trying to catch them in lies and various hypocrisies to expose the flaws in their policies. That, we imagine, is how it works. Whoever’s side aces the logic exam wins the prize. Which has made, and makes, Trump a special challenge.
We keep thinking we can fact check our way to success and can’t figure out why the strategy fails. If ever there was a perfect demonstration of this phenomenon, it was last week when Montana Republican Greg Gianforte made national news for choke-slamming Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs the day before a special election and then won anyway. Jacobs had been trying to ask Gianforte about the Congressional Budget Office’s score for the recently-passed Republican health care bill, a classic example of liberal fact-checking (presumably wondering why the people who claimed to be worried about Obamacare premiums would support a plan that the report states could raise premiums “for up to one-sixth of the people in the individual market” and so forth).
Gianforte’s response, according to one eye witness:
At that point, Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him. Faith, Keith and I watched in disbelief as Gianforte then began punching the reporter. As Gianforte moved on top of Jacobs, he began yelling something to the effect of, “I’m sick and tired of this!”
This is a perfect metaphor, and it’s no wonder Gianforte — who, by the way, was an East Coast software magnate running against a cowboy hat-sporting, Montana-born country singer for God’s sake, meaning all the normal elite vs little guy crap shouldn’t have applied — won the election. His base surely loves the idea that some nerd tried to obnoxiously fact check him and left with broken glasses after getting power bombed through a table. It’s exactly what President Camacho from Idiocracy would’ve done.
That’s admittedly kind of funny (less so the fact that Gianforte was only cited for a misdemeanor in the assault, by Sheriff Brian Gootkin, who had previously donated money to Gianforte’s campaign), but perhaps not the most instructive symbol in this situation. Maybe more telling is the part where Gianforte is literally sitting on top of Jacobs punching Jacobs in the face while screaming about his own poor treatment.
See, even when Gianforte is on top of another, smaller man, he still thinks of himself as the proverbial little guy. It’s a new, more virulent strain of the old “you won’t have ole Nixon to kick around anymore” self-pity. Combating this attitude has become perhaps the defining challenge of the Democratic party.
Part of the conundrum with noted Gianforte cheerleader Donald Trump and Trumpism in general is that the ideology seems so inconsistent. But if modern “conservatism” seems so, perhaps that’s because it isn’t an ideology that binds them at all, but a persecution complex — a kind of us-vs-them worldview where anything is justified to keep the other side from doing it first. If you’ve been scratching your head trying to figure out what binds theoretically isolationist and protectionist alt-righters to the hegemonic free traders of the Nixon/Reagan/Bush era, the persecution complex is the thing.
In Rick Perlstein’s entertaining biography of Richard Nixon, Nixonland, he characterizes his subject as “a serial collector of resentments.” Perlstein sums up Nixon with an effectively symbolic origin story: in Nixon’s time at Whittier College, where, in opposition to the smartly-dressed, pedigreed clique of cool kids, which was called “The Franklins,” he organized “The Orthogonians,” a collection of graspers and frumps who wore their ostracism from Franklin parties like a badge of honor and used their opposition as a unifying principle. Nixon ran against a Franklin for student body president, and The Orthogonians helped elect him. He was their frump king. What was this, if not an early iteration of the “silent majority” he campaigned on in 1968?
If this seems like history, it’s not. Despite the disapproval of the George Will/Jeb Bush wing of the party, Donald Trump had lots of help getting elected from old school Nixon cronies like Roger Stone (who has a Nixon tattoo) and the late Roger Ailes. It was the latter who first became famous for being the Svengali behind Richard Nixon’s successful presidential run in 1968 (as outlined in Joe McGinniss’s The Selling of a President) and later, as the Fox News chief, gave Trump almost $30 million worth of free air time (three times as much as any other Republican candidate).