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).
The way Ailes changed politics is perhaps most succinctly summed up by a friend and former employee in a recent eulogy for Politico:
“When one incumbent Republican senator refused to approve attack ads against his opponent, Ailes had me prepare a brutal spot attacking our own client, showing him what the other side was preparing to do to him over his record of drunk driving. After seeing his future, the shaken senator quietly approved our ads and won a narrow reelection. […] He saw the world as an us-versus-them battle. Whether you loved him or hated him, he forced you to see him in those terms, too. “
Thanks to people like Ailes and Stone, modern day conservatism is less ideological than it is performative. Much less about some unifying policy goals — trade, healthcare, foreign policy — than about hating some cartoonish idea of the smug, holier-than-thou liberal. That’s why bodyslamming some weenie lib doesn’t really hurt you politically, it’s merely on-brand.
The question, of course, becomes how to fight back. It’s always tempting to copy an opponent who seems to be winning, and that seems to be what liberals have done. If so-called conservatives can win by demonizing the other side, why can’t so-called liberals do the same?
This strategy is tempting if you think of politics as a zero-sum game between rigidly defined sets of “teams,” like Ailes/Stone et al, and not as a battle to win over the largest bloc of voters to your side.
Now we’re seeing MSNBC increasingly resembling Fox News and the sudden proliferation of lunatic “liberal” anti-Trump conspiracy theorists like Louise Mensch (who, like a surprising number of her ilk, is a former conservative). If Rachel Maddow’s Donald Trump tax return stunt felt eerily sensationalistic and practically Geraldo-esque, was it any wonder to learn that she’d been going to Roger Ailes for advice for years? Hell, the liberals now even have their own version of the Red Scare.
It’s easy to understand the “fight fire with fire” mentality because it would make sense to any six-year-old. But is it working? For one thing, it’s fighting for a share of the same pie while ignoring a big slice that’s just sitting there — all those non-voters, who clearly aren’t all that swayed by each side’s scare stories about the other.
The Clinton campaign spent more money and focused less on policy than ever before and still lost to an opponent with historically low approval ratings. Why? Well, maybe because working hard to demonize an opponent that seems to thrive on being demonized isn’t the smartest way to work. To put it more succinctly, it’s a trap!
When I saw this Tweet from conservative blogger and Fox News contributor Erick Erickson about how he doesn’t care about climate change because it’s not in the Bible, I was tempted to make fun of how idiotic a point that is.
But then I realized that the only reason a person would write something like that is because he wants to be smugly ridiculed for it. Sure enough, half a day later he was all about the replies:
In Richard Nixon’s famous “Checkers speech,” he responded to allegations about his financial improprieties by refusing to give back one campaign gift in particular, an adorable puppy. He was, in effect, goading the left into looking bad by making fun of a guy for loving his daughter’s dog. I include these Erickson tweets to point out that a lot of modern conservatism is a public act that consists basically of these Checkers speech moments, goading the opponent into fact checking a disingenuous statement to make them look like smug know it alls. In the Twitter era, the Checkers speech has evolved into “I am not mad I am actually laughing” and metastasized.
In The Intercept’s recent profile of Steve Bannon disciple Julia Hahn, author Peter Maas points out that “A surprising number of alt-right leaders come from a single wealthy liberal enclave: the west side of Los Angeles.” He uses as his examples Andrew Breitbart, born and raised in Brentwood; Bannon, who worked in Hollywood and sent his kids to private schools in Brentwood; Hahn, who went to Harvard-Westlake, as did Alex Marlow, editor in chief of Breitbart; and Stephen Miller, who was raised in the nearby “people’s republic of Santa Monica,” who famously grew up to be a Trump advisor.
That so many wingnuts were born in such a bastion of “liberalism” seems paradoxical, but Maas, who was raised there himself, has a logical explanation:
“People don’t like to be told what to think, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that an atmosphere of doctrinaire liberalism might produce reactionaries who delight in defying the dogmas that seemed so repressive when they were growing up.”
Catching Trump in lies, explaining that Republicans are hypocritical and corrupt, that their numbers don’t add up; it doesn’t seem to work. Maybe that’s because voters are already conditioned to see the Democrats as the party of “nuh uh.” Even his best friends would probably concede that Donald Trump is an asshole; constantly pointing out that he is one doesn’t accomplish much. The only time an asshole seems appealing is when he’s taking down someone smug. Hell, even I liked Donald Trump when he was making fun of Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz.
If there’s a better way for the Democrats to win (and surely there is), it’s to not fall for the same traps they’ve been falling into for the last 60-some years. It’s to realize that while they’re battling the “other side,” an even bigger opponent is apathy. Maybe instead of fact-checking bad plans, advocate for a good plan. Believe it or not, people actually like having health care and a middle class and not being buried in debt.
I bet a lot of currently apathetic voters would vote for a candidate who actually seemed to stand for something other than shitting on the other guy. Not to mention, that when that other guy is dropping a Checkers speech, not shitting on him for it takes a lot of the wind out of his sails. Maybe try giving voters “somethin’ to believe in.”
Yes, it’s cheesy, but that’s the point. Be cheesy. Hell, sing it as a Poison song. And then dare them to make fun of you for it.