The American Right’s Guilty Conscience

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The more self-aware parts of the American conservative movement are coming to realise their part in creating the monster that is Donald Trump. Good. But with Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party complete, the genie cannot be put back in the bottle.

Slowly but surely, realisation is dawning among parts of the American Right that they might, just might, be partly responsible for feeding the national anger and distrust of elites which has given us Donald Trump, Presidential Nominee Edition.

Politico Magazine has a great extended feature on well-known Wisconsin conservative talk radio host Charlie Sykes, in which the respected political figure essentially admits that Donald Trump’s takeover of the GOP was only possible thanks to the work of the relentless Republican Party media outrage generation machine.

From the article:

Charlie Sykes’ conscience is nagging him.

Since last year, the most influential political talk show host in Wisconsin has found out just how hard it is to be a #NeverTrump conservative on right-wing radio. Ever since Sykes began denouncing Donald Trump on the air—which he does just about every time he talks about the presidential election—he’s strained his relationships with the listeners of his daily radio show.

Sykes’ many arguments with listeners over Donald Trump’s serial outrages have exposed in much of his audience a vein of thinking—racist, anti-constitutional, maybe even fascistic—that has shaken Sykes. It has left him questioning whether he and his colleagues in the conservative media played a role in paving the way for Trump’s surprising and unprecedented rise.

Hats off to Sykes for actually challenging his listeners and exhorting them not to swallow uncritically any morsel of Clinton-related scandal from the fringe web while rejecting any attempt at objectivity or fact-checking. Many a lesser talk radio host or other media personality (cough, Sean Hannity) have seen which way the Donald Trump hurricane is blowing and meekly fallen in line with his campaign, never subjecting Trump to criticism even when it is richly deserved.

The feature continues, describing a caller to Sykes’ radio show who wanted to deport Muslim American citizens, in flagrant violation of the Constitution which conservatives claim to hold so dear:

“Were these people that we actually thought were our allies?” he asks.

Sykes remains confident that Trump will lose badly in November, and he is equally fearful that Trump will drag longtime Republicans, like Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, down with him. This has Sykes thinking about the long-term future of the party and what might have precipitated its looming collapse. He wonders: Did “the faux outrage machine” of and other right-wing outlets foment the noxious opinions that Trump has stoked so effectively on the trail?

“When I would deny that there was a significant racist component in some of the politics on our side, it was because the people I hung out with were certainly not,” Sykes says. “When suddenly, this rock is turned over, there is this—‘Oh shit, did I not see that?’

And then:

He wants to figure out why, in his opinion, things went so wrong for the conservative movement. One problem, he thinks, is his fellow talk-radio hosts.

“Talk radio made itself relevant by beating up on other Republicans, vilifying other Republicans,” he says. “It fed this faux outrage machine that raised expectations unrealistically”—for instance, asking why Congress didn’t repeal Obamacare, though Obama’s veto pen made it mathematically impossible. Later, he would tell Business Insider’s Oliver Darcy that talk radio’s attack on mainstream-media bias has backfired, because its listeners now dismiss legitimate media fact-checking as untrustworthy.

Sykes warns his listeners to step outside the “alternative reality bubble” of and other right-wing websites. Part of his audience thinks he’s sold out, he complains, because he won’t parrot dubious claims they’ve read on such sites. “A lot of the conservative talk shows around the country embrace almost whatever comes over the transom,” he says.

Slow hand clap.

This blog has been waiting for some time now for the penny to drop, for thinking American conservatives to realise that the hysterical and unseemly way in which the Republican Party carried out its opposition to the Obama agenda might possibly have some unintended negative consequences.

Because it turns out that treating every single centre-leftish or centrist policy to emanate from the Obama White House as though it were an existential threat to the republic and relentlessly exploiting wedge social issues and persisting with the same failed policies which deliver great benefits to the wealthy, educated elites while leaving the struggling middle class high and dry works really well, right up until the moment where it suddenly stops working at all.

Here’s what that approach actually is good for:

  1. Making ordinary decent citizens with limited political engagement very afraid, often unnecessarily, and
  2. Getting them to donate vast amounts of money to assorted conservative / Tea Party political organisations which exist primarily to enrich those who are part of the Ponzi scheme, with very little of the money actually going on to reach conservative candidates or campaigns

The American right-wing outrage machine has been absolutely magnificent at making people angry and then monetising the hell out of that anger. But it has been lousy at speaking to the issues and problems which weigh on the minds of America’s squeezed middle.

Too often, conservative leaders have been happy to nod along while right wing noisemakers prophesied the abolition of the Second Amendment or the sudden imposition of “socialism”, because it worked. Because it reliably delivered scores of votes to Republican candidates on election day. Right up until the moment it stopped working because a new populist candidate emerged who promised action, not just talk, to defeat these inflated or imagined threats.

Donald Trump isn’t some bizarre and unprecedented phenomenon to afflict the Republican Party. These are the people who earnestly and with a straight face asked Americans to make Sarah Palin the Vice President back in 2008. Their flirtation with ignorance and craziness has a long and dismal history, and only now is bearing full fruit in the form of Trump.

It’s great that some of the more self-aware leaders of the American conservative movement are now quietly realising, with shame, the part which they either intentionally or unwittingly played in unleashing Donald Trump on America. For while Trump’s supporters certainly include more than their fair share of racists, xenophobes and other assorted imbeciles, the vast majority are good and decent people – primarily conservatives who have been consistently let down by a Republican Party which pretended to talk their language but which never governed in their interests.

Unfortunately Trumpism cannot be easily put back in the bottle now it has been released. First, it must be defeated in November, however unappealing the thought of giving the Washington establishment four more years in charge may be. And then the rebuilding of American conservatism must start – a difficult feat since so many of its most intelligent and respected figures have sullied themselves by bending the knee to Donald Trump (a fact which the Politico article discusses at length).

Great electoral rewards await the first party to grapple with the core question of how to reconcile the imperatives of globalisation with the need to equip citizens with the skills and services needed to prosper in a modern economy which can no longer promise a high standard of living for mass unskilled labour. Republicans have the harder job here – the conservative emphasis on self-sufficiency and a small state requires inventive solutions, whereas the Democrats can wave their hands and simply promise a new government program. It’s a difficult issue for conservatives, one which this blog is still struggling to work through.

This is the challenge now facing American conservatives. The culture wars are not insignificant, and there are battles to be fought – some of which this blog sympathises with (political correctness, free speech, religious freedom) and others less so. But no longer will it be enough for Republican politicians to stoke anger about these issues while failing to meaningfully tackle them, or to ignore the economic interests of the American working and lower middle class – doing so will only open the door to another Trump-style populist insurgency.

From this Politico Magazine article, it seems as though at least one prominent conservative talk radio host is starting to get it. Hopefully others will follow.

But the renewal of American conservatism cannot begin yet – first we must hit rock bottom.


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How Not To Cover An Election

It is very hard to disagree with this damning article from Politico, assessing the current state of cable news in America:

If ever there was a political event to lay bare the partisan ideologies of the cable news media, the Wisconsin recall was it.

MSNBC was blatantly rooting for Tom Barrett to defeat Gov. Scott Walker, even sending union champion Ed Schultz to cover an event with no apologies for the dog he has in the fight. (Earlier tonight, Chris Matthews even told Schultz that if he wasn’t an MSNBC host, he could be head of the AFL-CIO.) When it became clear that Barrett would lose, Schultz looked almost teary eyed. Not long after, the network’s contributors immediately began suggesting that this was, in fact, good news for Obama — who, after all, hadn’t even set foot in Wisconsin — and began attacking Mitt Romney.

Meanwhile, Fox News was blatantly rooting for Gov. Walker, and the moment it became clear that Walker might win, host Sean Hannity called it “a repudiation of big unions,” which did “everything they could do to demonize Scott Walker.” Guest Hugh Hewitt then predicted that, five months from now, Romney would follow Walker just “as Reagan followed Thatcher.” Fox’s Greta Van Susteren later hosted what amounted to a victory celebration for the Republicans.

Given this blatant partisan coverage, it was absolutely impossible to watch either network and weed out any clear understanding of the actual significance of the event, much less what effect it would actually have on the 2012 presidential election.

Out of a mixture of boredom, insomnia and a ravenous (bordering on unhealthy) appetite for US political news, I stayed up until 2AM watching MSNBC’s live coverage of the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election (MSNBC being the only channel I was able to stream on the internet since our satellite television decided to break at the weekend). And goodness me, the coverage was bad. And by “bad”, I mean really unworthy of a channel that purports to be a television news network rather than a propaganda station.

Don’t get me wrong – I like MSNBC a lot. As the US Republican Party has lurched ever further away from being a centre-right party favouring limited government towards becoming a win-at-all-costs, fear-stoking, hypocritical, economically and historically illiterate party for idiots I have found no small degree of comfort in having my displeasure and frustration validated by the likes of Chris Matthews, Martin Bashir, Rachel Maddow, Al Sharpton and the rest of the MSNBC cast. I think that’s a fine and healthy thing to do in small measures, so long as one does not go too far and close oneself off from divergent opinions and other sources of news. However, at some point – I’m not even precisely sure when – it became okay for news networks to openly cheerlead for certain politicians or parties, not just during the opinion shows but while covering live election events. No pretence at impartiality any more, just open bias toward one or other party throughout the broadcast.

MSNBC dispatched their entertaining and highly watchable anchor Ed Schultz to Wisconsin to cover the results in front of a crowd of union-supporting, pro- Tom Barrett people. After talking up Barrett’s prospects throughout the show, he did not try very hard to conceal his disappointment when Republican incumbent Scott Walker was projected to survive the recall challenge:


At this point it really goes without saying that the Fox News team were up to exactly the same type of shenanigans on their network, before and during the voting:


Of course.

What exactly is wrong – or detrimental to good ratings – with having a lively, spirited but even-handed broadcast while we wait for the results to come in and a victor to be declared, featuring moderated discussions with people from all sides of the political spectrum (so we actually have a chance to learn something rather than just have our existing prejudices reinforced), which could then segue into the usual partisan bombast, in a separately branded show, once the results were announced?

Look, I get it. Conservatives long perceived a bias in the news networks and took to talk radio to find a place where they could hear their opinions reflected in the coverage. Conservative talk radio was eventually augmented by the Fox News Channel, which became so successful that liberals felt that they also needed a channel of their own, at which point MSNBC was hijacked and directed to “lean forward”. CNN tried to maintain an ideological balance and haemorrhaged viewers as a consequence, supposedly validating the “pick a side” approach taken by the others, and has had to resort to ever more desperate technological gimmicks such as interactive video walls, holographic reports beamed into the studio, and Wolf Blitzer, just to remain competitive. Apparently we want our news delivered to us by people who share our political leanings. I’m all for the free market, so what’s wrong with that? Nothing, really.

Except that aside from doing a disservice to the many excellent television journalists who have gone before, it is just plain tacky to call yourself a news network and then park yourself in front of a bunch of partisan supporters and openly support one candidate over another, before polls close, during a segment that is billed as live election coverage rather than political commentary or opinion piece.

Really, really tacky.