I was in Italy when Conor Friedersdorf published this article about the Trump phenomenon, and missed it. In it, Conor argues that Conservatism, Inc., cannot easily divorce itself from the vulgar, sometimes abusive rhetoric employed by Donald Trump. It has been exploiting this kind of thing for years, for the benefit of the GOP. Excerpt:
For years, I’ve argued that talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and websites like Breitbart.com pose a significant threat to movement conservatism. All movements are vulnerable to populist excesses and the self-destructive impulses of their core supporters. Good leaders can help to mitigate those pathologies. Bad leaders magnify them.
Within movement conservatism, hugely popular intellectual leaders abandoned the most basic norms of decency, as when Mark Levin screamed at a caller that her husband should shoot himself; stoked racial tensions, as when Rush Limbaugh avowed that in President Obama’s America folks think white kids deserve to get beat up by black kids on busses; and indulged paranoid conspiracy theories, as when Roger Ailes aired month-after-month of Glenn Beck’s chalk-board monologues.
Erick Erickson now complains that many Republicans are supporting “a man of mountainous ego” who “preys on nationalistic, tribal tendencies.” But this is what happens when millions of people spend a decade with Bill O’Reilly in their living rooms each evening and Ann Coulter books on their nightstands for bedtime reading. Let’s not treat it as a mystery that their notion of what’s credible is out of whack.
And the more respectable conservatives have rationalized it. Conor cites a 2009 Jonah Goldberg column defending the crackpot conspiracy theorist Glenn Beck, then in his heyday. Read the Friedersdorf piece for the quote, but Goldberg basically says this kind of rhetoric is not that big a deal, and besides, it’s for a good cause (conservatism).
Today, the very pathologies that conservatives who should’ve known better indulged as a matter of shortsighted convenience are being exploited by a reality-TV populist whose agenda is far from “libertarian.” His ascension poses an existential threat to movement conservatism. And he cannot be stopped in part because, over many years, conservative media trained its audience to respond to tribal signaling more than rigorous debate; to reflexively dismiss any complaints about speaking disrespectfully about others as bogus “political correctness;” to respond to mainstream-media criticism of public figures by redoubling their trust in them ; to value the schadenfreude of pissing off ideological opponents more than incremental policy gains; and to treat Sarah Palin as a credible candidate for the vice-presidency.
This is true. Read the whole thing.
You can’t build a movement on the rage and unreason of radio talkers and expect that the weaponized grievance will stay pointed at liberals only. I deeply sympathize with what the prominent anti-Trump conservative radio talker Erick Erickson is going through now, having to hire security guards to protect his home after threats from Trump fanatics. As someone who has been in the same position, but having to deal with an LGBT fanatic who objected to my columns, I know how difficult that is to deal with. Nobody, on the right or the left, should have to deal with it, should be made to feel unsafe in their own home.
Let me be clear: I do not blame the victim — Erickson — for this kind of thing. But folks like him should reflect on what they have done to create the kind of atmosphere in which conservatives feel they are justified in behaving this way. (To be sure, the left is guilty too, but that’s their problem; this is on us). Here’s the most infamous example of his rhetoric, from years ago, when he was running RedState:
The nation loses the only goat f*&king child molester to ever serve on the Supreme Court in David Souter’s retirement.
Now, I’m sure he regrets having tweeted that. A year ago, Molly Ball at The Atlantic did a good piece on Erick, talking about how he burned out on the anger, and entered seminary. Excerpt:
He knows he has a tendency to get worked up and take things too far. He regrets calling Souter a child molester—he apologized for the comment back in 2009 and still considers it his biggest mistake. “At times, I need to do better,” he told me. But he is of two minds about this, because he also refuses to kowtow to the perpetual-outrage machine of modern politics, and he suspects that many of his critics only pretend to be offended in order to discredit him. “I could say the sky is blue and someone somewhere would get mad,” he said.
He also told me he has matured under the public eye. “If you read my more recent stuff, as opposed to my older stuff, I’ve grown up,” he said. During the Ferguson protests in August, he wrote a sensitive and outraged blog post titled “Must We Have a Dead White Kid?” decrying police-state tactics. “Given what happened in Ferguson, the community had every right to be angry,” he wrote. “Just because Michael Brown may not look like you should not immediately serve as an excuse to ignore the issues involved.” Many RedState commenters objected, insisting that Brown was a lawbreaker who got what he deserved.
“A lot of conservatives are now where liberals were after 2004—hysterically angry about things they have no business being angry about,” Erickson told me. “I think if you believe in a heaven, a hell, a savior who died and rose again, and a last day on which you’ll win because he wins, you probably should spend a lot less time getting worked up over the temporary politics of the here and now.”
I asked him about his increased focus on religion. What was he searching for? Erickson said he felt “called” to learn more about the faith that forms the backbone of his world view. “Some of my most-read posts involve faith,” he said. “At some point, I just accepted that I have a ministry, even if I never get in a pulpit.”
He says that, and then he goes right on throwing stones. In September, while substituting for Limbaugh, Erickson opined on the radio that minimum-wage workers didn’t warrant sympathy, because they were mostly either high-schoolers or people who deserved to be where they were. “If you’re a 30-something-year-old person and you’re making minimum wage, you’ve probably failed at life,” he said. The week before that comment, Erickson had begun his seminary courses.
Again, please do not misread me: I am not saying that people who use inflammatory language deserve to be threatened in their own house. No, no, no. What I am saying is that Conor Friedersdorf is right: if conservative Establishmentarians fear and loathe the coarseness of Trump’s rhetoric, they need to look at themselves in the mirror and ask why they didn’t object to it when it was helping them raise money and elect Republicans.
I think it’s also true that Democrats who don’t object to the foul rhetoric from left-wing activists are going to come to regret it when it gets turned on them one day. On campus today, you can see the old-school liberals shouted down by the young radicals. Sooner or later there is going to be a left-wing candidate who does not have the decency of a Bernie Sanders — and he’s not only going to be taking aim at Republicans.
So, how about it, Erick? How about a piece reflecting on the role of populist emotionalism on the Right, in creating the Trump phenomenon?