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Live Not By Lies: The Right-Wing Version

Trump's post-election crack-up roils the Right (GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP via Getty Images)

I finished the final manuscript of Live Not By Lies in early to mid-March. Covid was just taking off, and the George Floyd killing was yet to come. Though my book did not appear in stores until late September, the deadline for changing the text passed in late March. I have had some readers ask me why I didn’t write more about Covid, or anything about George Floyd, in the book. It’s a reasonable question, given the September 29 publishing date, but the way book production goes, nearly all books are editorially locked months before they are printed.

I don’t know when the paperback version will be out. Live Not By Lies is selling well, still, so I imagine it will be some time yet. But when it does come back, I will add a chapter that addresses what the Covid response has taught us about the themes in the book, and what the George Floyd reaction has done as well. And I will also talk about the way the pre-totalitarian phenomena that Live Not By Lies identify as primarily on the Left  manifested in a major way this year on the Right in 2020 and beyond.

I didn’t meet my first QAnon believer until about a month before the final version of my manuscript was finished. I knew it was a thing, QAnon, but it took having a lengthy conversation with a true believer to wake me up to how serious the phenomenon was. The man I talked to was to all appearances intelligent, wealthy, and worldly — but was a serious believer in QAnon. I thought for a while he was pulling my leg, but it turns out he meant it. Back home, I told my college-age son about the conversation, and he said, “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you for a while: you’ve got to take this more seriously than you do.”

There’s no need to recount what played out this year with QAnon. What interests me the most is what has happened to the Right since Trump lost the election. As a religious conservative, watching the MAGA Religious Right rally at the Jericho March was a red pill experience for me. (I wrote about it first here, then answered some of the criticism here.) The joining of religious faith to conspiracy theory, and the juicing it with nationalist fervor, and Trumpist cult of personality — it was radioactive. The core, from a Live Not By Lies standpoint, was Gen. Michael Flynn exhorting the crowd not to listen to their minds, but rather believe what their gut tells them is true. That, plus emcee Eric Metaxas and other speakers saying that God told them this and that, and that when God tells you something, you have to do it.

As you know if you read my book, Hannah Arendt said the willingness to believe things that are not true, or that defy rationality, is part of what opens one up to totalitarianism. From Live Not By Lies:

To grasp the threat of totalitarianism, it’s important to understand the difference between it and simple authoritarianism. Authoritarianism is what you have when the state monopolizes political control. That is mere dictatorship—bad, certainly, but totalitarianism is much worse. According to Hannah Arendt, the foremost scholar of totalitarianism, a totalitarian society is one in which an ideology seeks to displace all prior traditions and institutions, with the goal of bringing all aspects of society under control of that ideology. A totalitarian state is one that aspires to nothing less than defining and controlling reality. Truth is whatever the rulers decide it is. As Arendt has written, wherever totalitarianism has ruled, “[I]t has begun to destroy the essence of man.”

In Live Not By Lies, I give example after example of the Left trying to do this. Since Election Day, though, we have seen many on the Right succumb to this too. Just the other day I spoke to a friend who is a Trump supporter, and who is convinced the election was stolen. Nothing moves my friend’s mind; this conclusion is unfalsifiable. But what about what the courts have said? I went on. Are they all in on the conspiracy?

My friend responded calmly but firmly: “I just have a feeling that Trump really won.” I understood that any evidence that contradicts that feeling, my friend dismisses, and anything that confirms it, my friend accepts without question. Because, like Gen. Flynn said, you need to go with your gut.

Arendt wrote about the pre-totalitarian masses (I quote this in my book):

They do not believe in anything visible, in the reality of their own experience; they do not trust their eyes and ears but only their imaginations, which may be caught by anything that is at once universal and consistent with itself. What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part.

I also wrote in Live Not By Lies about how so many on the Left today accept things they surely must know to be falsehoods, but who endorse these principles because they want to be on the side of the Oppressed. From LNBL:

You can surrender your moral responsibility to be honest out of misplaced idealism. You can also surrender it by hating others more than you love truth. In pre-totalitarian states, Arendt writes, hating “respectable society” was so narcotic, that elites were willing to accept “monstrous forgeries in historiography” for the sake of striking back at those who, in their view, had “excluded the underprivileged and oppressed from the memory of mankind.” For example, many who didn’t really accept Marx’s revisionist take on history—that it is a manifestation of class struggle—were willing to affirm it because it was a useful tool to punish those they despised.

Think of the Republican establishment figures today who know that the President lost the election, and who know perfectly well that he is tearing apart our democracy in his desperate attempt to hold on to power. Some of them are cynics who are trying to jockey for Trump’s voters in the next presidential contest. Others — not just lawmakers, but all kinds of conservatives — may simply hate liberals more than they love truth. More from Live Not By Lies:

Arendt’s judgment of the postwar elites who recklessly thumbed their noses at respectability could easily apply to those of our own day who shove aside liberal principles like fair play, race neutrality, free speech, and free association as obstacles to equality. Arendt wrote:

The members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it.

As you can see, I used Arendt’s conclusions to pass harsh judgment on liberals and progressives for their embrace of identity politics. But we are seeing some on the Right embrace the same kind of thing, for MAGA’s sake. Here’s a grifty fundraising text that Sen. Ted Cruz sent out today (a friend received it; I have removed his name):

Over the weekend, as you know, the president was recorded threatening the Georgia Secretary of State, like some two-bit gangster, in an effort to get him to falsify the election results. I think Trump might really believe the conspiracy theories. But what excuse do his supporters in Congress and among conservative voters have?

Yuval Levin published a powerful, powerful essay about the “failures of leadership in a populist age” today at National Review. Levin says that conditions have degenerated with Trump to the point where a basic question of reality is front and center. He says that populists won’t get anywhere at changing things that they rightly think should be changed if they continue to allow themselves to be preoccupied with crackpot conspiracy theories. Excerpts:

If the Right is likely to continue to do well in politics, it should get better at governing, and that cannot help but mean getting better at dealing with reality, including those realities that some voters don’t want to face.

The election was not stolen, and the vice president doesn’t get to choose the next president. There isn’t anything Congress can do to change that. But Congress could do some things to protect religious liberty, to lift some of the burdens weighing on Americans struggling to raise children, to push back against the radicalization of higher education, to take the threat of Chinese power more seriously, to help Americans yearning for meaningful economic security or more stable employment, to make more opportunities available to Americans who don’t go to college, to secure our borders and improve the immigration system, and in other ways to help more Americans lead dignified lives in a decent and prosperous free society. Legislative action can’t simply achieve any of these things, but it could meaningfully help, even while a Democrat is president. And politicians who knew how to operate as legislators and (when a Republican is elected president again) executives could also more effectively restrain and reverse some of the worst excesses of the Left. Working toward those ends would make for a stronger electoral argument, too, with the potential to broaden the Republican coalition in the coming decade. But as long as Republican politicians choose to spend their time acting out futile fantasies while letting their capacity for governing atrophy, they are failing the voters they say they want to serve.

And they are failing their voters in a more fundamental way, too. By lying to these voters in order to benefit from their outrage, Republican politicians are living down to the view these voters have of our country’s leaders — precisely the view those politicians claim to channel and share. They are affirming too many voters in their low opinion of American politics, and they are leaving them doubtful that the incoming president is legitimate and that our larger system of government is too.

No amount of macho fighting talk can cover up this simple fact: To play along with the president’s lies about the election is a profound failure of leadership, a dereliction of responsibility, and a disgrace.

Read the whole thing. 

I do not believe the threat to our liberties from the soft-totalitarian Right is remotely as strong as it is from the soft-totalitarian Left, simply because the Left controls institutional power in this country, especially in the media. But “the Left is worse” is not an excuse to indulge in the same kind of insanity. Republican lawmakers and influencers who know better but who are riding the conspiracy into what they hope will be greater power and influence are especially culpable here. No, we are not going to see a right-wing authoritarian state, and certainly not a right-wing totalitarian one. But the Right’s inability to live in reality is going to weaken it in the face of the Left’s increasing radicalization of the institutions, and is going to give left-wing would-be totalitarians the excuses they want to suppress dissent.

The fact that Republicans did surprisingly well in the election despite the president’s loss ought to be a sign of hope. But the GOP cannot and should not prevail as the party of conspiracy theory. In Live Not By Lies, I quote Solzhenitsyn saying that people who think what happened in Russia cannot happen in their country are wrong: it could happen anywhere on earth. Similarly, there is no reason to think that the ideological madness that is overtaking liberal institutions, and the Democratic Party, won’t be repeated in a right-wing version among conservatives. It’s happening right now. I didn’t write a book called Live Not By Left-Wing Lies, you know.

UPDATE: On today’s show, Eric Metaxas says that Trump was elected president, and if you don’t believe there is mountains of evidence proving it, you should jump in a lake. And, you are deceived by the devil.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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