Civil Liberties

The Conservative Movement Is Poised to Come to Power, Just as It Runs off the Rails

We need a self-confident press to demand accountability from demagogues who prey on the ignorance of the uninformed.

It's no secret that American conservatism has run itself off the rails just as it is poised to come to (legislative) power. Merely to list or categorize the self-evidently idiotic contentions one routinely hears from its most esteemed representatives could fill this magazine. And we all know about the role that talk-radio, cable television and the many-tentacled Murdoch empire have played in spreading hate and purposeful misinformation. What has frequently gone unremarked, however, is the mainstream media's role in empowering this bizarre barrage of BS.

Let's look at a few examples. On October 3 Washington Post pundit "dean" David Broder attempted to apply a fresh coat of varnish to the reputation of House Republican minority leader John Boehner. In decided contrast to Speaker Nancy Pelosi's "reflexive partisanship," which "voters are understandably sick of," Broder insists that "Boehner should be taken seriously," for -- like a Boy Scout -- he is "honest," "polite" and a "serious legislator." These virtues are apparently embodied by a man who, when asked on Chris Wallace's Sunday morning show whether he was aware that "a number of top economists say what we need is more economic stimulus," replied, "Well, I don't need to see GDP numbers or to listen to economists. All I need to do is listen to the American people, because they've been asking the question now for eighteen months, Where are the jobs?" In response to Democrats' willingness to use comedian Stephen Colbert to publicize the plight of farmworkers -- almost entirely ignored by Congress despite rampant child labor exploitation and other violations of basic human dignity -- the sage legislator replied that he found it odd that Democrats have "time to bring a comedian to Washington, DC, but they don't have time to eliminate the uncertainty by extending all of the current tax rates." Just try and make sense out of that sentence, Dean Broder. I dare you.

Of course, Boehner at least occupies an official position of influence in our government, however moronically he may choose to manifest it. When he says something of significance, it's fair enough to call it news. Newt Gingrich has no such position and continues to mouth off in a manner that makes Boehner sound like Maimonides. I never tire of pointing out that Gingrich was the most-booked guest on NBC's Meet the Press during the first year of Barack Obama's presidency, despite being the only ex–House speaker ever to be invited and despite a grand total of zero appearances by actually existing Speaker Pelosi, and despite both houses of Congress being controlled by the opposing party. And yet one would think that a private citizen who professes to believe that America requires a set of laws to prevent the imposition of Sharia law on its citizens, and who also claims to detect a danger from "a gay and secular fascism in this country that wants to impose its will on the rest of us," should be carted off to a rubber rather than a green room. Gingrich was recently reinvited to tout the work of Dinesh D'Souza, who is president of something called The King's College, which "teaches a compelling worldview rooted in the Bible," and who recently published a cover story in Forbes magazine in which he argued (wait for it) that, yes, "the U.S. is being ruled according to the dreams of a Luo tribesman of the 1950s. This philandering, inebriated African socialist, who raged against the world for denying him the realization of his anticolonial ambitions, is now setting the nation's agenda through the reincarnation of his dreams in his son." As the conservative writer Heather Mac Donald observed, the fact that this "fever dream of paranoia and irrationality" would appear in, much less on the cover of, a putatively respectable business magazine is "all too representative of the hysteria that now runs through a significant portion of the right-wing media establishment." And yet according to the man on Meet the Press, it offers "the most accurate, predictive model for [President Obama's] behavior."

Such talk is not merely crazy but also deeply dangerous. If what these guys say is true, what measures would not be justified in rescuing our country from this terrifying threat? It also inadvertently demonstrates the limitations of the MSM in playing their old-fashioned role as the gatekeepers of sanity, at the very least. The New York Times ran a story on the D'Souza article in which Forbes was given a chance to defend itself against the claim of factual errors. The problem, however, is not with the putative "facts" D'Souza uses but the poisonous context in which they are placed; something the rules of objectivity do not allow a reporter to state in a forthright manner. A similar limitation was on display a few days later when the Newspaper of Record published an obituary for the right-wing Jew-baiter and friend to Holocaust denial Joseph Sobran. The obit observed that the "witty, thoughtful" Sobran merely "took a skeptical line on the Holocaust." Skeptical? Seriously? I'm sorry, but for this to appear in the Times, of all places, is inexplicably weird. In 2002 Sobran gave a speech to the pro-Nazi Institute of Historical Review, modestly admitting that he was "incompetent to judge whether the Holocaust did happen." He had also argued that "Jews have been brilliantly subversive of the cultures of the natives they have lived amongst.... [Jews have supported] communism, socialism, liberalism, and secularism; the agenda of major Jewish groups is the de-Christianization of America.... Overwhelming Jewish support for legal abortion illustrates that many Jews hate Christian morality more than they revere Jewish tradition itself."

Holocaust denial, I'll admit, is not exactly relevant to the current right-wing agenda being whitewashed in the MSM. But it should serve as a warning of how bad things can get without a vigorous, self-confident press to demand accountability from demagogues who prey on the ignorance of the uninformed.

Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of Journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also "The Liberal Media" columnist for The Nation and a fellow of The Nation Institute, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC, where he writes and edits the "Think Again" column, a senior fellow (since 1985) at the World Policy Institute. Alterman is also a regular columnist for Moment magazine and a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.