Media

In the Fever Swamp of the Radical Wingnuts

To truly appreciate what the sleek spinmeisters at the top of the right-wing echo chamber are saying, you've got to dig into the crazies that dwell at the bottom.
The next time you find yourself inhabiting a quiet moment, listen closely and you'll be able to hear a clattery drone off in the distance. That's our right-wing opinion media, hammering and sawing away at another of those weird Trojan-animal contraptions they're always building -- another giant rickety thing with off-square corners and oval wheels, emblazoned with some slogan like "supporting our troops" or "defending marriage." They're planning to wheel it innocently up the hill, whereupon America will open the gates and let it in -- and you know how the story always goes from there.

It's always something new with those people. To switch metaphors abruptly, I cover what you might call the waterfront -- the dank and fishy between-realm that divides life as we know it from the vast sea of unexamined prejudices, of blind enthusiasms and angry yawpings that make up the right-wing urge in America. I write mostly about conservative pundits and bloggers, and mostly about the danker, fishier ones at medium-traffic blogs and at conservative news sites such as Townhall, WorldNetDaily, and Newsmax.

The denizens of these sites are widely read by conservatives, especially by base-type conservatives who also consume products like Rush Limbaugh's show, but they seldom reach a mainstream readership, although they'll occasionally turn up, for instance, as guests on cable news shows, identified by a caption, like "conservative columnist" or "conservative blogger," that avoids any specific claims of expertise. That's because they're mostly howling idiots.

There are two reasons that I follow them. The first is that, being idiots, they're easy to make fun of. The second reason is more practical as well as more personally salutary: Minor right-wing pundits are like what the biologists call an "indicator species": By watching how they react to their environment, you can get a good sense of what's happening in the major conservative media.

Right-wing messaging in America works very differently today than it did in the Reagan era, when the modern conservative movement was fairly new and unseasoned. The obvious change is that it's become more opaque and top-down, more rigorously focused and spin-controlled. But there's also been a more substantive shift in that conservatism since Reagan has learned not to admit to the public what its real policies are.

Rather than, for instance, arguing for the elimination of New Deal social programs, today's message machine will slap together rickety claims of a Social Security crisis and have its yawpers run around scaring people, offering as the cure a "saving Social Security" plan that coincidentally means privatization. Rather than arguing, in time-honored GOP fashion, that the wealthy should pay less taxes, conservative yawpers will run around advocating an "IRS reform" to simplify the complicated tax forms that we all hate filling out -- coincidentally by eliminating graduated tax rates. In short, conservatism now functions by fooling the public with a succession of Trojan horses -- as well as Trojan rabbits, pangolins, tapirs, and whatever other animal serves their aims (including donkeys in the case of Joe Lieberman). The hammering and sawing of their constructions is ceaseless and ever-puzzling.

You can see this in the way today's upper-tier conservative pundits ply their trade. Characters such as David Brooks, and Mike Gerson owe their success to a strange, carefully cultivated Mr. Magoo quality: Instead of coming out and saying what they're trying to say, they make bad-faith, extremist arguments as though continually by accident, making it seem as though they arrive at each new Republican policy prescription by cluelessly walking over see-sawing planks, up freight elevators and along a series of moving girders.

A wonderful example of the genre is Brooks's July 24 New York Times column, "A Realty-Based Economy," in which he strings together an astonishing chain of economic errors and cherry-picked statistics in order to decide that the Bush economy is -- if you forget partisanship and look at the facts -- perking along famously. Another is Gerson's August 17 Washington Post column, "What History Taught Karl Rove," which struggles to make it seem as though Gerson, a former Bush speechwriter and a consummate White House insider, had only just encountered Rove on Rove's way out of the White House, and was pleasantly surprised to find that his former boss was actually "the opposite of a cynical political operator" and a champion of "the little guy."

Among the many variants of this style is that of the nominally liberal columnist (such as Thomas Friedman or Richard Cohen) who finds himself continually forced by events to repeat conservative talking points and express disdain for his fellow liberals -- message: "This hurts me more than it hurts you." When executed well, this routine can be repeated weekly for an indefinite number of years. The equivalent on the moderate right was until recently epitomized by the Times op-ed columnist John Tierney, a self-identified libertarian who was largely indifferent to the subject of liberty, and instead produced a relentless stream of gee-whiz columns in which he'd happen across something new to deregulate or privatize, such as the space program or Central Park, or would learn of a new argument against environmentalism, women, global warming research, those crazy kids today, non-Republican politicians, or (just in time for the election) the idea of voting. At the end of last year, Tierney moved downstairs to the Times' science section, where his current beat, more or less, is to help champion corporate-sponsored junk science.

Such performances, of course, demand a certain indifference to the notion of truth (i.e., high-level conservative columnists often don't believe what they're saying), and a cavalier attitude toward looking like an idiot (i.e., they never expect to fool all the people, all the time). And in both respects, these pundits have a lot in common with a certain class of lawyer -- for instance, mob lawyers, who enjoy a great practical advantage from their willingness to say or do anything, fair or foul, that helps move their arguments forward. But also, in the same way, conservative pundits need to have a great deal of intelligence and situational cunning in order to stay on-message and to know what they can get away with from one column to the next. And as you move down the scale from the best-connected and highest-paid ones, through the medium players like the Charles Krauthammers and Peggy Noonans, past the Thomas Sowells and Cal Thomases, ever downward toward the pickle-barrel solons at the National Review Online and the Weekly Standard -- indeed, down through the bottom of the barrel and into the pickle-soaked dirt beneath -- the intelligence and cunning falls away in stages, and you're able to see the same conservative arguments-of-the-week made ineptly, by bozos who know very well what they're supposed to be for or against but don't have a clue how to make it seem reasonable to sane Americans.

Like the Young Republicans at the Rick Santorum rally who tried to support 2005's Strengthening Social Security plan by chanting "Hey-Hey, Ho-Ho, Social Security has got to go," it's easy to track the disinformation shell-game by watching these people, because they're essentially honest: As true-believers, they see their job as spreading the received wisdom that they get from the GOP message mains, and in contrast to slick word-splitters like Gerson, will happily take conservative arguments to their natural, but completely ridiculous conclusions. It's one thing, for instance, when Harvey Mansfield of the Harvard Department of Government appears in the Wall Street Journal editorial section trying to float the notion of a president's inherent dictatorial powers during wartime. But when Mark Noonan of Blogs For Bush gives his version of the same argument, literally advocating a return to a 13th-century model of government with George Bush as king, the Unitary Executive Theory is, in effect, prancing around on the front lawn in its underwear, with jammy hands and a Kool-Aid moustache. Having experienced Noonan, one may never again picture Harvey Mansfield with his pants on.

Another reliable failure-artist is Debbie Schlussel, a bottle-blonde, lip-glossed entity known to her detractors as the Costco Coulter. Schlussel is a Detroit-area race-baiter of the increasingly common reverse-backflip variety (i.e., a Jewish conservative who employs classic anti-Semitic narratives against Muslims) who sells herself to the cable shows as a Middle East expert in order to push right-wing scare-narratives about The International Muslim Conspiracy. (They're plotting to enslave the world by, among other things, outbreeding white people.) This has become a popular belief among right-wingers, and Schlussel has managed to carve out a niche for herself by rushing to blame spectacular crimes, disasters, or unexplained loud noises on The International Muslim, riding on the initial confusion of the event and then letting the truth sort itself out on its own time.

An apotheosis of sorts came last April, when she jumped into the middle of the developing coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre (which was committed by a Korean-American, Seung-Hui Cho), trying to claim that the word "Asian," as applied to the assailant, was a liberal-media code-word for "Paki," and that shadowy Islamofascists were somehow behind the shootings. The liberal media was, of course, willfully covering for these terrorists, as part of its well-documented plan to weaken America's resolve by broadcasting enemy propaganda -- and so on, and what-have-you.

The episode ended in high drama, with Schlussel screaming ethnic slurs in all-caps, and finally deleting the post and all its comments, claiming that she was "spending too much time monitoring the slimy comments from the Nazi-infested Media Matters for America cretins." (An updated version of the original post survives here.) You imagined her collapsing on the floorboards that night in a warm puddle of spilled Stoli, muttering against the cruel Muslim moon as a Sarah McLachlan CD skipped in the player.

It's tempting to dismiss Schlussel as a fruitcake simply because she's a fruitcake. But she's actually not even the worst fruitcake of that type (that would be the shriektastic Pam Oshry of the blog, Atlas Shrugs) -- and in fact, Schlussel's conclusions are entirely rational, given the Trojan horse that was built to sell the War on Terror. What Schlussel believes is simply what the Bush administration has been trying to make all Americans believe since 9/11: That everything changed on that day, that global Islamism is planning to take over the world, and that America is constantly threatened by terrorist enemies inside and outside its borders -- moreover, that we're in a 'generational war' against terrorism in which Iraq is the central front, and that our enemy there is mostly "the people who attacked us on 9/11" (i.e., Al Qaeda). Additionally, progress in Iraq is ongoing, and Republicans are keeping us safe from terrorism while Democrats want to capitulate to the enemy. The overall message, underneath the administration's careful qualifications and trimmings, is simple, raw fear.

Let that Trojan horse in, and what comes swarming out is not only Schlussel, but also colder, less histrionic forms of fear that are even more dangerous. Another lurker at the threshold is Charles Johnson of the major right-blog Little Green Footballs, whose mission is to search the world press every day for stories of Muslims doing or saying something angry or threatening, in order further to prove that Muslims need to be wiped from the earth before they destroy Western Civilization. Historical context is provided by Gates of Vienna, a newly-influential and thoroughly wacky site run by a character called Baron Bodissey, who proclaims a 'long war' between civilization and Islam that's been going on since the Crusades. (Perhaps a similar long war has been going on all this time between France and England, in which case the Chunnel was an incredibly stupid idea, not to mention allowing Euro Disney to be erected behind French lines.) A major player in the field of crackpot right-wing media criticism is Bob Owens, a.k.a. Confederate Yankee, whose niche is in proving, via incredibly detailed, cheese-paring arguments, that any given piece of bad news from Iraq and other Mideast hot-spots is faked, and that any given media figure or organization is secretly working for the terrorists.

Or, in other words, that if the reality in the Mideast seems uncongenial, then a new one can be researched into being in which everything Bush says is true.

Of course, this is nothing like a comprehensive sampling. But if you go across the spectrum, covering all the major conservative issues loony by loony, you start to see this ethos of fear coalesce into a cohesive and rational worldview -- one that's shared, according to these sites' readership statistics, by at least a couple of hundred thousand Americans on the internet: In order for civilization to survive, America needs to suspend the Constitution when convenient; silence the media when they say things you don't agree with; round up leftists, illegal immigrants, and especially Muslims; attack and conquer most of the Middle East, starting with Iran (perhaps with nuclear weapons); and then start dealing with North Korea and probably China and/or Europe, either by force or threat. What you get, in other words, is perpetual bloodthirsty paranoia, and an ideal of perpetual war waged by an American dictatorship.

Which is, of course, pretty appalling right there, but the most striking thing you find is the way the ethos of fear recurses, the way it feeds on itself and expands to fill all available emotional space. Perhaps the greatest of all the right-wing sub-pundits is Stu Bykofsky of the Philadelphia Inquirer, the author of the definitive wingnut text of 2007, the column that dared to say what the multitudes were thinking, but could not admit: "To Save America, We Need Another 9/11." Quod Bykofsky:
America's fabric is pulling apart like a cheap sweater. What would sew us back together? Another 9/11 attack.
The Golden Gate Bridge. Mount Rushmore. Chicago's Wrigley Field. The Philadelphia subway system. The U.S. is a target-rich environment for al Qaeda.
Is there any doubt they are planning to hit us again?
If it is to be, then let it be. It will take another attack on the homeland to quell the chattering of chipmunks and to restore America's righteous rage and singular purpose to prevail.
Amen, brother. The only thing we have to fear is ... you know, forgetting how freaking terrified we're supposed to be -- because if we do, we might stop opening the gates and rolling all those weird and shoddy wooden animals in.
Gavin McNett writes and does graphics in the Boston area, and contributes to the weblog, Sadly, No!
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