This Country Just Can't Deal with Reality Any More
As Election Day 2010 approaches – as the United States wallows in the swamps of war, recession and environmental degradation – the consequences of the nation’s three-decade-old decoupling from reality are becoming painfully obvious.
Yet, despite the danger, the nation can’t seem to move in a positive direction, as if the suctioning effect of endless spin, half-truths and lies holds the populace in place, a force that grows ever more powerful like quicksand sucking the country deeper into the muck – to waist deep, then neck deep.
Trapped in the mud, millions of Americans are complaining about their loss of economic status, their sense of powerlessness, their nation’s decline. But instead of examining how the country stumbled into this morass, many still choose not to face reality.
Instead of seeking paths to the firmer ground of a reality-based world, people from different parts of the political spectrum have decided to embrace unreality even more, either cynically as a way to delegitimize a political opponent or because they’ve simply become addicted to the crazy.
The latest manifestation of the wackiness can be found in the rise of the Tea Party, a movement of supposedly grassroots, mad-as-hell regular Americans that is subsidized by wealthy corporate donors (such as the billionaire Koch brothers) seeking to ensure deregulation of their industries and to consolidate their elite control over the political process.
The Tea Party madness is aided and abetted by a now fully formed right-wing media apparatus that can popularize any false narrative (like Islam planning to conquer Christian America as represented by the building of an Islamic community center near Ground Zero).
The Right sees an advantage in spreading even the nuttiest of smears against President Barack Obama. So you have right-wing author Dinesh D’Souza and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich concocting a toxic brew of racist nonsense about Obama somehow channeling the anti-colonialism of his late Kenyan father.
“Incredibly, the U.S. is being ruled according to the dreams of a Luo tribesman of the 1950s,” D’Souza wrote in Forbes. “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.”
The “factual” basis of this “analysis” apparently is that Obama entitled his touching story about his youth, Dreams of My Father, which was a book that focused on the absence of his father from his life.
In a less crazy time, one might have expected D’Souza’s claptrap to be denounced by politicians across the political spectrum, but that is not the time we live in.
Instead, Gingrich, a leading figure in the Republican Party and a potential candidate for president in 2012, praised D’Souza’s racist psycho-babble as the “most profound insight I have read in the last six years about Barack Obama,” adding that D’Souza unlocked the mystery of who Obama is by addressing his “Kenyan, anticolonial behavior.”
Gingrich also pretended that he and D’Souza were the truth-tellers here, not just propagandists spreading a smear. Gingrich said they simply were unmasking Obama who has “played a wonderful con, as a result of which he is now president.”
How It Happened
But how did the United States of America get here? How could the most powerful nation on earth with a sophisticated media that is constitutionally protected from government censorship have stumbled into today’s dreary place filled with such up-is-down commentary?
As a journalist in Washington since 1977, I have had a front-row seat to this sad devolution of American reason. As the process advanced, I have at times felt like a Cassandra trying to warn others about the risks of abandoning fact and rationality in favor of propaganda of whatever stripe.
I also have watched Newt Gingrich since he was a freshman congressman in 1979, when I was a congressional correspondent for the Associated Press. Though I have met many politicians in my career and know they can be an egotistical bunch, Gingrich’s burning ambition – his readiness to do whatever was necessary – stood out even then.
Unlike many other congressional Republicans of the time, Gingrich cared little for constructive governance but a great deal for political gamesmanship. He was already plotting his route to national power and was ready to use whatever tactics would advance his personal and ideological cause.
However, America’s decoupling from reality – and its disappearance into the swamp of unreality – began in earnest with the rise of actor and ad pitchman Ronald Reagan, who crafted a host of get-something-for-nothing policies that appealed to a nation that was struggling to adjust to a more complex world.
Reagan promised that tax cuts tilted to the rich would generate more revenue and eliminate the federal debt; that this money also could finance a massive military buildup which would frighten America’s enemies and restore national prestige; that freeing corporations from government regulations and from powerful unions would herald a new day of prosperity; that the country could turn its back on alternative energy and simply drill for more oil; that whites no longer had to feel guilty about the plight of blacks; that traditional “values” – i.e. rejection of the “counter-culture” – would bring back the good old days when men were men and women were women.
Despite the appeal of Reagan’s message to many Americans, it was essentially an invitation to repudiate reality. Before joining Reagan’s ticket as his vice presidential nominee, George H.W. Bush had famously denounced the tax-cut plan as “voodoo economics.” Early in Reagan’s presidency, his budget director David Stockman acknowledged that the tax cuts would flood the government in red ink.
But tax policy wasn’t Reagan’s only ignore-the-future policy. While rejecting President Jimmy Carter’s warnings about the need for renewable energy sources, Reagan removed Carter’s solar panels from the White House roof and left the nation dependent on oil. Reagan also led campaigns to break unions and to free corporations from many government regulations.
Scaring the Public
In foreign policy – although the Soviet Union was in rapid decline – Reagan put ideological blinders on the CIA’s analysts to make sure they exaggerated the Soviet menace and justified his military buildup.
Reagan achieved this “politicization” of the CIA by placing in charge his campaign chief William Casey, who, in turn, picked a young CIA careerist named Robert Gates to purge the analytical division of its long tradition of objectivity. Gates arranged the scariest intelligence estimates possible.
Reagan also credentialed a group of young intellectuals who became known as the neoconservatives – the likes of Elliott Abrams, Richard Perle and Robert Kagan – who emerged from an elitist tradition (advocated by philosopher Leo Strauss) that it was their proper role to manipulate the less-educated masses and guide them in certain directions.
After Reagan gave the neocons oversight of his Central American policies, the neocons worked with seasoned CIA propagandists, like Walter Raymond Jr. who was moved over to the National Security Council, to develop what they called “perception management” strategies for controlling how the American people would see and understand things.
The neocons used fear, exaggeration and outright lying to get the American people behind Reagan’s support for brutal military regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala and the contra rebels seeking to overthrow Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government. Truth was subordinated to policy.
Perception management operatives targeted honest journalists, human rights activists and congressional investigators who dug up unwanted facts that challenged Reagan’s propaganda. To discredit truthful messages, the neocons “controversialized” the messengers.
These techniques proved very successful, in large part, because many senior executives at leading news outlets – from the AP where general manager Keith Fuller was a Reagan enthusiast to the New York Times where executive editor Abe Rosenthal was himself a neocon – sided with the propagandists against their own journalists. [For details on “perception management,” see Robert Parry’s Lost History.]
Meanwhile, the American Right began building its own media infrastructure with wealthy foundations footing the bills for a host of political magazines. Far-right religious cult leader Sun Myung Moon poured billions of mysterious dollars into the Washington Times and other media operations. [See Secrecy & Privilege.]
By contrast, the American Left mostly under-funded or even de-funded its scattered media outlets. Some, like Ramparts, were shuttered, while other formerly left-of-center publications, such as The New Republic and The Atlantic, changed hands to neocon and conservative owners. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Left’s Media Miscalculation.”]
Whatever the long-term costs, Reagan made many Americans feel good in the short run. They liked the idea of not having to pay for government services (by simply putting the bill on the government’s credit card) and many bought into Reagan’s notion that “government is the problem.”
So, in 1984, Reagan’s gauzy “Morning in America” vision won big over Walter Mondale’s appeal for fiscal responsibility.
The Iran-Contra Window
Perhaps the last best hope to reassert reality came with the Iran-Contra scandal, which played out from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s. Reagan’s secret arms-for-hostages deals with Iran had the potential to unravel an interconnected series of national security cover-ups and scandals, including cocaine smuggling by Reagan’s contras and creation of the “perception management” operation itself.
However, again, truth about these complex scandals was not considered that important, either in Congress or within the Washington news media. The governing Democrats, the likes of Rep. Lee Hamilton and later President Bill Clinton, chose to sweep the scandals under the rug in the hope that the Republicans would reciprocate through a renewed bipartisanship. [See Secrecy & Privilege.]
Not only were those hopes unrequited, the Republicans actually grew more emboldened and more partisan. The GOP and its allies ramped up personal attacks on Clinton by turning loose its powerful new media infrastructure, which by the 1990s featured the Right’s domination of AM talk radio.
A typical example of the Right’s propaganda was to distribute lists of “mysterious deaths” of people somehow connected to President Clinton. Though there was no evidence that Clinton was implicated in any of the deaths, the sophistry of the argument rested simply on the number of cases.
When I checked out some of the cases and relayed my findings of Clinton’s innocence to one right-wing source, he told me that maybe I could show that Clinton wasn’t responsible for some of the deaths but I couldn’t account for all and that it would be “a big story” if the President was responsible for even a few deaths.
I responded that it would be a “big story” if the President were responsible for even one, but the problem was that there was no evidence of that, just the insidious impression created by a long list of vague suspicions.
What the Right learned was that it could achieve political gain by circulating an endless supply of baseless or wildly exaggerated allegations. Many Americans would believe them just because of the repetition over right-wing talk radio, especially by the most prominent talker Rush Limbaugh.
On Election Night 1994, Democrats were stunned by how effective the tactic of using bogus and hyped anti-Clinton charges proved to be. Between the smearing of Bill and Hillary Clinton and the voters desire to punish Democrats for raising taxes to close the Reagan-Bush-41-era deficits, the Republicans swept to control of the House and Senate.
Newt Gingrich achieved his long-held goal of becoming House Speaker, and Rush Limbaugh was made an honorary member of the Republican congressional caucus.
In the years that have followed – especially with the emergence of Fox News in the mid-to-late 1990s – the dominance of right-wing propaganda over non-ideological reality moved to the center of the American political process.
As in the 1980s, much of the blame should fall on the mainstream news media. Rather than push for difficult truths, many journalists in the corporate media protected their careers by going with the flow or turned their attention to trivial and tabloid stories.
The Bush-43 Era
During Campaign 2000, journalists from publications such as the New York Times and the Washington Post ganged up on Al Gore. They even made up quotations to put in his mouth so they could haze him as if they were the cool kids on campus and he was the goofy nerd.
By contrast, journalists knew to fawn all over the ultimate big man on campus, George W. Bush, as he made them feel important by giving them nicknames. [For details, see Neck Deep.]
When Gore still narrowly defeated Bush in Election 2000, the major news media stood aside as Bush and the Republicans stole the White House.
After Bush’s allies on the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the counting of votes in Florida to give him the “victory,” some executives at major publications felt that pointing out the fact that Gore actually won – if all votes legal under Florida law had been counted – would undermine Bush’s “legitimacy” and thus it was better not to let the public know. In other words, ignorance had become bliss.
Some columnists, like the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen, went so far as to hail the overturning of the popular will under the theory that Bush would be a uniter, while Gore would be a divisive figure.
The see-no-evil attitude hardened after the 9/11 attacks when mainstream outlets, including the New York Times, the Washington Post and CNN, consciously misreported their own findings of a Gore victory in Florida, based on an unofficial media recount. Instead of leading with that remarkable fact, they buried the lede and highlighted that Bush would still have won some partial, hypothetical recounts. [See Neck Deep.]
The media mood after 9/11 – a combination of misguided patriotism and fear of right-wing retaliation – caused the mainstream press to retreat further into self-censorship and even collaboration. Key journalists, such as the Times’ reporter Judy Miller and the Post’s editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, became handmaidens to Bush’s propaganda about Iraq.
With only a few exceptions, the U.S. news media let itself become silly putty in the hands of the neocons, who had returned to power under Bush-43 with a much broader foreign policy portfolio than Reagan had ever given them. Whereas Reagan confined them mostly to Central America, Bush-43 gave them the strategically vital Middle East.
Not surprisingly, the neocons reprised their old strategy of perception management, stoking excessive fears of Iraq’s mythical WMD programs and stomping out any counter embers of doubt. For millions of Americans, the WMD lies became truth as they were repeated everywhere, from Fox News and Rush Limbaugh to the pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times.
Aping the Right
After watching the success of the Bush administration’s propaganda, some on the Left decided that their only hope was to give the neocons a taste of their own disinformation medicine.
Though the 9/11 evidence pointed to Bush’s incompetence in ignoring warnings and failing to stop al-Qaeda’s terrorist operation, some American leftists felt that it wasn’t enough to convince the people that Bush was simply a bonehead. The feeling was that Bush had so bamboozled the people that they needed to be shocked out of their trances by something bigger.
So, this small group brushed aside the evidence-backed narrative of Bush’s incompetence and even a competing interpretation of that factual framework, claiming that Bush had “let 9/11 happen.” Instead, this group insisted that the only way to wake up America was to make a case that Bush “made it happen,” that he was behind the 9/11 attacks.
To accomplish this feat, these activists, who became known as “9/11 truthers,” threw out all the evidence of al-Qaeda’s involvement, from contemporaneous calls from hijack victims on the planes to confessions from al-Qaeda leaders both in and out of captivity that they indeed had done it. The "truthers" then cherry-picked a few supposed “anomalies” to build an “inside-job” story line.
The “truthers” even recycled many of the Right’s sophistry techniques, such as using long lists of supposed evidence to overcome the lack of any real evidence. These sleight-of-hand techniques obscured the glaring fact that not a single witness has emerged to describe the alleged “inside job,” either the supposed “controlled demolition” of the Twin Towers or the alleged “missile” attack on the Pentagon.
Some supporters of the “inside-job” theory may have simply been destabilized by all the years of right-wing disinformation. Reality and real evidence may have lost all currency, replaced by a deep and understandable distrust of the nation's leaders and the news media.
Other "truthers" whom I’ve talked with view their anti-Bush propaganda campaign as a success because it injected some doubts among the American people about Bush. One told me that this was the only attack line against Bush that had gained any “traction.”
However, after President Obama’s election in 2008, the Right again demonstrated its mastery of the disinformation techniques. Unlike the Left, the Right could roll out the heavy artillery of a multi-layered media apparatus that pounded the public with barrage after barrage of conspiracy theories.
Falsehoods took on the color of truth simply by their endless retelling. For instance, the canard that Obama was born in Kenya, not Hawaii as his birth certificate shows, has gained credibility with large numbers of Americans including about half of Republicans, some polls show. Similarly, the Right has convinced tens of millions that Obama is a Muslim, though he is Christian.
The Right’s media power has enabled the Republicans to portray Obama as some un-American “other,” while the GOP has little fear that its spreading of racist-tinged conspiracy theories will hurt the party’s election chances.
The latest example is Dinesh D’Souza’s bizarre theorizing about Obama’s channeling his late father’s opposition to British colonialism in Kenya, a reincarnated dream which somehow has morphed into Obama's "socialist" agenda which is "alien" to American values.
Instead of roundly condemning D’Souza for this strange and racist article, Gingrich – one of the supposed intellectuals of the Republican Party – went out of his way to praise the nonsense as “profound.”
As former Bush-43 speechwriter David Frum noted in a blog post, “With the Forbes story and now the Gingrich endorsement, the argument that Obama is an infiltrating alien, a deceiving foreigner – and not just any kind of alien, but specifically a Third World alien – has been absorbed almost to the very core of the Republican platform for November 2010.”
Despite some internal GOP critics like Frum, the Republican Party clearly feels that it has a winning formula, using such psychological warfare to exploit a confused and embittered electorate. That confidence will be tested on Nov. 2, although if most prognosticators are correct, the Republicans have good reason to feel confident.
Whatever happens on Election Day, the longer-term challenge will be to rebuild an old-fashioned commitment to fact and reason within both American journalism and the broader political system.
Though lying is not foreign to U.S. politics and media, telling the truth has always been a fundamental American value, one that is vital to democracy.
The great task of restoring the Republic must include honest efforts to dig out recent history's ground truth, which can then be used to build a path out of the disinformation swamp and onto the dry land of rational political discourse.