Conservative propaganda in Montana shows how close the nation has teetered toward fascism

Conservative propaganda in Montana shows how close the nation has teetered toward fascism
CNN

Here's an entire New York Times story about a genuinely bad, malevolent person. It's not framed that way, of course, because Neutrality, but the Times tossed a reporter in the direction of Great Falls, Montana, to give us another report from the Trumpian underbelly of America and once again, it's a paranoid, conspiracy-obsessed, strategically dishonest sh-tshow that explains a lot about why the True Americans nesting comfortably in Trumpism have steadily been gravitating toward fascism as a matter of natural course.

The Times story is a long explainer about Rae Grulkowski and her quest to keep local civic-minded Montana residents from getting a token amount of federal funds by designating a chunk of the state a "national heritage area." It's a largely meaningless designation that provides minor federal funds to help preserve local points of interest and boost history-minded tourism. A bunch of Montana folks got a bee in their bonnets about it, part of the general True American suspicion that the federal government is evil and just out to trick people (thanks again, Ronald Jackass Reagan), and it became the local version of critical race theory, and hydrocorto-whateveritall, and ingesting horse dewormer because some friend of a friend of a cousin of an Online Influencer said horse paste cures gunshot wounds or whatever the latest version of that theory is.

But here's the thing: Rae Grulkowski—hero of the paranoid Montana class and partial impetus for Montana's reporter-attacking Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte's theatrical ban on the federal government from creating any such heritage designation in the state—attacked the civic-minded proposal by lying her ass off, constantly, inventing or perpetuating a web of fabricated claims that the tourism designation would, in the Times' telling, "forbid landowners to build sheds, drill wells, or use fertilizers." It would ban septic systems! It would raise taxes!

And it was all utter bullshit. As the Times noted and gave evidence of, Grulkowski was lying about all of it.

It was a local campaign dependent on crafting outright propaganda against something she didn't personally like, disseminating it to people who didn't give a damn whether it was true or it was false, rallying a crowd of like-minded liars to attack the opposition with furious disinformation, and turning it into the next Farm Bureau and Republican paranoia campaign in which allies compared the National Heritage Area program to Hitler and nobody involved can stammer their way through any plausible defense of the nonsensical claims they're making.

So then, what are we to make of this? Well, Grulkowski and her allies are flat-out liars, that's for sure. They have disseminated provably false information as a political strategy, and local Republican (Trump) voters snorted it all up like ideological cocaine. Team Lying Bullshit has done its level best to make the lives of those evil civic do-gooders miserable.

It's only in the very last quarter of the story that we get to the kicker that explains all the rest of it: Rae Grulkowski is apparently a "QAnon" devotee, according to The New York Times. She claims to believe in conspiracies about "child trafficking that leads to everything," and believes that Donald Trump won the November election even though he most demonstrably got flattened, and thinks Black Lives Matter supporters were the actual culprits behind the Jan. 6 insurrection, and there we go. She appears to be someone who read a lot of hoaxes on Facebook and turned them into a personality, just one of a new "movement" of Americans radicalized by a single company's eagerness to monetize the nation's most deep-seated paranoias.

Well of course someone who believes an assortment of the most malevolent, antisemitic, racist, pro-fascist conspiracy theories being passed around the internet is going to be similarly loose when inventing anti-government reasons to oppose whatever her neighbors are doing. But—and this is the crux of the Times story and the lesson to be taken from all of this—it worked.

It worked, because of course it did. The propaganda effort was overwhelmingly successful, enough to gain the support of conservative state lawmakers who did not give a damn whether the claims were true. Nobody involved appears to have given a damn whether they were promoting lies. The invention of propaganda was the core strategy: taking a minor civic issue and turning it, through lies, into a new conservative touchstone.

The lying part is the most consequential "value" at play here. "Heritage" designations have nothing to do with any of it. Nobody gives a flying damn whether or not local historic landmarks get new plaques or whether they don't. The important part is for local Republicanism to stick it to anyone who tries to do an inch of good by inventing whatever lies are necessary to do it.

In battling a largely meaningless recognition of the area's rich history, Grulkowski was following the playbook of Steve Bannon, and Stephen Miller, and Donald Trump himself. It is the fascist playbook: If the facts are against your beliefs, ignore those facts and lie. Create new "facts" that will galvanize the movement despite their fraudulence; rather than seeking the consent of the governed by explaining why the movement's ideas will solve current problems, manufacture a new reality in which the "problems" are whatever hoaxes the movement needs to produce in order to justify taking whatever actions the movement wants to take.

We are in a world of danger when flagrant political lies can so swiftly result in success rather than condemnation. That is the endgame to all of this. If a government can be established that governs the nation through fraud—and it is happening, in each Republican-held state using provably false election hoaxes to justify new voting restrictions, and in the establishment of Facebook as the nation's new news source, one in which false information is treated by the company as marketable entertainment rather than a poison, and in the pre-disgraced thug of a Montana governor adopting an anti-government propaganda campaign to attack a federal government program instituted by Ronald Reagan himself as a supposed secret attack on True American rights—then elections are already irrelevant.

Central to battling all of it, however, is to recognize that Rae Grulkowski disseminated lies in order to attack an action she didn't like; she did so while wallowing in an absolute sea of other lies. She succeeded in mustering a populist revolt against better people and better ideas by lying, outright, about the thing she was fighting against. Now, says the Times, she has further political ambitions, given that her equally toxic and cowardly neighbors proved to be so furiously supportive of her campaign of lies.

This is a person who should be scorned. This is a person who should be shunned, boycotted, considered a crackpot, and treated with universal contempt. This is a person who is attacking democracy itself, by attacking it at its root premise: Whatever civic challenges are presented to the voters, they must be based on truth. Democracy is meaningless, is absolutely meaningless, if each election is a competition not of competing solutions to civic problems but of the inventiveness of each campaign in creating new hoaxes and convincing the governed to believe them.

Instead, we get national debates over whether some of the most infamously dishonest people in government have been treated too roughly if private restaurant owners do not want to serve them. The pressure is not to shun liars as anti-American, anti-democracy propagandists seeking to manipulate public opinion through rampant dishonesty, but whether we are allowed to direct any scorn their way at all.

How did it come to this?

The short answer might be Bernard Goldberg. Goldberg was one of those who made a name for himself insisting that American journalism was intrinsically "biased" against conservatives, a claim which is now taken as a central movement tenet because it fits pleasingly with every other movement theme of displacement and victimhood. The evidence for this "bias," even decades into the claims, was almost always an assertion that because conservative ideologues were not given exposure equal to actual issue experts, it amounted to oppressing the conservative "side" of an argument.

Ideological claims, in other words, were being shortchanged because journalists were looking to scientists, medical experts, historical data, and other providers of hard facts rather than letting lobbyists, think-tank heads, and other professional political provocateurs speak with equal authority and at equal volume.

From there conservatism moved to a very successful crusade to reformulate "news" so that facts were always debatable, so long as there was a single professional spinner who could be paid to claim they were. The cable networks, especially, transitioned from that into new forms that rarely gave scientists or other experts a voice at all, preferring instead to pit one pre-determined ideologue against another for orchestrated spats in which nobody could be proven to have lied because the segment would be over before any actual journalist or expert could even phone the studio.

We moved on to public bellowing about "the elites must respect my beliefs," where "beliefs" consisted of believing that climate scientists were sabotaging world government or, eventually, that livestock dewormer was a miracle cure for a pandemic hospitals themselves could not keep up with.

But it was the Goldberg camp that insisted that liars and propagandists should not just be heard from but also treated with respect. That if there was a conflict between facts and conservatism, then it was biased to highlight one over the other. It was treated as a given, from the beginning, that conservatism was a counter to scientific and policy expertise. It was treated as a given that conservatism was the rightful and just opposition to such expertise.

We have reached that conservative promised land. All of the news now follows the formula of pitting ideologue against ideologue, the facts wedged in somewhere—or not, depending on the journalist—but with no reproach given to those who insist that the facts are something else. The paid propagandists and crafters of outlandish, impossible lies are now treated with impeccable respect by the media. The American people are taught to treat professional liars as dignified combatants—nay, true Americans, speaking powerful emotions in the face of uncomfortable, irritating data.

And, after hounding media relentlessly into giving respect to professional fraudsters, the conservative movement itself has now shed from itself everything but the professional fraudsters. The lies are the movement; the movement is defined by the lies, and shifts as rapidly as required to adopt new ones.

You need not look at anything beyond the last election to see that. Respecting, or actively propagating, the anti-American hoax that claims Republicans secretly "won" the last election only to have it stolen by invisible forces, is now a requirement inside the so-called "conservative" movement. Trump lied constantly, about everything, in genuinely malevolent ways, and he was a product of both Bernard Goldberg's insistence that sneering know-nothings be given media respect and the shouter who finally erased all further attempts to pretend Republicanism was anything but a collection of spite-based antipathies and hoaxes.

But Rae Grulkowski is, genuinely, a bad person. Steve Bannon is a liar, a propagandist, and a hack. Stephen Miller is a white nationalist who crafts propaganda demonizing immigrants to justify brutality against them. Mitch McConnell is a relentless liar, one who flaunts his absolute contempt for whatever ideal he blustered about a month, a week, or a day beforehand in order to invent an entirely opposing one. Sarah Huckabee Sanders promoted fraudulent information as a professional, and ideological, career move. Donald Trump is quite possibly the most loathsome sack of malignant neuroses to ever have shuffled through Washington and that is saying something.

Creating hoaxes for the purpose of manipulating public opinion is contemptible, evil behavior. It deserves fury. It deserves the scorn of the entire nation; journalism, and political media especially, should have such seething contempt for the propagandists that exposure of each lie and value judgments about those that perpetrate them should be, as they once were, the profession's central ambition.

It is not enough to point out that this or that person is fabricating a hoax in order to deceive their fellow Americans into holding a new political position. Those that do so are enemies of democracy. They are, in the true sense of the word, anti-American. They are frauds. They are doing direct harm to their neighbors, their towns, their states, their nation. They are ideological soldiers seeking to do harm to the government by taking, from the public, the ability to use their vote as means of steering that government. They are anti-civil rights. Their propaganda is stealing democracy by stealing votes by stealing political debate itself so that voters simply cannot discern what government is doing, what the parties are doing, what the issues are, where the dangers are, and where the future catastrophes lie.

These are all bad, evil, rotten people who need to be shunned with ferocity. They do not warrant respect. They do not warrant civil treatment. They do not warrant malicious burbles about how dare Americans seek consequences for their fraud; newspaper editors should be devoting themselves to identifying each face and name and lie and treating them as public enemy, not both sides denizen.

These are the footsoldiers that will end democracy, if we cannot throw them from our civic spaces and treat them with the contempt that hoax promoters deserve. These are not the days of tar and feathers, but they can certainly be the days of belittlement, consequences, and public reproach. These are the vapid, self-serving cowards whose lies spur domestic terrorists to violence, and who kill Americans by the thousands by pushing fraudulent information about a deadly pandemic. These are not people who lie of happenstance or impulse, but people who specifically seek to bend government through a pattern of anti-American deceit.

There is no neutrality to be had in reporting like this. Someone who manipulates American politics by lying to the American public is acting with malevolence; reporters should feel a civic duty not just to expose them, but to strip them of the usual deference and pleasantries. Treat propagandists with more scorn than those who craft financial hoaxes to prey on the elderly, or those who hide the deadly effects of a product so that they may sell more of them. The propagandists are attacking the soul of our very democracy. To hell with them. Shun them and those who enable their plots out of greed, ideology, or apathy.

Conservatism has now reached Bernard Goldberg's promised land in which facts and malevolent fictions are treated as equals. The movement itself has become a mass of hoaxes cowering under a red hat. If it cannot be condemned as a fraud, it will grow in power until it strips all truth from around us.

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