Robert S. McElvaine

MAGA Republicans are not conservatives

Words have meanings. Words have power. Words influence the way people think and act. Words must be used with precision if the people who read them are not to be misled.

No honest journalist would disagree with any of those four sentences.

Yet one of the reasons why the American experiment in democracy, equality, freedom and diversity is in grave danger is that certain words have been stripped of their meanings — and in some cases have been used in direct opposition to their actual meanings — and are reflexively, almost automatically, repeated in the mainstream media.

At least some journalists, at some point in their education, read George Orwell's 1946 essay, "Politics and the English Language." It's time for them to read it again, and pay closer attention this time.

"To think clearly," Orwell writes, "is a necessary first step towards political regeneration." Clear thinking requires the careful use of words. Language should be "an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought," but as we all know. in politics words "are often used in a consciously dishonest way." Republican pollster and consultant Frank Luntz gave us such intentionally misleading terminology as "pro-life" and "death tax." The wholesale adoption of the former by the mainstream media has contributed significantly to the denial of women's control of their own bodies that we now confront.

What has been even more damaging, however, is the constant repetition of other misleading words, including "populist," "conspiracy theory," "Republican" and, most important of all, "conservative." People in the media mechanically repeat these with no apparent thought to their meanings or their effects on people reading or hearing them. As Orwell says, "bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better." Journalists and pundits may often be "almost unconscious of what [they are] saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church."

A great deal of political language is, as Orwell puts it, "designed to make lies sound truthful," and it is unfortunately often easier to turn to that "catalogue of swindles and perversions" than to consider what a word means before repeating it.

Merriam-Webster defines "populist" as "a believer in the rights, wisdom or virtues of the common people." Affixing the label to Donald Trump and the politicians who adhere to him, who believe nothing of the sort, helps them to deceive those common people.

Embedded in "conspiracy theory" is the word "theory," which in scientific usage refers to an explanation that has been repeatedly tested against evidence without contradiction. While it's true that in common usage, "theory" has a more general meaning, to suggest that there is a cabal of Satanic cannibal pedophiles who drink the blood of children, headed by Hillary Clinton and various other famous people, and from which Donald Trump will save us, does not qualify as a theory in any sense of the word. Yet the media persistently refers to such patently absurd delusions as "theories," inadvertently carrying them into the realm of potentially serious discourse.

"Republican" is of course still the name used by the antidemocratic, anti-republican and authoritarian forces that have taken control of that political party. Those forces refer to the rump movement that may still believe in a republican form of government as RINOs (or Republicans in Name Only) when that label better applies to them.

But by far the most dangerous manifestation of the media's ingrained tendency to aid and abet the enemies of democracy through the careless use of language, intentionally or otherwise, is the ubiquitous use of the word "conservative" to describe extreme right-wing radicals and their beliefs, which only seek to conserve white supremacy — and more specifically the class or caste supremacy of a small minority of wealthy and nominally Christian white men — and the bloated fortunes of the super-rich.

As historian Nancy MacLean shows in her 2017 "Democracy in Chains," many of those behind the scenes in the far-right movement that has been building for the past 40 years or more do not see themselves as "conservative" in any sense. They were and are radical right-wing revolutionaries. They embraced the term "conservative" as a marketing label, largely in order to conceal their true intentions from a public that would almost certainly reject those goals.

There are indeed still conservatives on the American political landscape, like them or not: George Will, Bill Kristol, Liz Cheney, Mitt Romney, George W. Bush. But Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott, as their recent words and deeds make clear, are not conservatives. Shape-shifting MAGA sycophants like Blake Masters, Kari Lake, J.D. Vance and Mehmet Oz are not conservatives. Openly insurrectionist members of Congress like Paul Gosar, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert are not conservatives. Spineless House Republican leaders Kevin McCarthy and Elise Stefanik are not conservatives. The Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and other right-wing militias are not conservatives. Authoritarian-worshiping Fox News personality Tucker Carlson is not a conservative.

These far-right extremists that media habitually call "conservatives" are conservatives in name only. Start calling them something that actually describes who they are and what they stand for.

"The invasion of one's mind by ready-made phrases," Orwell pointed out, "can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them." It is essential to think about "what impression one's words are likely to make on another person."

Here's a useful reminder: "Conservatives" are by definition not "extremists." Using the former name to describe the latter group only makes it more likely that otherwise normal and sensible people will support them and vote for them. It may be too late to prevent that, but it is never too late to start using words more accurately.

"The worst thing one can do with words," Orwell writes, "is to surrender to them." In this case, that surrender can also mean the surrender of American democracy. One of the most effective actions that those who use words for a living can take in this moment of dire peril is to call the self-described "conservatives" what they are: radical extremists, who seek the destruction of what we value most about America.

A coup more effective than Donald Trump’s

Some will rob you with a six-gun
And some with a fountain pen
— Woody Guthrie, "Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd"

As Woody Guthrie indicated in his 1939 song quoted above, crimes need not be carried out through violence. That applies even to the grandest larceny: stealing the most precious possession of a people, self-government.

In February 1964, John Frankenheimer's "Seven Days in May" premiered. The film depicts a conspiracy headed by a right-wing extremist general to stage a coup d'état aimed at ousting the president and installing a military junta to rule the nation.

As we learn ever more details of Donald Trump's attempted coup to overthrow the American Republic — what might be titled "Six Days in January" — we realize just how close it came to succeeding. The evidence indicates that the then-president's approach to staying in the presidency was similar to the "bold, persistent experimentation" to deal with the Great Depression that Franklin D. Roosevelt advocated when running for the office in 1932: "Take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something." Apart, of course, from the "admit it frankly" part, that appears to be exactly how the Trump plan to steal the election worked. If one method failed, the conspirators would move on to the next, with a violent insurrection being the final option if all else failed.

It is now clear that there was another alternative, in the event that the attempt to end democracy through a violent attack on the Capitol failed: In Guthrie's terminology, to rob Americans of democracy with a fountain pen instead of a six-gun.

Two days after Cassidy Hutchinson provided a riveting account of how the then-president was determined to overthrow the government by force, the three people he appointed to the Supreme Court showed how to overthrow the government by decree.

The period from June 24 through June 30 constituted the results of a coup much longer in the planning than that of the former president and his accomplices. As Jane Mayer, Nancy MacLean and Kurt Andersen have detailed in their respective books, "Dark Money" (2016), "Democracy in Chains" (2017) and "Evil Geniuses" (2020), a stealth plan, overseen by radical right-wing billionaires determined to "liberate" themselves from all effective government limitations on their actions and accumulation of wealth, has been ongoing for nearly seven decades and in earnest for more than four decades.

Like the enslavers of old and their chief theoretician, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, they believe that property rights are superior to people's rights and that the sort of policies they favor can most readily be obtained and preserved by concentrating power at the state level.

Achieving their objectives, which are in the interests of only a tiny minority of the population, would be a challenge in a democracy, as was evident in 1964 when the radical right gained the Republican presidential nomination for Barry Goldwater but saw him crushed by Lyndon Johnson, the architect of the sort of for-the-people government that was anathema to them.

The actual agenda of the radical rich had to be kept under wraps as they attracted needed allies by stoking racism, fear, hate and division. Though it is unlikely that many of them gave a hoot about abortion and most of the other "social issues" that animated the base of the movement the billionaires would steer toward their interests, they could use them to gain support for their hidden program.

Full democracy — which was first achieved in the United States in 1964-65 — is incompatible with promoting the interests of a small minority over those of a vast majority. The objectives of the greedy few might stand a better chance in the least democratic branch of the American Republic. In 1982, the Federalist Society was created to develop an alternative legal outlook to the then-dominant social and economic views in the profession. This long game has worked magnificently. All six of the Supreme Court justices who voted to overturn Roe v. Wade and to severely limit regulation of business in West Virginia v. EPA came out of the Federalist Society.

Those two bookends on the court's final week nicely show that a price the forces of greed were willing to pay to assure America would have a new Gilded Age was to give us a Gilead Age.

The Supreme Court of the United States now in effect holds that corporations and zygotes are persons, but women are not.

But the court's counterrevolution during June's last week didn't end with the EPA decision that could, in the words of historian Heather Cox Richardson, "signal the end of the federal government as we know it." For bad measure, the court announced that it is taking up the case of Moore v. Harper, which is based on a fringe legal theory called the "independent state legislatures doctrine." It will give the right-wing majority of the court the opportunity in its 2022-23 session to empower state legislatures to do legally exactly what Trump was trying to coerce them to do illegally: replace electors for the candidate who won the state with others who will vote for the loser. Such a ruling would write "The End" to the story of American democracy.

The "pens" of the right-wing extremists — please stop calling them "conservatives" — on the Supreme Court have nearly accomplished what the "swords" of the Jan. 6 insurrectionists failed to do.

The subtitle of Kurt Andersen's book, "The Unmaking of America," decades in the planning, was largely accomplished in a week. Call it "Seven Days in June."

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