(This is the second installment of a discussion begun here.)
The first installment of this two-part article argued that the election of Donald Trump demonstrates dramatically that the state of mind of the tens of millions of Americans who make up the Republican electorate is now at the heart of the threat to the well-being of America posed by the destructive force that’s taken over the American right.
That broken consciousness was not always such a driving force in the dismantling of America, as a brief review of the history of the hijacking of American “conservatism” over the past generation can show.
If we look back to, say, 1990 to investigate the state of this destructive force, we do not see any particularly intense sickness permeating the Republican electorate. The first president Bush was in office, and the people who voted for him were still quite recognizable to those familiar with the Republicanism of previous decades (from Eisenhower, say, onward).
Nonetheless, that destructive force itself — which has now brought Donald Trump to the pinnacle of power in America — was already in evidence. It consisted of some public faces, and behind them were some big interests. (If we look at the gathering web, we find things like the Powell memo, the consolidating Big Money Power (including the Koch brothers), Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority, etc.)
The force had established its advanced base inside the top-down power structure, while the Republican base had not yet become the cesspool of brokenness — of a deeply false picture of what’s happening in America, of magnified hatreds and fears — it has since become.
Back in the 1990s, it was the job of some of the major public faces of that force — especially Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich — to undertake a program of poisoning the minds of the American people.
(The basic elements of this poison have always been there — e.g. the bigotries, the inclination to conflict over cooperation, the lack of critical thinking — but their role in the people’s overall patterns of thought and feeling was far smaller. The task of poisoning the minds of the people was, then, a matter of feeding the darker patterns, and starving the more benign ones.)
The poisoning of the minds of the people then accelerated during the presidency of W, with “Bush’s Brain” (Karl Rove) orchestrating his manipulative and deceitful propaganda. He (and Cheney) knew how to magnify the fears prompted by 9/11, and magnify them for their political purposes. And it was presumably Rove — never one to care about the truth — who announced the abandonment of any allegiance to reality, and declared that they could create their own reality.
Throughout, Rove and company assiduously sold a false, fact-free, distorted reality to their followers– eroding their capacity to distinguish truth from falsehood, and orienting their passions toward perpetual conflict based on the fear and hatred of enemies, foreign and domestic.
By the time W left office, the right-wing public was so far removed from reality that the Republicans could sell their policy of across-the-board obstructionism to people who regarded themselves as “American patriots.”
And by the time President Obama’s second term was approaching its conclusion, these Republican voters could support a monster — a bigot, a hypocrite, a narcissist, a wrecking-ball — like Donald Trump for president.
Thus. this sickness in the consciousness of the “conservatives” has only gradually grown to be such a central reservoir from which the destructive force that’s taken over the right draws its power to wreck the nation.
As it becomes more central to the overall battle, must not addressing this profound sickness among the American electorate become more central to our overall strategy to defeat this destructive force on the right?
But there’s an important part of my friend’s argument not yet dealt with here. I have no doubt that my friend would agree that the people in the right-wing bubble (Fox News, Limbaugh, the GOP, Trump, etc.) hold a overwhelmingly false picture of our political reality. Nor would he disagree that there’s a real disconnect between their stated value beliefs and the nature of the political forces they support. And he’d concur, I suspect, that over the past several decades, their worse passions have taken over and the “better angels of their nature” have ceased to have any discernible voice in the political realm.
So I expect he would agree that bringing them back from the Dark Side would be desirable. But, he might well argue, that doesn’t prove that it is possible.
That’s a good point– in that no one, including me, has demonstrated clearly an ability to bring today’s “conservatives” back from the Dark Side. But since when does an uncertainty about the possibility of success, when something is necessary to achieve, justify not even trying? No one could guarantee in 1939, or even 1944, that the Manhattan Project would succeed, yet the United States embarked on that herculean effort.
Speaking of which, I have studied how FDR successfully led America to victory in World War II. And I believe there FDR’s approach contains lessons for Democrats today seeking to succeed in the dark battle in which we are now engaged.
My friend would want me to attend to more urgent political needs: how to mobilize down to the grassroots; how to confront Trump; etc.
What would FDR do? Here’s how I see it.
Yes, the immediate crisis has to do with how to deal with President(-Elect) Trump. But not only is that not the only component of the battle, but even the battle against Trump cannot be fought only head-on. Trump’s power will be quite directly related to his approval ratings. If that approval rating can be brought down below, say, 40%, Trump’s ability to dominate our national direction will be greatly curtailed.
(If it goes low enough, it is even conceivable that such major misbehaviors as we can reasonably expect could be treated as grounds for impeachment.)
But beyond that, we need to think of this struggle as a multi-front, multi-dimensional war, as FDR dealt with that global struggle. Not only did he have to deal with two wars against two major enemies, he also had to:
- Turn millions of American civilians into an effective fighting force;
- Maintain a complicated set of alliances, with not only Churchill’s Britain, but also with Stalin’s Soviet Union, and Chiang Kai-shek in China;
- Gear up the latent power of America’s industrial might to produce aircraft and tanks and ships by the thousands;
- Conduct challenging R & D like the Manhattan Project;
- Prepare for the peace that would turn victory into a lasting benefit.
Now, we also have to deal with a complex struggle in a multiplicity of ways. It is not a matter of choosing one piece of the struggle instead of another, but rather finding the best ways of fighting them all in an integrated way. Among the various dimensions on which this struggle must be waged:
- The political mobilization my friend calls for;
- The role of the Democrats in Congress in minimizing the damage (and if possible maximizing the beneficial outcomes) from the Trump presidency;
- A campaign to pressure the media to do the job American democracy requires of it during what will surely be an unprecedented kind of dishonest, constitutionally questionable presidency (this is another challenging task about which we cannot simply throw our hands up and declare it hopeless;
- AND conduct a campaign to change the state of consciousness among America’s conservatives, both short-term to turn them against Trump and the Republicans, and long-term to bring them back from the Dark Side to greater sanity, greater alignment with both what is true and what is right. (And I am not claiming that my best efforts are the best way, and they are surely not the only way, to go about it. Perhaps another approach than mine will work better; perhaps a whole combination of approaches.)
Liberal America largely forfeited the battle over these people’s souls while they were being poisoned over the past generation. Our nation – and we as a political force – have paid an enormous price for that forfeiture.
Let us not forfeit that necessary battle once again.