During the last significant political alignment, conservative Democrats left their party to join the Reagan Revolution. Many had been supporting or voting with the increasingly conservative GOP on most issues for years. Southern Congressmen, a US Senator, and a handful of previously Democratic thinkers like William Bennett left the party. The party, though, stayed pretty much intact, just more dominated by the New Dealers, steadfast in their belief that good government can provide good outcomes.
This time, in the Trump realignment, the intellectual underpinning of the conservative movement has jumped ship. People like Bill Kristol, Stephen Hayes, Jonah Goldberg have largely abandoned the GOP in the party’s shift from conservative to populist. A small army of former GOP political consultants and operatives is engaged in a war with their former party. They reject the populist leanings of the party, but are most offended by the obvious lying, dishonesty, and cowardice among the current leadership.
What’s left is a party that has little ideological underpinning and no intellectual heft. The Republican “thinkers” are now propagandists like Tucker Carlson on platforms like Fox News, talk radio or blogs. They spread the disinformation that has left more than 60% of Republicans believing that Trump really won. They downplay the significance and damage of the January 6 assault on the Capitol. And they’re responsible for vaccine hesitancy that will lead to a lot more preventable deaths. They’ve become a party of grievance based on distortions and lies.
One GOP blogger with 77,600 followers tried to blame the rank-and-file Republicans’ distrust of knowledge and science on government overreach and Democratic lies, but his own justification laid bare how much the GOP dystopian fantasy has taken hold. He based his argument on false premises that the Steele Dossier led to the FBI investigation of the Trump campaign, a story line long ago debunked but still firmly entrenched in the GOP’s alternative universe. He ties that false premise to a broad all-consuming conspiracy. By the end of his argument, he’s determined “that every institution is captured by ppl who will use any means to exclude them (Trump supporters) from the political process.”
A solid portion of the GOP lives in a world that only exists in the minds of grifters and propagandists. The “corporate press” may get stories wrong and may have adjusted poorly to the 24-hour news cycle of cable news and social media, often jumping to conclusions instead of waiting for verifiable facts, but a majority of reporters try to get it right. If they’ve discounted the Trumps, Giulianis, Charlie Kirks, and Marjorie Taylor-Greenes of the world, it’s because they see through the lies and grift, not because they are promoting a left-wing ideology.
The right, on the other hand, built a media ecosystem designed to indoctrinate instead of inform. Fox News was established by a Republican political operative to put a spin on the news. Rush Limbaugh, the father of talk radio, wanted to persuade and encourage a political narrative, not provide facts or news. They created the concept of confirmation bias and then, when the Trump regime came along, took it to the next level of state propaganda, promoting the Big Lie and defending, and sometimes encouraging, anti-democratic actions.
I won’t argue that the mainstream media is unbiased. I will argue that most members of the media establishment try not to lie, even if the facts often lead them to interpretations that conservatives and populists disdain. They have established rules of journalism that news organization have agreed to follow and they have gatekeepers that reward good behavior and excellence. Organizations like the Poynter Institute, Factcheck.org, and Pulitzer keep them honest and set the standards.
Today, those organizations and standards are under attack as part of The Establishment, or as the blogger I referenced earlier called them, “The Regime.” The goal of the right-wing ecosystem is to cast doubt on facts and dispute what we often see with our own eyes. The attack on the Capitol was little more than a tourist visit. Voter fraud was rampant despite no evidence. The FBI was complicit in a phony investigation of Trump. And the people who dispute these narratives are part of a broad conspiracy to keep Trump supporters from having a say in government. These lies have been repeated over and over by Fox News, talk radio, and social media warriors to the point that a substantial portion of our population cannot determine truth from fiction, so they rely on their biases instead of the experts who are constantly undermined by right-wing media circus.
It’s a disturbing place for our country. Knowledge, science and democracy are under attack. Conservatives who should know better are spending more time trying to discredit Democrats than trying to dispute the disinformation spewing from the right-wing echo chamber. As an optimist, I like to think that truth and justice will ultimately win, but as an historian, I know that’s not always the case.
In the South, we spent most of the 20th century living a lie that made a mockery of democracy, leaving a large portion of our population disenfranchised and subject to an extra-judicial legal system designed to impose oppression instead of justice. The same forces that kept that system alive are the ones promoting the disinformation permeating the right-wing media ecosystem today. While compromise should be the goal of our government, defeat is the only solution to stopping the forces at work today.