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Monday, June 20, 2016

"How did we get here?" An essay on the state of Republican politics, Pt. 4

There is no free Luntz
“Hypocrisy is a tribute that vice pays to virtue.”

François de La Rochefoucauld, Reflections, or Sentences and Moral Maxims (1665-78)
The world will not forget the weird psychological effect of the Prime Minister of Prussia shouting at a prisoner supposed to be receiving a fair trial, “You wait till I get you outside” like a very low-class schoolboy threatening what he would do out of school. That sort of thing simply does not happen among civilized people: not even when they are very wicked people. How anybody can see such lunacy dancing in high places, in the broad daylight of political responsibility, and have any further doubt about the sort danger that threatens the world, is more than I can understand.
G.K. Chesterton (1933)

Hand in hand with Fox’s amplification of messages has come the meme factory developed by Republican political consultant Frank Luntz. Detail is wonky and boring, as anyone who has sat through a speech by Al Gore or Hillary Clinton can attest. As recent study found that in the Age of Twitter, humans have an attention span a second shorter than that of a goldfish.
As a result, messages that attracts and hold people for advertisers and pols have to be simple, easy to remember, and visceral. The best ones are clickbait headlines on a Facebook post: you don't even need to read the article. You just want to reach for “click” and “share.”
Modern political discourse among Republicans is, as a result, Lego-talk: code phrases bolted together to form paragraphs largely devoid of meaning other than to reinforce the anger and exclusionary tendencies of the faithful (this, of course, is nothing new. Bernie Sanders is the Bizarro Trump from a parallel universe).
Who’s your target audience? Determine that, stick a scroll of buzzwords in its mouth, and the golem comes to life. Like the latest buggy version of Windows, the updates- being poll-driven- are sometimes rushed to market. The sad spectacle of Senator Rubio, stuck rebuffering in the New Hampshire debate, is a recent example.
Lego talk blurs the changes as old tropes adapt and thrive. Take the GOP’s  forty-year rebranding of American blacks. When Ronald Reagan denounced “welfare queens” everyone knew what that meant; in 2012, Newt Gingrich, the racial foundation of the Republican ascendancy upended, dubbed Barack Obama “the food stamp president,” and everyone knew what that meant, too.
Sometimes, Luntzery is simply a matter of concept-flipping. Notions of progressive taxation see the children of hedge fund managers as worthy subjects of the inheritance tax. Their sole contribution to the creation of all that wealth was being a member of what billionaire Warren Buffett calls “the lucky sperm club.”
Turn, that into a “death tax,” however, and you have a concept to gin up the animal spirits of the hedge fund manager himself, the self-made man who worships his creator and cannot imagine why death cannot be bought off. It is a personal affront, whether the affronted be the maker, the heir, or the aspirant to wealth, voting GOP for decades despite overwhelming evidence that surging income inequality will always outpace his aspirations to become a rentier.  Death taxes motivate more voters, and more intensely.
A party that has mastered the art of saying everything while saying nothing is not one to profess surprise and dismay at the rhetorical stylings of their 2016 nominee.
Thus the April Fools’ contortions of Donald Trump, about which Gail Collins writes:
There’s no reason to imagine Trump ever gave a millisecond of thought to the details of abortion policy until he got trapped in that merciless interview with Chris Matthews on MSNBC. There are certain right-wing tropes that he just grabbed onto when he started his presidential run. One is that whenever the topic comes up, he’s supposed to announce he’s “pro-life.”

“I know,” Matthews followed up, adding, “But what should be the law?”

Trump babbled about totally unrelated topics, but Matthews, cruel man, pressed onward: “If you say abortion is a crime or abortion is murder, you have to deal with it under law. Should abortion be punished?”

“Well, people in certain parts of the Republican Party and conservative Republicans would say yes, they should be punished,” the candidate replied.

Wow. Trump both passed the buck and smashed the anti-abortion movement’s most basic sales pitch: that their war is about protecting fully developed fetuses from being murdered in the womb. The fact that more than 90 percent of abortions happen in the first trimester, that shutting down Planned Parenthood clinics robs low-income women of health care and family planning services, is beside the point. You’re not supposed to admit that stopping abortions limits women’s choice, and heaven knows you don’t say you’re punishing them.
“You never blame the woman, you paint her as a victim.” said Robert Jeffress, a Dallas pastor and Trump supporter who was one of the very, very few anti-abortion public figures who didn’t cringe and demand that Trump walk back his comments. “That conservative orthodoxy has been born out of political expediency rather than logic.”
It’s all about sex, Collins argues, and who gets to dole it out to whom, by what criteria of worthiness:
In reality, the anti-abortion movement is grounded on the idea that sex outside of marriage is a sin, and the only choice a woman should have is between abstinence and the possibility of imminent parenthood. It may be politically unwise to say that the sinner ought to pay, but she should at minimum have to carry an unwanted child to term.

Look at it this way and it’s easy to understand why abortion opponents have shown virtually no interest in working to make contraceptives and family planning universally available. It’s the sex, at bottom, that they oppose, and the politicians they support feel no pressure — or even any freedom — to try to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies through anything but high school abstinence lectures. Contraception may not be illegal, but it’s certainly not something you want to treat with respect.

(In honor of that last thought we will revisit the response Ted Cruz made to a question about family planning during the campaign: “Last I checked, we don’t have a rubber shortage in America. Look, when I was in college, we had a machine in the bathroom; you put 50 cents in and voilà. So, yes, anyone who wants contraceptives can access them, but it’s an utterly made-up nonsense issue.”)

Since Donald Trump has no real positions on almost anything except deals, you’d think he could have put his remarkable intellectual neutrality to some advantage on this issue. It would have been great if he’d told Matthews that he wanted to fight abortion by giving women easy, low-cost access to contraceptives.
Time has passed slowly in the GOP; activist PHyllis Schlafly, a pamphleteer for Goldwater in 1964, slayer of the ERA in the ‘70s, is a Trump Hag today, at 91. The Donald’s score, objectification and leering at women is an easy sell for the party of lower pay for women and fewer remedies for discrimination:
[H]e was asked whether the man who created an unwanted pregnancy should be punished, too.

“I would say no,” Trump quickly decreed.
Corey Robin illustrates the GOP’s mastery of Luntz-speak in his mention of the conservative claim to be the new abolitionists. Conservatives also claim to be “the party of Lincoln.”
Once, that was true. After 1965, not much at all; after 2008, not a chance. It is simply the appropriation of words that matters. They have latched onto the Dred Scott case by making it a verbal hashtag: it was a wrong decision, and if I’m a conservative and say it was bad, I’m not a racist. (Similarly, conservatives decry the Lochner wage and hours case of 1905, as “a wrong decision” even as they pursue policies to put it back into law). Today, when asked about Trump’s latest racial slur ( cannot give a current example. They change daily), Republican leaders “express concern” and call for “course corrections.”

But Lego talk has other uses. As I note in more detail below, discussing Umberto Eco’s novel, The Prague Cemetery, bigotry- as a concept- anticipated Frank Luntz by centuries. You use the same arguments over and over: you just plug in the name of the latest group you want to slag.

Racial arguments are perennial winners.  One of the most glaring examples of The Prague Cemetery rule in action in our time came in 2004-2005, when Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (who ran for the US Senate promising to be more LGBT-friendly than the incumbent, Ted Kennedy), saw killing marriage equality at birth a better horse for the ‘08 presidential race. Filing suit to block marriage in his state, Romney relied on the 1913 Massachusetts antimiscegenation law.
More recently, Princeton professor Robert P. George- cofounder of the National Organization for Marriage and coauthor of the stridently  Manhattan Declaration (with Watergate felon Chuck Colson)- has been pushing a carefully edited excerpt of an Abraham Lincoln speech on the Dred Scott case.
In lower-wattage circles, it has become a talking point for simply declaring Obergefell- and, by extension, any other Supreme Court decision one doesn’t like- void. It must be true: Lincoln said it. I saw in in a Facebook meme (after Trump won Indiana, George tweeted: “God help us”).
In May, 2016, GOP operative and former presidential adviser Karl Rove expressed his understanding of the party of Lincoln today:
At a certain point the discussion Rove offered this “joke” to [Democratic political strategist Donna] Brazile, who is black:

I did you a great favor bringing you into politics in the 1860 campaign and this is how you repay me? We’re happy you got the right to vote but it wasn’t your current party that was responsible for it.

Childs didn’t find this funny, calling Rove’s quip “patronizing and insensitive.”
She noted that the hedge fund conference felt like a “safe space” for a white man to tell a highly successful African-American women that she owed her success to him. None of the industry speakers at the conference were black and less than 15 percent were women.

At the event, Brazile noted that Rove was also factually incorrect. As a woman, Brazile did not receive the right to vote until 1920 and as a black woman did not have her right to vote protected until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In an interview with ThinkProgress, Brazile went further, saying Rove’s perspective was emblematic of a problem infecting the entire Republican Party.
“I don’t find it strange when Karl Rove brings up Abraham Lincoln because they can’t bring up anything else,” Brazile said. “It’s easier for them speak of Lincoln’s accomplishments than what they are doing today on voting rights.”
“They don’t have a future reference. They have the past,” Brazile said.
Brazile noted that, even among a group of conservative hedge fund managers, her perspective on the issue got “bigger applause.”

She challenged Rove and other Republicans claiming the mantle of racial justice to support restoration of the Voting Rights Act, which the Supreme Court gutted in 2013. Though reauthorization of the iconic legislation passed unanimously in 2006, Republicans in Congress have refused to hold a vote on new legislation. In the meantime, voting rights have suffered across the country.
Most recently, in North Carolina, the Republicans’ war on the LGBT community employs buzzwords that are familiar to residents of a certain age: “protecting our women and children” and “sharing the bathroom with them” were last called up for duty decades ago: against racial integration.
As a report in The Guardian put it, a bit more bluntly, after Mississippi dethroned North Carolina’s ten-day reign as the most antigay state in the union:
“These assholes talk about gay women and gay men using the exact same language they were using in the 50s and 60s for segregationist purposes,” said the award-winning chef John Currence, owner of several restaurants in Oxford, Mississippi.
Cultural appropriation is the lazy mind’s path to pretentiousness, and the opportunist’s to cloaking his intentions. As the author Diane McWhorter wrote of To Kill A Mockingbird,
Atticus worship was always an example of the human tendency to venerate deserving prophets only in retrospect, and then claim them as representatives of our True Selves rather than what they were in their time, heretics if not martyrs.
Sometimes, too, GOP Luntz-speak just devolves into a Palinesque world (Sarah, not Michael) of bloviation, as when Senator Roger Wicker, trying to warn off a primary challenge to Senator Jerry Moran over his having having said he’d meet with the President’s Supreme Court nominee, opined,
“I would hope that Rep. Pompeo would make a decision to stay in the House of Representatives,” Wicker said, calling Moran a “champion for not only Kansas values but also conservative Kansas values.”
(Moran caved a few days later).
One must give Senator Wicker his props: in March, he told CNN’s Erin Burnett:
You know, Erin, this is why I'm glad we made our position clear early on. This is not at all about any particular nominee. I don't know anything about Judge Garland's qualifications, but-
It is hard to find anything, anywhere, that might do anyone any good that Republicans don’t oppose. One example out of dozens- perhaps scores- is a new set of rule requiring investment managers to actually look out for the best interests of their clients. Greg Sargent wrote in The Washington Post:
[I]f you listen to Republicans, it becomes clear they don’t like the rule, but not for any specific reason relating to the rule itself. They’ll talk about Washington bureaucrats and Obama overreach, but the tell is in their repeated use of the phrase “Obamacare for financial planning!” (there’s an example from Paul Ryan). Whenever Republicans say something is “Obamacare for X,” it’s a way of saying, “We don’t like this thing, but we don’t want to say exactly why, so we’ll just say it’s like that other thing we don’t like.”

This gets to the heart of the different perspective the two parties bring to questions of the economy and government’s role in regulating it. The conservative perspective is essentially laissez-faire: if financial advisers take advantage of their clients, well, that may be regrettable, but we don’t want the government to actually do anything to prevent it, because we have to let the market do what it will. And when it comes to the affirmative policy changes they want to make, for ordinary people most of it involves waiting for things to trickle down. Let us cut taxes on the wealthy and reduce regulations on corporations, they say, and that will create the conditions that will foster economic growth, so that at some time in the future it will be easier for you to find a good-paying job (those getting the tax cuts and regulatory breaks, on the other hand, get their benefits right away).
Nor does Republican bullshit remain fixed. It constantly mutates as it decays, even as its authors proclaim their faithfulness to the fixed principle of the day. The latest iteration of their Supreme Court idiocy is nicely summarized by John Holbo at Crooked Timber:
Process hypocrisy isn’t exactly newsworthy, I know, but a few notes.

Dahlia Lithwick discusses Chuck Grassley’s forthright proposition that 1) the Supreme Court needs to be less political; 2) the only way the Supreme Court can prove it is not political is by deciding cases consistently in ways that conservatives like and liberals don’t.

Another case that caught my eye – ear, rather. Randy Barnett, a few weeks ago (March 16), in an interview with Tom Ashbrook [my transcript, with possible errors, starting around 11:00.]

Barnett: If I could take this opportunity to say, I support the Republicans’ refusal to consider any nominee and the very fact that Judge Garland is such a highly qualified and moderate and reasonable nominee only underscores the principled nature of that opposition. That is, if he had been somebody who was more objectionable, then that would mean that the argument of principle, that they should not be considering someone in an election year would be more partisan. But because he is so reasonable, it underscores the principled nature of the opposition to hearing or considering any nominee no matter how reasonable they are.
Any- and every- occasion is grist for the GOP’s gibberish mill. 9/11 is a catastrophe that can never be exploited enough. In 2008, President Bush’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Alphonso Jackson, blamed the growing mortgage crisis on the the gays, as part of a conspiracy of “Yuppies, Buppies and Guppies.”
Thus Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson’s May 2016 speech to his state party convention:
"We've all heard Todd Beamer's iconic words 'Let's roll,'" Johnson told about 1,000 party faithful. "How American is that? We have a job to do, let's roll up our shirt sleeves. Let's get it done."

He then compared the passengers' vote with the upcoming election.

"The reason I like telling that story now as we head into the election season is we all know what we need to do," Johnson said. "November 2016 we'll be taking a vote. We'll be encouraging our fellow citizens to take a vote. Now, it may not be life and death, like the vote passengers on United Flight 93 took, but boy is it consequential."
Republican evangelist Anne Graham Lotz trotted out her version on the right-wing radio horn:
"There is silliness, there is craziness, there's the most illogical rulings. The one in North Carolina on HB2, which is to protect our children in bathrooms and locker rooms, has become something where the justice department is suing us for something that's just common sense." America, she said, "seems to be shaking its fist in God's face and telling him to get out of our politics, get out of our schools, get out of our businesses, get out of our marketplace, get off the streets" and is "basically abandoning God as a culture and as a nation".

She continued "[If we repent] I think he would begin to reveal the plots of terrorists before they are carried out, even the weather patterns he can control and protect us from violent storms."

Lotz adds: "I think that's why God allows bad things to happen. I think that'd why he would allow 9/11 to happen, or the dreadful attack in San Bernardino. To show us we need him."
God’s use of weather as a tool is usually the province of the 85-year-old Pat Robertson. In 2006 he predicted a tsunami for Oregon’s wickedness as a gay haven, but his-and God’s- wrath were given full vent in 1998 over the coming Gay Days at Disney World:
[A] condition like this will bring about the destruction of your nation. It'll bring about terrorist bombs, it'll bring earthquakes, tornadoes and possibly a meteor."
Robertson’s Regent University remains part of the triumvirate of segregationist schools every GOP presidential candidate, along with the Falwells’ Liberty University, and the never-changing Bob Jones.
‘We are all Reaganites now,” Republicans say, obliviously parroting John Maynard Keynes. Anything, any view, will quality. Just call it Reaganite, and yourself a Reagan conservative.
Want to seem intellectual? Quote Tocqueville, or Hayek (as millennials text each other, “Did Selma write a book about economics?”), or Mises. PhD level savants cite Russell Kirk and Walter Bagehot (If you are Ross Douthat, just quote some First Things contributor, or an eastern European, Cold War intellectual no one has ever heard of). Listeners nod approvingly. They have heard these names before, and they are hearing them, again, from someone else who hasn’t read them either, but is quoting them in an orthodox context.
When Puccini died, many said he left opera nowhere to go. Donald Trump- who cannot express himself in complete, one at a time thoughts, and could drive all the sentence-diagrammers of the world to the nearest cliff, is candidate at the end of Luntz Road. We are in the post-Luntz era, and conservative thought leaders who’ve been content to just read each other’s op-eds all these years, are shocked. As the blog Driftglass noted
[I]t is no real surprise that [National Review columnist Ranesh] Ponnuru has strapped on the Seven League Boots and taken a mighty leap right over the two decades between the Age of Clinton and the 2016 presidential election. Because it was during this period when it became painfully clear to anyone who was not an idiot or a fraud or a co-conspirator that Conservatives simply do not have principles.

They have a skull full of Frank Luntz-tested, Fox-approved, bumper stickers which are swapped out depending on which party --

"You know, Paul, Reagan proved deficits don't matter." -- Republican Vice President Dick Cheney

"The real question about the Bush tax cuts, then, is not, Can we afford them? The real question is, Why are they so small?" -- David Brooks

-- happens to be in the White House (typical teabagger rally during the reign of the Kenyan Usurper):

And what exactly was Mr. Ponnuru up to during this long, post-Clinton/pre-Trump interregnum about which so many Conservatives remain so conspicuously silent?

Funny you should ask!

When Mr. Ponnuru wasn't busy hacking out columns for The National Review, he was very energetically flogging his Regnery press best-seller, "The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life".

And now he makes a living writes columns for Bloomberg decrying the coarsening of our public dialogue, the lowering of Conservative standards and the  "cultural rot" that has made it possible for a vulgar, lying demagogue like Donald Trump the win the Republican nomination in a landslide.

Funny old world.

Or, as Adlai Stevenson said sixty years ago, “The Republicans stroke platitudes until they purr like epigrams.”

Tomorrow: Birthers

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