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Tuesday, June 21, 2016

"How did we get here?" An essay on the state of Republican politics, Pt. 5

Birthers
“Trump is the natural reductio ad absurdum of rightwing Republican thinking. Most Republicans echo what Trump says, but in a coded way, the dog whistle. Trump is merely saying out loud what most Republicans think … Sarah Palin was the Republican’s 2008 vice-presidential candidate. She’s worse than Trump. She’s done nothing, she’s stupider than Trump. Her views are all the same as his.”
Author Paul Theroux, The Guardian, March 24, 201
“If he was for it, we had to be against it.”
Former Ohio Senator George Voinovich, on the congressional Republicans’ response to the election of President Obama, in Michael Grunwald, The New New Deal (2013)
Notoriously, Obama gave up almost 43 percent of Democratic primary votes in 2012 to Keith Judd, a political nonentity who was in prison at the time, suggesting many voters were there for anyone but the president. Commentators attributed the bizarre result to racism, and West Virginia has shown up high on Google metadata counts of racist search terms – a newly favored way to measure attitudes that many people know better than to express to researchers.
Jedediah Purdy, “What West Virginia is saying at the polls,” Scalawag Magazine, May 11, 2016
Another reason [thirty US House Republicans voted to allow defense contractors free rein to discriminate against LGBT Americans this year, after against it last year] could be the tone of this election cycle in which presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has proven that offensive remarks won't necessarily hurt you at the polls.
Lindsey McPherson, “Really, 30 Republicans Switched Sides on LGBT Discrimination,” Roll Call, May 20, 2016


AM radio has always had a place for broadcasters with a taste for the esoteric and backward-looking, from my childhood filled by Jesse Helms’ editorials on The Tobacco Radio Network, to The Manion Forum, which always confused me: who was Rankin? And why was everyone so concerned by his file?
In the Nineties, Clintonmania seized the conservative movement’s most conservative, and lo, modern talk radio emerged. In no small measure did it set the GOP on its present trajectory. It popularized the Luntzificaiton of political talk in the ranks of conservatives.
Most listened to it while commuting, for fifteen minutes to half an hour. Messages had to be simple to be absorbed while paying some degree of attention to the road. And it had to get a rise out of listeners. Let Conor Friedersdorf, writing in The Atlantic in February, pick up the tale:
For years, I’ve argued that talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and websites like Breitbart.com pose a significant threat to movement conservatism. All movements are vulnerable to populist excesses and the self-destructive impulses of their core supporters. Good leaders can help to mitigate those pathologies. Bad leaders magnify them.

Within movement conservatism, hugely popular intellectual leaders abandoned the most basic norms of decency, as when Mark Levin screamed at a caller that her husband should shoot himself; stoked racial tensions, as when Rush Limbaugh avowed that in President Obama’s America folks think white kids deserve to get beat up by black kids on busses; and indulged paranoid conspiracy theories, as when Roger Ailes aired month-after-month of Glenn Beck's chalkboard monologues.

Erick Erickson now complains that many Republicans are supporting “a man of mountainous ego” who “preys on nationalistic, tribal tendencies.” But this is what happens when millions of people spend a decade with Bill O’Reilly in their living rooms each evening and Ann Coulter books on their nightstands for bedtime reading. Let’s not treat it as a mystery that their notion of what’s credible is out of whack.

For years, I’ve complained about egregious displays of misinformation, as when Andrew Breitbart published a video purporting to show a Hispanic Acorn worker willing to engage in human trafficking, but neglected to mention that he only indulged James O’Keefe’s hidden video sting until the amateur filmmaker left, when he called police.

I’ve lamented efforts to portray Democratic leaders as conspirators in a plot to deliberately destroy the country, as when Andrew McCarthy posited that Barack Obama is allied with our Islamist enemy in a “grand jihad” against America. And I warned against the cry-bully ressentiment tapped by Sarah Palin and indulged by her apologists. They accelerated the transformation of the American right away from anything resembling conservatism and toward aggrievement-driven tribalism.

As Andrew Sullivan, David Frum, Rod Dreher, and many other disaffected members of the heterodox right can attest, publishing articles like that attracted nothing but ire from most conservatives, who were loath to acknowledge that the media ecosystem they’d created was every bit as much an absurd echo chamber as the “safe spaces” of Oberlin. Some of them openly resisted the idea that there was any downside to an alliance with intellectually dishonest blowhards. Jonah Goldberg is hardly the worst offender, but his 2009 defense of Glenn Beck is instructive:

Many conservatives believe Beck is undermining conservatism with his often goofy style and his sometimes outlandish and paranoia-tinged diatribes. In an ode to conservatives such as William F. Buckley, my friend Charles Murray writes, “Don't tell me that we have to put up with the Glenn Becks of the world to be successful. Within living memory, the right was successful. The right changed the country for the better—through good arguments made by fine men.” Murray is nostalgic for conservative leaders who were, like Murray himself, soft-spoken intellectuals.

There are problems with such nostalgia. First, there has always been a populist front on the right, even during the "glory days" when Buckley was saying he'd rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than the faculty at Harvard. Moreover, whatever Beck or Limbaugh's faults, they are more cheerful––and more responsible—warriors than the populist right-wingers of yesteryear. The Tea Partiers may be rowdy and ideologically diffuse, but their goals, like Beck's, are indisputably libertarian. And from a conservative perspective, popular libertarian uprisings should be preferable to the sort of statist populism so often celebrated on the left.
Today, the very pathologies that conservatives who should’ve known better indulged as a matter of shortsighted convenience are being exploited by a reality-TV populist whose agenda is far from “libertarian.” His ascension poses an existential threat to movement conservatism. And he cannot be stopped in part because, over many years, conservative media trained its audience to respond to tribal signaling more than rigorous debate; to reflexively dismiss any complaints about speaking disrespectfully about others as bogus “political correctness;” to respond to mainstream-media criticism of public figures by redoubling their trust in them ; to value the schadenfreude of pissing off ideological opponents more than incremental policy gains; and to treat Sarah Palin as a credible candidate for the vice-presidency.
Ah, yes, the discovery of the Palins. The story of GOP-approved, overt hate’s post-1964 renaissance begins in  June, 2007. That’s when a cruise ship bearing wealthy supporters of The Weekly Standard decamped in Juneau, Alaska, and at a reception laid on by the then-novice governor, Sarah Palin, Fred Barnes and Bill Kristol became the Col. Pickering and Henry Higgins of a neocon reboot of Pygmalion.
Kristol, who has been more spectacularly wrong about more issues and people than anyone who still commands attention in DC, saw Palin as a ticket back into The Show. His disastrous championing of the last GOP village idiot, Dan Quayle, for the presidency after fours years as one hilarious heartbeat from the presidency having dimmed his star, Kristol needed to discover his King Kong.


Kristol praised Palin as what Tim Shipman, writing in The Telegraph in 2008, called he praised Mrs Palin as "a spectre of a young, attractive, unapologetic conservatism" that "is haunting the liberal elites...A former Republican White House official, who now works at the American Enterprise Institute, a bastion of Washington neoconservatism, admitted: "She's bright and she's a blank page. She's going places and it's worth going there with her."

Asked if he sees her as a "project", the former official said: "Your word, not mine, but I wouldn't disagree with the sentiment."

Pat Buchanan, the former Republican presidential candidate and a foreign policy isolationist, who opposes the war in Iraq, the project most closely associated with the neocons, said: "Palin has become, overnight, the most priceless political asset the movement has. Look for the neocons to move with all deliberate speed to take her into their camp by pressing upon her advisers and staff, and steering her into the AEI-Weekly Standard-War Party orbit."
After Sen. John McCain selected Palin as his running mate- under heavy cheerleading from the Kristol camp- there was an explosion of right-wing loathing. Palin led this angry crusade of animosity. She accused Barack Obama of "palling around with terrorists" and pushing socialism. She suggested that only certain areas of the United States were "pro-America." (She had to apologize for that.)
It was all part of a mean-spirited attempt to delegitimize Obama and his supporters. At McCain-Palin rallies, the atmosphere was ugly. Supporters of the Republican ticket wore T-shirts and carried signs branding Obama a communist. Some shouted "kill him" or "off with his head."
Little of this was discouraged. At a town hall meeting in Minnesota, one woman told McCain that Obama was an "Arab." When McCain, to his credit, replied that this was not so, others in the audience shouted "terrorist" and "liar," referring to Obama.
McCain noted that he respected Obama and admired his accomplishments, and the crowd booed him. The hatred that Palin had helped to unleash was too much for McCain to tamp down.
Palin’s 2008 performance was the roadshow tryouts for Trump’s 2016 Broadway premiere, from the egging on the the crowds to the word salad speeches that left GOP mandarins convinced they could spin meaning into the centrifugal rage the candidate spat out, then sucked back in, multiplied, from the yobs in the audience. Indeed, Palin and Trump have had a symbiotic relationship at the id level for decades. He copies her riffs and word salads policy prescriptions; she has longed for a welcome into the gilded excess of his world ever since the Anchorage Daily News reported, on April 3, 1993:
Sarah Palin, a commercial fisherman from Wasilla, told her husband on Tuesday she was driving to Anchorage to shop at Costco. Instead, she headed straight for Ivana. And there, at J.C. Penney's cosmetic department, was Ivana, the former Mrs. Donald Trump, sitting at a table next to a photograph of herself. She wore a light-colored pantsuit and pink fingernail polish. Her blonde hair was coiffed in a bouffant French twist.

''We want to see Ivana,'' said Palin, who admittedly smells like salmon for a large part of the summer, ''because we are so desperate in Alaska for any semblance of glamour and culture.''


Journalist David Corn has written,


[The crazy] only intensified once Obama took office. Of course, much of this was fueled by the conservative provocateurs and windbags, led by Rush Limbaugh and the like. But elected Republican officials and leading GOPers, who had adopted a political strategy of never-ending obstructionism to thwart Obama, often enabled the hate. While delivering a speech to a joint session of Congress in 2009, Obama was heckled by Rep. Joe Wilson, a South Carolina Republican who shouted, "You lie." Wilson apologized, but following his outburst, he received a surge of campaign contributions and went on to win handily his next election. Meanwhile, a dozen or so GOP members of Congress were pushing birtherism—the notion that Obama had been born in Kenya, not Hawaii, and was some sort of usurper of the presidency. This conspiracy theory seemed tinged with racism, despite the denials of birthers, and ran parallel to other right-wing claims that Obama was a secret Muslim or a secret socialist or both. The big point was obvious: He wasn't a real American, he had achieved power through furtive means, he had a clandestine agenda, and Obama hatred was fully warranted.

Top Republicans played footsie with all this. In the fall of 2009, then-Rep. Michele Bachmann called for a Capitol Hill rally to protest Obamacare. Several thousand people showed up. Protesters questioned Obama's citizenship, depicted him as Sambo, or called him a traitor. Referring to Obamacare, the crowd shouted, "Nazis! Nazis!" The atmosphe
re was full of animus. And here's the thing: The entire House Republican leadership, led by Rep. John Boehner, was there. Boehner did not admonish the crowd for its excessive rhetoric. In fact, he joined in, declaring Obamacare the "greatest threat to freedom I have seen." Clearly, he and his lieutenants believed the hate-driven energy of these activists and voters could fuel the Republicans' bid to take control of the House. So the more red meat, the merrier. Republicans fed the paranoia, claiming Obamacare would bring about "death panels" and ruin the country (as would Obama's stimulus bill, his climate change bill, his budget, and almost every other initiative he advanced). In March 2010, after another Capitol Hill rally headlined by Bachmann, tea partiers reportedly hurled racial epithets at members of the Congressional Black Caucus and shouted anti-gay chants at then-Rep. Barney Frank. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) said one of the protesters had spit at him.

The Republican effort to portray Obama as the other never waned. In 2010, Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House and a future presidential candidate, told two reporters that Obama was "outside our comprehension" and "that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]." He claimed Obama had played "a wonderful con" to be elected president, was "authentically dishonest," and had a worldview that was "factually insane." This was a heavy indictment, but one that echoed what conservative writers, bloggers, and talkers were saying. Though out of office, Gingrich remained a party leader, and his remarks were an indicator of the state of play on the right and within the party.

After the House Republicans' bet on the tea party paid off and they gained control of the House in the 2010 midterm elections, the party's dance with hate did not stop. In 2011, as the GOP's 2012 presidential candidates jockeyed for position, they pandered to those voters who considered Obama a dangerous phony. While pondering a second presidential run, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee claimed Obama's perspective was skewed because he had grown up in Kenya and had been subjected to plenty of anti-imperialist talk. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney did not go full birther. But he pitched a related line, declaring, "The Obama Administration fundamentally does not believe in the American Experiment." In other words, Obama was not truly American. A top Romney campaign adviser, John Sununu, put it more bluntly, noting he wished the president "would learn how to be an American." Romney also claimed (falsely) that Obama had gone on a global "apology tour"—another dig designed to suggest Obama was essentially a foreigner.

Though Romney did not contend Obama was a covert Kenyan, he warmly accepted the endorsement of the nation's most prominent birther: Donald Trump. Appearing with Trump at his Las Vegas hotel before Nevada's GOP caucus in February 2012, Romney praised the real estate magnate and noted it was awesome to be backed by Trump: "There are some things that you just can't imagine happening in your life." By this point, Trump had sent investigators to Hawaii—or said he had—to investigate Obama's birth, and he had even suggested Obama might be a Muslim. With this meeting, Romney signaled that Trump was fine company for the GOP. Trump's over-the-top birtherism was not a disqualification. The Republican tent had room for this reality-denying reality television celebrity. (Romney, his former strategist Stuart Stevens tells me, did say no to Trump's requests to campaign with Romney and to speak at the GOP convention.)

After Obama's reelection, the hate machine churned on. Republicans continued to whip the false meme that Obama was bent on taking all guns away from Americans. They routinely claimed not that his policies were wrong but that he was feckless and weak—or dictatorial and authoritarian. Last year, Rudy Giuliani said, "I do not believe the president loves America." And Dick Cheney claimed Obama operates as if he wants to "take America down." (That's a theme Sen. Marco Rubio has, uh, repeatedly, pushed on the campaign trail, contending that the president is deliberately weakening the United States.) Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Sen. Ted Cruz, another presidential wannabe, gave credence to the wacky notion that Obama was going to invade and seize control of Texas.

It's been a long run of Republicans accepting, encouraging, and exploiting uncivil discourse, anti-Obama hatred, and right-wing anger. (Republicans also welcomed nearly $300,000 in campaign contributions from Trump since he went birther.) The GOP raised the expectations of its Obama-detesting base and primed the pump for Trump. There is not much wonder that a xenophobic and misogynistic bigot and bully who bashes immigrants and calls for a Muslim ban—and who also slams the Republican insiders for rigging the system—should now find a receptive audience within the GOP's electorate. For years, Republicans gave their voters a taste for the reddest of meat. That increased the appetite for more. And here came Trump the butcher- he of Trump Steaks, no less- with a heaping platter practically still pulsing. 2008 changed everything. For decades received wisdom was that there would always be enough old white voters to push Republican candidates over the top.
In the summer of 1976, at the RNC Campaign Fieldman School in Washington, D.C. my friend and I attended, the 25-year-old Karl Rove explained one of his big ideas to an audience that included my friend and me: you don’t have to win the black vote for your candidate. Just don’t go out of your way to give them reasons to turn out to vote against your candidate.
He pointed to the example, of Bob Livingston, a Louisiana congressman whose post-Watergate election to a House seat saw some token efforts toward blacks increase his share of their vote from nil to a little bit. In GOP circles, this was considered a sign from God, who- guided by Rev. Jerry Falwell- was waiting in the wings for his entry in the presidential race.
Raising the black GOP vote here and there,  while suppressing the black vote overall, was SOP for some thirty years. But the election of Barack Obama not only shocked the hell out of the party, it angered remarkable numbers of Republicans. A black president is one thing. One with a name like those 1970s radical Black Panther types, well, that was another.
Sterner measures were called for, accelerating the pace of harnessing the Bush v. Gore vote counting debacle in Florida as the basis for new laws to protect the integrity of elections by making it harder to vote. After 2012, when Obama’s thumpingly large re-election shocked the hell out of the Republicans all over again, the pressure needed ratcheting up again. As Charles Kaiser writes, the GOP now appreciates- however vaguely, and Ted Cruz’s all-white evangelical turnout strategy notwithstanding- that
Appealing to white prejudice is clearly a game of diminishing returns; black, hispanic and Asian voting blocs are vastly more important now than they were in 1968. In 2012, with Barack Obama at the top of the Democratic ticket, for the first time there was higher black turnout than white – 66% of eligible blacks voted compared to 64.1% of whites.

Of course, such demographic trends also explain the Republicans’ most anti-democratic impulse: the proliferation of voter ID laws throughout states controlled by GOP governors and legislatures. In the absence of any serious evidence of widespread voter fraud, the only purpose of these laws is the suppression of black and Hispanic voters.
Indeed, making it hard to vote has been a Republican goal for ages. Greg Sargent looked at the results of one state’s 2016 primary:
People all over Arizona are livid about the fact that they had to wait as much as five hours to vote on Tuesday, because Republicans in the state drastically cut back on the number of polling places. In Maricopa County, which contains Phoenix and is home to about 4.2 million people, the number of polling places was slashed from 200 a few years ago down to 60, or one polling place for every 70,000 residents. Many voters, faced with hours-long waits, simply walked away in frustration. And why did this happen? In part, you can thank John Roberts and the conservative majority on the Supreme Court. Ari Berman explains:

Previously, Maricopa County would have needed to receive federal approval for reducing the number of polling sites, because Arizona was one of 16 states where jurisdictions with a long history of discrimination had to submit their voting changes under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. This type of change would very likely have been blocked since minorities make up 40 percent of Maricopa County’s population and reducing the number of polling places would have left minority voters worse off. Section 5 blocked 22 voting changes from taking effect in Arizona since the state was covered under the VRA in 1975 for discriminating against Hispanic and Native American voters.

But after the Supreme Court gutted the VRA in 2013, Arizona could make election changes without federal oversight. The long lines in Maricopa County last night were the latest example of the disastrous consequences of that decision.

In that 2013 decision, the Supreme Court conservatives said that key parts of the Voting Rights Act are no longer needed because discrimination in voting is a thing of the past. As soon as the decision came down, Republican state legislatures moved swiftly to pass new voting hurdles that previously would have required Justice Department approval before. Here’s a summary of the Republican voting program:

Impose voter ID requirements
Shorten early voting periods
Eliminate early voting on Sundays, when many African-American churches organize “souls to the polls” voting drives after services
Eliminate same-day registration
Restrict the ability of citizen groups to conduct voter registration drives
Reduce the number of polling places

"Especially since the GOP sweep of 2010," Sargent adds, "Republican-controlled states have selected from this menu to restrict voting rights in any way they could. Here’s a map produced by the Brennan Center for Justice showing where voting restrictions have passed since then...Looks familiar, doesn’t it?

"I don’t know about you, but I’ve voted in four different states, and in every one my polling place was close enough to my home that I could walk there, and even in the election with the largest turnout (2008), I only had to wait about half an hour to vote. But maybe that’s because all those states were run by Democrats."


Tomorrow: Can one autopsy the Frankenstein Monster?

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