We have always been at war with Eastasia.
Some thoughts on the new Republican doublethink.
For years liberals have been frustrated and astonished at the sheer level of stubborn dogmatism conservatives often exhibit. Whether the topic is climate change, economic indicators, or the likelihood that President Obama is sending people to re-education camps, conservatives have increasingly refused to accept any evidence or truth except the ones pre-approved by the usual coterie of Bullshit Mountain™ sources.
Which is why, in an election season with no shortage of shocking reveals about our society, one of the most astonishing was the revelation that not only do millions of conservative voters not really care about the classic conservative positions that Republicans always champion, they don’t seem to actually care about most policy positions at all.
Unfortunately for all of us, Donald Trump had a much better understanding of this than the politicians he faced in the Republican primary. Trump knew about the anger, paranoia, racism, misogyny, and general distrust of most large American institutions. But unlike the vast majority of Republican politicians, whose first instinct is always plausible deniability, and who therefore only manipulate those issues with dog-whistles, Trump happily performed a stage dive right into the roaring crowd.
Why did he do that? Well, as many of his supporters love to point out, Donald Trump is not a politician. So he had no political legacy to maintain, and no Party orthodoxy to safeguard.
Also, and as most Trump supporters do not often care to point out, he is primarily a marketing man. He knew which voters he needed in order to win, and examined that “target demographic” from a decidedly non-political and non-cautious point of view. And then he made a guess about what they want, and decided it didn’t have anything to do with “policy”.
This is why, unlike most Republican politicians, Trump didn’t generally seem to give a damn about Republican dogma or policy points. In fact he famously mocked Hillary Clinton for investing herself so deeply into policy positions while surrounding herself with “eggheads.” As Michael Grunwald pointed out in a piece for Politico last summer, “His theory of the election is that policy doesn’t matter much and details don’t matter at all.”
Trump’s take may have been deeply cynical, even dispiritingly so, but it was also correct. And this matters, because it’s popular on the left to paint Trump as an unrelenting simpleton, and that’s not helpful. In fact right about now might be a good time to stop doing that, because not only is he about to be inaugurated as president, he’s shown that he is significantly better at taking the temperature of a large slice of the American electorate than nearly anyone gave him credit for. Also, he has a history of getting what he wants, and that doesn’t happen from dumb luck.
On election night, one of the commentators on ABC (I don’t remember which one) told a story about a conversation he shared with Trump back in 2013, years before the election or primaries. Trump told him that he was seriously considering a run for President, and the surprised newsman asked Trump what his theme might be. Trump said, “I’m not sure, but I think it might be — Make America Great Again.”
Also noteworthy is the fact that Trump hired Justin McConney to completely revamp and upgrade his social media presence all the way back in February of 2011, and then spent years building up his social media following. (While Trump enjoys a Twitter following of over 19 million today, at that time it was only about 300,000.)
So Trump had likely been studying and planning for a very long time before he actually entered the race for president. And once he did, he had his finger firmly on the pulse of the voters he needed to win. He knew what those voters really cared about, and more importantly what they really did not care about. And since, like many of the voters he was wooing, he also didn’t give a hot damn about the Republican Party itself or their traditional policy positions, he had the freedom to do and say whatever he wanted. Which, much to the GOP’s horror, he did.
So while the other Republican candidates were attempting to adhere to general Republican orthodoxy while discussing planned policy positions, Trump was telling voters that he was going to kick Mexicans out of the country, throw Hillary in jail, show those Chinese a thing or two, and make America great (read:white) again. And also, he made sure they knew he had a big dick and that the other Republican candidates were “pussies.”
Republican leaders and candidates were appalled by Trump’s lack of knowledge, his shallowness, his narcissism, and his vulgarity. On March 3rd for example Mitt Romney gave a major speech in which he called Trump a “fraud,” and insisted that all of his promises were “worthless.” It was an unprecedented attack by the Republican Party’s previous nominee against the Party’s current front-runner.
Jeb Bush, the man everyone had assumed would be the front-runner, later famously insisted that, “you cannot insult your way to the nomination!” But Jeb of course was wrong. They were all wrong. Because unlike Trump, the other candidates had no idea just how angry their conservative constituency actually was. They had no idea that the voters they were courting had long lost interest in arcane discussions about policy, and long run out of patience with them. Their voters wanted to see those who had “betrayed” them humbled. And every time Trump called Rubio “Little Marco” or Cruz “Lyin Ted,” they got their wish. And they loved Trump for it.
A patrician like Jeb Bush simply had no idea how to function in an election in which a fellow candidate was calling the other candidates “pussies,” and even a Machiavellian prick like Ted Cruz was rendered little more than a deer caught in the headlights. Only Trump understood what the other candidates could not, which was that a very large portion of Republican voters didn’t want proposals that would supposedly improve the system. What they wanted was to burn the whole system to the ground. For any standard politician that was unthinkable. But Trump, as is so often pointed out, is not a politician. So he was more than happy to be their Nero, fiddling as it all came down…
So here we are, and if there’s any single issue that now shows just how “fluid” many conservative voters actually are about policies and positions, it’s our current situation with Russia. The intrusion of Russia into our presidential election is an accepted fact by our national intelligence community. And considering the traditional hawkish attitude of Republicans, you would think that conservatives would be collectively lighting their own heads on fire and using them as torches to storm the castle.
After all, is there anyone who doesn’t remember how often both Obama and Clinton were absolutely savaged by conservatives for their attempted “reset” with Russia? Romney even made the reset with Russia one of his key issues when running against Obama in 2012, insisting that Obama was foolish for not realizing that Russia remained our greatest world adversary. For his part, Sean Hannity tried to smear Clinton/Podesta by asserting that they were in bed with the Russians. (Remember when that mattered?)
Considering the unforgiving tone Republicans took whenever any Democrat attempted to engage Russia, their own current about-face on Russia seems numbingly hypocritical. In particular, their nonchalant attitude in the face of Russian interference in a presidential election is astonishing. So why this sudden change? The answer appears to be because that is what Trump is doing. And because Trump won. And because for many conservatives the real enemy was never Russia anyway. The real enemy was liberals.
And once you wrap your head around that, a lot of conservative statements and actions begin to make a lot more sense
Getting back to my initial point, what are we to make of this sudden “malleability” of so many conservatives in regard to long-held beliefs? Because their turnaround on a number of issues is really striking.
Will Jordan of “YouGov” has put together a chart that I think illustrates this very well. If you look above, you’ll see a chart of the net favorability of Vladimir Putin from July of 2014 until right after the election. For years the Democratic and Republican views on Putin tracked fairly closely, with the Republican view being (as usual) a bit more negative.
Then in July of 2016 Donald Trump won the GOP’s nomination, and nearly the very moment that the famously pro-Russian candidate won, the view of Putin among Republican voters skyrocketed in the other direction, jumping by well over FORTY points in only several months. Also importantly, as the Democratic view of Putin fell due to continuing confirmations that Russia was interfering in our election, the Republican’s positive shift toward Putin only gained momentum! It was a stunning (and disturbing) turnaround, both in scope and speed.
If you look at this next graph, you’ll notice a similar trend regarding WikiLeaks. In December of 2010 Sean Hannity was screaming for Julian Assange’s arrest, insisting that Obama was “weak” for not having forced European governments to quickly hand him over. As for Trump, during that same time period he called WikiLeaks “disgraceful”, and even suggested that Assange deserved the “death penalty” for his actions. Sarah Palin went even farther than Trump, suggesting that the US Military should be employed to hunt down and assassinate Assange.
But when WikiLeaks released documents that appeared to help Trump and hurt Clinton during the recent election, Trump quickly changed his tune. Suddenly he liked WikiLeaks, and even began quoting Assange as an authority. In fact, Trump has on a number of occasions suggested that he trusts Assange’s information more than our own intelligence agencies, and on the campaign trail he said, “I love WikiLeaks.”
After Trump’s about-face, many other prominent Republicans quickly changed their tune as well. Trump cheerleader Sean Hannity traveled to London to grant Assange a puff-piece interview. Then, saying his views on Assange had “evolved”, Hannity stated that, “I believe every word he says to be perfectly honest.”
Sarah Palin, who famously called for his assassination, actually went so far as to post an official apology letter on her Facebook page. Republican Congressman Jeff Duncan recently tweeted, “Thank God for WikiLeaks!”, and even the “law and order” curmudgeon Rudy Giuliani said that he found WikiLeaks “very refreshing.”
Now to be clear, there are still Republican politicians, both current and former, who are refusing to jump on board the Assange love-train. But Trump’s change of heart, along with those who follow him, has already had a significant impact on Republican voters. If you look at the YouGov chart above, you’ll see that in June of 2013, which was three years after the events in question, the general Republican view of WikiLeaks remained extremely negative. Within a few weeks after Trump’s nomination however, that view had leapt 56 points north into positive territory. 56 points! And by December, it had gained another 18 points. That’s a change of 74 points in only a matter of months.
What are we to make of this extreme mental “flexibility” on the part of so many Republican voters? Quite frankly, the only thing more disturbing than their ongoing obstinacy is their seeming willingness to turn on a dime when their “deal leader” tells them to. It’s difficult not to get a “we have always been at war with Eastasia” vibe. This, along with instances such as the recent events in North Carolina, have led many liberals to insist that Republicans don’t actually believe in anything except maintaining power. But is this really the case?
The willingness of conservatives to so quickly and drastically alter long-standing convictions should teach us something important, and it’s something that Trump knew from the beginning. What Trump guessed (correctly) was that among those who might vote for him, this election was not about political viewpoints, it was certainly not about policy, and it wasn’t even about the battle over “facts.” It was about doing whatever was necessary in service to the higher goal of stopping the “liberal agenda.”
This is also why so many conservatives didn’t (and don’t) seem to care about facts/evidence, and were unfazed by Trump’s constant lies, mistakes and embarrassments. Because their battle isn’t really about any of that, and it never was. This is about something entirely different than what many Democrats suppose. This is about a large group of people who believe that they are battling nefarious forces of evil (that’s us liberals by the way) for the very heart and soul of America.
In an electorate that has become so divided that we no longer even share the same view of reality, communication becomes extremely tricky. Trump knew just how to bridge that communication gap however, because he didn’t try to talk about policy or facts. Instead, he communicated to his supporters with their own paranoia, resentment and anger. There’s a reason Trump’s rallies were so angry and violent — did you think this was an accident?
A few days ago I posted a piece on Facebook about Trump’s “Great Wall.” In that post I proposed that Trump’s signature issue was always a tissue of lies; nothing more than another Trump campaign con. Among the dozens of comments that came in, one stood out for me. A Trump supporter essentially stated that even if this was true he didn’t care, and would still vote for Trump again “a thousand times” in order to make sure that Clinton didn’t get into the White House.
I do not think that this is an isolated view. Nor do I think it’s even mainly about Clinton. As those who have read my pieces already know, I have been convinced for some time that most of the conservative angst with Clinton was never really about Clinton herself so much as it was about what Clinton came to represent to them.
Of course there’s a lot of disagreement on our liberal side of the aisle about that. Analysts that we are, we look for reasons. Yet I cannot help but observe that, in regard to the conservative reaction to Clinton, the reasons found seem to often be more a reflection of what matters to the individual analyst than what probably matters to conservatives.
In other words, I sometimes think that liberals have become so focused on the puzzle pieces that we have lost sight of the puzzle itself. During the election, and afterwards, I have witnessed many progressives fixating on the specific pieces of the puzzle that matter most to them. For some that is racism. For others it’s misogyny. For others “fake news” and propaganda. For others, “economic resentment.” And to be clear, all of these are important. They are not all equivalent, but they all played a role. But they are puzzle pieces. They are not the final picture that forms once the pieces are put together.
My own view is that our inability to see the whole puzzle, the “big picture”, hindered our ability to understand what so many Trump voters were thinking, which in turn crippled out ability to communicate with them in any way that really mattered.
I think, in a manner much more significant than many (if not most) liberals are aware, that the ongoing resentment of “political correctness” and the “culture war” has had a profound impact on a very large slice of the American public. And if you haven’t heard about the “culture war” it’s probably because liberals don’t look at things this way, so even those liberals who are aware of it have never taken it very seriously.
But that has been a significant mistake on our part, because it is a very serious matter to conservatives, and has been for decades. From the viewpoint of more conservatives than you might imagine, the main liberal project is not civil rights or social justice. Rather, it’s the tyrannical enforcement of an extremist cultural, social and economic agenda upon an unwilling America. And yes, that is something that many millions of Americans actually believe.
Which is why this supposed culture war so often takes primacy for them over any standard set of Republican policy positions. It’s why they so often seem to care about winning more than what will happen once they do. Because they are not worried about what will happen after they win, and they are not worried about how accurate their sources are with the “facts,” and they are not even that worried about Russian interference in our elections.
They are worried about us.
If you’re looking for my proposed solution to this problem, I don’t have one. It took decades to tie this Gordian Knot, and we’re not going to loosen it overnight. This is a serious, long-term project, and it’s not going to be easy.
But if the first step in fixing any problem is acknowledging that it exists, we should at least get that done. It’s very easy to say that Republicans voters are dumb, or don’t really understand what is going on. But statements like that aren’t particularly helpful. Also, smart adversaries love it when you underestimate them. That’s one of the main ways they win. So as liberals, we don’t have the luxury of that type of breezy condescension anymore.
We need to understand that we don’t really live in the United States of America; we live in “Rightland” and “Leftland”. These two differing cultures no longer get their news and information from the same sources, believe the same things, or even experience reality the same way. In fact at this point it would almost be better if we actually spoke different languages, because at least then we would more easily see the problem we now have communicating with each other.
Instead, we use the same words and then assume we are saying the same things. But we are not. Our new reality and our new challenge is that even when we are talking about the same things, we are no longer talking about the same thing.
Understand that, and you will understand a little better what we are facing over the next several years. You may also begin to understand why so many of your conservative friends and relatives seem to be immune to the things that disturb you so much. Because they are not worried about those things. They are not worried about most of the things liberals worry about. They no longer even worry about many of the things they used to worry about.
And that, quite frankly, may be the most worrisome thing of all.