Being on the Lookout for Reporters Screwing Up

Highly-respected journalist James Fallows has a site called Breaking the News. In the interesting installment below, he discusses journalistic screwups and how to avoid being taken in by them:

We all make mistakes. People, organizations, countries. The best we can do is admit and face them. And hope that by learning from where we erred, we’ll avoid greater damage in the future.

Relentless and systematic self-critical learning is why commercial air travel has become so safe. (As described here, and recent posts about the JFK close call here and here.) Good military organizations conduct “lessons learned” exercises after victories or defeats. Good businesses and public agencies do the same after they succeed or fail.

We in the press are notably bad at formally examining our own errors. That is why “public editor” positions have been so important, and why it was such a step backward for the New York Times to abolish that role nearly six years ago….

Here’s an [example of a journalistic mistake]: the buildup to the “Red Wave” that never happened in the 2022 midterms.

Pundits and much of the mainstream press spent most of 2022 describing Joe Biden’s unpopularity and the Democrats’ impending midterm wipeout. As it happened, Biden and the party nationwide did remarkably well….

In its news coverage, not the opinion page, the New York Times had been among the most certain-sounding in preordaining the Democrats’ loss. [On] its front page just one day before the election, one lead-story had the sub-head “Party’s Outlook Bleak,” referring to Biden and the Democrats. It mentioned forecasts of “a devastating defeat” in the midterms. The other story’s sub-head was “G.O.P Shows Optimism as Democrats Brace for Losses.” The first paragraph of that story said voters “showed clear signs of preparing to reject Democratic control.” Again, these were news, not opinion, pieces.

Seven weeks later, the Times ran a front-page story on why so many people had called the election wrong—and how the Red Wave assumption, fed by GOP pollsters, hampered Democrats’ fund-raising in many close races. The only mention of the paper’s own months-long role in fostering this impression was a three-word aside, in the 13th paragraph of a thousand-word story. According to the story, the GOP-promoted Red Wave narrative …

…spilled over into coverage by mainstream news organizations, including The Times, that amplified the alarms being sounded about potential Democratic doom.

The three words, in case you missed them, were “including The Times.”

An NYT public editor like Margaret Sullivan or Daniel Okrent might have gone back to ask the reporters and editors what they should learn.

What are signs of lessons-unlearned that readers can look for, and that we reporters and editors should avoid?

An easy one is to spend less time, space, and effort on prediction of any sort, and more on explaining what is going on and why.

Here are a few more:

1) Not everything is a “partisan fight”.

[A NY Times story about the debt ceiling] illustrates the drawbacks of reflexively casting issues as political struggles, by describing a potential debt-ceiling crisis as a “partisan fight.”

In case you have forgotten, the “debt ceiling” is a serious problem but not a serious issue. In brief:

-The debt-ceiling is a problem, because failing to take the routine step of raising it has the potential to disrupt economies all around the world, starting with the U.S.

-It is not an issue, because there are zero legitimate arguments for what the Republican fringe is threatening now. (See Thomas Geoghegan’s recent article….

It’s like threatening to blow up refineries, if you don’t like an administration’s energy policy, or threatening to put anthrax into the water supply, if you don’t like their approach to public health. These moves would give you “leverage,” just like a threat not to raise the debt ceiling. But they’re thuggery rather than policy.

If you prefer a less violent analogy: since these payments are for spending and tax cuts that have already been enacted, this is like refusing to pay the restaurant check after you’ve finished dinner.

This is not a “partisan fight” or a “standoff.” Those terms might apply to differences on immigration policy or a nomination. This is a know-nothing threat to public welfare, by an extremist faction that has put one party in its thrall.

Reporters: don’t say “standoff” or “disagreement,” or present this as just another chapter of “Washington dysfunction.”

Readers: be wary when you see reporters using those terms.

2) Not everything is a “perceptions” narrative. 

[Note: I was going to avoid this silly non-scandal but Mr. Fallows is very good on the subject.]

Here are some more phrases that should make you wary as a reader. They are phrases like “a picture emerges” or “paints a picture.” These are clichés a reporter uses to state a conclusion while pretending not to do so. Others in the same category: “sure to raise questions”; “suggest a narrative”; “will be used by opponents”; and so on.

Consider again from the NYT, this new “inside” report on Joe Biden’s handling of classified documents.

It was a classic legal strategy by Mr. Biden and his top aides — cooperate fully with investigators in the hopes of giving them no reason to suspect ill intent. But it laid bare a common challenge for people working in the West Wing: The advice offered by a president’s lawyers often does not make for the best public relations strategy.

This might be a “classic legal strategy.” It might also be following the rules. The presentation reflects a choice about how to “frame” a story.

The mainstream press makes things an “issue,” by saying they are an issue. Or saying “raises questions” “suggests a narrative,” “left open to criticism,” “eroded their capacity,” and so on. This gives them the pose of being “objective”—we’re just reporters, But it is a choice.

My long-time friend Jonathan Alter [had] an op-ed column in the NYT arguing that the narrative about Biden’s handling of the few classified documents will be hugely destructive to him and the Democrats. Even though, as he says, the realities of his classified-documents case are in no way comparable to [the former president’s]. (More on the differences here.)

As a matter of prognostication, maybe Jon Alter is right. I hope he isn’t. As he notes, Biden in office has time and again beaten pundit expectations [and now it turns out Mike Pence had documents too].

But as a matter of journalistic practice, I think our colleagues need to recognize our enormous responsibility and “agency” about what becomes an issue or controversy. “Raises questions,” “suggests a narrative,” “creates obstacles”—these aren’t like tornados or wildfires, things that occur on their own and we just report on. They are judgments reporters and editors make, “frames” they choose to present. And can choose not to.

Which leads us to…

3) Not all “scandals” are created equal.

Here are things enormously hyped at the time, that look like misplaced investigative zeal in retrospect:

— (a) The Whitewater “scandal.” For chapter and verse on why this was so crazy, see the late Eric Boehlert, with a very fine-grained analysis back in 2007; plus Eric Alterman at the same time; plus Gene Lyons, who lives in Arkansas and wrote a book called Fools for Scandal a decade earlier.

I would be amazed if more than 1% of today’s Americans could explain what this “scandal” was about. I barely can myself. But as these authors point out, it led domino-style to a zealot special prosecutor (Kenneth Starr, himself later disgraced), and to Paula Jones, and to Monica Lewinsky, and to impeachment. It tied up governance for years.

—(b) The but-her-emails “scandal” involving Hillary Clinton in 2016. A famous Gallup study showed that the voting public heard more about this than anything else.

I doubt it. Yet it was what our media leaders emphasized. I’m not aware that any of them has publicly reckoned with what they should have learned from their choices in those days.

But today’s news gives us a chance to learn, with:

—(c) The Biden classified-documents “scandal”.

What unites these three “scandals” is that there was something there. Possibly the young Bill and Hillary Clinton had something tricky in their home-state real estate deal. Probably Hillary Clinton did something with her emails that she shouldn’t have. Apparently Joe Biden should have been more careful about the thousands of documents that must be in his offices, libraries, etc.

But “something” does not mean “history-changing discovery.” In the 50 years since the original Watergate, the political press has palpably yearned for another “big one.” So every “scandal” or “contradiction” gets this could be the big one treatment. And this in turn flattens coverage of all “scandals” as equivalent. It’s a slurry of “they all do it,” “it’s always a mess,” “they’re all lying about everything” that makes it hard to tell big issues from little ones.

We see this with bracketing of the T____ and Biden “classified document” cases. They both have special prosecutors, so they can be presented as a pair.

Human intelligence involves the ability to see patterns. (Two cases involving classified documents!) But also the ability to see differences. (In one case, a president “played politics” by cooperating with the authorities. In another, by lying to and defying them.)

The similarities are superficial. The differences are profound.

From past errors of judgment, we in the media can learn which to emphasize.

They’re Trying To Make Us a Christian Nation — Part 2

Here’s the conclusion to Linda Greenhouse’s “Victimhood and Vengeance” for the NY Review of Books that I shared some of in this morning’s post. She offers a warning we should all heed.

David Sehat, in This Earthly Frame: The Making of American Secularism, points to one moment with profound implications for the place of religion in public life.

In early 1959, John F. Kennedy needed to allay Protestant suspicions about his Catholicism. He gave an interview to Look magazine. [Asked] what influence his religion would have on him if he were elected. Kennedy answered:

Whatever one’s religion in his private life may be, for the officeholder, nothing takes precedence over his oath to uphold the Constitution and all its parts—including the First Amendment and the strict separation of church and state.

[The author of the Look article] described Kennedy’s theme as “religion is personal, politics are public, and the twain need never meet and conflict”….

Religion is personal: that was not the Catholic view by any measure. Kennedy, evidently to his surprise, was widely denounced by the church hierarchy for his failure to recognize that an officeholder was “answerable to God for actions whether public or private,” as one Catholic publication put it. And it is not the view held by evangelicals today. The recourse that Kennedy sought in the privatization of religion not only no longer satisfies; it is seen as a provocation by those who insist that faith is meant to be lived out loud.

That private religion will not suffice was the argument behind the Supreme Court’s startling decision last summer in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, which upheld the right of a football coach at a public high school to thank God from the fifty-yard line, in full view of the stands. It was also the explicit theme of Justice Samuel Alito’s speech to a conference in Rome…. Alito drew a distinction between mere “freedom of worship” and real “religious liberty.” Freedom of worship, he explained, means only

freedom to do these things that you like to do in the privacy of your home, or in your church or your synagogue or your mosque or your temple. But when you step outside into the public square, in the light of day, you had better behave yourself like a good secular citizen.

Evangelicals are no more satisfied than Alito with simply being good secular citizens. Sehat examines the Court’s valorization of “privacy” and offers a fresh analysis of the fallout from grounding the reproductive rights rulings, [in] Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) ]and Roe v. Wade (1973) on a right to privacy…. Sehat’s valuable insight is that these privacy decisions were about something deeper than birth control and abortion, or even about the ability of women to control their reproductive destiny. They amounted to “a repudiation of the social significance of religion in determining moral norms at the hands of the state.” In Roe, as evangelicals instinctively understood, “American secularism reached its apotheosis.” And so began secularism’s decline.

[These decisions helped create] a “secular order” that “decentered the dominant place of Christianity and relegated religion to the private realm along with other moral issues that an individual might confront.” Yet what it really meant to recognize and respect religion as a private realm was far from obvious. What had appeared as a settlement of a sort unraveled in a mind-bending series of changes in the meaning of privacy.

For liberals, privacy became double-edged as conservatives deployed it as a shield for discrimination. Didn’t the owner of a lunch counter have the right to refuse service to anyone he didn’t care to serve? The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was aimed in large measure at removing this supposed privacy shield from public accommodations….

And then the idea of privacy shifted yet again. Starting in the 1960s, conservatives seized on it to support private schools, as a refuge from desegregation or from secular society. For religious conservatives, the ultimate privacy claim became a claim of individual conscience, deployed to justify exemption from a legal or civic duty. Pluralism, once deemed a threat to Christian dominance, became useful when joined with privacy. “Now, pluralism could be used to demand the public recognition of private religious belief via the language of religious freedom,” Sehat smartly observes.

The constitutional scholar Reva Siegel argues that the notion of religious freedom has become … “institutionalized in such a way that a gesture to religious conscience granted nearly automatic exemption from law”…

The Christian” banners that members of the mob carried on January 6, 2021, is indelible, but also misleading.

It’s not that Christian nationalism presents no real threat to American democracy—it does. It’s not that such violence won’t recur—it might. [Focusing] on that shocking event diverts us from recognizing Christian nationalism in its less violent manifestations and calling it out when we see it: public funding of religious schools in the name of equality; social policy turned to serve Christian doctrine; nondiscrimination principles abandoned in deference to religious objectors, whether individual or institutional. These threats to long-held assumptions about how the country works are not theoretical. They are happening now, in partnership with the Supreme Court.

One example: In November 2022, celebrating his reelection, Oklahoma’s Republican governor, Kevin Stitt, offered up his state to Christianity. “Father, we just claim Oklahoma for you,” he intoned.

Every square inch, we claim it for you in the name of Jesus. Father, we can do nothing apart from you…. We just thank you, we claim Oklahoma for you, as the authority that I have as governor, and the spiritual authority and the physical authority that you give me. I claim Oklahoma for you, that we will be a light to our country and to the world right here in our state.

Why wasn’t that astonishing statement headline news from coast to coast? It was barely noticed….

In Christianity’s American Fate, David Hollinger observes:

One might suppose that we live in a world of either/or: either religious ideas are relevant to public policy and thus subject to critical discussion, or they are not relevant and thus not a topic for debate. But instead, we live in a world of both/and: religious ideas are both relevant to public policy and excluded from critical evaluation.

Each of these books offers a path to greater understanding of how a transformation occurring in full view over decades escaped the notice of many who watched in bafflement and horror as the events of January 6 unfolded. Rather than another January 6, the greater threat that Christian nationalism poses to American society may be, as these books warn us, its normalization.

They’re Trying to Make Us a Christian Nation — Part 1

In the 2020 election, 15% of white evangelical voters supported Joe Biden and 84%  supported the loser. To understand why, we need to understand white Christian nationalism.

Linda Greenhouse covered the Supreme Court for the New York Times for 30 years. She is the author of “Victimhood and Vengeance”, a long article for the New York Review of Books. You could say the first part of the article deals with victimhood. Later she deals with vengeance. I’ll share some of the vengeance part in my next post.

We tend to think of Christian nationalism, the political ideology based on the belief that the country’s authentic identity lies in its Christian roots and in the perpetuation of Christian privilege, as having burst upon the scene to accompany and facilitate the rise of [the former president]. But as Philip Gorski and Samuel Perry explain in The Flag and the Cross, Christian nationalism—white Christian nationalism, to be more accurate, since the ideology has no place for nonwhites—is “one of the oldest and most powerful currents in American politics.” They trace it back to the New England Puritans’ wars against the indigenous groups who dared to stand in the way of the claim by self-described chosen people to their new Promised Land, and follow it through the Lost Cause of a post–Civil War South destined to “rise again”—a Christological narrative of crucifixion and redemption “crucial to understanding contemporary claims of Christian victimhood and vengeance among white Christian nationalists.” The drive for western expansion, aptly known as Manifest Destiny, was widely understood as part of a divine plan handed to those who would “civilize” an entire continent.

According to a recent Pew Research poll, 60 percent of Americans believe the country was founded to be a Christian nation, and nearly half (including 81 percent of white evangelicals) think it should be one today. Whether that has changed over the course of US history is beside the point: what’s new is the contemporary political and social salience of Christian nationalism. As mainline Protestantism has faded, David Hollinger observes in Christianity’s American Fate,

Christianity has become an instrument for the most politically, culturally, and theologically reactionary Americans. White evangelical Protestants were an indispensable foundation for [the previous] presidency and have become the core of the Republican Party’s electoral strength. They are the most conspicuous advocates of “Christian nationalism.”…Most of Christianity’s symbolic capital has been seized by a segment of the population committed to ideas about the Bible, the family, and civics that most other Americans reject.

How did this happen? [The authors] agree that the answer lies in white evangelicals’ response to the profound cultural changes the country experienced during the second half of the twentieth century. That may sound obvious, but with varied approaches, these … books offer insights that are both illuminating and alarming.

The Flag and the Cross deals most directly with white Christian nationalism as a political force. The authors are sociologists…. Their conclusions are based largely on data from surveys they devised and conducted from 2019 through 2021. At the heart of their analysis is a “Christian nationalism scale” based on respondents’ level of agreement with seven statements that include “The success of the United States is part of God’s plan” and “The federal government should advocate Christian values.”

This scale is one axis on a series of charts showing how Christian nationalist beliefs correlate with attitudes about life in today’s United States. For example, Gorski and Perry asked people to estimate “how much discrimination” whites and Blacks would experience in the coming year. Black respondents, no matter where they fell on the Christian nationalism scale, offered similar predictions: low for whites and high for Blacks. For white respondents, the results were dramatically different: the higher on the Christian nationalist scale they were, the greater their expectation of antiwhite discrimination and a correspondingly lower expectation of discrimination against Blacks. “White Christian nationalists sincerely believe that whites and Christians are the most persecuted groups in America,” the authors conclude. This is a belief, they emphasize, with political consequences: “White Christian nationalism is a ‘deep story’ about America’s past and a vision of its future. It includes cherished assumptions about what America was and is, but also what it should be.”

The data also demonstrate the sometimes surprising results of the merging of religious and political identities. To take one example: nearly 80 percent of white evangelicals adhere to an “originalist” interpretation of the Constitution—the belief that the Constitution must be interpreted according to how its framers’ words would have been understood in their time, which David Cole in these pages recently called a “charade.”

Why nonlawyers should have any fixed notion of how to interpret the Constitution might seem puzzling, but the data explain it. Seventy percent of white evangelicals believe the Constitution to be divinely inspired; constitutional and biblical literalism thus go hand in hand. This finding helps illuminate why obeisance to “originalism” has been demanded of Republican judicial nominees ever since this distinctly unoriginal doctrine was invented during the Reagan era. The current Supreme Court majority used it (inconsistently) to justify its reasoning in last year’s abortion and Second Amendment decisions.

Gorski and Perry offer a portrait of the Tea Party movement—which dominated Republican politics during the early Obama years with a platform of tax cuts, “liberty,” and opposition to the Affordable Care Act—to show that when religious and political identities merge, politics takes precedence. Of those who identified with the Tea Party, which reached its peak in 2011–2012 and has now been largely subsumed into [the] MAGA movement, more than half believe that America “is currently and has always been a Christian nation.” Yet on measures of individual religious behavior such as church attendance, this group scored notably lower than other elements of the religious right. “In other words, the myth of a Christian nation was far more important to them than Christianity itself,” the authors observe. “‘Christian’ instead functions as a cultural identity marker, one that separates ‘us’ from ‘them.’”

And who are “them”? They are “outsiders who wish to take what’s rightfully ours,” whether by asserting rights to equal citizenship, arriving from a foreign country, impugning the country’s history, or just voting. “Christian nationalism is the strongest predictor that white Americans believe we already make it too easy to vote in this country,” Gorski and Perry find. It may seem simplistic to interpret Republican hysteria over voter “fraud” as a dog whistle about too many of the wrong people voting, yet it’s nearly impossible to interpret it any other way.

The Flag and the Cross deciphers other white Christian nationalist beliefs in which race is deeply embedded in a way that is thoroughly obscure to outsiders. With echoes of the Tea Party movement, half the members of which identified as evangelical, these include a fervent belief in free market capitalism and a deep suspicion of anything that might lead to “collectivism.” As Gorski and Perry explain it, this economic view “presumes that one’s lot in life is a result of one’s personal choices—and only those choices. Historical and social contexts are irrelevant,” meaning among other things that the legacy of slavery has no claim on the privileges of whites, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is a danger to the country’s authentic identity. In a 2021 survey, the authors asked people to identify the groups or ideas they found most threatening. The response given by those who scored highest on the white Christian nationalism scale was unexpected: they saw the greatest threat as coming not from atheists or Muslims but from “socialists.”

[The previous president] understands the dog-whistle power of “socialism.” At [a rally for evangelicals] in January 2020, he warned that “the extreme left in America is trying to replace religion with government and replace God with socialism.” He promised the crowd that “America will never be a socialist country, ever,” because “America was not built by religion-hating socialists.” The union of politics and religion was complete. Almost exactly a year later, insurrectionists festooned with Christian nationalist symbols stormed the Capitol.

Encountering Political Unreality at the Jersey Shore

In the Thomas Edsall column I shared yesterday, there’s a long section dealing with the warped psychology of our worst politicians and fellow citizens. I was going to share some of it, but a more interesting and more entertaining example appeared in my email.

Thomas Zimmer, a German historian, moved to the US two years ago. This summer, he was on vacation at the Jersey Shore and got into a heated conversation with an apparently nice old lady.

While chasing seagulls on the beach with my two little boys, we ran into two elderly ladies …I expected some pleasant small talk, and that’s indeed how it started. But within maybe four minutes, one of the ladies had launched into a tirade about the impending doom of the Republic and rattled off one rightwing conspiracy theory after another. She was particularly alarmed about encroaching government tyranny: Outraged about the FBI having “raided” Mar-a-Lago just a few days earlier, and utterly convinced that the IRS was about to unleash 87,000 new agents – which she seemed to imagine as a heavily armed special ops force – on her and her fellow supporters of “President T____”…

87,000 IRS agents, out to destroy the lives and livelihoods of real Americans.

That number has been everywhere lately. In his first speech as Speaker of the House, the night he was finally elected, Kevin McCarthy proudly announced “when we come back,
our very first bill will repeal the funding for 87,000 new IRS agents” – thunderous applause from his caucus, the camera then focused on Marjorie Taylor Greene, and she was so, so happy.

McCarthy kept his word. The first legislation Republicans passed in the House would repeal funding, over $70 billion, for the IRS, basically cutting all the resources Biden provided in the Inflation Reduction Act from the summer. To make sure those 87,000 new IRS agents would never haunt and harass American patriots.

Show me your first piece of legislation and I’ll tell you who you are – in this case: a party that’s almost completely untethered from empirical reality. Because no one was planning to hire those 87,000 new agents in the first place. The idea that the IRS was about to more than double its current personnel has been widely debunked, over, and over, and over again. The additional funding in the Inflation Reduction Act was intended to strengthen the IRS’s enforcement capabilities, especially the capability to audit wealthy people, which simply is more difficult, takes longer, is therefore more expensive. It would mostly replace funding Republicans had previously cut, allow the IRS to revert some of the dramatic decline in the number of full-time employees over the past decade, and compensate for staff retiring over the next ten years. This was also, according to the Congressional Budget Office, going to raise revenue significantly.

The Right, however, told an entirely different story. Back in August, McCarthy railed
against “the Democrats’ new army of 87,000 IRS agents” – which rightwingers often took quite literally: Armed agents, a proper tax army, will come after American patriots! As the IRA was passing the Senate, slightly different versions of this paranoid story were shared across the Right, Tucker Carlson and the rest of the rightwing propaganda machine went all in, and white power militants and fascistic groups were putting out recruitment videos: Heavily armed IRS agents are coming to raid our homes – gotta get ready to defend yourselves and all you hold dear in this world!

Which brings us back to my beach encounter with the rightwing base version of this bizarre conspiracy theory….Like I said, the encounter started with some unsuspicious small talk. About life in general and vacationing with two little kids in particular. “Where are you from? … She was ecstatic to hear [I’m German] and told me about her many trips to Germany with her husband, how they had actually lived over there… “We are both academics,” she emphasized….

At that point, the conversation could have gone in many different directions. [But] the next thing she said was: “I hope you’re teaching your students the Fourth amendment!” –“The Fourth amendment?” I must have replied, while already thinking: Oh no… It was too late. The elderly lady who had been delighted at the sight of my kids chasing seagulls just minutes earlier was now going off: about the “illegal raid” (on Mar-a-Lago), what an outrage it was, how shameful, how the country was doomed.

I should have just walked away right at that moment. Why didn’t I? … Instead of just turning around and fleeing, I reflexively mentioned something about equality before the law, probable cause, a judge signing off on the warrant… In return, I received a crash course in rightwing conspiratorial talking points and how they relate to each other. “It was that Epstein judge, did you know that?” the lady said with that “I’m about to open your eyes to what’s really going on” messianic zeal that conspiratorial thinkers often possess. The Clintons, by the way, “stole furniture worth tens of thousands from the White House, did you know that?” A crime far worse than taking “some documents that belong to him anyway,” apparently. “Why should he have to give back his letters just because some archivist wants them.” And, anyway, they “invaded his private home,” the now very animated lady continued, “even Melania’s chambers, can you imagine?” That actually made me laugh for a second. Which earned me a really nasty look. Melania’s chambers. Hm. I tried to build some sort of bridge, I think, maybe lighten the mood, by saying: “Well, if I was hiding evidence, I would certainly try to make it disappear amidst the chaos in the kids’ bedroom!” But she wasn’t having any of it. More nasty looks.

“Why are they going after him, and not Hunter Biden?” – “Hunter Biden?” I heard myself say, reflexively, “We’re talking about the former president. Has Hunter Biden ever held public office?” She gave me the whole “Joe did his bidding… oh, the corruption!” spiel.

Then it became really personal. “You are from Germany,” she said, in a way that expressed both frustration and disappointment, “you should know about Hitler and Mussolini, you should be outraged!” I foolishly allowed myself to think: Now we’re talking history, I’m on firm ground, I know what to say: “If you are concerned about the rise of fascism, you’re looking at the wrong side.” That remark just made her angry, however. “Ah, you only say that because you’re from Germany, and you don’t know what’s going on here…”

… And that’s when she dropped the IRS bomb: “They are arming IRS agents as we speak – they are coming to our houses, they are going to raid our homes, taking away everything!” Was she talking about wealth? Guns? I couldn’t say. I must admit I had never heard of this specific conspiracy theory. I was baffled. I said: “Come on now…” That set off her final tirade: “Ah, you’re one of those people, you’re just consuming liberal propaganda, reading from the magic laptop all day…” (whatever the magic laptop is?).

She was actually yelling at me by that point. On the beach. I basically froze. Thankfully, her friend, who had been visibly uncomfortable the whole time, chimed in: “I think we should probably go this way, and you should go that way.” Yes. And so, we did.

To recap what I know about her profile: She was an elderly white person, with an academic background, widely traveled, had lived overseas, and, it can be assumed, reasonably affluent. I’ve spent a fair bit of time reflecting on what, if anything, I should take away from this encounter:

1) She obviously didn’t fit the ideal of the economically anxious, left-behind by the evil forces of globalism T____ voter, nor the stereotype of the conspiratorially inclined fringe….

2) What this “conversation” put into stark relief for me was that the idea of “keeping politics out of it,” of deliberately preserving and creating non-political realms in which we can all still come together harmoniously, is simply not plausible – and is becoming less plausible every day. This person was fully politicized. Her interaction with a complete stranger, on the beach, became very political within a few minutes. And it wasn’t the fault of those “woke” activists or those supposedly dangerous trans people aggressively injecting their views, their politics everywhere at all times – it was all on this resentful senior citizen.

3) Similarly, there just is no “meeting in the middle,” no “finding common ground” with such people. For her, I was the enemy – even though it was the least threatening setting imaginable… This person wasn’t interested in debate, or a different perspective, or building bridges, or compromise. She wasn’t even interested in just ignoring politics. The only thing she would have accepted from me was compliance, submission. There was no truce to be had.

4) I am continuously amazed (as in: terrified) by the effectiveness of the rightwing information / propaganda machine. This elderly lady had all her talking points ready; it was like someone had briefed her on what the unified response to the FBI “raid” and the tyrannical Biden legislation was going to be. And she delivered. This wasn’t just some crazy-but-harmless old lady. Republican officials and political commentators … were constantly flooding the discourse with all the same talking points (previous presidents taking furniture!), employing the same strategies of obstruction. Instantaneously, everywhere.

5) Probably the most concerning aspect of all: The depth and extent of the Right’s radicalization. This “Armed IRS is coming for you” message was shared by both fascistic militants and this elderly lady who should have been enjoying her time on the beach. The extremism has fully spread to the “respectable” spheres. That doesn’t mean this lady was herself a member of a violent militia, or that she was about to join the armed revolt. It does mean, however, that she was doing her part to popularize, normalize, legitimize this ideology — the extremism it animates. It also means that we are not dealing with fringe phenomena. This IRS thing appeared more or less simultaneously in far-right circles – and in the well-respected communities of upstanding, educated, affluent senior citizens. No matter where, exactly, such extremist conspiratorial theories originate: They are immediately picked up by the rightwing propaganda machine and transported by leading conservatives and Republican elected officials. While there are different levels and layers of radicalism on the Right, there is no clear line between the T____ian “fringe” and the center of conservative politics and social life. It is, at best, a permeable membrane – as it always has been.

6) Here is the rightwing permission structure on full display. Why do people who may find Marjorie Taylor Greene crass still consider her a valuable ally? Why is it not a dealbreaker for more conservatives that the Proud Boys increasingly act as the GOP’s paramilitary arm? Well, if the other side really were preparing to send out armed IRS hit squads, would there be anything -very much including the use of political violence – *not* justified in the struggle against such despotic forces? Once you have convinced yourself and/or your supporters that the other side is scheming to deprive you of what is rightfully yours, any measure you take, regardless of how radical, is justified as an inevitable act of (preemptive) self-defense.

In the days after the encounter, I kept replaying the conversation in my mind, and I was constantly catching myself trying to figure out what I could have /should have said: better arguments, more evidence, different tone… But that wasn’t just pointless, it was also misleading. The problem is not just that this particular person obviously wasn’t going to be moved by empirical evidence or by pointing out flaws and inconsistencies in what she was claiming – the very idea that the political conflict is ultimately about better arguments is flawed. It’s one of the fallacies of which many liberals / lefties – like me! – apparently can’t fully let go. But a fallacy it remains: There was no persuading that person, not by saying the right thing or in the right tone. Because it’s not a contest of ideas. People like me would love it to be a competition of who has the better arguments. Because that’s the kind of struggle with which we are comfortable, that we believe we can win. But it’s not the kind of conflict in which we find ourselves. Better to accept and grapple with that.

From the Jersey Shore to Congress, from the conspiratorial fringes to the center of Republican power, from MAGA paranoia to the GOP’s legislative priorities. Show me your first piece of legislation and I’ll tell you who you are. McCarthy’s IRS bill is perfect. Combine the hostility to the state and governing institutions (unless they are completely under Republican control) with the conspiratorial chimera of 87,000 agents out to get American patriots – all of it ultimately, and not coincidentally, helping those who are wealthy and have, to put it mildly, no interest in tax enforcement. There it is, today’s Republican Party: Performative populism, white reactionary grievance politics with some conspiratorial rightwing extremism mixed in, hierarchy maintenance at all costs.

Unquote.

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Conspiracy Thinking and Racial Resentment In. Blatant Chaos and Disruption Out.

The New York Times has a columnist, Thomas Edsall, who tends to write long, rather bland articles that cite a lot of academic studies. So I was struck by the first paragraph of his most recent column, parts of which are below:

Over the past eight years, the Republican Party has been transformed from a generally staid institution representing the allure of low taxes, conservative social cultural policies and laissez-faire capitalism into a party of blatant chaos and disruption….

What drives the members of the Freedom Caucus, who have wielded the threat of dysfunction to gain a level of control within the House far in excess of their numbers? How has this group moved from the margins to the center of power in less than a decade?

Since its founding in 2015, this cadre has acquired a well-earned reputation for using high-risk tactics to bring down two House speakers, John Boehner and Paul Ryan. During the five-day struggle over [Kevin] McCarthy’s potential speakership, similar pressure tactics wrested crucial agenda-setting authority from the Republican leadership in the House.

“You don’t negotiate with these kinds of people,” Representative Mike Rogers, Republican of Alabama and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, declared as the saga unfolded. “These are legislative terrorists.”

“We have grifters in our midst,” Representative Dan Crenshaw, Republican of Texas, told the Texas Liberty Alliance PAC….

In his paper “Public Opinion Roots of Election Denialism,” published on the second anniversary of the storming of the Capitol, Charles Stewart III, a political scientist at M.I.T., argues that … the two most powerful factors driving Republicans who continue to believe that [the con man] actually won the 2020 election are receptivity to conspiracy thinking and racial resentment.

“The most confirmed Republican denialists,” Stewart writes, “believe that large malevolent forces are at work in world events, racial minorities are given too much deference in society and America’s destiny is a Christian one.”

Along parallel lines, Neil Siegel, a law professor at Duke, argues in his 2021 article “The T____ Presidency, Racial Realignment and the Future of Constitutional Norms,” that D____ T____ “is more of an effect than a cause of larger racial and cultural changes in American society that are causing Republican voters and politicians to perceive an existential threat to their continued political and cultural power — and, relatedly, to deny the legitimacy of their political opponents.”

In this climate, Siegel continues, “It is very unlikely that Republican politicians will respect constitutional norms when they deem so much to be at stake in each election and significant governmental decision.”

These developments draw attention to some of the psychological factors driving politics and partisan competition.

Unquote.

Mr. Edsall then discusses a series of studies that attempt to figure out what’s going on in these people’s brains, in addition to the conspiracy thinking and racial resentment. I’ll share some of it soon.