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.
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