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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.

You can receive Prof. Zimmer’s periodic emails or see his posts at no cost by subscribing at Democracy Americana.

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.

Republicans, Russians, Woe Is Us!

A few days ago, somebody on Twitter was criticized for repeating Russian propaganda. Instead of denying the charge, he accused his critic of “red-baiting”, i.e. attacking him for being a communist or some other kind of dangerous left-winger. A number of people pointed out the absurdity of his response.

He was reminded that the Soviet Union is long gone. Russia isn’t “red” in any sense of the word. Putin leads a right-wing, anti-democratic, authoritarian/populist regime like the ones in Hungary, Poland and Turkey (and Florida and Texas). His government trumpets “traditional” Russian values, is supported by the Russian Orthodox church, attacks gay and transgender people, and has made him and his pals incredibly wealthy. Segments from Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show are celebrated on Russian TV. The only red-baiting being done these days is by ridiculous Republicans who think Joe Biden is a socialist or even a commie.

I was reminded of this Twitter exchange — in which someone repeating Kremlin talking points claimed to be a victim — by two articles, one about the Republican Party, the other about life in a Russian prison. Both show how conspiracy theories and victimization play a major role in right-wing ideology.

First, from Brian Klaas for The Atlantic:

In Britain and the United States—and across most faltering Western democracies— democratic dysfunction is routinely chalked up to a catchall culprit: polarization….But Britain’s and America’s democratic woes are not at all the same. The problems in American democracy are worse….

Other countries, including the U.K., have polarization. America has irrational polarization, in which one political party has fallen under the spell of conspiratorial thinking. Polarization plus this conspiracist tendency risks turning run-of-the-mill democratic dysfunction into a democratic death spiral. The battle for American democracy will be a battle over reality.

Within the modern [Republican Party], conspiracy theories—about stolen elections, satanic cults, or “deep state” cover-ups—have replaced policy ideas as a rallying cry for [the] MAGA base….In Britain, far fewer people believe in conspiracy theories….

What’s really troubling about this political moment in America [is] that the delusions have infected the mainstream political leadership. The crackpots have come to Congress. When Kevin McCarthy finally became speaker of the House this week, one of the first photos to circulate was a selfie taken with Marjorie Taylor Greene, a former QAnon believer who once blamed a wildfire on Jewish space lasers.

Writing a similar sentence about modern British politics would be impossible. There’s just nothing like it. Instead, in Britain, conspiracy theorists are ostracized by the political establishment. Politicians may disagree about policy, but those who disagree about reality face real consequences.

Last week, for instance, Andrew Bridgen, a conservative member of the British Parliament, tweeted a graph from a conspiracy-theory website, spreading false information about the risks of COVID vaccines. The vaccination program, Bridgen wrote, was “the biggest crime against humanity since the Holocaust.” The response was swift. Bridgen was condemned across the political spectrum. His own party expelled him. The Tories, Britain’s ruling conservative political party, didn’t want to be associated with a conspiracy theorist.

Meanwhile, America’s political right is the leading global source of COVID conspiracy theories. The more outlandish, the better. Two years ago, in Ohio, in an almost exact parallel to Bridgen’s remarks, Republican State Representative Jennifer Gross compared mandatory vaccination to the Holocaust….She effusively praised the testimony of a quack expert who claimed that vaccines magnetize people, such that spoons will stick to your forehead following a shot. “What an honor to have you here,” Gross fawned, after the alleged expert testified that vaccines can “interface” with 5G cell towers. Gross faced no primary challenger and was recently reelected, with 64 percent of the vote.

Aside from the stupidity about the 2020 election, the biggest conspiracy theory on the right is that there’s a giant conspiracy to replace white people with non-white immigrants. Accepting the idea of the “Great Replacement” led to the idiots in Charlottesville chanting “you will not replace us” and ten people in Buffalo being murdered by the author of an anti-immigrant screed.

That brings me to the second article. It was written by Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian activist now being held in Moscow’s Pretrial Detention Center 5, after being arrested for criticizing the Ukrainian invasion:

Among the most stressful aspects of Russian prison life is exposure to government propaganda. Every cell I’ve been in has a television that is constantly turned on — and … most of the airtime across all major networks is taken up by relentless pro-regime and pro-war messaging not dissimilar to the “Two Minutes Hate” from George Orwell’s 1984. Except that, in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, televised hate goes on for hours.

Propaganda is not limited to news bulletins and talk shows — it also permeates documentaries, cultural programs and even sports coverage. New Year’s Eve, when millions of Russians tune in to listen to popular songs and watch favorite movies, was also filled with propaganda messages.

The leitmotifs are always the same: Russia is surrounded by enemies. The West seeks to humiliate and dismember it. The Soviet Union was a noble and benevolent state … destroyed by a mischievous scheme of the Reagan administration with help from domestic traitors. The only reason Russia still exists is because Putin is there to protect it. Ukraine is a Western puppet state run by neo-Nazis through which the United States and NATO are trying to attack Russia. And Russian soldiers on the front lines are heroes defending the motherland. And so on — day after day, for hours on end. This is the distorted reality that millions of Russians have lived in for years — and it is frightening.

It is a reality that Putin took a long time and put in a lot of effort to construct. He began early: Days after his inauguration as president of Russia in May 2000, he sent armed operatives to raid the offices of Media Most, at that time Russia’s largest private media holding. Its flagship outlet was NTV, one of the country’s most popular television channels, known for hard-hitting news coverage, sharp political satire, criticism of the war in Chechnya and exposure of government corruption. Within a year, NTV was seized by the state. Before the end of 2003, the Kremlin had silenced all of Russia’s independent TV networks, establishing a complete monopoly on the airways. From then on, it was a straight road to dismantling what was left of Russia’s democracy — and, ultimately, to where we are today.

This is how Wikipedia describes conspiracy theories:

A conspiracy theory is an explanation for an event or situation that asserts the existence of a conspiracy by powerful and sinister groups … when other explanations are more probable. The term generally has a negative connotation, implying that the appeal of a conspiracy theory is based in prejudice, emotional conviction, or insufficient evidence.

Conspiracy theories are generally designed to resist falsification and are reinforced by circular reasoning: both evidence against the conspiracy and absence of evidence for it are misinterpreted as evidence of its truth, whereby the conspiracy becomes a matter of faith rather than something that can be proven or disproven.

Far too many Republicans (indulged by their leaders) and far too many Russians (brainwashed by their leaders) are convinced they’re the victims of conspiracies. Powerful forces are trying to replace white Americans! There is a war on Christianity! Vaccinations are worse than the disease! NATO’s purpose is to destroy Russia! Ukraine is the aggressor! For both groups, reality doesn’t count. What counts is the irrational fear that they are in serious danger, under attack by hateful conspirators who yearn for their destruction.

Conservative No More

The historian Thomas Zimmer has written a series of articles that he describes as “a reflection on what we are up against”. Below is the gist of part 1, part 2 and part 3.

A reactionary counter-mobilization against egalitarian multiracial, pluralistic democracy.

That is the formulation I have been using to describe what is happening on the Right (and beyond), to capture what is animating conservative politics, and to grasp what, exactly, those who envision America as a truly functioning democracy are up against.

I think it’s worth reflecting on each of these terms:

  • Reactionary – rather than conservative
  • Counter-mobilization – rather than backlash
  • Egalitarian multiracial, pluralistic democracy – rather than just: democracy

A counter-mobilization 

Let’s start with what I think is the component that requires the least explanation: a counter-mobilization, rather than a backlash. The problem with the “backlash” narrative is that it tends to put the agency solely with traditionally marginalized groups who are ultimately at fault for causing an inevitable reaction, a predictable, near-automatic response. This makes the backlash narrative attractive to people who seek to delegitimize the supposed “excesses” of social justice activism and any kind of politics that aims to level traditional hierarchies. In such a tale, reactionaries have no agency and thus can’t be blamed, are only – and at least somewhat justifiably – reacting to marginalized groups going “too far”….

The term “counter-mobilization” … acknowledges that the reactionary ire is directed at concrete change. It is true that due to political, social, cultural, and, most importantly, demographic developments, the U.S. has become significantly less white, less Christian, more multicultural, more pluralistic over the past few decades. What the Right is trying to counter is, at least in this broad sense, real; these are not just figments of the rightwing imagination. But the key is to acknowledge that reactionaries are actively mobilizing, they are deliberately participating in a political project of preventing America from ever becoming an egalitarian multiracial, pluralistic democracy….

Egalitarian multiracial, pluralistic democracy

Why make things complicated? Why add a bunch of qualifiers in front of “democracy” that together make for a rather clunky phrase? Because the first question we should ask whenever someone says “democracy” is: What kind of democracy, how much, and for whom?

We should recognize that, historically, the term “democracy” applied to polities and societies that differed widely in terms of who was actually allowed and enabled to participate in the political process as equals – and even more so with regards to whether or not they extended the democratic promise to other spheres of life beyond politics, to the workplace, the family, the public square….

Democracy should be explored and assessed not as a yes-or-no proposition, but on a scale – with an emphasis on change over time and on the changing practical reality, on how democracy actually structures the lives and experiences of the people….

The American project has always been shaped by two competing, fundamentally incompatible visions for what the county should be. On the one hand, there is the idea that the world works best if it is dominated by wealthy white men [note: or simply white men, or Christians, or whatever preferred group]; on the other, the goal of creating a society in which the individual’s status would not be significantly determined by wealth, race, religion, gender, gender or sexual orientation…. Right-wingers abhor this egalitarian vision [of multiracial, pluralistic democracy]….

Reactionary

The character of the counter-mobilization against egalitarian multiracial, pluralistic democracy is more adequately described as reactionary, rather than conservative….

More and more people on the Right – people who are at the center of conservative politics, or at least close to it in terms of their ideas and agenda – are rejecting the label “conservatism.” A few weeks ago, The Federalist – one of those supposedly / formerly conservative outlets that provide a useful window into what is happening in the rightwing pundit and pseudo-intellectual scene – published a really instructive piece… It was entitled: “We need to stop calling ourselves conservatives.” According to the author, conservatism, a political project that was all about conserving and preserving the existing order of traditional American norms and values, had failed and was entirely unequipped to handle “our revolutionary moment.”

This indeed reflects a widely accepted understanding of what “conservatism” is: Conservatives focus on preserving and conserving what exists, they push back against change if it threatens the traditional order of things. That’s perhaps not an exact definition, but it captures the essence of what is usually associated with the term in the broader public discourse. It is, ultimately, a project of hierarchy maintenance (which follows directly from the preserving/conserving idea, although conservatives tend to dislike it when it’s phrased in this way).

But according to The Federalist, there is no point in trying to preserve and maintain what has actually long been destroyed – America, in this view, has been turned into a “woke dystopia,” something traditional conservatism had failed to prevent. Instead of continuing on a path that has led to destruction, those who used to see themselves as conservatives need to “claim the mantle of revolutionaries” – commit themselves to a (counter-)revolutionary, radical fight against these un-American leftist forces.

The Federalist is very explicit about what such a not-conservative-anymore fight against leftism would entail in practice: The goal is to forcefully mobilize the coercive power of the state to impose a return of the traditional order onto the country and defeat those enemies within. In the words of the author: “The left will only stop when conservatives stop them, which means conservatives will have to discard outdated notions about ‘small government.’ The government will have to become, in the hands of conservatives, an instrument of renewal in American life – and in some cases, a blunt instrument indeed”….

Republicans are trying to turn the clock back by many decades wherever they are in charge: At least to the 1950s, the pre-civil-rights era, in the political, social, and cultural sphere; even further back, to the pre-New Deal era, in the realm of economics and in terms of the state’s role in regulating the economy. And they are pursuing this vision they want to impose on the entire country in increasingly aggressive fashion.

No more conserving, preserving, certainly not in the colloquial sense. American conservatism is now taking an openly and aggressively hostile stance towards the current order, and towards “liberalism” (very loosely defined) in general. It is this specific attitude, this disposition towards liberal democracy and anything derided as “leftwing” and “woke” that characterizes today’s Right. Conservatives have given themselves permission to escalate. That’s where the center of conservative politics currently is….

Unquote.

One point: I’m not sure “reactionary” is the appropriate word to replace “conservative”. It might be better to think of the right’s project to stop progress as “radical”. One of Merriam-Webster’s definitions of “radical” is “advocating extreme measures to retain or restore a political state of affairs”.

Prof. Zimmer promises to continue this series of articles on “what we’re up against” at his Substack newsletter “Democracy Americana”.

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