Why the Right “lost its mind”

From my few years of experience in public relations and marketing, I can say that promoting a person’s work is easier if that person can promote it himself or herself.

Charlie Sykes, fresh off the unlikely forum of Wisconsin Public Radio Thursday (to which you can listen here), now is the cover subject of Newsweek, for which he wrote:

For a quarter of a century, I was a major part of the conservative movement. But like many on the right, in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory I had to ask some uncomfortable questions. The 2016 presidential campaign was a brutal, disillusioning slog, and there came a moment when I realized that conservatives had created an alternate reality bubble—one that I had helped shape.

During the 2016 election, conservatives turned on the principles that had once animated them. Somehow a movement based on real ideas—such as economic freedom and limited government—had devolved into a tribe that valued neither principle nor truth; luminaries such as Edmund Burke and William F. Buckley Jr. had been replaced by media clowns such as Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos. Icons such as Ronald Reagan—with his optimism and geniality—had been supplanted by the dark, erratic narcissism of Donald Trump. Gradualism, expertise and prudence—the values that once were taken for granted among conservatives—were replaced by polls and ratings spikes, as the right allowed liberal overreach in the Obama era to blind them to the crackpots and bigots in their midst.

Some have argued that the election was a binary choice, that Hillary Clinton had to be defeated by any means. I share many of their concerns about Clinton, but the price was ruinous. The right’s electoral victory has not wiped away its sins. It has magnified them, and the problems that were exposed during the 2016 campaign haven’t disappeared. Success does not necessarily imply virtue or sanity. Kings can be both mad and bad, and the courtiers are usually loath to point out the obvious—just look at Caligula or Kim Jong Un.

Today, with Trump in office, the problems of the right are the problems of all Americans. And the worst part of it is that we—conservatives—did this to ourselves.

Donald Trump is the president we deserve.

Sykes’ book, out Oct. 3, is called How the Right Lost Its Mind. (Kudos to Sykes for using “its” instead of the more commonly used, but grammatically incorrect, “their.”) Based on listening to Sykes Thursday, I think I can answer the question that follows up from Sykes’ thesis, hence the headline (with British-style scare quotes that aren’t direct quotes).

And I can do that in two words: Political power.

One thing I’ve concluded from observing politics is that Americans believe the president’s party is in charge, regardless of which party is in charge in Congress, and whoever is in charge in Congress. Despite having a Republican House of Representatives for six years and a completely Republican Congress for the last two years, ask most disaffected voters before the 2016 election, and they would have blamed whatever they found blameworthy on Democrats and specifically Barack Obama, and for good reason.

Remember what candidate Obama said in 2008, as reported by the Huffington Post?

You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

The Washington Post tried to label that keen political analysis. The so-called “bitter clingers” saw that as pity, elitism and snobbery. And Obama proved their point right with eight years of ripping on Republicans, conservatives and those “bitter clingers” every chance he got. Never in this nation’s history have we had a president who hated millions and millions of Americans, until Barack Obama arrogantly strolled into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W.

Ironically given what happened later, Obama’s 2008 Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, also called that arrogant elitism. Eight years later, instead of channeling her supposed husband’s “I feel your pain” perspective from the 1992 presidential race, though, Hillary started to commit presidential campaign suicide when she said, as quoted by Time:

We are living in a volatile political environment. You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?

[Laughter/applause]

The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people — now how 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks — they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America. But the other basket — and I know this because I see friends from all over America here — I see friends from Florida and Georgia and South Carolina and Texas — as well as, you know, New York and California — but that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroine, feel like they’re in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.

When your political opponents take your pejorative “Deplorables” label and proudly affix it to themselves, you screwed up. Everything Hillary said after those nine sentences disappeared into the ether, as condescending as they were. As I have written here before, every excerpt from What Happened proves that under no circumstances, regardless of, well, almost anything Donald Trump does as president, should Hillary Clinton ever be president. That may be a disagreement point between Sykes and myself, even though I didn’t vote for Trump.

The state of politics today is the direct and predictable result of government and politics having too large a role in our lives at every level, and because government isn’t getting smaller, politics is getting worse. Politics, remember, is a zero-sum game — one side wins, which means the other side loses.

Sykes described what he called the Faustian bargain of evangelicals voting for thrice-married Trump over sham-married Hillary because Trump might appoint an anti-abortion Supreme Court justice. And he did, Neil Gorsuch. If you are ardently opposed to abortion because you believe life begins at conception, every single abortion that takes place is a murder, and therefore anything that can legally be done to stop abortion is justifiable.

For those who think (opposite political side from yourself) has lost its mind, there’s one and only one way to fix that: Take power away from government at every level. That means slashing the administrative code and statute books, cutting government employment, eliminating pay and benefits for legislators, and whatever else is required to get government out of our lives. Nothing else will change the deplorable state of politics today. Nothing.

 

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