Yesterday, I noted the ubiquity of efforts to understand what happened to the Republican Party. Equally predictable are the efforts to understand how America could have elected Donald Trump–how a man so manifestly unfit for the Presidency (or really, life in polite company) could have garnered millions of votes. True, he lost the popular vote, but that doesn’t negate the fact that millions of people actually cast ballots for him–and that even in the face of the damage being caused by his impetuousness and ignorance, many of them continue to support him.
Amanda Marcotte, who writes for Salon, is out with a book that attempts to answer that question. Her conclusions in Troll Nation won’t surprise anyone who reads this blog with any regularity, but her approach is worth considering, as Andrew O’Hehir’s review makes clear.
“Troll Nation” is not about the election of Donald Trump. Amanda and I have certain areas of cheerfully-expressed political disagreement, but I think we share the view that Trump was the culmination of a long process, or is the most visible symptom of a widespread infection. Amanda’s analysis is, as always, calm, sharp-witted and clearly focused on available evidence. American conservatives, she says, used to make rational arguments and used to present a positive social vision. Did those arguments make sense, in the end? Did that “Morning in America” vision of the Reagan years conceal a vibrant undercurrent of bigotry?
The answers to those questions — “no” and “yes,” respectively — led us to the current situation, when conservative politics has become almost entirely negative….Most Republicans gleefully embrace incoherent or self-destructive policies designed to punish or horrify people they dislike, whether that means feminists, immigrants, black people, campus “snowflakes,” members of the “liberal elite” or (above all) Hillary Clinton. I am not the world’s biggest fan of Hillary Clinton, as Amanda knows! But what the hell she ever did to all those people to make them despise her so much is entirely unclear..
As O’Hehir notes, the self-proclaimed conservatives of the GOP have morphed from the “supercilious, upper-crust conservatism “of William F. Buckley Jr., whom he accurately describes as the dictionary definition of an elitist, to the delusional ignorance of Alex Jones and the small-minded hatred of Charlottesville.
The basic premise of Marcotte’s book is that Trump is not an anomaly. Much as we might like to believe that we are living in a time that is a departure from the trajectory of American history, Marcotte sees Trump as the logical conclusion of an undercurrent in conservatism that’s been going on for decades — attitudes and resentments encouraged by talk radio, Fox News and their imitators that have “reconstructed” American conservatism. Today, rather than political opinions or policy positions, it’s all about hate and bigotry and who doesn’t belong–who isn’t a “real” American.
Plenty has been written about Fox News, talk radio and other media that ranges from spin to propaganda, and the extent to which those outlets are implicated in the twisted worldviews of their audience, but Marcotte shares an important insight that often gets overlooked:
I want to convey in this book, and I hope in this interview, that conservative audiences respond to this kind of media because they want to. I think we underestimate how much people are going to do what they want to do and believe what they want to believe.
Blaming the propagandists and conspiracy theorists lets their audiences off the hook–it assumes a lack of moral agency. The people who parrot “Fox and Friends” choose their news, and they choose not to balance it with other perspectives. For whatever reason–impelled by whatever inadequacies and resentments–they choose to indulge in confirmation bias rather than resisting it.
Without their willingness to suspend critical thinking–their desperate need to believe in their own racial and/or religious and/or gender superiority, the Rush Limbaughs and Fox News blonds and purveyors of Pizza conspiracies would be out of business.