It’s just not fair! Everything was set up for Republicans to take Hillary Clinton, Obama’s heir-apparent as lead left-wing boogeyman, for the same dirty, mud-slinging ride they gave her predecessor. If Clinton had won the 2016 Presidential election, Congressional Republicans were promising their base endless red meat in the form of years of embarrassing investigations against her. The National Rifle Association (NRA) was frothing at the mouth, ready to crown her as the latest threat to gun-owning patriots everywhere. Far-right nut jobs were gearing up to expose Madam President’s demonic presence. After all, hating the Clintons, like hating the Obamas, had always been a profitable venture. Clinton, however, was a juicier and easier target than Obama, and the right-wing media were ready to sink in their teeth.
That all changed when Donald Trump crashed the party won the election. Yay? In many ways, Trump’s ascendence was probably a joyous comeuppance for many of these groups. With a completely Republican Congress behind him, longtime policy fantasies of the right were, finally, realistically attainable. This was what they promised their followers for years! How could they lament now?
Trump’s rise, however, has left many conservative pundits and media figures without a comfortable and familiar boogeyman to attack. Sure, they’ve been quick enough to accept newfound roles as government mouthpieces, but playing POTUS lackey is less appealing than the blood-and-thunder involved in playing the vicious opposition. Conservatism has always been a movement that needs a villain to rally against. Without Obama or Clinton, how would the NRA make the gun lobby millions by propagandizing make-believe government gun confiscation? Who would Alex Jones claim responsible for secretly founding the next religious extremist group? How could Fox News possibly regain its perch atop cable news when viewers the lack motivation to hear another self-contrived Clinton scandal? Without these scapegoats, their followers may feel relaxed enough to stop listening. They may even (gasp!) realize they’re being fear-mongered into supporting a political movement that does not actually care about them. Fingers must be pointed! And so, with no more federal government “overlords” to worry about, the hunt for the new Liberal Scapegoat began.
The usual suspects were available: George Soros, a reliably dislikable figure that conservative media uses to obfuscate its disdain for social justice; Nancy Pelosi always the go-to for destroying underdog Democratic candidates for office. Considering how underwhelming the Democrats currently are as a national political force, attacking them fails to carry the same urgency as when, say, a secret Muslim was in the White House. Something new, something new…
Here’s an idea: instead of waiting for a new progressive figurehead to ascribe as the new enemy of God and the guns of liberty, why not claim progressive culture in general as the urgent threat? This would remove any messy lag-time between shifts in party power; it would play off the pre-existing enemy-is-among-us mantra permeating the right-wing blogosphere. Call it a culture war! Why not remove any feeling of guilt in provoking a culture war? Why not claim it’s already happening — and was started by the
alt-left dirty liberals!
If you filter through Republican propaganda, that’s exactly what has happened throughout 2017. Not even one week into Trump’s presidency, conservative columnists like Dennis Prager were claiming that “America is currently fighting its second Civil War,” that “left-wing violence” is causing the collapse of Western civilization. Prager cited the immorality of the “leftist” influence infecting America — it’s schools, its news media, its entertainment industry. In case the lines of intolerance had not been drawn clearly enough, he even directly stated it:
There will be unity only when the left vanquishes the right or the right vanquishes the left.
The dark corner of the Internet occupied by Infowars.com has been spewing the same inflammatory rhetoric. Alex Jones not only blames “leftists” for “starting a civil war,” but has taken it a step further by calling for extrajudicial killings of Trump dissenters, even the potential necessity of implementing martial law. The NRA — never to miss an opportunity to profit off cultural divisiveness — began to release new advertisements featuring The Blaze analyst Dana Loesch. These ads constantly elude to “they”: “they” promote violent protest against law-abiding citizens through the media, celebrities and public schools. One guess who she means by “they.”
These aren’t outliers. Right-wing media is chock-full of pundits and commentators pushing a “civil war” narrative. Even those who condemn calls for violence still coyly point toward liberal protests, media influence, celebrities and — ahem — universities as the root of all cultural hostilities. Never mind the hypocrisy of their own utter silence when it comes to condemning violent conservative protest, such as the 2014 Bundy standoff or the militant oath-keeper patrols in Fergusson or the examples of violence spurred by their own media outlets or the constant right-wing politicizing of public education or that our only celebrity Presidents, Reagan and Trump, ironically came from their very own party. Ignore all that. The right-wing media decided that these are the battlefronts upon which they must wage war, and they have become remarkably consistent in their strategy: civil war is happening; it’s the fault of the left; it’s caused by intolerant college campuses, the dishonest media, various violent liberal celebrities — and criminal protestors. These same points have been rhythmically hammered for months now, always to lead the audience to the same conclusion: liberal America is instigating a bloodthirsty coup against Trump at any cost. Therefore, violence against these instigators can be forgiven: they asked for it. Within hours of the deadly events of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA, which were so clearly fomented by the worst elements of right-wing fanaticism, far-right conservative media figures were already jumping over themselves to blame the liberal media for inciting violence. Let alone what the President said during the impromptu press conference at Trump Tower. As he spoke, the right-wing media assured their viewers that they are the real oppressed victims in America.
Why should the rest of us care? Demonizing liberals and martyring conservatives is nothing new here. Right-wing media has done this since the Whitewater scandal. Trump’s rise cranked up the paranoia dial to 11. Calls for a cultural crusade should be expected.
For decades, Republican media has been jaw-droppingly effective not only at influencing the minds of their listeners, but also in seeping into the media bubbles inhabited by liberals and independents. Look no further than the last election cycle. After decades of salacious yet unfounded conspiracies against Clinton (actually, both of them) from the right, the “far-left” — which backed Bernie Sanders — began to adopt many such conspiracies as their own. Never mind that Hillary Clinton’s original sin, the one that spawned allegations of murder and pedophilia, was having the audacity in the early 1990s to advocate for universal healthcare. By 2016, the far-left began to echo every unfounded Hillary-is-a-monster creed this side of Rush Limbaugh. The same is true of Nancy Pelosi. Despite shepherding serious legislation through Congress during her time as Speaker of the House, she is now forced to defend her usefulness against left-wing criticism that sound awfully similar to the old “batty Pelosi” conservative attack line. Nor is the left-wing adoption of right-wing demonization limited to attacks on individual politicians. Longtime Democratic movements can fall victim, too. After decades of Republicans effectively stigmatizing the labor movement as anti-American, Democrats were only too quick to turn on them once they realized that unions had fallen out of favor with mainstream cultural discourse. This directly led to the old rust belt — once a Democratic stronghold — to turn red. Even the word “liberal” is now attacked being attacked from the far left with the same ferocity as the right.
None of this is to say that Clinton, Pelosi or labor unions have done no wrong, or that progressives don’t share in some of the blame for rising political violence. There are legitimate reasons to believe all of these things. But liberals and independents must also realize that right-wing messaging tactics have been astoundingly effective at changing our political discourse. If something is repeated enough, people start to believe it. We still have yet to fully process that conservative media has intentionally soured the public against the left — its politicians and culture. The next time you find yourself agonizing over some protestors, ask yourself: where have I heard this before? The attempt to stigmatize and to divide is still being drilled into our collective cultural conscience. Its results remain to be seen.