Unmasked: The Horrible Lesson Rightwing Radicalism has Taught America
If we can’t stop this disintegration of trust in America & the ability to reform & make our government work for all people, apathy will turn us over to the hard right, ending the American experiment
There’s been quite an outbreak of rightwing radicalism in America recently, much of it organized on and amplified by social media and all of it working to tear apart Americans’ trust in their government and each other:
“Pastor” Greg Locke got a few dozen of his cult’s devotees to show up for a book burning in Tennessee last week, and racists and homophobes across the nation are trying to get books banned from schools and public libraries.
Many of the people who attacked the US Capitol on January 6th 2021 had been cynically used by Donald Trump to try to stay in power, believing his lies that the election was stolen.
During the summer of 2020 people turned up in dozens of small American cities armed with axes and shovels after unknown trolls freaked them out with widespread Facebook posts saying that George Soros had just paid for a busload of Black “Antifa” vandals to attack their towns.
Ever since Trump decided he needed to get the economy running again if he was going to get re-elected and started downplaying the dangers of Covid infection, Trump-humpers have been barging into stores, restaurants and other public venues without masks.
Anti-vax and anti-mask true believers continue picking fights on airplanes and harass school boards over simple public health mandates.
A decade ago busloads of duped elderly Americans were trotted out in front of TV cameras to tell the nation they were the new “Tea Party” and want the US to “Keep Your Government Hands Off My Medicare.”
Now the groups who’ve succeeded in cranking up so many AstroTurf rightwing demonstrations are trying out a new strategy in Canada, and you can expect it to migrate soon to the US.
Most amazing, it appears that the “Canadian trucker” event was primarily organized by foreign players who’d hacked an American Facebook account.
As a result of this tsunami of lies, racism, and disinformation, we watched during the Trump years as the United States began the shift from a representative democratic republic toward an authoritarian oligarchy, as has already happened in Hungary, South Sudan, Turkey, Ethiopia, The Philippines, Venezuela, and a handful of other nations in the past few decades.
The GOP, as we saw from their announcement last weekend about “legitimate political discourse,” are still in thrall to this anti-democratic shift.
Behind much of this appear to be both foreign actors and, domestically, the same types of people who facilitated Hitler’s rise to power in Germany and tried here to stage a kidnap-and-coup against President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933: morbidly rich businesspeople.
As Germany’s most powerful steel baron in the 1930s wrote in his apologia, I Paid Hitler, wealthy German businessmen back then figured that a police state might be an inconvenience in some ways but would keep crime low and the workforce cowed while not interfering with their ability to make money.
When wealthy industrialists in the US tried the same in 1933, as Jonathan Katz writes in Gangsters of Capitalism, they had the same rationale: FDR was engaging in “socialism” by giving unemployed Americans jobs and benefits that would have to be paid for with rich people’s taxes.
Therefore, replacing him with a fascist, albeit capitalist, new president would be good for business.
Our body politic is also under assault from nations that long ago abandoned any ambition for or pretense of democracy. From kingdoms and theocracies in the Middle East to Eurasian petro-states to single-party nations that openly declare themselves communist, the example of democracy in a functional USA represents a perpetual irritant.
When the Chinese cracked down on the Tienanmen Square protesters in 1989, for example, the democracy advocates were carrying a 20-foot tall papier mâché replica of the Statue of Liberty.
Messaging from rightwing billionaires has found common cause in trashing democracy with foreign autocrats and their troll farms. All of it is now amplified by irresponsible profit-seeking social media.
This toxic brew has done extraordinary damage to America over the past few decades.
It’s even killing us.
A recent analysis covered by Ezra Klein in The New York Times finds that the main reason the US has such devastating Covid infection and death numbers is because of a lack of social trust in our nation.
This loss of social and political trust is the damage 40 years of anti-government rhetoric has done, starting with Reagan proclaiming in his first inaugural address that government is the cause, not the solution, to working people’s problems.
Such rhetoric provides a good rationalization for cutting taxes on the morbidly rich and cutting government to a size where it can be “drowned in the bathtub,” but what’s left is a shell of civic structure and engagement that’s easily manipulated by malicious or self-interested actors while also being vulnerable to foreign infiltration.
Last week it was book burnings, months before that attacks on hospital personnel, and before that was the moral panic about children being tortured to extract adrenochrome from their blood leading to a pizzeria in DC getting shot up.
Now it’s infected Ottawa, Canada but there’s talk of taking their “trucker strike against vaccines” to the US any day now.
And what’s most astonishing is that the “spontaneous trucker movement” appears to have originated with the hacked Facebook page of an American mom in Missouri, a hacked page that previously had been used to promote Donald Trump.
Rightwingers and foreign trolls are piling on, amplifying lies and misinformation, per Bob Brigham’s reporting at Raw Story:
CNN reported, “One video that has been shared on various social media platforms was captioned to claim that it showed South Carolina truckers heading to Ottawa to join the convoy -- but it actually showed an August 2021 truck parade in support of the Special Olympics, USA Today reported. A video of honking Brazilian truckers that circulated on Facebook was from a May 2021 demonstration in support of President Jair Bolsonaro, not a demonstration in solidarity with the Canadian truckers as some captions claimed, USA Today also reported. A photo of a massive protest crowd, shared in Twitter posts in both English and Spanish as if it were from Ottawa this year, actually depicted a 1991 demonstration in Moscow against the Communist government of the Soviet Union, Reuters reported. And another photo, which has been described in Facebook posts as a group of Amish people driving to support the convoy, is a shot of Old Order Mennonites simply going to church, PolitiFact reported.”
And that’s just the tip of the ways Americans are being politically manipulated by foreign governments and American rightwingers. The New York Times informed us yesterday about their latest enterprise: spying, infiltrating, and planting political stories:
“Mr. Prince’s role in the effort, which has not been previously disclosed, sheds further light on how a group of ultraconservative Republicans employed spycraft to try to manipulate the American political landscape. Mr. Prince — a former C.I.A. contractor who is best known as the founder of the private military firm Blackwater and whose sister, Betsy DeVos…”
There apparently is no bottom.
Here’s the horrible lesson this experience with modern rightwing radicalism has taught us: Countries that haven’t suffered from decades of cynical anti-government rhetoric and social media manipulation not only have lower Covid death rates, they also have better overall physical and mental healthy by all measures and more functional democracies.
Because they trust their neighbors and their society, they’re less vulnerable to trolls and memes.
That said, Americans have a few good reasons to not always trust our government: we were lied into the wars in both Vietnam and Iraq, government has worked to oppress minorities since the foundation of the country, and the Supreme Court has legalized political bribery, to name a few.
But let’s fix those things. We need to change our laws to eliminate the possibility of another Bush/Cheney lie-fest (War Powers Act), outlaw racialized election tricks (Lewis and Freedom/Vote Acts), and get dark money out of our politics by reversing Citizen’s United.
All must be top priorities and all require massive voter turnout.
Otherwise, the rightwing radicals who’re trying to take over and replace our government with a tyrannical oligarchy will do a hell of a lot more damage to our country and the world than Bush, the Supreme Court, or the useful idiots who’re blocking traffic in Canada.
Waking up America and the rightwing dupes — at least those we all know who’ve been seduced by lies and myths — to how we’re being manipulated by special interests is job one. We have to restore faith in America.
If we can’t stop this disintegration of trust in America and the ability to reform and make our government work for all people, apathy will turn our country over to the hard right, ending the American experiment. And once democracy is gone altogether it often takes generations of pain, work and treasure to recover it.
We all need to stand up for democracy now and work together to heal our nation from the damage done by these foreign and domestic autocrats and hustlers.
What we have been witnessing for 50 years is a persistent and ever more sophisticated campaign of the morbidly rich stealing our democracy using the tactics Thom has identified countless times. Some of their tricks have been around for a very long time, like frightening and enraging poorly educated folks with racism (or any of the other otherisms) making them easy to manipulate (especially if they’ve been cultified). By leveraging the speed and reach of 21st Century tech, they can crank out propaganda that Joseph Goebbels could only dream about, and now they have a bloc of voters that is substantial and monolithic. I suggest that we refer to members of the two parties as Democrats and Autocrats and no one can be a Democrat without pledging to promote our citizens’ general welfare using best practice-based solutions, and that includes protecting us from those that do things adverse to our rights and our communities’ interests. (For example, the oligarchs who profit from wars, or those who commit multi-trillion-dollar frauds, or the evildoers who take trillions in subsidies to sell trillions in carbon while the 6th Mass Extinction is becoming inevitable).
Or just make sure that we get a critical mass of progressives elected in November.
The concept of American democracy being an "experiment" it not really appropriate.
Our democracy is more like an operating system.
Legislation is like installing updates (HR1 = major security patch!).
The 75-year retiree funding for the post office getting passed without awareness at the time is like someone opening an attachment with a trojan horse virus. And so on....
So just like installing updates and removing any viruses that get through is part of the daily life with a computer, so is the day to day operations of government.
If a virus infects an OS bad enough that your computer becomes unrepairable, does that mean the operating system itself is a failed experiment? No. It just means update patches and repairs couldn't keep up with the creators of viruses and more effort needs to be put into the race, and therefore the same with our political system. So as Thom & Bernie says we shouldn't despair. We should't despair that these onslaughts exist. The writers of anti-virus software don't despair that viruses exist. We should expect that it will always exist, and the test of our resiliency is how well we react and defend against it. Our collective efforts to keep this country running will always be subject to onslaughts so we just have to keep working to catch up and stay ahead of it. It's not an experiment pass/fail.