The Right-Wing Outrage Industry and the Paranoid Echo Chamber

by Neil H. Buchanan

Part of Donald Trump's strategy for survival, as even his own strategists now admit, is to ramp up the anger among his base by trying to make them think that everyone who is against Trump is dishonest and corrupt.  That strategy in turn is based in large part on portraying the non-Trump world -- not just the media and academia but anyone who disagrees with Trump -- as part of an alien force that hates Trump's supporters.

This move is actually rather easy to pull off for Trump, given how aggressively this sense of grievance has been pushed on the right for many years.  Indeed, when I wrote a Verdict column back in May of 2015 discussing "The Return of the Paranoid Style in American Politics," I did not mention Trump at all.  The most obvious reason for that omission was that Trump was not yet seen as a serious threat, but the point is that this right-wing sense of paranoid isolation had long since become obvious even when the "normal" Republican Party was still intact.

That Verdict column drew from Richard Hofstadter's classic essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," and I was particular taken by his description of the paranoiacs' imagined enemy as "a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving."  This perfectly captures the imaginings on today's American right about all-powerful campus thought police, latte-sipping Beltway insiders, anti-religious globalists, and all the rest.

By now, this deliberate vilification of everything non-Trump has become depressingly familiar.  As I put it in a recent column here on Dorf on Law, "[t]he business model of those hyper-conservative media outlets is to make people angry, and business is good."  What I did not fully appreciate is just how completely the Fox-led media has been turning Democrats and others into hideous monsters in the eyes of conservatives.  Allow me to explain, using one prominent example and then a lesser known one.

As Professor Dorf explained earlier this week, even the narrow ruling in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case was based on highly dubious interpretations of two comments by members of Colorado's Civil Rights Commission, interpretations that invented anti-religious bias where there was none.  In the first instance, "one commissioner stated that a person is entitled to his religious beliefs but cannot act on them to discriminate in his business. Although stating a controversial view about the obligation of the state to accommodate religion, that is not by any stretch of the imagination an anti-religious view."

Second, a member of the commission noted that some of history's most horrific episodes (enslaving people and committing genocide) have been justified by hiding behind religion and religious freedom, concluding that "one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use [is] to—to use their religion to hurt others."  Professor Dorf rightly states that "it's clear that the Commissioner was not saying that religion or religious beliefs or people who hold religious beliefs are despicable; rather, he was saying that the mere fact that someone invokes his religion in support of some practice does not render that practice acceptable."

Someone who insists on finding in those statements some kind of hostility toward religion -- a hostility so severe that it required the United States Supreme Court to invalidate Colorado's application of its own civil rights law -- is basically looking for animus and hostility.  And these are Supreme Court justices.  Perhaps two of the seven-justice majority were signing onto the majority opinion strategically, but the core five conservatives readily found that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission was biased against religion and thus had acted unfairly.

In other words, it is not only Trump's much-discussed white working-class rural "Real American" voters who are reacting against the supposedly "sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving" liberal elites.  The Court's conservatives -- five men who, after all, are products of (and, to various degrees, still participants in) movement conservatism -- produce decisions like Masterpiece Cakeshop and Hobby Lobby, leaving people outside the conservative movement utterly confused about what the majority is thinking and even questioning the justices' ability to comprehend reality.

The sad fact, then, is that this overwhelming sense of paranoid grievance is not limited to Trump and the people who attend his rallies and who drive mild apostates like Senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker out of politics.  It reaches up to the highest levels of the conservative movement.

But such grievance certainly is festering among Trump's base.  A week after Trump's inauguration, I wrote about "Trump's Snowflake Voters," describing the non-conservative media's acceptance of an absurd narrative which holds that news organizations had failed to see the genuine pain of Trump's voters because coastal elites had not allowed themselves to "get out and actually meet these people."  The resulting infantilization of Trump's voters is the true insult, not the supposed failure to take their grievances seriously.

Just yesterday, a professor who frequently writes commentary for The Washington Post used the same framing to discuss "The Rise of the Snowflake Conservative," describing how Trump has made it even more obvious that the conservative movement is incapable of taking responsibility for its own failures.  Everything is a big conspiracy perpetrated by Hofstadter's "amoral supermen" who are preventing good from being done -- even though Republicans control every level of government.

This vilification of imaginary powerful forces also explains why Trump does not reach out to bridge divides.  As The Post's Greg Sargent puts it, "Donald Trump Is Not Your President" in the sense that he does not want to be everyone's president.  He pardons people who were "treated so unfairly" by the legal system, for example, which means that he is telling his supporters in no uncertain terms that the world is against them.

For that message to resonate, however, it has to have a receptive audience.  How did Trump and the conservative movement convince non-rich people that the party of plutocrats is somehow on their side?  The best rendition of this discussion is still Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas? which is now fourteen years old but still captures how the culture wars have caused working people to vote for unsafe workplaces and to undermine public services, schools, and the environment.

The lesser-known example of this type of grievance mongering to which I referred above is an outright smear that the right-wing outrage machine conjured up more than a decade ago.  I only became aware of this example of imagined liberal condescension because I happened to watch a segment on Don Lemon's CNN political talk show last week.  I had never seen that show, but I was bored and decided to watch a segment in which Lemon hosted a NeverTrump conservative and a pro-Trump conservative discussing whether Trump's supporters are racists.

The segment was predictably annoying, but at least it was not one of the standard cable-news shouting matches, which was surprising as a matter of style.  The substantive surprise came when the pro-Trump guest started to describe why Trump's voters are not racists.  He started with the usual misdirection about how (a very small number of) Trump voters had voted for Obama and thus could not possibly be racist, and he proceeded to run through the usual list of grievances about elite condescension and their supposed hatred of Real Americans.

The big surprise, however, came when this guest (who was identified as a former staffer for Reince Priebus, the former Trump chief of staff, during Priebus's time at the Republican National Committee) tossed off a casual example about how Democrats were so disdainful toward Real Americans that a group of congressional Democratic aides had had themselves vaccinated before going to a NASCAR event in North Carolina.

What?  I had never heard this claim, but it was so absurd that my first thought was that this had surely been debunked.  When I hit the pause button and checked into it, I learned that this story dated to 2007, when indeed it turned out that the conservative outrage machine had manufactured complete nonsense out of some completely innocent facts.

To my pleasant surprise, Lemon offered a masterful, low-key response to his guest's various claims, especially by pointing out that Trump's supporters were apparently willing at least to tolerate Trump's racism.  More importantly, he ended the segment (which had carried through a commercial break, giving his producers time to do some fact-checking) by explaining the reality of the NASCAR claim.

As summarized in this HuffPo piece, Lemon calmly pointed out that those Democratic staffers were, in addition to attending a NASCAR event, also planning to visit some hospitals and health clinics where infectious diseases were likely to be present.  The Homeland Security secretary at the time (in George W. Bush's administration) had even said that the recommendation -- not the requirement -- that the staffers receive immunizations was "sound," because of concerns about health risks.

My oh my, that is certainly a different story.  Consider how hard one must work to turn a "staffers get shots before touring hospitals" story into "Democrats are so removed from Real Americans that they think they might get diseases by attending a NASCAR event" rallying cry.  This is the same alchemy that generates books with titles like "Treason" to describe liberals, where even the most innocuous material can be turned into something nefarious.

What is perhaps most interesting about this invented outrage is that the slanderous distortion dates back eleven years and had been immediately debunked, yet a Republican operative ticked it off as an oh-so-obvious example of Democrats' disdain for non-rich conservatives.  Even as Lemon corrected the record before signing off, the operative stared into the camera with a grimace and shook his head.  Why would he update his views?

Indeed, it is not even clear if this particular hack knew that what he was saying was a deliberate distortion.  Just as conservatives who know nothing about college campuses have heard distortion after distortion about American universities, such that they now simply know that liberals are running amok at our universities, high-level Republican aides might well have simply heard the lie about NASCAR and incorporated it into their list of grievances without bothering to question it.

After all, if justices on the Supreme Court are on the kind of high alert about imaginary anti-religious bias that they revealed in Masterpiece Cakeshop, why should we think that anyone else in the conservative movement will think clearly about these culture war battles, especially when they are not being given all of the facts?  This is how the echo chamber works, and it leads to people accepting lies as facts and reinforcing their worst paranoid delusions.