Government as All-Powerful Demon: The Emptiness of Pre-Trumpian Conservatism
by Neil H. Buchanan
Big Bird (who, I now know, is supposedly six-years-old) publicly announced that he had been vaccinated as soon as anti-Covid shots were approved for school-aged children. Ted Cruz found out about this and -- not having any interest in doing his job -- used his Twitter-troll time this week to grumble: "Government propaganda ... for your 5-year-old."
Notwithstanding the various forms of snark that I tossed into the paragraph above, Cruz is not my focus here. He happens to be endlessly mockable, but I want to use his own-the-libs tweet simply as a recent, vivid example of something that conservatives have been doing for generations: personifying and then vilifying this thing called The Government.
This particular culture-war moment will soon be forgotten. What is interesting is that even after having become completely Trumpified, movement conservatism still lapses back into tired tropes about Big Brother. Is it good news that they still have nothing to say that is non-embarrassing?
What Cruz was complaining about is, of course, most definitely propaganda in some literal sense. A group of people behind the Big Bird character decided to do what they think of as a public service by getting a beloved children's character to make kids feel less squeamish about getting a shot. One person's public-service announcement is another person's indoctrination video, I suppose. That is not at all to say that there is any substantive equivalence between Cruz's anti-vaxxing BS and what Big Bird is doing. If helping kids feel less scared to do something that will help save lives is conservatives' idea of propaganda, that is simply pathetic.
Note, however, that the tweet in question did not say,"Propaganda ... for your 5-year-old," or "Liberal propaganda ... for your 5-year-old," or even "Woke propaganda … for your 5-year-old." No, it was government propaganda that the good senator wanted to highlight for his legions of adoring fans. This is the same government that, per Donald Trump's version of reality, made it possible to create and approve the vaccines in record time (because of him, of course); but stoking anti-government hatred is just too delicious for any self-respecting member of the Republican Party to pass up.
This is, therefore, not about the new wave of insanity that has emerged on the right over the last few years. No one, I suspect, imagined that even the Bush/Cheney version of extreme conservatism would politicize a pandemic or try to normalize an insurrection against the government. The co-author of a bill passed by the Oklahoma House of Representatives that would provide legal cover to motorists who run over protesters actually said: “I simply want to make sure people on both sides of any issue are kept safe.” So plenty of things are different these days. There is a lot of new crazy, cynical stuff out there.
By contrast, this anti-government rhetoric is as old as it gets, yet even these extreme post-rational conservatives in America still are drawn to it. Part of that, of course, is that they were all raised on Ronald Reagan's infamous (and supposedly funny) line: "The nine scariest words in the English language: 'I'm from the government, and I'm here to help." Good one! Those government workers are never there to help, are they? Just ignore all of the times that they are.
Even that old groaner, however, at least has the virtue of talking about people. That is, in Reagan's story, the government is actually made up of human beings who go to work and do their jobs. And although he left it to the listeners' imaginations why it was scary for them to show up at one's door -- Are they themselves trying to do bad things on purpose? Are they incompetent? Are they good at doing bad things that other bad people have set in motion? -- he inadvertently allowed that the government was not a disembodied force for evil in the world.
Cruz's tweet might have been a conscious choice to vilify "government," or it might be mere muscle memory for those who do the performance art that passes for being a Republican officeholder in 2021. A more pure version of this form of scaremongering showed up in a Washington Post opinion column that I discussed in a Dorf on Law column a few weeks ago. That columnist, Henry Olsen, seems to perfectly capture the phenomenon of the lazy right-wing columnist who jumped on the Trump train but has generally not updated his material.
In a column opposing the Democrats' now-abandoned proposal for a Billionaires Tax, Olsen wrote: "The government would love to get 25 percent of your 401(k)’s annual rise, and our nation’s massive annual deficits and cumulative debt means it will need that money sooner rather than later." The Government not only has wants and needs but feels them so intensely that it loves to have them satisfied. And The Government will itself need your money sooner or later.
Set aside Olsen's false invocation of solidarity between regular workers with their 401(k) accounts and the billionaires of the world, and ignore the equally lazy anti-deficit and anti-debt talking points. This is an especially clear view into the compete emptiness of the anti-government presumptions that have long fed the conservative movement. Who is against you? The government! What is the government? It's what is against you!
No one who works for the government would "love" to get 25 percent of anyone's 401(k) income. No one in Congress has proposed it. The Internal Revenue Service has not tried to find a way to justify it under some existing tax law. The Social Security Administration has not suggested doing this. Why am I mentioning that particular agency of government, and why would it even want to do that? Well, as long as we are spinning paranoid conspiracies of personified desires, maybe the disembodied thing called Social Security is emotionally insecure (pun intended), and it would love to make itself feel important by forcing people to rely more on Social Security benefits, after they have had their 401(k)'s taxed away. Maybe that is what that greedy organization imagines as it cries itself to sleep at night?
Again, however, I doubt that Olsen even gave a moment's thought to that particular line. He is so accustomed to simply asserting that "government" is a tangible thing with (evil) intent and single-minded will -- rather than the reality of being a human-led and human-staffed organization created to represent and try to carry out the people's desires, however imperfectly -- that he simply assumes that Americans will read that sentence without even slowing down to ask: "Wait, what the hell is this guy even saying?"
In the end, this is all self-reinforcing paranoia that treats a large organization as an implacable force that is consciously trying to hurt people. This might be the most reliable through-line from pre-Trumpian to Trumpian conservatism. Plus the racism, of course.