The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Time to confront the right-wing myth-makers

A mock check made out to Fox News during a climate-change protest in Washington on Tuesday. (Eric Lee/Bloomberg)
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The greatest challenge to our democracy is not that we hold deeply polarized beliefs, but that one party refuses to operate in a fact-based world that might challenge its beliefs. Whether it is Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) propounding Russian propaganda, or the Wall Street Journal editorial page fanning Hunter Biden laptop conspiracy theories, or right-wing websites circulating falsehoods about crime and immigrants, we are awash with conservatives seeking to exploit the fears, ignorance and prejudices of many Americans.

There is a whole industry on the right that seeks to rationalize support for President Trump by pushing the phony narrative that ordinary Democrats — such as former vice president Joe Biden or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — are conduits for antifa or hate America, religion and the police. They specialize in finding obscure figures on the left spouting nonsense and then leaping to associate Democratic politicians with their views or rhetoric. (Oh look, Portland anarchists are taking over. This is what happens when Pelosi is speaker.) They intentionally confuse media commentary and academic writings with run-of-the-mill, center-left policy. Somehow, the “1619 Project” has become a justification for voting against Biden. And, somehow, “Democrats” were out to demonize Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s faith because there was chatter on Twitter, even though no Democrat in the Senate raised it during her confirmation hearings.

Conservative operatives have adopted a rhetorical shorthand that rests on preposterous assumptions, which they never seek to examine: immigrants “cost jobs”; climate change is a hoax; supply-side tax cuts permanently affect growth; “regulation” is invariably anti-business (even if it leads to cronyism that coddles Big Business). The policy conclusions and rhetorical output underscores the adage “garbage in, garbage out.”

Why the non sequiturs, fearmongering and hysteria? We would need an army of therapists to discern the motivations. Acela-corridor conservatives, many of whom have benefited from “elite” or Ivy League educations and live happily with the benefits of blue America, love nothing more than to tell red America that city dwellers look down on them. Perhaps they suffer from greed, or resentment over exclusion from the highest rungs of government, or disappointment from their lack of a broader intellectual influence.

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Many in the right-wing media bubble are marooned in a weird time warp in which the “other side” is some Cold War-era Marxist caricature. (Hence, the infatuation with the word “socialist.") But there is also a jaw-dropping, willful blindness about U.S. history and race that allows Trumpian media personalities to exempt anyone from the charge of white supremacy unless they don a robe and hood. These opinion-makers and politicians have imbibed an unhealthy dose of authoritarianism and self-satisfaction with the status quo to the exclusion of concern for social justice, tolerance, freedom, equality and inclusion. Wittingly or not, they are the quintessential defenders of white supremacy, in which challenges to authority are painted as extreme and dangerous.

Mix in a heap of White evangelical Christians’ sense of victimhood (for whom no legal accommodation of religious liberty is sufficient), and you get a writhing right-wing culture that feels justified in its intellectual dishonesty. It is more than willing to recklessly dispense whatever snippets of information advance its philosophy with little regard for the source’s credibility. The results are injurious to our democracy and often even to the right wing’s stated values (e.g., capitalism, family integrity).

These myth-makers shape an army of irrational voters who fear anyone outside their cult. They perpetuate conspiracy-mongering, science denial and economic illiteracy, making fellowship and rational debate among Americans with different political views nearly impossible.

What do we do about this phenomenon? Appealing to the better angels of their nature seems like weak tea. Instead, we need steady determination to rebuke falsehoods at every turn and drain the myth-makers of some of their effectiveness. Some public-spirited billionaires’ investment in media outlets — not to change their ideological outlook, but to insist on strict adherence to reality — would be welcome. A willingness to debunk right-wing dishonesty on its own turf (God bless former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg for going on Fox News) might also help. (Disclosure: I’m a contributor for MSNBC.) And, sometimes, an intervention comes from within, as when numerous reporters and editors at the Wall Street Journal revolted against the editorial page’s proclivity to play fast and loose with facts. There are also heroic efforts among NeverTrumpers, such as the team at the Bulwark, to take on purveyors of right-wing lies and nonsense.

Perhaps think tanks should take responsibility for enforcing academic standards. Stanford University houses the Hoover Institution, where Scott Atlas worked before going to the administration and becoming a notorious anti-masker apparently without consequence. Think tanks should strongly consider setting up peer-review panels with input from outside experts to police propagandists masquerading as researchers and academics. This should not be intended to change ideology, but rather to insist on intellectually defensible standards. When public dishonesty becomes a public hazard, the think tank should cut the propagandist loose.

None of this seems all that satisfying, but the problem will not vanish on its own. Rather than gatekeepers, we have right-wing mob leaders out to make a buck and gain fame by bamboozling Americans. The result is a warped body politic and dangerously divisive culture.

We have seen one painful consequence of this intellectual dishonesty: Millions of Americans are convinced to put themselves at risk of contracting a deadly disease rather than listen to fact-based “elites.” Many have died as a result, and self-governance has been weakened. The sooner we confront the right-wing myth-making industry, the better.

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