Neanderthals went extinct about 30,000 years ago, but that did not stop Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) from speaking affectionately about them on Thursday in the present tense. “Neanderthals are hunter-gatherers,” she said on Fox Business. “They’re protectors of their family. They are resilient. They’re resourceful. They tend to their own. So I think Joe Biden needs to rethink what he is saying.”

What President Biden said, correctly, is that the Republican governors of Texas and Mississippi are making “a big mistake” by rescinding mask mandates when new coronavirus variants are spreading. “The last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking,” Biden said on a day when 2,492 more Americans died of the contagion.

Conservative media figures and their GOP guests rushed to strip the president’s comment of context and feign injury, presenting the remark as if Biden had referred to all Republicans as Neanderthals. “Simply giving freedoms causes Joe Biden — ‘the great uniter’ — to call us Neanderthals,” former White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said on her debut appearance as a paid Fox analyst.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on March 4 President Biden's “Neanderthal” comment reflect “his frustration” with governors who lifted mask mandates. (The Washington Post)

Leave aside the irony of people such as Blackburn, who does not accept the theory of evolution, expressing performative outrage on behalf of an extinct species whose very existence she rejects. Further irony: Evidence suggests that viruses thinned the Neanderthal population and they went extinct after failing to adapt to a changing climate.

The familiar chorus of faux indignation from the bad-faith brigade illustrates more than just how reflexive and juvenile the discourse has become. This week also put into stark relief how leading Republicans hope to fight their way out of the wilderness by leaning into grievance and picking culture war battles. Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head generated more commentary from the most popular pundits on the right than the $1.9 trillion covid relief bill that passed the Senate on a party-line vote Saturday.

This is what the new echo chamber sounds like: “If you disagree with him, you’re a Neanderthal,” said Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.). “Basically, what he’s doing is calling us stupid,” said Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.).

Republican politicians and their cable partners toss out this red meat because they believe it is what their shared audience, or base, wants to eat. On Thursday alone, the word “Neanderthal” was mentioned at least 98 times on Fox News and another 35 times on Fox Business. Thirteen of Fox News’s 15 shows devoted airtime to Neander-gate, as did six of the nine shows on Fox Business, according to Media Matters for America. Fox News led its website with a story about the backlash its hosts had ginned up. The banner headline called it “JOE’S ‘DEPLORABLE’ MOMENT.”

And that’s what gave away their cynical game. This is at least the fourth Biden comment that Fox personalities have likened to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 gaffe that “half” of Donald Trump’s supporters could be grouped in a “basket of deplorables.”

Clinton’s mistake was trying to put a number on it, but recent events have shown that she was not entirely off base. She explained that half of Trump supporters who “feel that government has let them down” deserved genuine empathy, but that Trump had “lifted” up others who are “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it.” It’s hard to argue with her underlying point after watching what Trump’s presidency unleashed, from Charlottesville to the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Fox News hosts and guests this week also compared Biden’s warning against “Neanderthal thinking” to Barack Obama’s 2008 remark that small-town voters who have struggled economically “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.”

“We were the deplorables, we were smelly Walmart people, then we were chumps for Trump, bitter clingers, now it’s Neanderthal,” said “Fox & Friends” host Pete Hegseth, who went into television after a failed Senate bid in Minnesota and whose elite pedigree includes degrees from Princeton and Harvard. “This is how the left views people who prefer choice and personal responsibility over government mandates.”

The cable empire keeps pumping from this well of resentment because doing so has proven profitable, keeping viewers angry and tuned in. Fox Corp. Chief Executive Lachlan Murdoch suggested as much during an investor conference on Thursday when he acknowledged that Fox News plans to juice its ratings in the post-Trump era by playing the role of “loyal opposition” to Biden.

Fox News’s efforts to capitalize on the cultural epidemic of grievance and victimhood are, however irresponsible, entirely rational. The same is true for the GOP: Trump’s success taught a new generation of Republicans the continuing potency of us-against-them, anti-elitist messaging — even if it was more rhetoric than reality.

Republicans now face the familiar challenge of keeping their populist base riled up while opposing policies that would benefit many of those core supporters — this time without Trump. Indeed, even as Republicans tried to convince their voters to take offense at Biden’s Neanderthal label, they were voting en masse against a measure to extend unemployment benefits and send $1,400 checks to millions of households, while arguing against a $15 an hour minimum wage.

The challenge for Democrats is to figure out how to make the fight for the working class a debate over real-world policies, not phony culture war distractions.

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