Conservatives haven’t had a lot of high-profile, practical victories lately, ways they can show their supporters that their side is winning important battles. Democrats took the White House and control of Congress, Obamacare is remains in place, same-sex marriage is legal, and those on the right fear they’re losing every cultural conflict.

So if you can’t defeat a real enemy, why not take on an imaginary one?

Thus it is that “critical race theory” — an academic approach to understanding the way race operates within systems and institutions — has become the new conservative bugaboo.

Though it is no more a topic taught to children than post-structuralism or computational quantum chemistry (if you ever encountered it before this year, you probably went to grad school), the entire American right is now donning its battle gear to fight this threat to their children’s education and way of life. The fact that this is a phantom threat is essential to understanding how the strategy works.

“We will eventually turn it toxic,” wrote the conservative think-tank fellow who played an important role in birthing this effort. “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’”

Turning outrage into action, a wave of bills have been filed in state legislatures that either explicitly or implicitly ban the discussion of critical race theory in schools. Among states where such bills have recently passed are Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Idaho and Iowa. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) promised to “make sure there’s not a single school board member who supports critical race theory.”

The key characteristic of this manufactured controversy is that it is a symbolic battle masquerading as a practical one. By passing laws to ban an idea that is never taught in schools from being taught in schools, they’re trying to create a threat, then claim they vanquished it, thereby offering their supporters a feeling of reassurance and agency.

That doesn’t mean these bills will have no practical impact; teachers are reporting that they’ve become terrified of even addressing topics around race now that it could run afoul of state law. But none of this has anything to do with what critical race theory actually is; it’s a stand-in, a tool to create a new Lost Cause narrative in which conservative Whites are society’s true victims.

By now, this routine should be familiar; we went through the same thing a few years ago with the imaginary threat of “sharia law.” Many Republican legislators didn’t know precisely what it was, but they wanted everyone to be afraid of it, so in state after state they passed laws forbidding its use in court.

The current controversy has something in common with that one, that when you find the GOP legislators most enthusiastic about passing a ban, chances are they’re knuckleheads who have no idea what they’re legislating about. When pressed about what critical race theory really is, Republican legislators seem to know only that it has something to do with race and it makes White people feel bad.

Another key element of these frenzies: They’re usually marked by a combination of organic local activism and elite direction from conservative organizations, often located in Washington. And critically, they are fed by agenda-setting and cheerleading from conservative media — especially Fox News. They’re simultaneously grass roots and artificial turf, which creates the self-reinforcing cycle that spreads and sustains them.

For instance, the liberal group Media Matters for America recently documented that Fox News has been bringing on one guest after another, identified only as concerned parents or educators, to complain about how critical race theory is allegedly infecting their schools. But it turns out that these reg’lar moms ‘n dads “also have day jobs as Republican strategists, conservative think-tankers, or right-wing media personalities.”

A central focus of those media discussions is that what may seem at first like an intellectual or symbolic discussion will have tangible effects on your life, effects that are positively revolutionary and terrifying. So when President Biden signs a law making Juneteenth a national holiday — a worthwhile gesture, but not much more — Tucker Carlson tells his audience that “our country is getting a new Independence Day to supplant the old one.” Might as well cancel that Fourth of July barbecue.

On one level, this is all a backlash to the national debate about race that emerged after George Floyd’s murder last year. That debate, which featured lots of institutions and people trying to grapple with the persistence of racism, left conservatives feeling intensely alienated, even threatened — feelings which were ripe for exploitation by right-wing political and media figures.

But it goes deeper, into the broader cultural alienation conservatives have been experiencing for years.

The idea that your own children will be taught something you disagree with has long been a potent weapon to rile people up, particularly conservatives who already feel their children are growing up in a world that rejects their values, and adopting ideas about race and sexuality and gender that are far more liberal than theirs.

They may even grasp that the large societal forces that fill them with anxiety — perhaps none more than the steady racial, ethnic and religious diversification of America — are out of their control. They can elect a xenophobic bigot as president, but immigrants will continue to arrive and he’ll fail in his project to make America white again.

That’s enough to make you despair. But you can pass a measure at your local school board or a law in the state legislature and say, “We banned critical race theory from the classroom! Victory is ours!” That’s the nice thing about imaginary enemies: They’re not hard to defeat.

Read more: