This observation seems somewhat disconnected from conservative rhetoric, however. On Fox News, it is the end times. Jesse Kelly and Tucker Carlson agree that the right will soon embrace fascism because they have no other choice. Rachel Campos-Duffy argues that Michelle Obama was the secret agent of woke culture to take over the U.S. military.
And then there are Claremont conservatives like Glenn Ellmers, who wrote this super-chill essay about the state of America, which opens as follows:
Let’s be blunt. The United States has become two nations occupying the same country. When pressed, or in private, many would now agree. Fewer are willing to take the next step and accept that most people living in the United States today — certainly more than half — are not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term.I don’t just mean the millions of illegal immigrants. Obviously, those foreigners who have bypassed the regular process for entering our country, and probably will never assimilate to our language and culture, are — politically as well as legally — aliens. I’m really referring to the many native-born people — some of whose families have been here since the Mayflower — who may technically be citizens of the United States but are no longer (if they ever were) Americans. They do not believe in, live by, or even like the principles, traditions, and ideals that until recently defined America as a nation and as a people. It is not obvious what we should call these citizen-aliens, these non-American Americans; but they are something else.
Have conservatives lost their grip on reality? Actually, no. Well, maybe a little bit. Okay, yes. But it takes a journey to get there.
During the Trump era, the standard lament was that liberals cared about power in the political realm but did not have it, whereas conservatives cared about power in the cultural realm but did not have it. And let’s be clear, conservatives have lost influence in the cultural realm. Academia has moved to the left. So has the mainstream media.
The standard counter to this charge from those of us residing in these institutions is that these are professions. Codes of conduct constrain how much one’s political preferences affect one’s intellectual output. These codes are not perfect; conservative critiques of cancel culture are not entirely without foundation. Still, they have been exaggerated. Similar codes of professionalism apply to more-conservative institutions, such as the military or big business.
The trouble for conservatives is that reliably conservative institutions have begun acting in a less conservative manner. Polling during the Trump years suggested that the military was moving away from the GOP. Since President Biden was inaugurated, conservatives have been banging on about the “woke military” because the defense secretary is committed to combating political extremism and general officers are pushing back on Carlson’s harangues about women in the military.
Meanwhile, conservatives now feel besieged by big business, too. They did not take kindly to Big Tech fact-checking and then deplatforming former president Donald Trump over the past six months. The negative reactions from corporate entities such as Delta, Coca-Cola and Major League Baseball to the new Georgia voting law have also prompted conservatives to criticize “woke capital” and cry foul.
Put yourself in the position of a Claremont conservative. Right-wingers have lost influence over liberal, elite institutions. Heretofore, conservative institutions are becoming more hostile as well. The last remaining holdout might be religion, but that trendline is also discouraging for faith-based conservatives. Democrats will retain control of the House, Senate and executive branch until 2023 at the earliest. Compared with four years ago, populist conservatives exercise much less power and influence. The country seems to be turning against them. When Trump was inaugurated, liberals were able to get record numbers of Americans to peacefully protest. The right-wing effort to replicate this led to … the events of Jan. 6. Suddenly the idea of an extinction-level event begins to come into focus.
Conservatives are not crazy to feel like they are facing some existential threats. They start to sound crazy in failing to recognize their own culpability in the situation they find themselves in.
Despite what Campos-Duffy claims, in recent years conservatism has not been putting forward its best. Instead, it has been putting forward the likes of Ellmers. His essay is worth reading in full to truly absorb how abysmal the state of argumentation is on the Trumpist right. On the one hand, he says that “[authentic Americans] want to work, worship, raise a family, and participate in public affairs without being treated as insolent upstarts in their own country. Therefore, we need a conception of a stable political regime that allows for the good life.” Which makes it even odder that earlier he says: “Practically speaking, there is almost nothing left to conserve. What is actually required now is a recovery, or even a refounding, of America as it was long and originally understood but which now exists only in the hearts and minds of a minority of citizens.” In my experience, living the good life is difficult when trying to foment a revolution.
Mostly, what Ellmers does is categorically reject any effort to attract or persuade anyone outside the purest of MAGA souls into his movement. In his essay, he rubbishes Biden voters, centrists and conservative elites. That is his prerogative, but as a political scientist, I am pretty sure that alienating all but the most pure of ideological heart is a surefire way to lose elections.
As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp noted, “The rhetoric of national emergency and decline that you hear in Claremont publications permeates mainstream GOP rhetoric.” And elected Republicans are not that far off from Ellmers’s messaging.
Consider the new Georgia voting law. Some conservatives have tried to defend the Georgia law as needed to protect “election integrity.” And to be fair, there are parts of the new law that do increase ballot access to rural Georgians. But it is interesting how these same conservatives neglect to mention that the law takes several actions to weaken the power of election officials and opens a pathway for the state legislature to intervene in affecting the results. Kevin Drum is correct when he says that “conservatives protest way too much. Even [focusing only on] major provisions of the bill, the score is 11-2 in favor of items that make it harder to vote — especially for Democrats.” And there is also the reason the bill was written in the first place. As FiveThirtyEight’s Perry Bacon Jr. notes: “Trump lost Georgia in 2020. But his narrative about that election — that it was stolen from him — has won among state Republicans and has now effectively been codified in state law.”
Given this context, Georgia Republicans — who never bothered crafting a bipartisan bill and rushed through the legislation in a single day — cannot be surprised by the blowback. Yet when confronted with corporate criticism, elected GOP officials have doubled down on their indignation and thirst for electoral vengeance. Gov. Brian Kemp (R) criticized Georgia’s largest employers for speaking out. And as my Washington Post colleague Greg Sargent notes, Georgia’s GOP House leadership attempted to eliminate a tax break for Delta in retaliation — fully acknowledging it was about retaliation. And Trump is now calling for a GOP boycott of the firms that have spoken out.
Maybe none of this will matter for the GOP given ordinary election cycle dynamics of negative partisanship. Maybe these identity wars will be better politics than Biden’s bread-and-butter policies. I honestly do not know. If, however, Republicans underperform in the next few cycles, then maybe someone still in the party faithful can point out the costs of declaring everyone who disagrees with you to be the enemy. It would be ironic if what brings the right down is the precise quality they claim to despise in their political opponents.