The post-Trump Republican Party faces a daunting list of challenges, but its most fundamental task will be to somehow re-establish a connection to — and basic respect for — reality. For a long time now, it has trained its base, its entertainment wing and many of its politicians to act as if reality no longer matters, as if their invented reality is as valid as an actual reality.
It is not. And until that problem is fixed, the party has no real hope of resurrecting itself.
In an invented reality, for example, a successful businessman and charismatic speaker such as Donald Trump might be a fine general-election candidate. In actual reality, he is proving to be exactly the disaster that many of us — including a few conservatives — predicted that he would be. And I have to ask: If you get something as important as that as spectacularly wrong as that, shouldn’t that be cause for serious reflection and self-doubt? Shouldn’t you maybe rethink a thing or two?
Because when you subscribe to an invented reality, you lose the ability to communicate with anyone who exists outside that sphere. In fact, you begin to look and sound ridiculous to those who are not already fully invested in your world, which explains why the 2016 Republican Convention proved to be such a flop. Unlike the Romney and McCain conventions, the Trump coronation fully immersed viewers in the swamp of various conservative obsessions, from Benghazi to murderous immigrants to the idea of America as some collapsing Third World nation. And while conservatives ate it up because it confirmed all that they had been taught to believe, it clearly left others scratching their heads and wondering what planet these people occupied.
Charlie Sykes, a very popular conservative talk-radio host in Wisconsin, describes the problem well in a candid interview with Oliver Darcy of Business Insider:
“We’ve basically eliminated any of the referees, the gatekeepers. There’s nobody. Let’s say that Donald Trump basically makes … whatever you want to say, whatever claim he wants to make. And everybody knows it’s a falsehood.
“The big question of my audience, it is impossible for me to say that: ‘By the way, you know it’s false.’ And they’ll say, ‘Why? I saw it on Allen B. West.’ Or they’ll say, ‘I saw it on a Facebook page.’ And I’ll say, ‘The New York Times did a fact check.’ And they’ll say, Oh, that’s The New York Times. That’s bull*#$t.’
There’s nobody — you can’t go to anybody and say, ‘Look, here are the facts.’ And I have to say that’s one of the disorienting realities of this political year. You can be in the alternative media reality and there’s no way to break through it. And I swim upstream because if I don’t say these things from some of these websites, then suddenly I have sold out. Then they’ll ask what’s wrong with me for not repeating these stories that I know not to be true.”
I wrote last week about the fact that even after all of these years, just 27 percent of registered Republicans are willing to admit to pollsters that Barack Obama is a native-born American and thus eligible to be president. Some of those reality-denying Republicans may actually believe that Obama was born in Kenya, but others are responding to the peer pressure described so well by Sykes. To be accepted as a fellow conservative, you often have to pretend to believe nonsense that you know is not true, because challenging it as fiction is grounds for expulsion. And while staying silent in the face of nonsense keeps you a member in good standing within the bubble, it makes you look nuts to those outside it, those whom you have to convince in order to win a majority. No movement can survive that kind of disconnect forever.
Today, let’s take a look at another example of the right wing’s obsessive effort to alter reality to its liking. With Clinton building a strong lead in the polls and a potential landslide in the offing, desperate conservatives need something to cling to, and for many that something has become the belief that Hillary suffers some mysterious health affliction. Their hope is that this suspected brain damage could make it impossible for her to take the oath of office next January, if indeed she even manages to live that long.
The theory has been heavily promoted on Drudge and Breitbart, it has become a mainstay of rightwing bloggers such as Gateway Pundit, and it is championed by Sean Hannity, the resident idgit of Fox News. It is a typical Frankenstein’s monster of lies, patched together from various pieces of speculation and given the spark of life by the sheer intensity of those who want to believe in it.
One of the prime pieces of “evidence” cited by the conspiracy theorists is this snippet of video, shown repeatedly in recent days by Hannity, which supposedly depicts Hillary having some sort of epileptic seizure:
One of the reporters in that clip, Lisa Lerer of the Associated Press (she’s the taller of the female reporters) has since written an account thoroughly debunking the seizure claims. As Lerer describes the moment, Clinton had been hit by an unexpected barrage of shouted questions from reporters at a coffee shop and simply responded to the barrage with an exaggerated expression of surprise, either as an attempt to be funny or as a way to evade answering. Either way, Lerer write, nobody who witnessed it took it as anything out of the ordinary, and she was shocked when the footage emerged two months later as “evidence” of some major epileptic fit.
But as Sykes attests above, such conspiracy theories are impossible to kill with facts. Those who need to believe it will believe it regardless; those who profit from such beliefs will spread and encourage them, regardless of their veracity. Those who know better will be intimidated into silence, lest they be accused of siding with liberals and the mainstream media. And after Clinton wins the election and goes on to serve without health problems, those who today are fully invested in believing this nonsense will be ready to chase after the next piece of shiny fool’s gold that their manipulators offer, never remembering or resenting how many times they’ve been deceived.
One final point: Those who argue that rumors of the GOP’s demise are greatly exaggerated will usually point to the party’s success at the local and state levels as evidence both of its health and of its ability to govern. They have a point. It is also true, however, that politics at the state and local levels is generally free of the type of atrocious myth-making that inflicts the conservative movement nationally, through their highly profitable media outlets and AstroTurf groups. For the most part, governors and state legislators aren’t required to believe impossible things about state politics to get elected at that level; they don’t have to govern on the basis of things that clearly aren’t true.
And in those cases when lower-level Republicans have run aground of reality, it has generally been because they have slipped the surly bonds of pragmatism and tried to import national-level nonsense to the state level. The budget disasters in Kansas and Louisiana are directly attributable to the effort to implement supply-side economics; in North Carolina and Indiana, it was the pursuit of the anti-gay agenda. Here in Georgia, we’ve cost ourselves billions of dollars and tens of thousands of jobs because GOP leaders couldn’t bring themselves to buck their national party’s anti-ObamaCare hysteria, even though the benefits to Georgia of doing so were overwhelming.
The bottom line is that if you believe that conservatism holds the answers to America’s future, then you ought to be able to make that argument to the American people based on facts and ideas that hold up under inspection and that bear at least some relationship to reality. If you are reduced to conspiracy theories, invention and gross exaggerations to defend your ideas, then your ideas are in need of serious rehabilitation.