Blogging during the Trump administration is not easy for the low energy. I have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and where can I spend my energy? On a ridiculously stupid ban on people from majority Muslim countries? On "no one knew health care was so complicated?" On "although we Republicans refused to hold so much as a hearing on a Democratic nominee to the Supreme Court, the Democrats are being partisan for filibustering a man who said it's okay to fire someone who took action to save his life, rather than needlessly die to protect company property"?
What hurt me so badly about the election was not that Hillary Clinton lost - it was that it showed that some of the worst people in the world, doing some of the worst things in the world, could be rewarded for those things. And it's hard to explain that without the benefit of history.
So let me try to tell you a story. If you're a left-leaning person like me, you probably won't learn anything explicitly new. If you're a right leaning person, I'm not going to ask you to trust me implicitly, but I'll ask you to do me a favor.
I want you to try to think about whether what I say is reasonable. Could it fit? Not "do you agree", just, could you make this fit? Once you're doing that, once you're actually thinking critically, I think you'll agree with me more than before.
Oh, right, and if you don't just lean right, but are a hard-core rightwinger... why bother? If you haven't engaged your brain yet, it ain't likely to happen. But I won't kick you out if you're polite.
Okay: what's the history I want to relate?
It starts in the 80s with Ronald Reagan. What did he do? Why is he revered so much? A lot of people think it's that he made this big cut in taxes, and was President over huge amounts of economic growth. Well, that's an important part of the myth (and like many myths, it's not well supported by reality), but the biggest thing he did was he put a lot of ideas into the open. Before, if you talked about welfare queens, people would tut-tut and say that you're heartless. But he would talk about it, and he'd be friendly and seem perfectly reasonable, and sound like a fine, upstanding person... while pushing a narrative that was mostly fiction centered around a single case of fraud.
With Reagan in office, people would talk happily about trying to help the rich, and slagging the poor (welfare queens and lazy bums) and because he was President at the end of a long set of interest rate increases intended to break the back of inflation, the GOP could pretend that their "supply side economics" was a roaring success.
The Republicans have been the party of the rich for a long time - but now they could just flat out announce that they wanted to cut taxes on the rich, and slash worker, environmental, and anti-trust protections and it was a winning message, because St. Ron was leading the way. This is important... but let's take a detour.
In addition, Ronald Reagan was great at dog whistling - he could cheerfully speak in code that sounded to the ordinary person, like it was just common sense, but sounded to others like he was in agreement with them. This was in line with his endorsement by the Moral Majority, which is perhaps the original "dog whistle" group. The drive to mix religion with politics occurred most strongly as religion was being pulled from education. Students couldn't be forced the pray (because that would be the state establishing religion), and were taught actual science (even if you believe the Abrahamic creation myth, the science still points to evolution, and therefore should be taught as science), and those annoyed people, but then some Christian universities were told that they couldn't enact racist policies and still receive federal funding.
What's important to understand about this is that, for a great many years, Protestant Christian sects believed that the bible was clear on abortion: it was not murder, especially among fundamentalists. This wasn't really a question; sure, Catholics thought abortion violated the "thou shalt not kill" commandment, but only a few lone voices thought that abortion was wrong, much less murder.
This changed with the Moral Majority, and now, you won't find many public faces of Christians - especially evangelicals - who aren't taught that abortion is murder. Well - but don't interpretations change, sometimes? Kind of... but the reason Fundamentalists said abortion wasn't murder was that it was spelled out in Biblical law: kill a pregnant woman, you die, for committing murder; make her miscarry, you don't. They now say it isn't murder by weaving together various bits of the bible, and insisting that their original belief about the law was mistaken.
This happened as the Moral Majority was being formed and taking its first steps. Which, interestingly, happened just after Christian colleges were being told they couldn't be racist. One might suspect that "we can't keep blacks out" or even "we can't keep blacks and whites from dating" was just not a good rallying point, but "we must stop the murder of innocent babies!" was a good rallying point, and that was the reason for the change.
But gosh, when people are discussing deeply held religious beliefs, should we be so suspicious? It's rude to question people's beliefs, because, gosh, doesn't everyone who cherishes religion have an oddball belief or two?
What if it was a naked attempt to game civility and respect? What if they invented that belief as a good rallying point, knowing that it made a good rallying cry, and knowing they could hide behind a shield of "you must respect my Deeply Held Beliefs!!!" if someone pointed out the naked opportunism?
It's still used today, you know: people are glad to say that abortion is murder. This is a big deal - it really matters! It matters because there is one clear, shining star in Western jurisprudence: a small harm may be performed to prevent a greater one. If one believes abortion is murder, one either believes that it's not okay to use violence to prevent murder, or, believes that violence is okay to prevent abortion. And yet, one doesn't have to say either, they just have to say "I have a deep reverence for human life, at all stages" and then bemoan the lack of civility of those who point out the obvious implications.
So: in the 80s, the Republicans found that you needed a shiny spokesperson, who could glibly discuss helping the rich, and they'd started finding ways to separate the clear implications of their statements from the statements themselves.
This, alas, is politics in a democratic society. People will find a way to market messages, and do so with no real respect for honesty. But this was also a time when a particular choice was made. At this point, a big part of the Republican faithful was now openly calling their opposition supporters of murder.
As the 80s wound down, so too did the economy, and ordinary people were now starting to hurt, and with good reason. Lower tax rates make workers more expensive. You see, a company gets to deduct wages for workers from their bottom line before paying taxes. When the tax rate is 70%, a worker costs half as much as when the tax rate is 40%. When each worker is taking twice as big a bite from the money you take home, you want fewer workers!
It also made predatory capitalism more valuable. There might be a way to engage in a hostile takeover of a company, and squeeze money out of it. But if the tax rate is too high, the actual return is too low, and people are less willing to take risks with the costs of the initial takover. But when the tax rates are lower, there are more, and bigger, risks a person might take, because there are more, and bigger, rewards to be taken.
By the end of the 80s, it was no longer as possible to cheerlead for the rich. Oh, there were still some attempts - "if you don't like the rich, next time you want a job, go ask a poor person!" would get tossed around, but while a person wouldn't be shamed for saying it, it was no longer a way to look better and smarter than your opponent. And worse, Bill Clinton had defeated Republican President George Bush I, and the Democrats controlled Congress, so the Republicans were out of power.
But another thing was happening at the end of the 80s. Rush Limbaugh had become popular. Rush Limbaugh was billed as an entertainer, and his schtick was to throw out conservative talking points taken to extremes and to harsh on liberals and liberal ideas, with a claim that he's just kidding, don't be so serious, it's just *entertainment*. Remember, while this is happening, we've already got a Republican bloc cheerfully accusing their opposition of supporting murder of innocent babies!
I'm not sure which is cause and which is effect, but with these two factors operating in tandem, there was no longer any real outrage that could be summoned. If someone is famous for saying something foolish, or nasty, day after day, and someone else says it, well, now it's old news, don't be so naive as to think this is shocking. And if someone is saying that liberals are trying to enslave society through taxation and regulation, well, they're already supporters of murder of innocent babies, right? And that's when Newt Gingrich decided to engineer a takeover of Congress.
Newt was the political equivalent of Rush Limbaugh. Rush found that it didn't matter what you said, so long as you billed it as entertainment. Newt realized that this could be dialed up a notch. If it doesn't matter if you call liberals baby-killers or would-be slavers, or economic overlords, then why not pump up the rhetoric, and the volume? Not just for himself - but for Republicans in general?
Newt's GOPAC memo is quite famous by now; if you haven't heard of it, it's when he said that one should use language to differentiate themselves from their opponent. For example, describe yourself as "pro-family" and describe your opponent as "anti-family".
Why? Because you're going to vote in favor of things that help families? Of course not! Because people want to vote for someone who says they'll help families. Okay, but you should only call your opponent anti-family if they're trying to hurt families, right? Uh... no, you seem to be missing the point here! You call yourself "pro-family" because people want to vote for someone who is "pro-family" and you call your opponent "anti-family" because people might want to vote against someone who is anti-family. Duh!
Remember: liberals are already supporting murder! Now, if a Democrat is supporting four weeks of unpaid leave for employees with family medical issues, and only for companies that have more than 500 workers, while the Republicans are rejecting any sort of job protections - go ahead and fire someone who's ten minutes late for work because they couldn't juggle their infant's chemotherapy schedule enough to get to work precisely on time - the Democrat is "anti-family, and strangling employers with harmful regulations" but the Republican is "pro-family and pro-business".
This is important to understand: if Newt, and only Newt, was doing this, he'd be singled out as a toxic individual. If he, and 20% of the Republican caucus did this, they'd be called extremists. But if he, and 80% of the Republicans agree on these things, now it's a mainstream belief. And sure, it's nasty, but, hey, politics ain't beanbag!
This is a key component to the issue. There's a known logical fallacy, argumentum ad populum - an idea is right because a lot of people believe it. Most people understand this - they know that if everyone claims the emperor is clothed, but is clearly naked, reality trumps what people say. The thing is - what if everyone says that the emperor was wearing a fine suit of clothes, too elegant to be described, and you weren't there? You'd probably assume the emperor was dressed in fine clothes. Why would so many people say something if it wasn't true?
This gets even better when it comes to beliefs, right? Because I'm the only person who can tell you what's in my mind. If I tell you I think a 2.3% excise tax on medical devices is destroying American jobs, you have no way to prove I don't believe that. You can think it's a dumb idea, unsupported by evidence, and you might think that I'm far too competent not to notice there's no evidence that it's happening, but... you can't exactly prove whether or not I think a 2.3% excise tax is killing jobs.
So: if enough people profess to believe that Democrats, and liberals, are literally destroying America and American values, no one can say that they're just a bunch of bullshitters, playing a nakedly transparent game to win political power.
Going to war is always popular, and this particular war was very popular. Republicans picked up control of Congress. And if it had ended there, the world might be a very different place... but it didn't.
At this point, with a huge success brought about by going on full-out offense on Democrats, the next step was obvious: keep going. If a single season of attacks yielded control of the Congress, couldn't continued attacks win them more?
At this point, it doesn't really matter what they said, so long as they all said it in unison, and so long as they could find some way of translating into a soundbite. Like, they want to make sure that people who work 31 hours a week won't obligate employers to give them insurance - so the propose a bill that says "if you don't work 40 hours each week, your employer doesn't have to care about whether you have health insurance or not" and they say they're "bringing back the 40 hour workweek!" Of course, the "anti-jobs, anti-family" Democrats would oppose this, but it's hard to argue against "the 40 hour workweek".
The attacks worked - or, if they didn't always work, they seemed to help. So they continued.
Okay, but, hey, am I not now laying a lot of blame on just the Republicans here? Isn't electoral politics inherently nasty? And wouldn't Democrats be just as corrupt if they had the opportunity? And, really, don't both sides do similar things?
This is one of the best bits of cover the Republican party has. It's true: electoral politics is nasty, and it's pretty inherent in any democratic system. And yes, people are corruptible, and if there's enough money and power, there will be people who are corrupted by both. And yes, both sides will use all the tools they have available.
But the Republican Party has had to keep upping the stakes to keep blood hot and rage fresh. Such as?
Well, "Bathroom bills" are a great example. Republicans want to make it illegal for transgender people to use public bathrooms that conform to how they present. A person has an F on their birth certificate, and has started living as a man, and taking testosterone, and sporting a full beard... they want this person to choose between walking into the ladies' room (causing no end of fuss) or walking into the men's room, and facing arrest if anyone knows they're trans. You can swap the sexes if you like, too.
A good "conservative" would call this a ridiculous intrusion into private life, and say that it's a solution in search of a problem. What are people afraid a person will do in a public restroom, that isn't already punishable under the law?
Ah, but transgender people aren't very common, and their cause isn't very popular, you see. And liberals are going to point out that this isn't fair, and it isn't justice, and it should be fought. And so they can be painted as trying to let pervy men into the ladies' room with your daughters!
Similarly, if you recall, it was none other than beloved icon Ronald Reagan who signed a treaty agreeing not to torture... but once George W. decided that "playing rough" was better than "playing smart" it was another great wedge issue. Although it's completely non-rational, it plays into saying that the Republicans are strong and nasty and can win wars, while Democrats are too weak to do so.
So Republicans have been having to take on ever more extreme positions to stake out territory over Democrats. But you can't just stake out these positions to win elections - if you don't start harshing on Democrats for hating torture early, it's going to sound crazy when you bring it up during election season! So these attacks have been going on, to the point that now, 20+ years after this whole mess started, you have people who know no other way.
You have people who grew into political adulthood being told, and believing, that liberals are evil, anti-family, anti-religion, pro-tax, pro-regulation, pro-baby-murdering. You have people who grew into political adulthood thinking Muslims were evil terrorists, and torture was a necessary part of warfare, that people would voluntarily label themselves as another gender to be able to use public restrooms of the opposite sex, etc.. You have people who saw Republican leadership smugly say that it was good to question whether President Obama had been born in the US even though they knew damn well he was. You have people who saw Republican leadership gleefully slime a good man with a brain damaged wife, just to have the chance to ask why liberals wanted this poor woman to die (never mentioning the woman's clearly stated wishes to be allowed ot die in such circumstances).
And now, you have partisans who are experienced prosecutors, who will even push lies claiming that their opponents are criminals - knowing full well they're slandering an innocent person, and using the power of law enforcement to do so.
That's the history - Republicans started as the party of the rich, and found their hero in someone who let them smugly talk about being the party of the rich. When that started working, they'd already had a custom made base of people to help fan the flames of hatred at Democrats. This has gone on so long, that the hatred of Democrats seems so natural and obvious that even some of the most outrageous of behaviors are considered acceptable.
And they can get away with it too... if people had made up criminal charges out of a trumped up legal investigation over a partisan witch hunt intended to cripple an opponent back in the 80s or 90s, it would have been front page news. But now, it's normal; worst case, it's "red meat for the base" - you know, they're not really doing this because they want to, but because they have to excite their base, and both sides do that!
They've been doing this for so long, and finding good ways to cover what they do with sound bites, that when Donald Trump showed up, he was pretty immune to them. He out-Republicaned them, and since he was saying the same things, working the same sound bites, if they dared attack him by pointing out he was a bullshitter, they had to acknowledge that they were bullshitting all along too.
Of course, for those who've grown up in this toxic stew, they might not even know he's bullshitting - because it does sound reasonable, from the principles Republicans had campaigned on for years.
And now, we have today. Most people oppose Trump, but the Republican faithful still support him. And the best case is, after causing huge amounts of damage, his basic incompetence causes a disaster that shows the GOP's platform is nothing but a house of cards. The worst case is? Things keep evolving as they are now. And I'll go into that in another post.