I had a pretty good back and forth with an author who wrote the book, Red Fighting Blue: How Geography and Electoral Rules Polarize American Politics. His name is David Hopkins and he also wrote an interesting piece on Vox about right-wing media elites and how they are the ones shaping the contours of GOP politics. I should add that because the GOP basically controls the entire federal government, these media elites are really shaping the contours of American politics. I asked him a simple question (prefaced by a lengthy paragraph): Why are resentment and anger more effective inducements to activism in right-wing politics? I won’t quote his answer because this was a private conversation, but I think paraphrasing is just fine. He said that for starters, most of the media elites on the right aren’t necessarily interested in winning elections or how many bills become law. Being on TV or the radio is a career, and with any career in the media, it’s about maximizing one’s brand through audience growth. If you give the people what they want (resentment, fear, a sense they are being persecuted by outside groups of liberals and the like) it means ad dollars and more money for the host.
That makes a lot of sense. There’s an old adage in radio: “Play the hits.” People like what’s popular and they want to hear those songs over and over. So, in a way if the greatest hits for some on the right is: I hate liberals, I fear terrorists, Mexicans, blacks, feminists, Hillary, and the like, then why wouldn’t you play those hits every day? Why wouldn’t you push that button of anger, resentment, and fear when your audience craves it — and it means a huge pay-day for you? In a way, it’s comforting for people to know who to blame for their problems. It used to be a more conservative view to blame a person’s failings in life on a lack of determination or moral turpitude. Success or failure in life was due in large part to, well, you. Not society, not “social structures,” or other outside forces that can cripple individual or group success. No, it was all you and the boot-strapping character you have. Now, however, if you get your news interpreted for you by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, or Laura Ingraham, it’s clear that they have refashioned the “larger forces” (or structural) view of social, economic, and political problems to fit their audience. No longer are your problems in life the result of your own personal behavior. It’s now the larger forces trying to control you. Take, for example, Rush Limbaugh’s four horsemen of the apocalypse:
“The Four Corners of Deceit: government, academia, science, and media. Those institutions are now corrupt and exist by virtue of deceit. That’s how they promulgate themselves; it is how they prosper.”
Notice these are large organizations? Large, impersonal forces that control you through lies and corruption. They, of course, are not to be trusted. Nothing coming out of those realms will be of any good — except, of course, only if they are controlled by right wingers Limbaugh approves of. This is the use of propaganda to enforce a tribal mentality. We’re not Americans, but rather we’re — like that Frankie Goes to Hollywood song — two tribes made up of real Americans and America haters. All of your problems in life are due to the America haters forcing their agenda on real Americans.
It’s not you, it’s them.
It’s not like we haven’t been down this road many times in history. It just seems more amplified and extreme today because the echo chambers and megaphones are much more powerful. So, to circle back to the question that started this post, there’s a complex answer, and a more basic one. Since the complex answer would best be written up in a lengthy article or book, the basic one will suffice for a blog post.
The New York Times and Vox both ran pieces on Trump support among aggrieved whites and Christian conservatives. For aggrieved whites who take part in behavior like coal rolling, it’s about believing the propaganda that Others are taking away your way of life, and so you fight back because it’s a zero-sum world of haves and have-nots, of team sports, and tribal politics. For Christian conservatives, they are certainly not immune to the trappings of tribal politics, but because they believe themselves to be on the side of right (as in correct), they want to be seen as good. Voting for Trump meant that he and his movement were, at bottom, about goodness. And anything that takes away from that goodness is labeled “fake news” or waved away with the phrase “the other side is worse.” This creates a shield from which the most, um, deplorable, illegal, and unethical behavior coming out of the Executive Branch corrodes the central Christian dictums of honesty, propriety, loving enemies, and blessing those who persecute us. In other words, you don’t succumb to the trap of seeing “the other side” as evil and not fully human. Rather, you see them as your brothers and sisters; as citizens whose opposing views aren’t a threat, but opportunities for understanding, compromise (if we’re talking about government), and tolerance.
* My mother in-law used to say this about using common sense instead of doing something stupid that leads to tragic results.