Since the New Deal, conservatives in the US have tried to turn the clock back on what they view as an illegitimate encroachment of the Federal government into state and local affairs — just as they were trying to turn back the clock on slavery during the Civil War. Any kind of consensus about a liberal world order seemed to have occurred (albeit briefly) after WWII. The liberal order was one that kept fascism from gaining power in Europe. The US — with help from other allies — contained Soviet socialism from expanding. If the Cold War taught us anything, it wasn’t as cold as the title suggests. Hot wars in many parts of the globe erupted in areas of the African continent, Southeast Asia, South America, and Central America. The US was certainly at the front of many Cold War campaigns like overthrowing governments, fomenting coups, using propaganda to stir up ethnic tensions, supplying military equipment, and even sending our own soldiers to fight against the communist threat on our economic interests. Call that sketch the sordid side of the liberal order. The other, more positive side, was one that enacted and codified laws to right a lopsided view of liberty and equality. For women, ethnic minorities, and gays, successful legal challenges have paved the way for a more inclusive society. The rebellion against “straight” society in the ’60s with music, art, drugs, and lifestyles that differed from the generation before was an expression of a liberal order. One that valued individual pursuits of “happiness” in the culture while reinforcing the rights of those pursuits through a legal framework to protect those liberties. Of course, it’s not all peace, love, and understanding.
Back when I was in graduate school, I read a book called The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s by Allen J. Matusow and Richard B. Morris. The book was a long history of the 1960s, and while the authors covered in great detail how old line liberalism was on the ropes by the end of the ’60s, they identify some central elements that led to its unraveling. During the Cold War, many conservatives in the US were united with liberals to defeat the threat Soviet communism posed to the US, its economic interests, and its allies. There was a deal that whatever differences these two groups had, they were on the same page when it came to their hatred for communism. For some conservatives the Cold War meant two things: Fighting communism abroad and liberalism at home. That may sound simple, but its proven to be an accurate view of why the US in 2017 seems on the verge of splitting along tribal lines. Or to used the title of another book about the long shadow of the 1960s and multiculturalism, we’re seeing the disuniting of America.
We tend to fight the last war, and so it goes with the war on liberalism. The 1960s were certainly a watershed moment in social and political change for the left and right. It’s not uncommon to see people who were once left-wing activists — who hated the liberal order because of Vietnam and lack of progress on Civil Rights — later become bomb throwers who thought an attack on the liberal order from the right would be more effective since, well, rarely do right-wingers get their movements smashed by the FBI, local police, and the political establishment. And they were right. As long as the enemy is seen as “socialism lite,” it’s all well and good to be a right-wing radical for the cause — a cause that could also lead to a huge pay day if that venom is packaged right for the seething masses on TV, radio, or the Internet.
Media manipulation of people — either through hardline propaganda or softer forms like advertising, movies, music, and TV shows — has proven to be a very powerful thing. We like to think we’re rational, independent thinking beings able to take a sober look at the facts and come to our own conclusions. But that’s an ideal that rarely occurs. In reality — and to quote another pop cultural reference from The X-Files — we want to believe. Belief is a thing that’s not entirely rational, but operates on an emotional plane that gives one a visceral feeling of what’s right and wrong. If someone you admire — or look to as an authority figure — says things that are demonstrably false, you may question what’s said with less passion than if a falsehood is uttered by someone you don’t admire or see as any kind of authority. In other words, belief is ripe for self-selection and manipulation. Another thing is because belief is so tied to emotion, admitting to believing a lie can mean feeling like a loser, sucker, or dupe. No one wants to admit they are wrong, so it’s easier to cling to the lie so one doesn’t have to go through feelings of shame, anger, and resentment about believing a fiction. The current President of the United States knows this. In Billy Bush’s op-ed piece in the New York Times about the Access Hollywood recording of Trump talking about his ability to commit sexual assault with impunity, he noted the following:
The man…once told me — ironically, in another off-camera conversation — after I called him out for inflating his ratings: “People will just believe you. You just tell them and they believe you.”
In short, the power of celebrity — coupled with the ability to manipulate — is a potent combination for a willing mass wanting to believe their prejudices are unimpeachable. So what does all this have to do with why the right hates liberalism? Well, after being conditioned by a steady stream of media that confirms belief, we’ve come to a point where some Americans who have benefited from the liberal order are willing to agree with those who say liberalism (and Democrats by extension) is the enemy; that it’s an “Other” threatening everything they hold dear. And the only way to free ourselves from rights, liberties, and equality of opportunities for every person is to destroy the very thing that gave rise to it. What do the anti-liberals want? Well, if we are to believe Steve Bannon and his ilk, they want a kind of revolution both in the GOP and to rid Washington D.C. of Democrats:
We don’t believe there is a functional conservative party in this country…[the new movement is] going to be an insurgent, center-right populist movement that is virulently anti-establishment, and it’s going to continue to hammer this city, both the progressive left and the institutional Republican Party.
There’s also an unproven quote from Bannon that Snopes was unable to verify, but was supposedly said by Bannon to writer Ronald Radosh in 2013 at a party: “I’m a Leninist…Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” Now, Bannon said in an email to Radosh that he doesn’t remember saying that or meeting him at a party, so for now it’s hearsay. But Bannon isn’t the only one to play this tune. Rush Limbaugh in 2013 distilled his disdain for the liberal order through his “Four Corners of Deceit” — which centers on government, academia, science, and the media. These are the structures that exert tremendous power to shape opinion — and, of course, only Rush and his compatriots expose the lies coming from these “Corners of Deceit” and point listeners to the truth.
Most of the people in this group of conservatives do want to “go back” to another time. They want to actively reverse the gains made by women, minorities, and gays. Making America Great Again is a retrograde revolution to return the United States to a condition that is seen as legitimate and pure. When exactly was that period? Well, it varies, but it seems to be the 1950s — the exact moment when the liberal order was ascending in power. Ironic, huh. Well, not entirely. The 1950s were also a time when the federal, state, and local governments in the US were able to contain the very groups who would later gain rights in the 60s and 70s. Many white women were stay-at-home moms whose “sphere” was mostly domestic — with divorce proceedings being extremely difficult to start if one was in a horrible marriage. If white women worked, they had limited opportunities to make a living. Blacks were relegated to low-level service work and were (sometimes violently) segregated physically and politically. Gays were closeted and expressions of sexuality and love were illegal and punishable with imprisonment and electroshock therapy. Ethnic groups from non-Northern European countries were limited by severe quotas imposed by immigration policy. The only group in the US given opportunities to pursue “happiness” without limits were white males.
The right likes to talk about how the left uses social engineering to achieve results favoring certain groups who could not succeed on their own merits. Well, if you look at the way social engineering favored white males for decades, the same critique the right levels at the left would have to apply to white males as well. This critique, however, is actually counterproductive to uniting disparate groups who are being kept apart because it’s politically advantageous to do so by those in power. Getting beyond tribalism is not easy. Commonalities we share are often blocked by emotional prejudices — which are reinforced by the media we consume. And often messages we get from media sources, from politicians, and from other “authorities” speak only zero-sum terms. It’s “us” vs “them.” A win for “them” is a loss for “us.” Therefore, we hate them because when “they” win, “we” lose. That simple dualistic view is part of what fuels the rage at the “Other” and further erodes the foundations of liberalism that is supposed to bind us communally while granting us the freedom to pursue that which makes us happy as individuals.