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Zaki Hasan Headshot

The Right Wing Tilt Toward Mass Hysteria

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It seems that, even after becoming a national punchline and getting soundly schooled by President Obama himself at last year's White House Correspondents' Dinner, Donald Trump has yet to give up on the right wing fever dream that the president wasn't born in this country. Of course, Trump being Trump, we kind of know the score with him. With an ego that big, the idea of admitting a mistake isn't really on the table, especially after the way he went all-in and crowned himself Birther King, so the only path forward was to double-down, which he dutifully did in an interview with The Daily Beast.

For me, with Trump, as with Limbaugh, as with Beck, as with Hannity, and as with all of their ilk, it's really less about what they're saying than the fact that people are listening. Most of the talking head spectrum, right or left, has an investment in portraying themselves as the last bastons of the One Great Truth. That's how ratings work. I get it. But what about the politicians whose job isn't to rile people up against each other, but rather to actually work with folks they disagree with and get stuff done? What's their excuse? That's what came to mind when I saw that (presumed) Republican nominee Mitt Romney is attending Trump's fundraiser, passing up yet another chance to take a principled stand against his party's fringiest fringe.

"Obama is Kenyan." "Obama is Muslim." "Obama is a Socialist." Obama is anything that can cast him -- and, by extension, those who supported him -- as the "other," so folks on the far right can cling to the idea that no, we didn't elect a president they disagree with, we elected an illegitimate president. The system is wrong, not them. It's reactionism instead of reason. When we're able to shut out and "otherize" people, putting them and their views in a little box we don't have to acknowledge, the less compelled we are to solve our problems together. When the starting point of a conversation is calling the other side "demons" or "traitors" or "Communists," how can understanding even enter into the equation?

And yes, for the sake of fairness here, a lot of hot air does come from some in the so-called professional left. But let's also not kid ourselves about which side of the parisan divide the vast majority of vitriol emanates from. This is the same conclusion that Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein reached in a piece I linked to earlier this month, and it's also the conclusion arrived at by Michael Fumento, a Republican and former Reagan official now ostracized by his own party (much the same way former Bush speechwriter David Frum, another erudite and nuanced voice for the right, has been) thanks to its ever-increasing emphasis on hysterics and hysteria. Says Fumento for Salon:

Civility and respect for order -- nay, demand for order -- have always been tenets of conservatism. The most prominent work of history's most prominent conservative, Edmund Burke, was a reaction to the anger and hatred that swept France during the revolution. It would eventually rip the country apart and plunge all of Europe into decades of war. Such is the rotted fruit of mass-produced hate and rage. Burke, not incidentally, was a true Tea Party supporter, risking everything as a member of Parliament to support the rebellion in the United States.

All of today's right-wing darlings got there by mastering what Burke feared most: screaming "J'accuse! J'accuse!" Turning people against each other. Taking seeds of fear, anger and hatred and planting them to grow a new crop.

What we've seen in the last few years is the gradual and systematic transformation of the far right's pundit class into the mainstream right's elected class. Congressional representatives like Allen West, Michele Bachmann, Louie Gohmert, Joe "You lie!" Wilson and far too many others to properly enumerate, all of whom promote a kind of hysterical, fact-free dogmatism, have led us down the path to a kind of gridlock that's unprecedented in our system of governance. When you see the way things are now, and start looking at how things might get down the road, it gets pretty freaking terrifying. Worse, I don't know what the solution is. As Fumento says later in the piece:

...the right-wing mass hysteria is what sociologists call a "moral panic." It occurs when a society is undergoing a wrenching transformation. Somebody then comes along and creates a "folk devil" both to provide an explanation for bad conditions, real or imagined, and a target. Kill the devil; eliminate the bad conditions. But the right has no serious incentive to help solve or ameliorate these problems. Indeed, as with the reelection of Obama, it will benefit from their continuation or worsening.

In other words, strap yourself in, hold on tight, and expect to get some slop on you, because things are likely to get a whole lot worse before they have even a prayer of getting better. Great.

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