The Republican Party and its right-wing allies are incapable of governing. They have no policy principles other than a knee-jerk rejection of the policies of the opposing party; indeed, of all this country’s traditional notions of governance.
They have a secret sauce, however, that keeps them competitive: fanatically “on-message” propaganda. They consider no lie too preposterous, will blithely contradict what they said only a month before, and will radically simplify their slogans to suit a dumbed-down social environment of mass ignorance and memories measured in nanoseconds.
In this, they follow the precepts of Joseph Goebbels:
“The rank and file are usually much more primitive than we imagine. Propaganda must therefore always be essentially simple and repetitive. In the long run, basic results in influencing public opinion will be achieved only by the man who is able to reduce problems to the simplest terms and who has the courage to keep forever repeating them in this simplified form, despite the objections of the intellectuals.”
But lacking—so far—total state control over the media, Republicans employ the simple expedient of using AstroTurfed street theater to hijack our free press for propaganda purposes.
In the standard prestige media presentation, the “spontaneous” protestors against COVID-19 restrictions in Michigan and elsewhere are presented thus: those salt-of-the-earth working folk, battered by economic hardship, who just want their jobs back. However misguided, their motives generally aren’t questioned. Wrong.
Who could have imagined that among them were neo-Nazis, Proud Boys, Confederates, NRA extremists, anti-vaxxer lunatics, and other members of central casting’s gallery of Concerned Citizens, and that the whole theater of the absurd was funded in part by Koch Industries and a Trump cabinet member, Betsy DeVos? Why does it take a British newspaper to make that clear?
These all-too-convenient disturbances at a time of Trump’s plummeting favorability overwhelmingly resemble the “totally-not-connected-to-the-GOP” Tea Party demonstrations that “spontaneously” irrupted in 2009 to stymie Obamacare, showcasing the protesters’ humanitarian concern over the so-called death panels that Obama, the Kenyan Muslim, would impose in Stalinesque fashion. That particular puppet show was ignited by CNBC’s professional ranter Rick Santelli and largely financed by the Koch brothers.
Street theater was pioneered by of the New Left in the 1960s, but since the “Brooks Brothers riot” following the disputed presidential election of 1980 it has become a mainstay of AstroTurf movements inspired by the GOP and funded by corporate moguls. These plutocrats operate on the principle attributed to 19th century robber baron Jay Gould: “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.”
Trump’s encouragement of the demonstrators is even more bizarre than commonly depicted. Past examples—Lincoln, Eisenhower in Little Rock, Kennedy in Mississippi, etc.—represented the national head of government reining in states seeking to secede by armed insurrection or denying constitutional rights to citizens.
This is a unique case: the head of our national government egging on residents of the states to illegally impede their governors from carrying out their lawful, necessary, and proper functions to maintain public safety in a health emergency. So much for “federalism” under the GOP! I’m sure we’ll see the Federalist Society argue that Trump’s tweets are the most sagacious exegesis of proper federal-state relations since Madison’s commentaries: “You’re on your own, governors, until you actually do something. Then I’ll incite criminal elements in your states against you!”
In other comparable circumstances, endangering human life (such as blocking hospital entrances and endangering the health of innocent passersby) in order politically to coerce the government could be treated as an act of terrorism under the U.S. Code and prosecuted accordingly, particularly as the country is under a national emergency. Koch or DeVos could be prosecuted under applicable terrorist funding prohibitions in the Patriot Act.
(Author’s note: I have learned from personal experience the skittishness of the prestige media’s legal departments when such issues arise. Do you want to note the existence of neo-Nazis exploiting the crisis, their ideological affinity with the Proud Boys (a feature at the protests), and suggest the latter’s connections with the Republicans? Impossible! Or make a plain reading of Patriot Act to imply that the Kochs and DeVoses could be liable? Pass the smelling salts!).
Republican street theater, maybe even (or perhaps especially) when it threatens public safety or human decency, works like catnip to the mainstream media, who invariably trot out their prefabricated clichés about “economic anxiety.”
Honorable exceptions apart, the big media have done an execrable job on this issue, barely even attempting to understand the real motives of the rent-a-mob. Instead, they accept without comment the well-worn slogans like “freedom” and “government tyranny” that the protesters have been programmed with by FreedomWorks. When grocery clerks and nurses are terrified by the choice of work versus possible death or debilitation, the “economic anxiety” and “personal liberty” shticks might bear critical scrutiny.
Predictably, some churches of a lunatic persuasion are suing to obtain exemption under the first amendment from state orders banning mass gatherings. This amounts to privileging above all other claims an assertion of religious conscience (which, as John Oliver has shown, is ridiculously easy to obtain tax-free government recognition for) in order to receive immunity from obeying generally applicable laws and orders. In this case, it pertains to public health and safety (and potentially to endangerment of minors if they’re dragged to a megachurch).
What kind of legal exemptions will they want next? But press coverage usually demonstrates the traditional kid gloves approach towards “faith.”
To conclude on a more droll, but equally revealing note, The Washington Post featured a piece noting the resemblance in a news photo of demonstrators at protests in Columbus, Ohio, to a scene from a zombie movie. In approved Style Section manner, it invoked all the right pop culture references and allusions to aesthetic framing, but carefully omitted mentioning how zombie-like behavior might be related to what politics in America has become, or as a reflection on demonstrators’ alleged cause. It resembles someone professionally reviewing George Orwell’s 1984 as if it were escapist fiction totally disconnected from political allegory.
Mike Lofgren is a former congressional staff member who served on both the House and Senate budget committees. His books include: “The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government“ and “The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted.”