Venom on the Right

As if students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School did not suffer enough last week! After witnessing 17 fellow students and teachers massacred by an assault rifle-wielding former Douglas HS student, those courageous young people, who have decided to lead a modern Children’s Crusade against America’s love affair with guns, have had to endure despicable sliming at the hands of the right wing. 

Dinesh D’Souza

Read the words of the frequently appalling Dinesh D’Souza belittling the students for expressing disappointment after the Florida State legislature voted down a ban on assault weapons: “Worst news since their parents told them to get summer jobs.” Mocking teenagers whose friends and teachers were gunned down a week earlier! Classy, Dinesh! D’Souza went on to prove that there is no bottom to how low he can sink, tweeting a cynical scorekeeping. “Adults: 1. Kids.0,” before referring to politically orchestrated grief.

Orchestration has been a leitmotif in the denigrating attacks by right wingers, as if 17-year-olds cannot think for themselves. Jack Kingston, a former congressman from Georgia, tweeted, “O really? ‘Students’ are planning a nationwide rally? Not left wing gun control activists using 17yr kids in the wake of a horrible tragedy? #Soros.” (Might as well throw in an anti-Semitic trope while you are at it, Mr. Kingston.) The ever delightful Ted Nugent used Facebook to post— since taken down — that the students are coached actors. And, of course, for arch-conservatives, when all else fails, blame the media, as former Fox News Host Bill O’Reilly did on his website: “Should the media be promoting opinions by teenagers who are in an emotional state and facing extreme peer pressure in some cases? The answer is no, the media should not be doing that.”

David Hogg

Individual students have been subjected to racial and sexist attacks on various anonymous online sites such as 4cahn and Reddit. One Twitter user called the outspoken Emma Gonzalez “a brown bald lesbian girl.” Seventeen-year-old David Hogg has been the butt of various online conspiracy theorists who have called him a “crisis actor.” Part of the reason for the attacks on Hogg is that he proved to be very telegenic and well-spoken. Another part is because his father is a retired FBI agent, which allows conservatives to merge their disapproval of the students with their current dislike of the bureau. 

The attacks on Hogg suggest a reason for right-wing vilification: The students are very effective and sympathetic advocates for gun control, and, as survivors of the massacre, they command attention. Plus, the students channel popular sentiment on the gun issue. Polls show overwhelming public support for at least modest action, such as strengthening background checks and banning assault rifles.

But, the motive behind the vitriol runs deeper, and it is symptomatic of a crisis in American conservatism. In the case of guns, the massacres, especially of children, have become so frequent and common, the death toll so appalling, and the connection between guns and the body count so obvious — the United States is the only country that permits unfettered access to guns and has such tragedies — that there no longer is much argument against gun control. Bereft of rational points, those against gun control are left with only personal attacks and insults.

Ann Coulter

Guns are only one instance of this breakdown of civility on the right. So-called pundits like D’Souza have been trafficking in venom for years. He accused President Barack Obama of seeking to impoverish the United States — really, a president wanting to weaken the country he leads — and claimed Obama was motivated by the Kenyan anti-colonialism of a father he barely knew. Then, there is the always vile Ann Coulter, who once wrote of widows of the 9/11 attacks, “I’ve never seen people enjoy their husbands’ deaths so much.” 

The election of Donald Trump as president is the apotheosis of insults over ideas. It was difficult to detect an idea — let alone a policy pronouncement — in the Trump campaign, but there was a plethora of rage expressed as insults: Mexican rapists, smears of women, mockery of the disabled, attacks on a Gold Star family, chants threatening to lock up his opponent, and so on. Unfortunately, we all lived through it. The handiest way to understand Trump’s triumph is the last gasp of angry old white men (of course, not exclusively that group) unwilling and unable to grasp and accept a United States becoming increasingly diverse racially and liberal toward sexual differences. Throw in an unease over globalization, and what emerges is a prescription for anger — even rage — over thinking.

Such trends in modern America cannot be opposed comfortably with rational argument. That means those who feel left behind must express their unease either by arguments that are inapt or by lashing out. The latter governed the Trump campaign, and both infect modern American conservatism, much of which has adopted the Trumpian insult as its modus operandi. Not all conservatives, to be sure. There are plenty of pundits and analysts on the right who still discuss ideas and who still strive to apply Burkean precepts to understanding the modern world. Such writers and thinkers as Jennifer Rubin, Michael Gerson, George Will, and David Brooks fit this category. What they have in common — and what separates them from their conservative brethren — is their unwillingness to support an unqualified, amoral, and ignorant man as president and the kind of politics he represents.

Trump is not entirely to blame for the evisceration of modern American conservatism. D’Souza and Coulter were vile long before Donald Trump announced his candidacy. But, he represents the triumph of the kind of politics D’Souza, Coulter, and their ilk champion, and, I suspect, Trump will lead conservatism into a political dead end. It would be most unfortunate if that were the case, because I believe the American political system functions best when thoughtful people on the left and right vie in the marketplace of ideas. Well-constructed policies are often the result of the interaction of competing ideas. Rage and insults, however, seldom benefit the body politic.

Posted February 23, 2018

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