City lights below, light pollution above. I sip my cocktail—a Necromancer—and reflect on how long it took me to understand what modern conservatism is, and what I can do to help others see what I see. Because I wish someone had been there to show me.
I tell people that I’m not smart, but I read a lot. One reason I don’t feel all that smart is that it took such a long time for me to realize what the modern conservative movement is all about. At first I thought it was about policy, and then I thought it was about fleecing the rubes. Only in the Trump years did I recognize that, as Adam Serwer pointed out, it’s all about inflicting pain.
Perhaps, dear reader, you are like the younger me. When I was younger, I made a good-faith effort to understand the conservative point of view. I familiarized myself with conservative media (e.g., Limbaugh, Fox News), and I probably don’t have to tell readers of this site about the bad-faith arguments being made. Starry-eyed and optimistic as I was, I kept looking for counterarguments I could make. I gave up with conservative media before Obama, before the malice which defines it today really set in. It wasn’t the bad faith that made me give up—it was the advertisements.
Alongside articles and stories that were obvious fabrications, there were ads for obvious con jobs. Get-rich-quick schemes. Penny stocks. Gold investments. Miracle cures. Tax-evading trust funds. The same lack of subtlety present in the false news stories was present in the advertising. It was a few years later that I found Rick Perlstein’s article on the confidence games in the conservative movement. That invaluable article put into words a lot of my unarticulated thoughts and feelings about what I’d seen with my own eyes.
No surprise then, with the elevation of Trump to Party leader, the Party should go from turning a blind eye to confidence games to becoming a confidence game. Trump’s been in the public eye for decades, but in the 21st century one could see his
get-rich-quick stay-rich-if-possible schemes become increasingly desperate. Then there’s the lying. All politicians play fast and loose with the truth, but usually they lie through omission, obfuscation, and spin. Trump’s lies have always been blatant, easy-to-disprove falsehoods. No one could believe his bullshit unless they wanted to.
That, naturally, is the key. No one believes an obvious lie unless they want to believe it. Certainly there are social benefits to believing the same things as other people; sharing a common conviction reinforces individual self-esteem. But most people choose their beliefs based on the actions they want to take. Republicans looking for an excuse to cut taxes found it in supply-side economics. Joe Manchin likes power and his conviction that the filibuster is a good thing gives him the illusion of power. I want to feel smart, so I write Daily Kos diaries and make video essays in the belief I have something to say (and to hold existential dread at bay, but that goes without saying).
But this is the key thing I wish I had recognized years ago: They’re not being conned at all. Or I should say they fall for the cons because they want to be conned. They want to live in a world where there are miracle cures; where they can effortlessly solve their money woes; where there is someone whom they can hold responsible for their troubles. They don’t want to take action against the actual malevolent forces that haunt their lives (hypercapitalism, abusive authority figures, enforced conformity) partly because those forces give their lives structure, but partly because those forces enable them to act with impunity when they are directed in a certain way, at certain targets.
Why would anyone want to believe that liberals and the left want to ban the Bible, burn the flag, nationalize the economy, Stalinize the government, Simonize the cat, trans the kids, and turn the frogs gay? They want to believe the worst of us because they want to hurt us. Trumpists will latch onto any belief that will justify violent action against non-Trumpists. I know I would get pretty violent if someone tried to Simonize my cat.
And that’s why I’m drinking a Necromancer. I’m usually pretty sanguine. I’m the sort of person who gives solace to her friends when troubled times bring them down. But this...it was easy to be optimistic when I thought I could reason with Republicans; when I thought they were being conned by their leaders; when I thought we all wanted a better America. But knowing that their goal is to hurt me and those about whom I care? It’s hard to be optimistic. So if anyone can offer me solace, it would be appreciated.