Opinion

The question we need to ask the American right

'What is it you want permission to do?'

Listening to the right describe American reality today is a little like overhearing a mid-level military commander preparing a battalion for an upcoming fight to the death with a ruthless enemy: The stakes are enormous. The other side is incredibly powerful. They seek nothing less than to destroy us, and they'll succeed if we don't destroy them first. Our own self-preservation requires nothing short of total victory — by any means possible.

This venom spews forth from our car radios, primetime cable news broadcasts, partisan websites, and the mouths of elected officials, setting a tawdry, unedifying tone for our public life. We've grown so accustomed to the hyperbole that it barely makes an impression.

Yet, as Matthew Sitman and Sam Adler-Bell have frequently suggested on their consistently excellent podcast about the American right, "Know Your Enemy," we need to pay attention to such talk and learn to interrogate it. More specifically, we need to confront it with a crucially important question:

What exactly is the American right giving itself permission to do?

The question is important because it highlights the political function of such hyperbolic rhetoric and suggests, quite rightly, that its ultimate aim is to provide a permission structure for future action. 

But there's another question to answer first: What does the right allege? Consider what David Brooks recounts in a recent essay in The Atlantic about last month's National Conservatism Conference.

At the gathering in Orlando, Florida, Brooks reports, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley (R) claimed "the left's ambition is to create a world beyond belonging," that its "grand ambition is to deconstruct the United States of America," and that "the deconstruction of America depends on the deconstruction of American men."

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R) went further, suggesting "the left hates America" and uses "culture as a tool to destroy America." But not just culture. "We've seen Big Business, the Fortune 500, becoming the economic enforcers of the hard left," he said, and this very much includes Big Tech, which is "malevolent," "corrupt," and "omnipresent."

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R) reinforced the indictment, insisting that "Big Business is not our ally" in confronting "a systematic effort to dismantle our society, our traditions, our economy, and our way of life."

All of it got distilled and amplified in the speech by Rachel Bovard, the policy director of the Conservative Partnership Institute, who received an ovation for a speech that denounced progressivism as "an old boys' club, ... [and a] frat house for entitled rich kids contrived to perpetuate their unearned privilege." She went on to describe the assembly's political enemies as a "totalitarian cult of billionaires and bureaucrats, of privilege perpetuated by bullying, empowered by the most sophisticated surveillance and communications technologies in history, and limited only by the scruples of people who arrest rape victims' fathers, declare math to be white supremacist, finance ethnic cleansing in western China, and who partied, a mile high, on Jeffrey Epstein's Lolita Express."

So, in sum: The right believes that the progressive left hates America; that it is an evil totalitarian cult which has infiltrated every institution; and that it is using a mix of business, bullying, and technological surveillance to deconstruct both masculinity and the United States as a whole in order to create a world without belonging.

If you believed this was true, what would you be prepared to do to stop it?

One suggestion, which Brooks mentions in passing in his essay, is that such hype actually has a retrospective purpose — to justify past and present support for former President Donald Trump among people (like Cruz and Rubio) who once took a stand against him. Such support wouldn't be necessary if the progressive threat wasn't so dire, the argument goes. But because it is, good, patriotic Americans have no choice but to rally around the most tireless and relentless fighter, who just so happens to be the former president and frontrunner for the 2024 GOP nomination.

But of course, those sounding the alarm about incipient progressive totalitarianism aren't merely making a case for having supported Trump through most his presidency. They're also justifying his actions during the period following his defeat in the 2020 election — including his efforts to discredit the results of that election, his encouragement of plans to declare a national emergency to delay President Biden's inauguration, and his incitement of the insurrection of Jan. 6 using a torrent of discredited lies and conspiracies.

What excuses such unconscionable behavior? Why, of course, the threat posed by the other side. Yes, attempting to overturn a free and fair election sounds bad. But what about those using tech platforms and American capitalism itself to impose a new woke orthodoxy on the American people? Surely we can't let that happen!

Though even this is too focused on the past. Threat inflation about the left is most dangerous when it serves to excuse any number of future actions. As Greg Sargent notes in The Washington Post, former Trump administration official Steve Bannon has been using his "War Room" podcast to outflank his former boss on the far right, accusing him of backing an insufficiently radical candidate (David Perdue) to challenge the re-election bid of Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R), who refused to go along with Trump's effort a year ago to toss out Biden's narrow victory in the state. Bannon would prefer a candidate who will forthrightly deny the "legitimacy" of the Biden "regime," thereby spreading the message throughout the Republican ranks that gaining and holding political power may require going outside the democratic process altogether.

And that makes perfect sense within the world as he believes it to be. If your political opponents are poised to stomp you into the ground and destroy you, aren't you entitled to do whatever you can to defend yourself? After all, your very survival is at stake. At the individual level, the appeal to self-defense in the face of a lethal threat can lead to acquittal for taking a life. Following a similar logic, a distressingly large number of prominent Republicans seem ready to seek exoneration for the impending crime of killing American democracy. 

So what exactly is the American right giving itself permission to do? Whatever it takes to defeat its mortal enemy.

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