Monday, December 26, 2016

Last Call

At the end of November, I noted that one group which was really going to have it rough -- from a cognitive dissonance point of view, anyway -- over the next four years is that of Trump-critical conservatives. These are the guys who have some awareness of the outrageous danger that Donald Trump poses to our democratic system of governance, but really, really want to insist that this makes him no different from equally-dangerous-threat-to-the-republic Barack Obama. Having Obama to blame as the True Evil was the one thing that kept them sane. He was the one thing that kept them "conservatives". Donald Trump may be a problem, but Barack Obama!

It is for this reason that the last month or so of conservative commentary on Obama -- reaching its apex with the UN abstention vote on Israeli settlements -- has reached a fevered pitch. Like drunks who just heard "last call", conservatives are imbibing their favorite tonic with a desperate ferocity, knowing that it will soon disappear. In a month, right-wingers won't have Obama as their foil. They won't be able to wave their hands, throw up some pixie dust, and say "look over there!" They'll have to confront their demon face-to-face. Or -- perhaps more likely -- they'll have to bend the knee to it.

It is no accident that virtually the entirety of conservative response to Trump so far has been an extended riff on "I know you are but what am I?" Each and every sin Trump represents gets projected back onto the Democratic Party, the better to deny responsibility for what was happening in their own house. Harder and harder they clutch at denial: The mainstream media is the real feeder of fake news! Russia is the real force for good in the Middle East! Minorities are the real racists! Scientists are the ones really in denial on climate change!

The evolution of "fake news" is a great example. It is a problem when completely fabricated nonsense ("The Pope endorses Trump!") storms through social media. It undermines public trust and it shreds the informational fabric necessary for people to make informed decisions. But conservatives, desperate to insist that the problem isn't their own, are scrambling to apply the term to any liberal opinion they dislike. One might not agree with the assessment that the Iran Deal checked Iran's nuclear ambitions. One might have cogent arguments against it. But a story that reports that claim is not "fake news", it's a contrary evaluative appraisal. It doesn't fit, and it's embarrassing to see my conservative friends turn into the saddest of post-modernist parodies trying to make it fit. But the point of applying it isn't because it fits, it's to neutralize the terrible reality that there is a problem, and it is not in fact a symmetrical one.

So in all likelihood, other institutions (or the myth of Obama's "legacy") will take Obama's place as the conservative bugaboo which justifies their failure to hold their own movement to account. But nobody will fulfill that role better than Obama while in office. The conservative image of Barack Obama -- radical, terrorist-sympathizing, un-American, hyperpartisan, dictatorial, White-blaming -- was utterly divorced from reality. Indeed, it many ways it was what created Donald Trump. Tell your base that the opposition is radical, terrorist-sympathizing, un-American, hyperpartisan, dictatorial, and racist, and they will start believing you. And they'll do without your oh-so-subtle pseudo-intellectual pivot that seeks to ground it outside the fever swamp. Each time putatively reasonable conservatives engage in the myth, they further abdicate their responsibility to cure the disease ravaging their own political movement.

But there is a reason why the myth is so tempting. In its distortion it unified Republicans and quelled internal dissonance, albeit at a terrible cost. If Obama was this terrible, horrible, destructive, cataclysmic creature, then it wasn't really that terrible if Republicans created their own version of the "same". The constructed image of Obama warranted the failure of Republicans to confront their demons, because it allowed them to swallow every partisan's favorite intoxicant: The other side's worse.

Soon, Obama will be gone, and with him, the right's favorite palliative. But for one more month, they can still live in the idyllic harmony of the last eight years, where their actions had no consequences and their fantasies needed no foundations. I honestly can barely blame them for their carousing.

So drink up, my conservative friends. It's last call. In the morning, reality hits. And I hear its hangover's a bitch.


PG said...

You're forgetting the gin to that tonic: Clinton. For every point where a conservative might struggle to analogize to Obama -- for example, it's hard to see how the president has enriched himself or his family while in the White House, though of course plenty of fake news claims that the Obamas have done so -- the conservative can fall back on Clinton. Criticize Trump for having his daughter join calls with the leaders of Japan and Argentina, and even reportedly ask about Trump business in those countries, and you'll hear all about the alleged "pay to play" of the Clinton Foundation. I suspect that will linger at least as long, because conservatives who opposed Trump in the primaries then can disclaim responsibility for supporting him in the general election, on the grounds that Clinton *would have been* just as bad.

David Schraub said...

Clinton won't be able to help them either, because while the prospect of Clinton could theoretically warrant supporting Trump in the election, it can't support backing anything Trump does or doesn't do while President. He can serve as an apologia for the vote, but not for further lack of oversight.

Which isn't to say we won't see limp "BUT HILLARY'S EMAILZ" or "OBAMA HAD A PASTOR" justifications for all of this. But it's not going to self-medicate as well as it used to.