The descent of the GOP into authoritarian know-nothingism

The descent of the GOP into authoritarian know-nothingism

When Ivy League-educated, formerly sane politicians spew conspiracy theories, debunked talking points and contempt for science, the question often arises: Do they believe this nonsense (i.e. have they become thickheaded by listening to Rush Limbaugh and watching all that Fox News?), or are they cynical purveyors of claptrap designed to woo unsophisticated voters? (Disclosure: I am an MSNBC contributor.)

That query came to mind when Harvard Law school graduate Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) descended into sheer quackery and decided to perpetrate conspiracies about the origin of the coronavirus. The Post reports:

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) repeated a fringe theory suggesting that the ongoing spread of a coronavirus is connected to research in the disease-ravaged epicenter of Wuhan, China.

Cotton referenced a laboratory in the city, the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory, in an interview on Fox News’s “Sunday Morning Futures.” He said the lab was near a market some scientists initially thought was a starting point for the virus’s spread.

This is unadulterated nonsense, one step removed from anti-vaxxer rubbish and UFO-spotting. (“In response to Cotton’s remarks, as well as in previous interviews with The Washington Post, numerous experts dismissed the possibility the coronavirus may be man-made.”)

It is not as if anti-intellectualism suddenly appeared with the election of President Trump. The habitual rejection of expertise on everything from climate change to the economic impact of immigration has been rampant in the Republican Party for some time. It is part and parcel of the invented victimization of mostly white, non-college-educated men who attribute their loss of prestige and status to “elites,” especially those in colleges and the media. Even right-wingers who should know better have felt compelled to pander to audiences that wear ignorance and anti-intellectualism as a badge of honor.

With Trump, the resort to lies, conspiracies and propaganda has become a matter of political survival for the ambitious right-wingers. Trump’s authoritarian contempt for truth sets the tone, forcing military hawks such as Cotton to remain mum when Trump dismisses traumatic brain injuries as “headaches” and former Cold Warriors such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) to parrot Russian propaganda on Ukraine.

Their know-nothingism is sustained and hardened inside the right-wing media loop. Trump and his sycophants can repeat whatever falsehoods required to support Trump without fear of contradiction, let alone mockery, in the right-wing media world. It is only when Republicans venture out into legitimate media that refuses to play along with conspiracy theories that they run into trouble.

Trump has merged the know-nothingism of right-wing populism with a far more dangerous intellectual evolution from defense of limited-government conservatism, which was formerly at the heart of modern conservatism, to outright worship of authoritarianism. Now, far too many conservatives have reverence for executive power and reject constitutional government.

Attorney General William P. Barr and his cheerleaders from the Federalist Society embody this frightening development. Donald Ayer, former U.S. deputy attorney general under George H.W. Bush, writes that Barr advocates “the need for a virtually autocratic executive who is not constrained by countervailing powers within our government under the constitutional system of checks and balances.” For Barr, limited government means limited checks on the president, the antithesis of the framers’ vision. Ayer writes:

For whatever twisted reasons, he believes that the president should be above the law, and he has as his foil in pursuit of that goal a president who, uniquely in our history, actually aspires to that status. And Barr has acted repeatedly on those beliefs in ways that are more damaging at every turn. Presently he is moving forward with active misuse of the criminal sanction, as one more tool of the president’s personal interests.

Bill Barr’s America is not a place that anyone, including Trump voters, should want to go. It is a banana republic where all are subject to the whims of a dictatorial president and his henchmen.

In some sense, know-nothingism and authoritarianism are mutually reinforcing. A dictator commandeers reality, forcing other to accept lies as truth or to eradicate the very notion of truth. Know-nothingism and contempt for “elites” mow down alternate sources of information and discredit critics as perpetrating “fake news” or “hoaxes,” thereby empowering the executive as the sole guardian of reality.

In all of this, the Tom Cottons and Ted Cruzes who used to fancy themselves as intellectuals and originalist scholars have chosen to simply go with the flow. Too ambitious to endanger a future in a party they imagine will be permanently deformed by Trump, and too cowardly to defy the willful ignorance of their peers, voters and political universe (including right-wing think tanks, publications and advocacy groups), they now pride themselves on their willingness to adopt non-factual conspiracy theories — no matter what the public safety or constitutional implications might be.

The adage that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” is not accurate. It requires enablers, rationalizers and pseudo-intellects to eradicate resistance to authoritarians and authoritarians’ war on truth.

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