The idea that the right can be motivated by driving a wedge between them and scientific or medical experts isn’t new. See George Wallace sneering about “pointy-head college professors” or Richard Nixon calling Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau “a pompous egghead” or Spiro Agnew making more than one reference to “an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.” There is an unbroken bridge from the John Birch Society shouting about fluoride in the water as a Communist plot to QAnon supporters looking for the tunnels connecting pizza parlors and Hollow Earth.
Whole generations of Republicans have been raised in a proud anti-learning tradition, one that is bolstered by an even longer history of fostering racist and antisemitic conspiracy theories. That Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene was seriously spreading the idea of “Jewish space lasers” wasn’t some momentary collision of random neurons wandering in the dark. It was actually Greene repeating a long and elaborate theory that involved former California Gov. Jerry Brown, PG & E, a solar energy company, secret space launches, and, of course, and financial firm Rothschild & Co. that had been kicking around in right-wing land for some time.
For decades, Republicans have favored the mushroom philosophy: keep their base in the dark and feed them bullshit. But with the coming of Trump, the brain blender dial got turned up to “”puree. The guy who “loves the poorly educated” rediscovered the Goebbels principle: Big lies are better. “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” That principle turns out to be so effective that the right has even used it to spread lies about the COVID-19 vaccine by attributing fake quotes to Hermann Goering.
But there is a conundrum. When you’ve taught your base to believe nothing but the crankiest of crank conspiracies, how do you get them to listen when you need them?
Most “slippery slope” arguments are just another example of right-wing mushroom farming used to push back against even the most modest proposals. As in Rep. Madison Cawthorn suggesting that asking volunteers to go door-to-door offering COVID-19 vaccine is the first step into “constructing a mechanism” that will reach into every home in America to “take your Bibles.”
But what Republicans built in their anti-reason agenda wasn’t so much a slope as the pathway to the top of a cliff. All along the tattered rightward edge of what was the “alt right” just a period of months ago, people from high school drop-out bar owners to college drop-out real estate scammers have discovered that all they had to do to pocket millions from a party already tumbling through the void was to do exactly what Vladimir Putin had taught them: Get on social media and confirm every racist, xenophobic, anti-intellectual position that had been minted from the Know Nothings to date.
Why hasn’t Q spoken in months? Why should he? Who would even notice in a party where a senator is waging a daily battle to charge a doctor with a felony for trying to protect the country?
The weaponization of social media against the Republican base has been amazing, and absolutely predictable. What Russia did in 2016 was nothing more than putting a modest military budget behind a digital crowbar that could open the nation along lines of weakness. It knew where to find those lines because Republicans drew big circles around them every election cycle. Russia didn’t create a million bots to spread a ridiculous message that the system was unfair to white people and overly generous to Black people by coincidence. They just took the script Republicans had been selling for years. Once you can believe six impossible things before breakfast, there really is no limit.
Of course, none of this means that the Republican Party is doomed to fade away. Republicans have made a blatant and so far successful effort to cripple the election system in America. They’ve demonstrated that they can turn out record numbers in support of an agenda that left a million people dead. And they’ve turned mumble-mumble racism into an overt, out-and-proud bigotry that has touched the hearts of millions of America’s most downtrodden: middle class white people.
So what have they got to worry about?
Well … in the last week, Republicans have noticed that the up = down machine has put them in a position where 90% of the people dying from COVID-19 are their people. That’s because 90% of Democrats are already vaccinated and 99.5% of those dying are unvaccinated. Who are those unvaccinated? Oh, right, the Republican base that’s been taught scientists, doctors, and experts can’t be trusted.
Over the course of that week, Republicans who still think of themselves as party leaders have begun to get louder about suggesting to their followers that maybe, just maybe, taking five minutes out of their day to not die would be a good thing. And this is the kind of response they’re getting.
You know what they say: How are you going to get them back in the land of boring old reason once they’ve seen all the glittery lights and spectacular claims of Bigfoot driving UFOs land?
But it’s worse than that. For Republicans who ever actually cared about the traditional Republican agenda, eh. That’s all gone. For those who care about nothing but their own personal power, they’re out of luck as well. Just ask former Rep. Scott Tipton. Tipton was a conservative Republican who checked all the boxes. He voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act. He frequently angered environmental groups with a push to privatize public lands. He was solidly against reproductive rights as well as gay marriage, supported by wads of cash from the oil and gas industry, and he easily won election for 10 years. Then Tipton was knocked out of his primary by a woman who claimed to have inside knowledge about Hillary Clinton’s upcoming arrest as well as secret documents that would reveal the QAnon truth about the pizza-ordering cannibals in Congress.
Marjorie Taylor Greene didn’t step into a seat that was formerly held by a Democrat. She ousted Rep. Tom Graves, who had one of the most conservative ratings in the House. Cawthorn took over Mark Meadows’ former seat in a district freshly gerrymandered to make it super Republican safe, but in doing so Cawthorn actually defeated well-funded conservative businesswoman Lynda Bennett, who was the choice of not just Republicans in the state party but also endorsed by Donald Trump. It’s easy to say that Cawthorn won in spite of posting an Instagram photo celebrating his visit to Adolf Hitler’s vacation residence while explaining that a visit to see “the Führer’s” home was on “my bucket list.” But a more truthful framing would be that Cawthorn won because of his unabashed adoption of white supremacist positions.
What most Republicans in leadership positions today are just beginning to discover is that they are the alt-right. The white nationalist agenda that was cautiously courted along the fringe a decade ago is now the mainstream. If there is still a pro-business agenda, it exists only so much as it locks in racism. If there’s still a social conservative agenda, it survives only as a means of tacking a halo onto actions of hate. And the media outlets that Republicans were counting on to keep the base in line have discovered that it’s even more lucrative to feed them to the volcano god who pays Tucker Carlson’s bills.
The new Republican Party demands that America explicitly cover up slavery, Jim Crow, and every expression of racism. Why teach kids about the Civil Rights era when obviously Black people have always had the edge over poor, struggling, mistreated whites? In the last few years, Republicans have already tried to revive the idea that Joseph McCarthy was a hero. Don’t worry—they’re also holding pedestals open for George Wallace and Strom Thurmond.
Republicans have thought they might cut the bleeding off with a Justin Amash here and a Jeff Flake there. But those who see just signing onto “yes, Donald” as a solution to their electoral ills are missing the big picture. If there was anyone who still cared about “traditional conservative values,” they can forget it. And if all they care about is their personal power, they won’t have that either.
There’s always another Boebert in the weeds.
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.