It’s frightening to watch a Trump rally and see thousands of followers eat up every word of really bad propaganda spewing from a man who cannot speak in full sentences, gets lost in his own short trains of thought, makes outrageous promises, claims imagined victories, and tells blatant lie after lie seasoned with mere hints of truth.
It’s disheartening to hear him use middle school insults to characterize every person who challenges him, or dares to disagree with whatever he’s most recently said. It’s become the Lingua Franca of Trumpeting twitterers who know no other way of response than juvenile insult.
But wait, there’s more. Mentored by talk radio and the dark side of the internet are millions who have bought into the bizarre world of political conspiracy. Like Pinocchio following Honest John the Fox to the pleasure island, where good times become imprisonment and boys are transformed into donkeys destined for lives of burdened slavery, they reject the world of verifiable truth for a world of believable conspiracy promising the best of all possible conditions if they but surrender to the masters beguiling them. They willingly exchange truth for falsehood, and falsehood for truth. They happily do it with conviction so deep it’s difficult to imagine how they can be saved, or we can be saved from them.
I have a friend, someone I like and spend time with at least once a week. Otherwise intelligent and personable, a life long government employee, he has become an ardent extreme right wing libertarian, completely sold on anti democratic conspiracies. He’s convinced the establishment, in all its permutations, is secretly run by powers intent on enslaving Americans, taking away all their rights.
It starts easily enough. An unending chorus of commentators drives home the thought that conservatives believe in a limited government operating within a balanced budget financed by low taxes, enough for essentials of defense, transportation, and whatever benefits the conduct of free enterprise. Individuals, free to live as they like without undue interference from government, are responsible for themselves and subject to the consequences of their own decisions. Not without compassion for those in need through no fault of their own, emergency help through the local community is what voluntary charity is about.
They are told that liberals, on the other hand, believe in big government financing every conceivable need through out of control spending and ever increasing taxes. Liberals assume no one need take responsibility for themselves, bad decisions need not have bad consequences, and government is needed to regulate every aspect of life, corporate and personal. Moreover, liberals dismiss the need for a strong military to defend against enemies, and are generally unsympathetic toward what conservatives call traditional American values, sometimes called family values.
The opening argument is not without some merit. The mythic values of freedom, individualism, and local community conservatives claim for themselves are worthy, and it’s difficult for them to believe that others, liberals included, treasure them also. People who cast themselves as liberals do believe that government is needed to regulate predatory tendencies fueled by selfishness, greed, and disregard for the well being of others. They are not afraid of a government big enough to take on the most ferocious perpetrators of injustice. Curiously, when it comes to what is best for their own interests, conservatives believe the same.
Left at that, there has always been room for negotiation to reach decisions most could live with. But it has not been left at that. Provocateurs on the far right have crafted hundreds of stories, conspiracies if you will, that liberals have a secret agenda. What they really want is a totalitarian government that strips away rights to private property, nationalizes the corporate world, regulates every aspect of public and private life, and prevents anyone from accumulating wealth. They say they’re democrats, but they’re actually controlled and funded by? By who? By what? It depends on who’s spinning the story. Today’s favorite bugaboo is the mysterious and evil George Soros, but imagination can concoct as many others as it wants. Finally, good freedom loving people are surrounded by enemies. What enemies? Whoever they are, they will be threatening minorities, despicable, unbelievers, who, at any cost, must be denied access to the reins of power, and not allowed to pollute the purity of our people.
For those who, like Pinocchio, buy that line of reasoning, there are only two options for saving American freedom. First, elect as many representatives to government as possible who will not negotiate on anything. If they can’t turn policies around, at least they can bring government to a dead stop. Second, look for a strong leader who promises your hearts desire, and give him (almost always a him) all the authority he needs to set things right again. Pinocchio and Honest John Fox is more than a fairytale. In the version we’ve come to love, Disney created a morality tale warning the world of liberal democracies about the danger of falling for a Mussolini or Hitler, especially for the domestic version of the America First movement that gained serious momentum in the late 1930s.
If liberals have been bound and labeled with fantastical conspiracies about secret cabals exposed only by the unending variety of brilliant deductions of talk radio hosts and internet trolls, it can be said that their own schemes to seize power have been right out in the open where everyone can see them. They get credit for that. The Koch Network is proud of their work and happy for all to know about it. They don’t want anyone to have a list of who they are or how much they’re willing to spend, but they’re not secret about what they do. The Citizens United decisions gave those with control of private or corporate wealth the unlimited right to pay whatever is needed to buy the government they want. Donald Trump is a living, breathing caricature of Honest John Fox. Mitch McConnell proudly and publicly declares his intent to bring down democratic government as we know and treasure it. When it comes to pure unadulterated chutzpah, they’ve got it.
And so my friend has bought into it, all of it, without reservation. He’s decided of his own free will that QAnon is his most reliable source of information, that no major media outlet can be trusted, and that Trump is a misunderstood, honest man intent on saving America. Not far behind is another acquaintance, someone who was once a traditional conservative, who believes, without fear of contradiction, that Sanders and Warren are socialists of the Cuban communism variety who intend to strip away all the wealth of those who have worked hard to earn every penny, and give it to those too lazy or incompetent to make it on their own. Trump, may have his moral failings, but he’s the only one who will make the good times roll for those whose hard work makes them deserving.
The pleasure island to which the Trumpian Honest John Fox entices them is a factory to produce oligarchical fascism suiting the aspirations of those who are suspicious of democracy. It will enslave the very people who think it will guarantee their prosperous freedom. What may save us all are the legions of moderates and liberals who have seen through the charade, are not enticed by its promises, and are willing to engage in the political process with renewed vigor. It may also help that Trump’s impeachment, and the growing trove of evidence enlarging the field of his criminal immorality, will begin to penetrate the consciences of those who have been beguiled. It’s not exactly Jiminy Cricket, but it might suffice.