A waitress from New York became a Congresswoman and the conservative world went postal. I shouldn’t be perplexed by this, but it caught me off-guard.
Personally, I found Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s story heartwarming. I am fond of cheesy political stories to a fault. As much as I loathe President Trump, one of my favorite moments in his presidency was his photo-op with the 11-year-old boy who asked to mow the White House lawn. The message was trite, sure, but it was endearing. Trump, for better or worse, got to the White House from an entrepreneurial background of some kind, and by letting the kid mow the grass, he was telling a bit of his own story. The Beltway is a depressing hate-fuck of power on its very best day, and I like a reprieve from the noise when I can get it. I presumed, foolishly, that the rest of the nation felt the same way about Ocasio-Cortez.
In a country where politicians are about as popular as a root canal, Ocasio-Cortez should be an easy exception. She went from waiting tables to the House of Representatives. She didn’t come from privilege; her mom drove a school bus and cleaned houses. This is supposed to be the story that plays well in the red-meat-Midwest. It should be the narrative that reinforces that widely cherished American ethos – that anything is possible with the right attitude and work ethic – but what followed her election was a predictable and loathsome campaign of hate and slander, indicative of a deeply-rooted malignancy that will consume us all if we do not slice it out.
From the moment she was elected, the conservative hate machine went into overdrive. Her income, wardrobe, speech, and ‘suitability’ for office suddenly came into question. These are the opening salvos in what will be an eternal war of attrition against this woman. Where there is no real controversy, they will work tirelessly to create one. The water in this well isn’t yet poisoned, but give it fifteen years, and it probably will be.
Conservatives consume this slash-and-burn media ravenously because it provides dependable confirmation to their existing biases; they can pretend to be open-minded about a controversial personality in the beginning, and after years of cheap-shot coverage, can have their initial misgivings verified by the mountain of negative press generated by Fox.
The recipe is simple. Given enough time, pseudo-controversies will grow from nothing, built by thousands of decontextualized sound bites, fueled by her obligatory exposure to interviews and media requests. These will all coalesce into a catalog of attack-ad material that can be recycled and re-purposed for the lifelong war the conservatives will wage against her. Right and wrong, truth and falsehoods, up and down don’t exist anymore, at least not when it comes to this particular Congresswoman. They’ve got their target and they’re coming to get her, come hell or high water. I find this state of affairs to be deeply troubling, and you should too.
We could, at this juncture, get lost in the minutiae of our devolved national discourse. We could engage in a meandering autopsy to determine who killed political civility and what we ought to do to fix it. But these are all rhetorical distractions which ignore an obvious truth; the right wing is vicious with anyone it counts as an enemy, and they will wage an indefinite propaganda war against them until they are no longer a threat.
President Obama lived a public life that was devoid of real controversy. There were no sex scandals, no scintillating palace intrigue, nothing. He was a church mouse in a city of jackals. Do you remember what conservative media looked like eight years ago? Obama was weak because he chewed Nicorette, or because he wore a tan suit, or because he liked mustard. Virtue and discipline were not antidotes to this sickness. Fox ran garbage stories on Obama for years, and it didn’t matter that nearly all of them were false. The liberal world shrugged at this campaign of disinformation, mocked the network, and assured us that the old Republicans would soon be dying off and that their influence would eventually evaporate. Now, the conservatives are more powerful than ever, and we were caught sleeping at the wheel.
Into this arena steps Ocasio-Cortez. She is a natural target; female, non-white, young, articulate, charismatic. The media blitz against her began in earnest before she was even sworn in, before she had even cast her first vote. This is the new American political life-cycle and it exudes a sinister message; embrace conservatism and say exactly what we want or else we’ll rip you apart in the media every single day.
Even survivors of school shootings, like David Hogg, aren’t safe from this depravity. They are gleefully harassed by a conservative media universe that exists without principles or reservations. You can win in the court of public opinion with quantity, not quality. The typical American won’t believe everything Fox has to say about their punching bags, but the sheer volume of negative messages will tarnish them forever. Hogg and
Ocasio-Cortez could never rebuild their reputation in the minds of certain voters in Wisconsin or Nebraska, and this is very much the point of the crusades against them.
At this point, we are often told by conservative intellectuals that these ideas can be defeated by debate. We are promised that the truth can win out in the court of public opinion if presented correctly. We are assured that in this digital era that the cream always rises to the top, and the absurd always sinks to the bottom. These are not insults, they explain, but healthy skepticism. This is not libel or open harassment, but a legal exercise in free speech, they tell us. The truth is that the conservative media universe is a cancer, a hit-job racket. The truth is that it is explicitly designed to destroy the public image of anyone who criticizes it. The truth is that Republican donors and the ruling executive class pump money into this disinformation machine to get tangible results. And it works because we can’t figure out how to put the pieces of our broken free press back together again.
How do you debate with someone who pretends to believe certain school shootings were faked? Do you exhume the victims of the Sandy Hook children as your opening argument? Inwardly, we know what would happen even if we dug them up and subjected their bones to the indignity of an Alex-Jones-led-DNA-test. It would only arouse them further, and could only inspire even more depressingly stupid goal-post moving. Engagement provides legitimacy, and crushing falsehood only forces the lunatic fringe to fixate on something else. It is the perfect guerrilla warfare for the conspiracy hounds; de-platform us and you’re stripping our right to free speech and you’re a coward who’s afraid of the truth. Engage with them under the auspices of winning a debate, and you’ve given them invaluable publicity. There isn’t a winning move to play.
In the past, no one dignified nauseating conspiracy theories like these with responses. We were served well by these rules of engagement, and the era of the blog erased them. I don’t know how we can redress this balance of power, and I don’t think anyone else does either. Until we find the answer, the hatchet jobs will continue and our collective discourse will continue to suffer.
The conspiracies about Ocasio-Cortez are already being fabricated. How can she complain about rent prices in D.C., they asked, when her financial disclosure forms show she has $7,000 in a savings account? How can she be a democratic socialist when she’s wearing expensive clothing in a photo shoot?
We know where criticism like this is headed. We know each dig at Ocasio-Cortez is a probe for weakness in a deranged search for her Benghazi moment, and if it never comes, they’ll invent it. The truth doesn’t matter, and the result at the end will be the same. The game is rigged, and conservative media will be churning out anti-Ocasio-Cortez content until she is no longer a threat. When they finish with her, they’ll move on to whoever else challenges them, and the cycle starts all over again. These perpetual attacks even influence responsible publications. It changes the atmosphere for everyone. It inspires people within her own party like Claire McCaskill to take potshots at her.
It is character-assassination on demand, tailored to fit any target. Trump’s obsession with ‘fake news’ reveals what lies at the heart of this right-wing projection; this is how their publishing wings operate. They concoct falsehoods and broadcast them. They diddle the brain-dead-tin-foliers with baseless allegations and pretend they aren’t campaigning for their ardent support. How do you win against a media insurgency whose sole directive is to divide Americans?
“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.” Abraham Lincoln said in his infamous address at Gettysburg. The mood was bleak. The Confederates had driven too far north, their advance blunted only by a mountain of Union casualties. President Lincoln himself was weary, weakened by the early onset of a mild case of smallpox. He told his aides that morning that he felt dizzy, and that he was nursing a severe headache. But the ground had to be consecrated. It had to be reserved. It needed to be set aside for future generations to revere, to study, to honor those who gave their own lives to preserve this great experiment of democracy. What divided Lincoln’s America could no longer be resolved with discussion, with debate, with engagement. Instead, it was being decided with bullets, with violence, with death. I am afraid the United States is barreling headlong into the same type of conflict once again.
A conservative co-worker once told me that ISIS was forming cells in the United States, and that they were going to start a new civil war. It was easy, then, to dismiss such a far-fetched notion with a shrug. But maybe he was at least partially right. Maybe we are headed for a new civil war, and maybe our democracy needs to be bought with blood all over again.
The lines have already been drawn, haven’t they? The liberals get the cities and the conservatives get the suburbs. For all intents and purposes, Democrats and Republicans exist in their own worlds, operate with their own sets of facts and truth, and live in their own separate nations. All of the unity once that held our two sides together has been torched, all of the bridges that once connected us have been burned. Are we united by our military service? No, if the Kahns aren’t safe from the media blitzkrieg, no one is. Are we still united in our patriotism? No, as the right wing chants ‘blood and soil’ in the streets, it is clear that their idea of national identity is ethnic and racial, and no amount of flag-worship will get us into their club. Could we be united in our religion? No, as Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week in America, and when politics take a day off to stop dividing us, we self-sort into the denominations of our choice. We don’t feel connected to our fellow citizens because there’s nothing left to connect us. The damage is already done. The Overton Window has already been sufficiently shifted. If you’re frightened by how the Republican party looks with Trump at the helm, you should be terrified at what it might look like once he’s gone.
During the Obama years, the Republican party faced a simple problem: depopulation. Their base, aging and dying off by the boatload, was insufficient to sustain a grip on political power. Barack Obama was their worst nightmare – a charismatic Democrat in the mold of Kennedy – and they watched with horror as he united the nation they sought so desperately to divide. The G.O.P needed reinforcements, but the establishment was too afraid to dive into the dumpster of open racism and white supremacy to get them. That is, until Trump came along and demonstrated how the lunatic fringe could be used to fortify their base.
Trump’s mafia rule – where loyalty and effusive praise is all that is required to climb the ranks – is an existential threat because of the ecosystem it creates. It opens the door to malevolent forces who wish to do us harm. It legitimizes foolishness and anti-intellectualism. This ecosystem cannot exist without the cabal of conservative media that props Trump up on a daily basis. It attacks and defends indiscriminately. When the sustenance of power is the goal, nothing is off-limits and everything is permissible. This environment condones everything, up to and including murder.
When President Obama was first elected, I worried that he would become the victim of an assassination. Racists in the United States are nothing if not impeccably well-armed, and an attempt on his life seemed like a foregone conclusion. A black man in a position of power and influence in the U.S. too often ends up dead at the hands of an assassin.
When Trump headed to Montana to stump for Representative Gianforte in 2017, the President praised him for assaulting a reporter. We can see where this rhetoric is headed, too, and I fear it might lead to the death of someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the future. And what will we say then? We won’t be able to pretend this media malignancy is harmless. We won’t be able to kick the can any further down the road. We’ll be unable to delay the uncomfortable conversations about what counts as journalism, and what counts as dangerous incitement.