by Brendan Beery
As bad as they are at policy, conservatives are that good at politics. For decades, they have outdone Democrats, running circles around paragraphs, pages, tomes full of brainy policy explanations with their bumper-sticker sound bites. Republicans find out what people are afraid of (or, better yet, tell people what to be afraid of), offer up fake easy solutions to whatever “problems” they’ve invented, and repeat mindless mantras over and over and over again until huge swaths of the country start to think, they wouldn’t have said it 527 times unless it were true.
Republicans have also been the great co-opters. They understand jingoism and simplicity and the power of the symbol. There’s a quote that most of us have heard – it’s of uncertain origin, but its popularity results from its ring of truth: when tyranny comes to America, it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross. How odd that Republicans co-opted both. While Democrats wade through the tedium of the long explanation about why the integration of new energy into our society requires a comprehensive immigration reform program, the Republican simply holds out Old Glory and says, “This belongs to me.” In the contest between cerebral and pithy, pithy wins.
And Republicans have mastered the art of redefinition (ironic given their endless bellyaching about a “redefinition” of marriage that never happened). They are the destroyers of language, the saboteurs of honest debate, the breeders of cynicism. Only to a Republican could the oppression of gays by government officials be “religious freedom.” Only to a Republican could the destruction of collective bargaining yield “the right to work.”
But Republicans did a number on one word that, during many election cycles, won them the game, set, and match. That word: liberal.
What does liberal mean to someone who would describe himself that way? Usually, it means committed to the ideal of community; embracing of other cultures and ideas; inclined generally toward kindness and peace; cognizant of our collective projects as to infrastructure, education, health, exploration, and common defense; committed to minimum standards of decency and wellbeing for all (especially kids); and just a bit wary of dogmatism and absolutism as applied to any worldview or system, including unrestrained capitalism.
But masterfully, Republicans made liberal mean this: un-American; snotty and elite; sexually promiscuous and hedonistic; lazy; prone to military surrender; feminine with a hint of lecherous flamboyance; frequently intoxicated; and intellectually overbearing. By the time Nixon was done with liberals, you could see the visual: an unbathed, greasy, tie-dyed hippie smoking weed in his VW van with a cargo full of tie-dyed vixens ready to convene a free-loving congress. And it was all downhill from there.
Republicans know that they have done this, and done it well. That’s why they mock liberals for now calling themselves progressives: we know why you had to change words, says the conservative, cackling – and don’t get too cozy with “progressive,” because we’re going to redefine that for you, too.
But something unexpected happened along the Republican march to oligarchy (with a healthy dose of theocracy mixed in): Donald Trump. One of the secrets to Republican success has been the abject inability of Democrats to show them for who they are: a vast conglomeration of idiots, rubes, biblical literalists, simpletons, bigots, lemmings, and authoritarians. And sexually repressed, to boot. For decades, Republicans have managed to hide behind the façade of Rockefeller-like tranquility and the haze of coded language. They dressed up the ogre to present as an aristocrat.
What Democrats could not – or, more damningly, would not – do, Donald Trump has finally done. That is, he has undressed the ogre and shown its face to all who haven’t already been consumed by it or bewitched under its spell. And man, is it ugly.
This is not conservatism as conservatives would have us see it, but as it really is. It is not a benign inclination toward caution and restraint and strength and the best angels of our traditions; it is, rather, the kind of festering colony of slithering vermin one might find under an outdoor slab of slate.
Donald Trump IS conservatism. And despite his expensive tastes, elegant aristocrat he is not. He is a gaudy nightmare. With his flaming hair, his beady eyes, and his little putt-putt hole of a mouth, he is the very embodiment of the ugliness that is drawn to him. But the fatal blow he has struck against conservatism has been his language.
The gravest danger he has posed to conservatism – and therefore, somewhat ironically, his best use as a human – hasn’t been that his language is crass or hateful or xenophobic or sexist; it’s been that his language is decoded. Donald Trump might as well be Alan Turing.
Once you’ve called Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals and drug smugglers and murderers, you can’t go back to the carefully coded “securing the border.” Once you’ve called women bimbos and whores and fat cows, you can’t go back to advocating for nicely coded “traditional gender roles.” Once you’ve popularized the term “anchor babies,” you can’t go back to a coded discussion about “the privilege of birthright citizenship.”
Finally, the word conservative gets its comeuppance. This time, Republicans have tarnished a political brand not by intentionally obscuring its real meaning, but by accidentally laying it bare.