Today we learned that Roy Moore, the moralizing populist candidate for U.S. Senate and darling of the anti-establishment populist right, attempted to molest a 14 year old girl. We also learned that the incoming National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, known for his hostility towards Islam, allegedly was involved in a scheme to take $15 million from an Islamist aspiring autocrat in exchange for kidnapping and extraditing one of his political opponents.
This was all before noon.
Welcome to a typical day in 2017, where scandals that once would have transfixed the nation for months come and go in a matter of hours. Where nativist populism untouched by reality provides a get out of jail free card. Where charlatans battle imaginary cabals of international elites, taking jack-hammers to the foundations of western civilization while purporting to be its saviors. And where moral outrage is principally a form of political expression having little to do with morals.
It is in this environment that the same people who spun themselves up into a furious lather over an absurdly unhinged conspiracy theory about a pedophilia ring run by Democratic Party elites out of a Washington, DC pizza joint can excuse Roy Moore’s transgressions with under-age girls and anti-Muslim nativists are unfazed that former National Security adviser Michael Flynn conspired to do the bidding of Turkey’s Islamist President Recep Erdogan when the price was right.
“The paranoid style in American politics” is nothing new. It was the title of a 1964 essay published in Harper’s, which traced the long history of “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” in U.S. politics. It is a phenomenon of the right and the left. Leftist ANTIFA protestors justify violence in opposing violence and suppression of free speech in the name of defending freedom. But, today it is the right where the paranoid style has taken hold most firmly.
The insurgent populist nationalists like Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, Roy Moore and Michael Flynn style themselves as the vanguards of a battle against a cabal of greedy elites bent on our national destruction. They leverage kernels of truth — the corrosiveness of career politics, the callous disregard of Washington elites towards the suffering of working people and the inanity of a political correctness run amuck — to weave an alternate reality in which these are the defining features of an all powerful conspiracy of a corrupt malevolent establishment. It draws its power from the perverse comfort afforded by the idea that fixing out nation’s problems requires only replacing establishment politicians. It is fertile ground for charlatans and unhinged lunatics whose only qualification is their denunciation of establishment elites.
An optimist will look to history for reassurance. After all, these periods of madness always proved temporary. Is this time different? There’s reason to worry.
Never before has a candidate of the paranoid style managed to win the presidency as Donald Trump did last year. The choose your own reality of social media bubbles and the shattering of the media landscape into a constellation of news sites catering to every conceivable worldview make this a uniquely perilous moment. And then there’s the bizarre twist of a foreign adversary, Russia, devoting state-level resources to turbocharging the fraying of the bonds of democratic civil society.
There is reason to fear that the moorings of objective truth and shared ideals are now so battered that they have grown too brittle to prevent our political discourse from breaking permanently loose of reality. The vast wealth of information available today allows for rationalization of just about anything. And the more immersed people become in these alternate realities, the more resistant to contrary facts they become.
Today, the most important political divide is no longer left versus right, it is reality versus nonsense. Whether conservative or liberal, our most urgent political task today is to keep nonsense from winning.