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A Saturday reflection on painfully studying right-wing media and how American politics became increasingly personal.
2019: Before the Storm
In my early graduate school days, before I worked at Media Matters for America as a Media Analyst and antecedent to the hottest moments of the Trump years, I wrote a short blog called “Everybody Struggles.” I have tried to resurrect the writing, but I can’t find the original draft document and my old domain, thoughtsforamerica.com, has been deactivated for years now. I also tried Wayback Machine and got a server error message.
If I ever find it, I will repost it.
The gist of the article was intended for an audience of left-leaning younger Americans. It developed out of a conversation with one of my professors, who has written extensively about midcentury America and civil rights. He was expressing to me a fear that we young people, for all the good we seek to accomplish, can fall into a trap that catalyzes us to take struggles away from individuals because of popular historical frames. I decided to write a piece agreeing with him as I thought about these wise observations, and the language he helped supply, regarding human nature and groupthink.
I would often try to see the shinier sides of Trumpism in this period. The tragedy of faux populism and the lingering scars of tribalized industrial policy on unsuspecting Americans who aren’t really thinking about it on a day-to-day basis. They trust the moral arc of history is bending toward justice.
But that would not last as the new decade began.
2020/2021: It’s Raining Racist Talking Points
2019 turns into 2020 and that means a global pandemic that challenges and exposes President Trump’s governing ability in an election year. I started working for Media Matters as a Communications Intern and in the fall I started in Media Intelligence. The nonprofit does thankless work that entails exposing to the American public the misdeeds and willed disinformation campaigns within right-wing media and how that can become a negative feedback loop with mainstream media. To this day, I am proud of the work being done there, but it takes its toll. I monitored Fox News as they were gaslighting on behalf of so many elected Republicans (and donors) who wanted to lift the guardrails in a COVID-19-infected nation and let the virus naturally do its damage without any artificial resistance, like vaccines or proven treatment methods. The Democrats had their missteps and nefarious movements as well, with Andrew Cuomo being an egregious case. Pundits use examples, like my former governor, Larry Hogan as a consensus-building Republican in a blue state, which is true on some occasions, but there is much to show suggesting discord as well.
Still, the larger trend for the Republican Party and their owned media units I was monitoring was to be anti-science or cater to those forces for political coins.
My view of humanity (specifically conservative America) was dimming since Trump, but now I was in a faith-withdrawing incubator. The 2020 election was a nightmare in that it was from early November to January 5th, with the culminating event being the Republican insurrection on Capitol Hill that broke America’s chain of peaceful power transfers. As the days crept by, the normalization of this political violence accelerated through demeaning false equivalencies to incomparable excesses within the Black Lives Matter movement or even tacitly suggesting it was warranted - as moderate Republicans trafficked in more racist election lies targeting cities like Atlanta, Philadelphia, Detroit, or Phoenix.
Hmm, I wonder why?
At this point, I nearly hated the Republican Party and had complete disdain for “conservative America” that enabled, apologized for, and praised them. Especially after having to suffer the racially-coded condescension when conservatives defended Republicans during President Obama’s term.
Yes, hate is a strong term.
But, I was listening to nothing but Fox News, and eventually InfoWars, and tried to palette cleanse with The Bulwark and other smarter commentary. But sometimes monitoring was so mentally and emotionally exhaustive, that I fell asleep immediately after or droned through a political communications class where people actually defended Republicans (because they saw attacks on them as attacks on their dad, culture, or hometown), some with faux objectivity.
This is after I spent all day hearing tribal and anti-intellectual whataboutism regarding a racist domestic terror attack on right-wing TV.
2021/2022: It’s Thundering Critical Race Theory
Some days it would be so difficult to hear Martha MacCallum, Joe Concha, Leo Terrell, Brian Kilmeade, and Bret Baier (daytime Fox) either openly, or tacitly, throw in critical race theory as a problem - seemingly every single newscast.
Throughout 2021, the GOP decided their new battlefront would be in history education. Instead of self-reflection, Republicans blamed people of color and real history for giving modern Americans too much information about the past, which helped make intellectual arguments against Trumpism and also expose the GOP’s negatively race-based incentive structures.
I was beyond angry at Fox hosts (and Republican America), who I think never read substantial amounts of Black history or literature, and now perverted my ancestors, preceding thought leaders, and their intellectual contributions to America because they needed a scapegoat to distract from their own darkness, which they unleashed on the nation with a vote for Trump.
Or worse, Republicans believed it but never said it out loud until now.
It was worse feeling as though Republican America was using Black Americans' rediscovery of their ancestors (like my family experienced) to excuse Trump’s brand of Southern Strategy authoritarianism, while still claiming to be open-minded. It’s safe to say that my faith in humanity, and especially any way I could interact with “conservative America” without arguing about their decadent hypocrisy and their subliminal reliance on racist structures, whether they admitted it openly or not. We were not going to enjoy the baseball game.
I was ready to shatter worldviews and people’s personal truths if I could, no matter what the person was left thinking about themselves, their path to gaining their ideas, or their general feeling altogether.
As I approach a year away from right-wing media monitoring, my intense feelings have subsided and I don’t have to listen to pure racists and grifters sponsored by the Fox Corporation and Republicans every day. I see conservative people but refuse to talk politics with them. I implicitly don’t take them seriously after studying their media diet.
I know, it’s sad.
We are still in a dark moment in U.S. history, but the historic wins of diverse Democratic candidates and the instances of honesty by my fellow Americans (on all spectrums, but for the right-wing, it is mainly from people who aren’t Republicans anymore) is a start.
It does help the healing process.
There still is a long way to go and I still have a great antipathy for Republican America’s media, political organizations, and sense of cultural and racial supremacy. For this country emulates the stories, faces, and traditions of every democratic citizen, not just a privileged segment.
However, following The Bulwark since its evolution out of the Weekly Standard (I remember that old podcast) has helped me keep in the back of my mind that the party of Lincoln may shrink to one or two publications, but it still exists somewhere in America. The quality and intellectual honesty at The Bulwark also reinforce how national voting coalitions work and how they tend to bring together disparate people and beliefs, for better and for worse.
More importantly, I sometimes forgot that the tragedy of Trumpism was just in exposing how racist the country still was, but also in revealing how well-meaning people are operating in a strategic design that tells them to push populism within a fundamentally, and historically, non-populist political institution. That can be forgotten by a kid from central Maryland (the highest per capita income in the nation) who only rode through the Midwest and South in an SUV with locked doors under the protection of his middle-class parents and/or upper-middle-class grandparents. We are still living in a world created by the anger and revelations of power imbalances uncovered, or given more attention, after the 2008 financial crisis.
Just because people are part of a historically dominant group does not mean they don’t experience grinding inequality and searing economic pain within their own dimension of life.
Sometimes this is forgotten in good faith as young people push power structures for change. From a personal perspective, it can also be forgotten when you are studying daily the insidious operations within the right-wing media sphere as it seeks to scare their audience into transferring more of their middle-class earnings to a wealthy elite out of tribalism and fear of the future.
I still find myself watching Fox time and again just to see.
It’s like a warped Stockholm Syndrome as my curiosity is captured by the ongoing destruction of America’s body politic through a privately-owned corporate television station that is a Potemkin news outfit spreading Great Replacement Theory as news analysis.
A poetic twist to America’s recent love affair with privatizing everything.
P.S. I got so disgusted with American politics that I regretted studying political communications in graduate school as the politics industry is just rife with charlatans and bigots right now, but you can’t speak up because someone may say you are slandering the Trump part of America. To me, MAGA Republicans use their strategic propaganda to bring patrons down a rabbit hole and then blame their base for the decisions they made despite the invisible hand of right-wing dark money and media leading the people there, to begin with. I would openly wonder how some Republicans slept at night. I didn’t attend my grad school graduation.
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