I won’t bore you with a laundry list of kooky conservative ideas; just read the newspaper on any given idea and you get the idea. The point is, from the grassroots to the halls of Congress and the Supreme Court, many important right-wing activists are out of touch with basic aspects of reality. And they are not embarrassed to show it in public, doubling and tripling down on one demonstrably false claim after another, even when it’s not obvious how it helps them with voters.
Despite its penchant for the ridiculous, the Right remains far more effective at altering reality than liberals or leftists are. This paradox of American politics has been around for some time. The most consequential recent example is the country’s disastrous war of choice against Iraq, based entirely on lies, cynical manipulation, and smarmy optimism.
But there has been an important advance, starting during Donald Trump’s first campaign. Right-wing elites and the grassroots now work in far closer cooperation than they did before Trump, both in terms of cocreating an increasingly abstract alternate reality to inhabit and in making concrete changes to the real political landscape. Spurred on by ideas with no basis in reality, they nonetheless are the primary force setting the political agenda and influencing the reality we all really live in. Given the conservative stranglehold over the federal judiciary, the right-wing grassroots’ increasing enthusiasm for committing violence, and GOP elites’ blasé, wink-wink reactions to it, there is plenty of reason to worry.
The January 6 attempted insurrection provides perhaps the clearest insight into this dynamic. This week, prosecutors shared private messages sent by Stewart Rhodes, the head of the right-wing Oath Keepers militia, during his trial for his part in the uprising. In addition to referring to Democrats as Marxists and Joe Biden specifically as a puppet of the Communist Party of China, Rhodes was prone to portentously quoting George Washington and comparing himself to the country’s first president.
Sure, Rhodes sounds like a doofus. But he also allegedly organized a mob that shut down Congress in the middle of an important session and almost blocked a peaceful transfer of power — a plot that likely also involved dozens of Republican elected officials and Trump himself. Rhodes was never going to be George Washington, but he came close to making history.
On the other end of the spectrum is the conservative ultra-insider Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas. While Rhodes and plenty of others planned to violently stop Congress from fulfilling its constitutional obligation, Thomas harangued Republican officials in multiple states to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, which she maintains to this day, against all evidence, Donald Trump won.
Often forgotten in the revelations about the insurrection is the fact that, even on January 6 itself, almost 150 Republicans in Congress objected to certifying Joe Biden’s victory as president, in part to delay the proceedings and give rioters more time to make their way inside the Capitol. Fake news, very real consequences — from the roots of the party to the top.
During the George W. Bush and Barack Obama years, it was common for liberals and leftists to think that Republicans spouting obvious nonsense were operating from pure cynicism, and that pointing out their hypocrisy would shame them out of it, or at least turn voters against them. There is no evidence that this worked on an appreciable scale. Voters continue to support the Republicans, give or take a couple percentage points every two years. The GOP generally continues to support even its biggest hypocrites. Even now, the Right arguably exerts almost as much influence as it did when Trump was in the White House and Republicans controlled Congress.
Elite cynicism is surely part of the mix, but something else is going on. It is hard to see people like Stewart Rhodes as cynical. Facing years in prison for “seditious conspiracy” isn’t generally something you do unless you mean it. Nor is it something you simply bumble into. We can’t reduce the Oath Keepers, the Proud Boys, or similar groups to mere suckers of a cynical party elite. They spent years preparing to do something exactly like what they did on January 6. When the people who run the Republican Party — some tacitly, some much more explicitly — gave them the opportunity, they were ready.
Recently, the New York Times reported on how talk about “civil war” on the Right increased by 3,000 percent after the FBI raided Trump’s Florida estate. But even Republican publicity hounds like Florida governor Ron DeSantis and Texas governor Greg Abbott are not going to secede from the union for the clout (though according to the Times, Trump’s former national security advisor thinks they can). More likely is a long slog of low-level violence punctuated by larger manufactured crises similar to the events of January 6 — a slow grinding-down of legal and political opposition until it functionally no longer exists beyond unctuous pleas for compromise and self-righteous grandstanding about how unfair it all is.
Or maybe it will go much faster than that, who knows? Republicans are hell-bent on breaking every norm of democratic governance, and Democrats seem unwilling to mount a serious challenge to stop them as long as they can keep raising money off the threat. For their part, the American people sense that things aren’t going well. An August poll revealed that more than 40 percent of Americans think a civil war could happen in the next decade, as does almost 55 percent of the Republican base.
Sure, it sounds ridiculous — but the Right is changing American politics in ways that are as dangerous as they are absurd.