The GOP Delusion: how conservatives were mugged by reality

Among the many things that made me happy about Barack Obama’s re-election was the thought of this guy’s face when he heard the news. He has yet to respond — presumably the editors of The Corner, the National Review’s online madhouse, are still trying to get him to come down off the ledge — but The Corner’s comment threads give a handy insight into the apocalyptic despair currently convulsing the conservative hardcore. Here are some selected highlights:

The America loved and defended by conservatives is over.

The great experiment is failed.

Like the Germans circa 1930s – they’ve voted for their own demise. And only when the fit hits the shan will some of them finally wake up and I’ll get the satisfaction of telling them “I told you so.”

This country deserves to be wrecked.

America will now become a failed fascist state, much like greece, except there will be no one to bail us out

What’s going on in Greece will look like a spring festival compared to what’s coming our way.

Due to the results tonight, my wife and I had to decide that we will not start a family. It will be just us two from here on out. This country is over.

This was another Phiippi, and once again, a republic has died.

Now, there is no hope for America, and the World.

The voters have spoken, God help us and this country. This is the end as American as we have known it.

America blew it.

Get ready for Armageddon.

Where is John Galt?

Other than that, I think they’re taking it pretty well.

The late conservative intellectual Irving Kristol famously remarked: “A neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” It was never true but now it is bitterly ironic because it is modern conservatives who attempt to deny reality until it clobbers them over the head, as it did on Tuesday night. Reading The Corner or watching Fox News, it’s easy to assume that they know they’re lying and their fantasies are a strategy to influence public opinion, or, in the case of characters like Glenn Beck, a lucrative showbiz gimmick. The truth is more terrifying: they really believe this horseshit.

As the first results came in on Tuesday night, Fox News could have won a Peabody Award for denial. When the network finally called Ohio, and thus the election, for Obama, poor Karl Rove, the strategist once known as “Bush’s brain”, was reduced to a gibbering, pleading wreck, insisting against all the evidence that Romney may still have a chance. In the Telegraph Janet Daley first predicted a win for Romney based on nothing more than gut instinct, and then, at the last minute, clung to the idea that he would at least win the popular vote. Finally conceding defeat, she griped that “The figures do, on the face of it, seem rather spectacularly unfair.” Those pesky figures, eh?

This is what happens when you spend the entire election cycle ignoring the facts in front of you. At every turn conservatives have blamed “skewed” polls, and a biased mainstream media for Romney’s problems, never taking seriously the idea that the electorate might have a pro-Obama bias. Look at Slate’s pundit dartboard. Apart from CNBC’s Jim Cramer, all of the outliers are conservative ideologues, predicting a Romney victory with between 273 and 325 electoral college votes. Faced with data to the contrary, they attempted to smear conscientious number-crunchers like FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver. On the night, the result was exactly as Silver had predicted.

Conservatism has became a faith-based ecosystem, resistant to any facts that complicate its version of reality. It is driven by apocalyptic terrors. The future of the republic itself is always in danger. The Constitution is destined for the shredder. The American eagle hangs its head. Ironically, the two issues that come closest to a real existential threat — climate change and the 2008 banking crisis — don’t trigger any anxiety in conservatives, while the phantasm of a socialist dictatorship has them trembling with fear and rage.

As Richard Hofstadter argued as long ago as 1964, the appeal of such life-or-death rhetoric is that it justifies an extreme response: block, sabotage, destroy, crush them. If you convince yourself that a centrist like Obama (who has disappointed his liberal base on several issues) is actually a Manchurian Candidate president out to destroy America from within than any lie about his beliefs, his religion, even his country of birth, is justified. Hofstadter:

The paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, the quality needed is not a willingness to compromise but the will to fight things out to the finish. Nothing but complete victory will do.

This is how you build a fun-packed, self-sustaining echo chamber. It is not how you run a party, let alone a country. There are, of course, people on the left who harbour paranoid delusions, from the 9/11 Truthers to the hardcore Assangists, but they have no sway over the Democrats. Conservative fanatics, however, have commandeered the GOP.

Helped by the Tea Party insurgency, the Republicans’ mid-term gains in 2010 appeared to vindicate, and intensify, the party’s obstructionist tendencies. It was during that campaign that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell notoriously said: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” When you make your top priority fucking up the other guy and then fail, you have to ask yourselves what the hell you’re playing at.

The insanity of the current GOP position is threefold. Firstly, it rules out the bipartisan collaboration on which the efficacy of the US political system depends, and means that Washington wastes its time with fruitless and costly battles like the one over the debt ceilingin summer 2011. Conservatives then have the nerve to complain that it is Obama, whose attempts at consensus have been militantly rebuffed from day one, who has divided the nation. According to two scholars who have been studying Washington for over 40 years:

The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition. When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.

Secondly, it punishes the moderates. By the standards of the modern GOP Reagan would never have won the nomination, Romney’s father George would most likely have been a Democrat and a British Conservative like David Cameron wouldn’t last five minutes. Romney was forced into the impossible position of having to pander to the hardliners in the primaries and then trying to pull a last-minute moderate switcheroo in the debates, which was the first time the American public actually warmed to him.

Thirdly, it is based on the fantasy that the American public deep down wants paranoid movement conservatism. Already you can hear the voices crying that the GOP would have won if Romney weren’t such a moderate wimp. Extreme progressives don’t really believe that their values are shared by the nation at large but their conservative counterparts, insanely, do.

What we’re seeing now is the explosion that occurs when the conservatives’ alternate reality collides with the actual reality of the ballot box. It’s not just Obama’s victory. Same-sex marriage referenda passed by significant margins in Maryland, Maine and Washington. Colorado and Washington voted to legalise marijuana. Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, whose “gaffes” about rape and abortion were merely stating the party’s platform position, lost Senate races they might otherwise have won. There are now more female senators, including the passionately liberal Elizabeth Warren and the openly gay Tammy Baldwin, than ever before. Demographic changes favour the Democrats, who lead among African-Americans, Latinos, young people, college graduates and women, while a massive 88% of Romney’s support came from white people. Conservatives assumed those groups either wouldn’t turn out or somehow don’t represent the real America and therefore don’t constitute a mandate. As Tom Scocca wrote in Slate:

White people don’t like to believe that they practice identity politics. The defining part of being white in America is the assumption that, as a white person, you are a regular, individual human being. Other demographic groups set themselves apart, to pursue their distinctive identities and interests and agendas. Whiteness, to white people, is the American default.

Well they were wrong about that. They were wrong about everything in this election cycle. All the fantasies they so diligently fed and watered have melted into the air. All that time they were insisting the mainstream media was lying to them, they didn’t realise they were lying to themselves.

During one of the debates Romney teased Obama with a version of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous rebuke: “You are entitled to your own opinion but you are not entitled to your own facts.” But it’s the conservatives who have spent so long moulding the facts to suit their opinions, and in the safe haven of The Corner or the Fox News studio they could do so without fear of contradiction. Now the balloon has popped. Democrats have won the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. The only way the Republicans can reverse that trend is by resisting the delusions of the paranoid bullies, dropping the bigotry, detoxifying the party and nominating a genuine moderate — in short, coming to terms with how America is rather than how they believe it to be. I don’t see it happening any time soon.

Meanwhile, the true believers try to console themselves with new delusions. In one comment thread on The Corner, someone wailed, accurately, that conservatism had failed. Another responded: “Naw the American people failed… Conservatism has always succeeded. America is now unworthy of it.”

It’s reminiscent of one of Oscar Wilde’s quips: “The play was a great success, but the audience was a total failure.” The difference is that Wilde was trying to be funny.


UPDATE: I just came across two illuminating pieces by Grist’s David Roberts. In this one, from 2010, he discusses climate denialism as a symptom of conservative factphobia and quotes Rush Limbaugh babbling about “The Four Corners of Deceit: Government, academia, science, and media,” which doesn’t leave much untainted except, presumably, the Rush Limbaugh show. And in this July post he examines polarisation. When pundits talk about a divided America they tend to present it as symmetrical problem: six of one, half a dozen of the other. However the stats show a dramatic imbalance. Between 1974-2004 the average Republican congressman moved almost four times as far to the right as the average Democrat did to the left; 70% of Republican voters define themselves as conservative while only 40% of Democrat voters think of themselves as liberals. Says Roberts:

Today, the national Democratic Party contains everything from the center-right to the far-left. Economically its proposals tend to be center to center-right. Socially, its proposals tend to be center to center-left. The national Republican Party, by contrast, has now been almost entirely absorbed by the far right. It rejects the basic social consensus among post-war democracies and seeks to return to a pre-New Deal form of governance. It is hostile to social and economic equality. It remains committed to fossil fuels and sprawl and opposed to all sustainable alternatives. And it has built an epistemological cocoon around itself within which loopy misinformation spreads unchecked. It has, in short, gone loony.


  1. Thank you for this summary of conservative/republican framing and the resulting backlash after the elections. Cheers!

  2. You summed things up, quite well! I enjoyed this piece very much. You were able to articulate precisely what happened. Tx

  3. FUCK you CONS! tax the rich and tax the churches to hell.

  4. Very interesting , and I think what you write is very accurate. Hope Karl Rove doesn’t read it.

  5. The number 47 and the letters … gotta love it

  6. One of the most insightful and well-structured post-election analyses I’ve come across. Kudos!

  7. There is wrong with that!

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