Hannity and Drudge Cite WikiLeaks to Claim Clinton Campaign Worships Satan, says the article that popped up on my browser from The Daily Beast a few minutes ago. These people are batshit crazy, as Senator Lindsay Graham (R. SC) pointed out months ago. And it is not just Steve Bannon and Alex Jones, the skillful impresarios of the alt-right who have been pitching this stuff for years, who have now elevated conspiracy theory to the inner sanctum of the Republican campaign. Batshit crazy has gone mainstream.
A few days ago, Congressman Trent Franks (R. AZ) made the rounds of the cable news stations. A proud member of the right wing House Freedom Caucus, Franks went on--as members of his caucus are wont to do--about the dangers to the future of the Republic as we know it should Hillary Clinton win the White House. This will be the last election in America... The Constitution will be destroyed... Hillary Clinton wants to yank babies out of the womb and kill them the day before they are due... The Second Amendment will be repealed... Liberty is at stake... and on and on.
While Franks gave all the indications of being a man who believed every word he was saying, I had no idea what he was talking about, or how they come up with this stuff. This was not Sean Hannity, a cable news huckster who needs to find new line of chatter to keep his ratings up and his advertisers happy, this was a prominent member of the House of Representatives, who evidently lives his life so buried in his right wing cocoon that he believes the nonsense he and the members of his caucus put out there to keep their constituents riled up.
There is little new in Franks' political version of end times rhetoric. Twenty years ago, during the 1996 presidential primary season, Senator Phil Gramm (R. TX) predicted a similar demise of the nation should he not succeed in his presidential bid: If we do not win, within ten years, America as we know it will cease to exist. The difference in the wake of the rise of Donald Trump is that however extreme Franks' rhetoric might seem to be, he is being flanked to his right by the Republican nominee for President and his inner circle. As hard as it is to imagine, the conservative movement in America is now at risk of being coopted by alt-right operatives who have little or no concern for the future of the country, but only for their own, bizarre extremist agenda.
"alt right" coterie of white supremacists, anti-semites and fellow travelers out of the dark corners of the Internet onto center stage. Trump and Bannon are bound together by an understanding that in today's swiftly merging news-politics-entertainment complex, no rhetoric sells quite like conspiracy theory rhetoric, and in building the Trump Movement around the least educated, most deeply alienated sector of the American electorate, they have found fertile ground for their symbiotic marketing pitch.
Bannon's influence over the Republican nominee was evident in the deeply conspiratorial commercial that Trump is using as his closing argument on the last weekend of the campaign. The ad, “Argument for America,” makes an age-old argument of a global conspiracy that oppresses working people. "For those who control the levers of power in Washington, and for the global special interests, they partner with these people who don't have your good in mind." The images are of working Americans, who are the victims of this global conspiracy; of Bill and Hillary Clinton, and other government officials across the globe, who "don't have your good in mind"; of piles of money; and of "those who control the levers of power in Washington" who all just happen to be powerful Jews. The essential argument is unchanged from the century old anti-semitic screed, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion: The victims, the corrupt government taking the money, and those pulling levers behind the scenes, the Jews. All narrated by the man who will change all that, Donald Trump.
Despite--or perhaps because of--the elevation of conspiracy theory to center stage in our politics, Tuesday's election has suddenly devolved from the mass spectacle of Donald Trump into a relatively traditional calculus of Democrats vs. Republicans, where victory on Tuesday may well come down to the question of who turns out their vote. For all the alienation of mainstream Republicans from the nominee foisted upon their party by its "base voters," at the end of the day, Republicans are coming home. After all we have lived through with Donald Trump--from the lashing out at Mexican "rapists" and Muslims on the first day of his campaign, to mocking the disabled, to the odd flirtations with Vladimir Putin, to his fight with the Khan family, to the Access Hollywood video--when it comes time to vote, it appears that little of it will have had much enduring salience. Donald Trump might be a con man, a pathological narcissist and a creep, but at the end of the day, Republicans by and large appear to be concluding that they prefer their creep to the Hillary Clinton that has been demonized and caricatured in their imagination.
I understand the mainstream Republicans who have normalized Donald Trump in their minds and come back home. They are just your average American partisan voters. They are recognizable to me because most of my Democrat friends and relatives could not imagine actually voting for a Republican under almost any circumstance. Or certainly not a pro-life Republican. (I make that particular distinction, as many Philly Democrats voted for the pro-choice Republican Bill Scranton for governor in 1986 over the pro-life Democrat Bob Casey.) And this year, when most Republicans have bought into the demonization of Hillary Clinton pitched by Republicans and Bernie Sanders alike, their choice is not be so difficult to understand.
I have less sympathy for the Republican base voters, who bought into Donald Trump early on and are now gleefully prepared to foist him on the nation, and the world. They remain blind to the simple reality that their candidate has conned and manipulated them from day one. He will build no wall, he will bring no factories back, and he will not cure what ails them. What he has done instead is to absolve them of responsibility for their own lives by heaping the blame on others--ironically, just what Republicans long accused Democrats of doing to pander to their voters. Once the election season is finally passed, it will be evident that those voters have done incalculable damage to the country that they claim to love, while doing little or nothing to grapple in any serious way with the very real pain that confronts them in their daily lives.
As we watch the Democrat firewall wobbling in real time, the prospects of Donald Trump marching into the White House is becoming more real than anyone imagined just two weeks ago. It still remains Hillary Clinton's race to win, but if she does not, it will likely reflect higher turnout than polling models are projecting among less educated white men, a demographic that historically has voted at half the rate of their more educated peers. Those voters represent the core Trump constituency, and if any group looms likely to out-perform this year--perhaps along with Latinos aggrieved by Trump's vitriolic rhetoric--it should be them.
Each morning for the past week I have woken up with a knot in the pit of my stomach. While I know that the pain in my gut is most likely an aftereffect of my recent two week stay in a hospital in Philly with a ruptured appendix, it is hard not to attribute some of it to election anxiety. I have weaned myself off of Nate Silver and the gang at fivethirtyeight.com, and instead now follow Sam Wang and the Princeton Election Consortium. No, I cannot argue the merits of the analytic approach of one site vs. the other, but Sam Wang's projections, shown here, have been more stable, and as such seem to quell the gnarling tightness in my gut, whatever its cause. Sam has been unruffled by the recent collapse in Hillary's numbers and the conventional wisdom that Trump is closing in. I know, intellectually, that this is a poor reason to invest my faith in him, but having Nate Silver deliver bad news day after day had become like water torture. So, I chose Sam.
Does Trent Franks wake up each morning with this same knot in the pit of his stomach? Does he lie awake in the middle of the night fearing for the demise of the Republic, just as I fear the rise of the alt-right and the occupation of the White House by neo-Nazi sympathizers and right-wing conspiracy nuts? He should, but perhaps not for the reasons that he imagines. The rise of the alt-right and its success in appealing to the Republican base has changed the political landscape facing the conservative movement and the country, and Steve Bannon and Alex Jones are charting a path that Franks and his colleagues should be loath to travel.
Over the course of this election, we have not only seen the normalization of Donald Trump's behavior by a large swath of the Republican Party, but the encroachment of the alt-right into our politics. This cannot continue. We cannot, as a nation, accept batshit crazy as the new normal. And the reality is that much of the burden for reversing the course we are on will lie with Trent Franks and his colleagues. They are going to be forced to decide if they and their fellow conservatives are prepared to work to heal the rifts that the nation faces, or if, instead, they prefer to align themselves with a cynical cabal that has been elevated to power by Donald Trump, that is content to contribute to the nation's destruction.
Artwork by Jay Duret. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.