The 2012 presidential election was the first one that I followed in real time on social media at the same time that I was watching cable news coverage. I had a Twitter back in 2008 (and a Facebook, and other social media accounts), but with smartphones becoming far more ubiquitous in those four years, and more broadcast networks utilizing Twitter in their coverage, the 2012 election was the first one that had a strong Internet “real time” component, at least by today’s standards.
As election night went on that year, and it became clearer that Democrats had managed to outperform even the high range of their expectations, one of the image memes I kept seeing in my social media feeds was of someone drinking a celebratory bottle of vodka with a crude label reading “CONSERVATIVE TEARS” stuck onto the side. Although I was certainly relieved that Mitt Romney had lost the election, and that Republicans had lost seats in both houses of Congress, I didn’t agree with the sentiment depicted in that meme. My personal feelings about some particular conservatives aside, my problems with conservatism are, at their root, philosophical, and while I was relieved that their ideas had lost, I felt no joy over them, as people, losing that night.
Naïve as this attitude may be in 2017, I still believe that politics and public service should be an arena for those who want to genuinely help everyone. We may have disagreements over what forms that help should take, or who we should help first, but there are people of all political persuasions who enter public service with the true and honest intent of serving the public, and regardless of philosophical differences over what the size and scope of government should be, that intention is most certainly laudable.
Now, though, it seems like the governing ethos of the current president, and the Republican Party as a whole, is to hurt as many people as possible. How did we get here, and more importantly, what can be done about it?
It could certainly be argued that this tendency was visible in a broad spectrum of the Republican Party going back to Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign, and that it was mainstreamed into the party as a whole with the triumphs of Ronald Reagan and his disciples, fueled by the rise of right-wing media in the 1980’s and 1990’s. That new media wave certainly amplified the black-and-white “us versus them” quasi-religious rhetoric that mimics the most vitriolic sports rivalries: It is not merely enough to be a fan of the Ohio State Buckeyes for some Ohio State fans because, in their estimation, you must also hate the University of Michigan Wolverines (and all who support them) with every fibre in your being if you dare to call yourself a “real” Buckeyes fan. (Switch those two if you like, or substitute the two big sports universities in your neck of the woods. You get the point.) In that respect, there was certainly a palpable sadism to American conservatism since the 1960s, which became a de facto philosophical underpinning of the whole Republican Party by 1980 at the absolute latest.
Like so many things in American politics, though, 09.11 was a real turning point. A traumatized American public took comfort in that black-or-white framing of issues, and when the phrase “You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists” became a mainstream conservative position shortly after the attacks, the outcry was nowhere near what it would have been mere months earlier. After the 2004 elections, Republicans even spoke about maintaining what they saw, and called, a “permanent Republican majority,” as if any political party maintaining permanent power in a country could possibly be anything but a disaster. When Bush 43 started making glaring errors after his second inauguration, though, Republicans didn’t have answers, and the next two elections saw Republicans nationwide suffer crushing defeats, most visibly with the election of Barack Obama as our 44th president.
On the night of Obama’s first inauguration, though, Republicans reframed their approach in a way that may make that night the most consequential in recent memory when it comes to the decline of American discourse and governance. At a secret meeting that evening — one that is not nearly as well-known as it needs to be — Republicans agreed that their purpose would be to stop the new President from doing anything. They did not want to prioritize the promotion of conservative values like smaller government and lower taxes, or even right-wing Christian morality. They did not want to stop liberalism, or even the Democratic Party as a whole. They wanted to stop Barack Obama, the person. Defining yourself in opposition to your political opponents is a normal part of political discourse, but to position the failure of one particular person as your primary purpose just takes the black-or-white dynamic to a whole new level. Even before the 2010 midterm elections, this idea had been so normalized by Republicans that their Senate leader was defining his colleagues’ primary goal as limiting Obama to a single term as President. (The fact that Republicans chose the first African-American president as their first target of this tactic also opened them up even further to charges of racism.)
After Republicans failed to unseat Obama in 2012, their next target was head-smackingly obvious to anyone with even a casual interest in American politics. It was someone Republicans had already been building a case against for twenty years, with attacks ranging from the most legitimate of conflict-of-interest concerns to the most ludicrous of conspiracy theories. Although many in the Republican Party bristled at who wound up as their presidential nominee in 2016, he was, in his unique way, a perfect figurehead for the conservative rhetorical and operating philosophies that rose to prominence during the Obama presidency. He had a long, and very public, track record of personal attacks on people he felt slighted by, from Graydon Carter to Rosie O’Donnell, and a blustery approach that had been on network television nearly every week for several years.
For all of the personal problems the Republican candidate was burdened with, he had the benefit of running against a Democrat who was deeply unpopular on both ends of the American political spectrum, and who failed to inspire all but a Democratic Party base that would have voted for her anyway. Issues with the campaign and the election aside, the fact is that the Republican candidate in 2016 is now the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in 2017, and the governing approach that he and his party have taken since his inauguration have been nothing short of the destructive approach they took against Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, injected with steroids and turned on everyone they dislike.
Measuring the effectiveness of the current administration is a very difficult task. On the one hand, the amount of significant legislation that has passed through the traditional Congressional-vote-to-executive-signing pipeline has been minimal at best. Promises made about the first ninety days, first thirty days, and even first day of this administration have clearly not been fulfilled. Apart from the appointment of a Supreme Court justice, there’s very little that this administration can point to in terms of major accomplishments.
However, this administration has certainly done a lot of smaller things, through executive orders and cabinet-level actions, to generate multiple news headlines every day that enrage left-leaning Americans, from moving to kick transgender service members out of the military to eliminating protections for disabled Americans at schools and universities. In and of itself, these actions are enough to generate a near-constant stream of left-wing outrage, but when you add in the additional headlines created by a chief executive with all the tact of a fart in church — especially someone who likes to smack-talk leaders of countries with nuclear weapons — that outrage becomes all-encompassing.
Feelings of being overwhelmed by all the news stories coming out of Washington these days are common across the political spectrum; a 24-hour news cycle that seemed needless and self-aggrandizing just a year ago now feels insufficient to cover the scope of what this administration is doing most days. Administration supporters are likely to believe that any news must be good news, and administration opponents are just as likely to cling onto whatever story they hear about and decry what the administration is doing, until the next big story comes along to grab their attention and start the cycle over again. That still leaves a lot of people in the middle, though, people who either feel no strong ideological ties or just don’t follow politics that closely as a normal course of action.
What has begun to emerge among these people — and also among the weaker supporters of the administration, who may have issues with some of the things this administration has said or done, but still prefer it to having Hillary Clinton back in the White House — is using the unhappiness of left-leaning Americans as a barometer of what’s going on in America. Instead of following the news closely enough to make their own judgments about what the current administration is doing, or even trying to educate themselves to any significant level on current issues, they’re saying things along the lines of, “If liberals are unhappy, then the administration must be doing something right!” Sometimes a specific person will be mentioned (like Michael Moore), but more often than not, the success of the administration — and, quite often, the perceived success of the country along with it — is being measured by how unhappy left-leaning Americans are, for reasons ranging from presidential etiquette to the literal deaths of their family members.
This has not yet become an overt operating principle of the administration, or the Republican Party as a whole, but it took less than two years from that secret meeting after Obama’s first inauguration for Republican leaders to speak openly about making Obama’s failure their primary goal. Given how quickly the idea of using left-wing unhappiness as a yardstick for conservative progress is spreading, it may not take even that long for it to become something that Republicans and their pals in right-wing media turn into mainstream thought.
For left-leaning Americans, this is a difficult situation. Constant outrage is exhausting (those four words should be the epitaph on 2017’s gravestone), but if you don’t speak loudly and forcefully on behalf of those who have been hurt by the current administration, then you shouldn’t expect those same people to support you when the next election comes. That should have been the main lesson Democrats took away from their 2016 election losses, but judging by how they’ve been talking since then, they remain nearly as incapable of accepting blame for their mistakes as anyone in the current administration. Worse yet, left-leaning Americans can’t count on this administration making mistakes, because unlike the Bush 43 administration, they have an instant answer for any and every charge that comes their way: It’s all “fake news.”
Perhaps the past twelve months, and however many more are to come with this current administration, are karmic payback for all of those “Conservative Tears” memes that went around the Internet after Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama. I’d like to think that there’s a way to pull this country (and possibly the whole world) away from this notion of defining success by how many people you don’t like getting hurt by your actions, but I fear that, like so many other things this past year, the current administration may have rent asunder the moral and social fabric that, however tenuously, once bound us together. It may not be long before merely stating a desire to help everyone will be seen by most Americans as moronically quaint, if not a red flag that someone actually has the most nefarious of intentions. I hope that I’m wrong, but that hope dies more and more with each news story that comes out these days, and those certainly aren’t going to dissipate any time soon.