One of the challenges in analyzing modern American politics is accurately describing the Republican Party without seeming unserious and hyperbolic. Major publications are understandably in the habit of presenting both sides of the partisan divide as being inherently worthy of respect and equal consideration, both as a way of shielding themselves from accusations of bias and as a way of maintaining their own sense of journalistic integrity.
Unfortunately, the modern Republican Party’s abdication of seriousness, good faith and reality-based communications or policy-making has stretched even the most open-minded analyst’s capacity for forced balance. Donald Trump’s own inability to string together coherent or consistent thoughts has led to a bizarre normalization of his statements in the traditional media, as journalists unconsciously try to fit his rambling, spontaneous utterances into a conventional framework. This has come at the cost of Americans seeing the full truth of the crisis of leadership in the Oval Office for what it is. For instance, it was ironically salutary for the American public to witness Donald Trump’s bizarre pandemic press conferences where he oddly attacked reporters for asking innocuous questions and recommended researching bleach and sunlight injections, because they got to see Trump raw as he truly is, without the normalization filter. Republicans have long argued that the “mainstream media filter” gives them a bad shake, but the reality is the opposite: sure, it’s not as good as being boosted by Fox News’ overt propaganda, but it does them a greater service than letting the public see them unfiltered at all.
But there comes a tipping point at which it becomes too dangerous to keep up the pretense. Most people left of center would argue (rightly, I believe) that we hit that point long, long ago and the time to re-evaluate journalistic norms and practices should have been decades earlier when the GOP was busy covering up the Iran Contra scandal and promoting the Laffer Curve as serious public policy. Or that any number of catastrophes of conservative public policy and norm erosion since should have sounded the alarms along the way, from the Bush v Gore decision and the Brooks Brothers Riots to the lies justifying the invasion of Iraq, to the deregulation-fueled Wall Street crash, birtherism, the Benghazi obsession and the nomination of Donald Trump. Many would point with legitimate outrage to the abdication of responsibility in the face of climate change, yawning inequality, forced family separation policy, children in cages and so much else.
But even faced with awful consequences of all these horrors, a defender of traditional journalism might simply chalk them up to policy differences in a democratic society. They would be wrong to do so, but the position would be intellectually defensible in principle.
But recently there has been a shift among GOP voters that is different not just in degree of virulence, but also in kind. For a host of different reasons, core Republican voters have begun to reconstitute themselves as a conspiracy theory cult devoted to beliefs that were once relegated to the farthest fringe–fictions that cannot help but end in civil conflict and violence if they fully become canon among conservative voters nationwide. This process arguably began as far back as Glenn Beck’s prominence on Fox News, but it has now blossomed into a grandiose collective paranoid fantasy.
Being a Republican now requires believing in a jaw-dropping series of claims that, if true, would almost necessitate anti-democratic revanchism. One has to believe that a cabal of evil scientists is making up climate science in exchange for grant money; that there is rampant, widescale voter impersonation fraud carried out by thousands of elections officials nationwide; that the “Deep State” concocted a scheme to frame Trump for Russian collusion but chose not to use it before the 2016 election; that shadowy forces are driving migrant caravans and diseases across American borders in the service of destroying white Republican America; that the entire news media is engaged in a conspiracy against the Republican Party; that grieving victims of gun violence and their families all across America want to take away guns as a pretext for stomping the boot of “liberal fascism” on conservative faces; and so on. That and much more is just the vanilla Republican belief system at this point (not even touching less explosive academic fictions like “tax cuts pay for themselves” or “the poor will work harder to better themselves if you cut the safety net.”)
But things have gotten even worse in the few years short years since the Trump era began. Once a far-fringe conspiracy theory relegated to 8chan and neo-nazi filled knockoffs of Reddit, the QAnon conspiracy theory (which, among other things, posits that a wide swath of prominent Democrats, celebrities and assorted rich people are engaged in pedophilia and adrenochrome harvesting of children, and that the Trump Administration is always just a few weeks away from conducting mass arrests and summary executions–but only once QANON followers have awakened enough of the “normie” public) has become so pervasive that not only do “Q” signs pop up at almost every major conservative rally or protest, but a true believer is now the GOP nominee for Senate in Oregon. When her campaign attempted to backtrack, she doubled down, saying “”My campaign is gonna kill me…How do I say this? Some people think that I follow Q like I follow Jesus. Q is the information and I stand with the information resource.” This conspiracy theory is destroying families, relationships, and the mental health of its adherents. A healthy and normal political party would inoculate itself from it and debunk it quickly. But the GOP is not a healthy or normal political party.
It doesn’t stop there. Almost half of Fox News viewers—the core of the GOP—believe that Bill Gates is using the COVID-19 pandemic to microchip them. And Donald Trump has been promoting a series of conspiracy theories on twitter each more outlandish than the last, from old debunked accusations against cable news hosts he dislikes to concocted accusations against former president Barack Obama.
Go to any conservative event and you’ll notice a shift from even the raucous detached weirdness of Tea Party rallies. They feel less like political events than cult rallies. Cult experts like Steven Hassan have taken note of this, calling it exactly what it is: a cult built around manufactured realities, shared grievances and us-against-them insular extremism. The increasing dependence of Republican politicians on a shrinking, embattled white evangelical base already given over to faith-based belief systems and racism-tinged “city on a hill” ideology has only exacerbated the phenomenon.
It’s long past time for even the venerable pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post to start calling this what it is, and stop normalizing it as standard partisanship. It is deeply dangerous in a democracy whose constitution functionally guarantees a two-party system, for one of those two parties to become a conspiracy cult.
But that is exactly what has happened. And the first step to fixing it is to call it what it is, no matter how uncomfortable that might be for institutions and journalism professionals who find that sort of language loaded with unprofessional bias. The truth is what it is, even if it requires rethinking the role of a responsible press in an era of white anxiety and mass social-media-fueled disinformation.