THURSDAY, AUGUST 11, 2022
"How did it get so far?" Dana Milbank is certainly right in one of his book's key points:
The current lunacy of our American discourse didn't start with Donald J. Trump. Having said that, let's also say this:
In his new book, Milbank isn't trying to trace the history of "the current lunacy of American discourse." He limits his field in a pleasing way, under this slightly odd title:
The Destructionists: The Twenty-Five-Year Crack-Up of the Republican Party
Milbank is tracing the crack-up of the Republican Party alone. There's no question that such a crack-up has occurred, but what about everyone else?
Full disclosure! For ourselves, we'd always seek to draw a distinction between Republican office-holders / opinion leaders and plain old Republican voters.
Under current arrangements, the first group works to mislead the second. The second group gets misled.
It's true that a crack-up has occurred among both parts of the GOP. But Milbank fails to mention the crack-up of everyone else, including his own mainstream press corps—and, of course, himself.
All too plainly, the Republican Party has cracked up over the past (let's say) thirty years. As we noted in Tuesday's report, Milbank traces it back to Newt Gingrich in 1997.
In this way, Milbank gifts himself with a nice round quarter century—with a nice round twenty-five years.
In fact, Gingrich was promoting the crack-up long before that, urging voters to demonize Others in the ugliest, stupidest ways. But those were the demonization wars. Other elements of our societal crack-up were already underway in those ancient days, and not only on the right.
Belief in The Crazy was well underway, with the Reverend Falwell urging the flock to believe that the Clintons had engaged in a wide range of murders.
In 1994—that was 28 years ago—Rush Limbaugh gave nationwide voice to the ugly idea that Hillary Clinton, then the first lady, was involved in the death of Vince Foster. It was already working that way as of then.
(For the record, Limbaugh's radio program had gone national in 1988, on the ABC Radio Network.)
As it turned out, there seemed to be a substantial market in full-blown belief in The Crazy. As of 1996, former FBI agent Gary Aldrich was selling a book which included the claim that the first lady had decorated the White House Christmas tree "with drug paraphernalia, condoms and c*ck rings."
Like Meredith Willson's Music Man, Aldrich was peddling belief in The Crazy. His book was a major best-seller.
As it turned out, belief in The Crazy was amazingly easy to sell by that time. In fairness, this belief in The Crazy, during this era, didn't exclusively come from the right.
Way back in the 1980s, improbable belief in child sex abuse seemed to have swept through the country. On the basis of utterly lunatic claims, operators of several preschools were subjected to endless trials and then to long prison terms.
These episodes proceeded through the courts, not through the organs and instruments of the Republican crack-up.
Belief in The Crazy was easy to sell. So was the ugly demonization of Others engineered by Gingrich and his remarkably ugly, remarkably braindead, quite lengthy vocabulary lists.
Belief in The Crazy and love of The Ugly were peddled by GOP organs. But at some point, an honest historian must mention at least two other groups.
One such group would be the mainstream press. The other would be us, The Blue Voters.
Tomorrow morning, we'll skip ahead to the role those two groups played in our society's wider crack-up—the crack-up we're still undergoing.
There is no doubt that Donald J. Trump now serves as drum major for this headlong decline. But the mainstream press corps, and we the blue people, have also played a steady role in this dangerous downward spiral.
So, some say, has Milbank himself—though he's right to trace one part of this wider societal crack-up to the years before Trump's arrival.
"How did things ever get so far?" That's what Vito Corleone is reportedly said to have said.
How did things get so far? In his new book, Milbank traces one highly significant part of our societal decline—but he omits all the rest.
Tomorrow, we'll quickly recall the role the mainstream press corps played in our ongoing crack-up. We'll mention the ways our own slumbering tribe has failed to confront this problem.
We'll also look at a statement which appears in George Will's new column. In the Washington Post, the headline above the new column says this:
Josh Hawley, senator-as-symptom of a broken news business
"More than half of Americans between ages 16 and 74 read below the sixth-grade level."
We'd never seen that claim before, and so we began clicking links.
How well do our journalists reason and read? That's one of the anthropological factors at play in the crack-up Milbank is chronicling.
How well do our journalists reason and read? Tomorrow, your answer appears.
Tomorrow: Today we have clicking of links