Telling Scary Stories

Obamacare was evil. Obamacare would ruin everything. And then it worked reasonably well. Those who couldn’t afford to buy any kind of health insurance got help in buying basic health insurance, and those selling those policies weren’t allow to cheat and sell them useless crap that covered next to nothing. There were now rules about what had to be covered, and there was some dispute there – the Jesus people objected to coverage of birth control medication or devices of any sort – that was murder, the murder of innocent children, but that noise died down after a bit. Obamacare wasn’t evil. Obamacare didn’t ruin everything. It was kind of useful, and when the Republicans, in the 2018 midterms, once again said they’d do everything they could to get rid of Obamacare, they lost more than a hundred House seats. Trump had said it was evil. The attorneys general of most red states had filed a suit to repel it that was headed to the Supreme Court. Trump said that was wonderful. So did most Republicans. And the voters said no. The reality of Obamacare was fine. The Republicans’ imaginary Obamacare might well be evil, but it was imaginary. They made all that up. And the nation shrugged.

So they shrugged too. That’s what they just did:

The Supreme Court saved the health care system from imploding Thursday by dismissing a Republican challenge to the Affordable Care Act. But it also saved the GOP itself from another round of intraparty chaos.

Most GOP lawmakers privately admit (and some will even say publicly) they don’t want to deal with health care again. The issue generally isn’t a good one for them with voters – as they learned the hard way after they failed to repeal the ACA in 2017.

Now they’re happy instead to make Democrats own problems with the health care system and brand their ideas to improve it as “radical.”

But they won’t make up imaginary deeply evil stuff about Obamacare now:

Asked whether the SCOTUS ruling signals the end of his party’s effort to repeal and replace the ACA, Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) said: “It ought to be.”

He added: “Forget about repealing it. That water is under the bridge anyway, and all you get with that is, the other side will say you’re against covering pre-existing conditions.”

Yeah, yeah, the old saying is “blood under the bridge” or “water over the dam” – Braun needs to get his clichés right – but the point is that they made up an imaginary awfulness, that had been useful in late 2009, but when Obamacare was passed in 2010, and then in the years that followed, was not useful at all. Reality won this one. They had to stop telling absurd scary stories. None of their voters were scared any longer. They hadn’t been scared of Obamacare for years, if they ever had been scared.

It was time for another imaginary evil. The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake sees that:

It’s been more than five months since President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, and those seeking to deflect blame still can’t figure out exactly how to do so. First, the idea was that the riot was provoked by antifa. Then it was that it was preplanned, so Trump couldn’t have incited it. Then it was that the riots weren’t really that bad or that they were even “peaceful,” despite the violence and deaths. None of those arguments is borne out by the evidence available.

Those arguments were too obviously imaginary but they had their man on television:

Fox News host Tucker Carlson wove just such a tangled, conspiratorial web Tuesday night.

Carlson’s theory is essentially that the presence of unindicted co-conspirators in the Capitol riot indictments means those people are government agents and that this, in turn, means the FBI was involved in organizing the riot. The idea has since caught on with conspiratorially minded congressional Republicans.

So that’s that, The FBI is evil. Follow his thinking:

The theory follows Carlson’s well-established style of asking extremely suggestive questions with little basis in evidence – and which are easily disputed – and then treating the answers he likes as fact to build a narrative he prefers. I’ll quote him at-length:

“Strangely, some of the key people who participated on Jan. 6 have not been charged. Look at the document. The government calls those people unindicted co-conspirators. What does that mean? Well, it means that in potentially every single case, they were FBI operatives.”

Carlson goes on to cite two unindicted co-conspirators in the indictment against alleged Capitol rioter Thomas Caldwell. The government alleges Caldwell conspired with members of the extremist “Oath Keepers” to storm the Capitol. “Person Two” was someone Caldwell stayed with at his hotel. “Person Three” was someone Caldwell identified as being involved in a “quick reaction force.”

Tucker Carlson was on a roll:

But wait, here’s the interesting thing: Person Two and Person Three were organizers of the riot. The government knows who they are, but the government has not charged them. Why is that?

You know why: They were almost certainly working for the FBI. So, FBI operatives were organizing the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, according to government documents.

And those two are not alone. In all, Revolver News reported there are, quote, “upwards of 20 unindicted co-conspirators in the Oath Keeper indictments, all playing various roles in the conspiracy who have not been charged for virtually the exact same activities, and in some cases, much, much more severe activities as those named alongside them in the indictments.”

Huh? So it turns out that this “white supremacist” insurrection was, again by the government’s own admission in these documents, organized at least in part by government agents.

Blake is amazed:

Carlson goes on to note that FBI Director Christopher A. Wray has said the government has aimed to infiltrate extremist groups like the Oath Keepers, which shouldn’t really be a surprise to anyone.

The theory was promoted Wednesday by Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.).

Of course it was, but it was nonsense:

The first thing to emphasize is that Carlson’s theory is based on a report in Revolver News. The site is run by Darren Beattie, who appeared on Carlson’s show shortly after the above monologue. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Beattie is a former Trump White House speechwriter who was fired in 2018 over a past appearance on a panel with a white nationalist, Peter Brimelow, at a conference attended by well-known white nationalists.

The second and perhaps most important point is that the basis of Carlson’s theory – that the unindicted co-conspirators are either likely or must be government agents – is extremely shaky.

Legal experts say the government literally cannot name an undercover agent as an unindicted co-conspirator.

“There are many reasons why an indictment would reference unindicted co-conspirators, but their status as FBI agents is not one of them,” said Jens David Ohlin, a criminal law professor at Cornell Law School.

Blake lists those reasons:

The government doesn’t know who they are.

The government doesn’t have sufficient evidence to indict them and wants to avoid impugning their reputations or compromising ongoing investigations.

They have secured leniency from the government for cooperation with investigations into others.

While all of these are plausible, that last one seems like a distinct possibility. We already know that a founding member of the Oath Keepers, Jon Ryan Schaffer, has agreed to cooperate.

There’s much more of this, but following it all may be pointless. It’s all imaginary, as Blake notes:

Carlson also says that the insurrection was, “by the government’s own admission in these documents, organized at least in part by government agents,” which goes quite a bit further than merely suggesting the possibility that the government had infiltrated the organizations involved. It’s the kind of suggestion journalists in other organizations would quite possibly be fired for if they sought to push it nearly as hard.

But for Carlson, it’s just the latest segment.

Philip Bump notes where that leads:

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) rose to speak on the floor of the House on Thursday, a sheaf of news articles in his hand and the spirit of a Breitbart commenter in his heart.

He began by defending his recent question to a Forest Service official asking if that agency might be able to shift the Earth’s orbit. Then, a riff on a Washington Times article about criminal activity in Mexico, a country that enjoyed a “fantastic location.” Then, in conclusion, Gohmert shifted to the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, an event that he has in the past dismissed as “people without any firearms coming into a building.”

“There’s been so much appropriate concern about January 6,” Gohmert said. “What happened that day. Unfortunately, we don’t know all that happened that day. There are some major, major questions that need to be answered.”

Among them? A report that had been elevated the night before by Gohmert’s “friend,” Fox News host Tucker Carlson: that perhaps a significant part of the violence that day was spurred by FBI agents embedded in the crowd.

“This is scary stuff,” Gohmert said of the sketchy claims made by Carlson. “This is third-world stuff. This is not only third-world stuff but this is like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin kind of activity.”

No, it’s all imaginary, and thus is quite useful:

The dubiousness of the story would have been trivial for Carlson’s team to unearth before his segment aired. But the story was irresistible on the right because it contributed to efforts to reframe the violence that day as something other than the fury of supporters of President Donald Trump misled about claims of rampant voter fraud – claims that people like Gohmert had amplified. The Carlson report shifted responsibility from Trump to the “deep state,” a very comfortable pattern for the political right.

Other right-wing House Republicans were similarly eager to elevate Carlson’s report. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) tweeted the segment shortly after it aired, just as he had quickly elevated false claims on Jan. 6 itself that the left was to blame for the violence. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), perhaps Gaetz’s closest ally in the House, amplified Gaetz’s tweet, writing that just as the deep state “had a ‘back up plan’ to stop Trump in Russia Collusion witch hunt, now we are finding out they were deeply involved in Jan 6th” – untrue and unfounded claims in their entirety.

The following day, Gaetz sent a formal letter to FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, demanding answers to three questions about the government’s activity in that period – questions lifted directly from the Revolver article.

But wait, there’s more:

Sputnik, an outlet funded directly by the Russian government, elevated the Carlson report, casting a slightly different light on Gohmert’s “Putin kind of activity” claim. It was also picked up on the right-wing cable network Newsmax, with host Steve Cortes – himself a former Trump campaign adviser – interviewing Gaetz on the subject.

“I’ve been called a conspiracy theorist just for asking these questions. But whether it was the Russian hoax that was nonsense or the origins of the coronavirus at the Wuhan lab,” Gaetz assured Newsmax viewers, “I’ve got a pretty good track record of being right when I make pronouncements.”

He doesn’t. But he knows what works:

Linking this particular theory to the right’s preferred narrative on the Russian interference investigation and to the genesis of the coronavirus is apt. In each case, outlying evidence was used to cast media coverage as flawed p and those flaws were used to argue that the opposite of that coverage must be true.

The lab-leak theory of the coronavirus origin is the most recent example. Renewed consideration of where the virus came from led to criticism from the media itself about how much credence the theory had been and should have been given. This was used by the right not only to claim that the media was flawed but, further, that the lab-leak theory was therefore more likely to be true. In many cases, it is simply asserted to be true, as by Trump himself.

Trump does do that. Obamacare is evil too! Get used to this:

Two weeks ago, Carlson used a few lines from publicly released emails to cast the government’s chief infectious-disease expert, Anthony S. Fauci, as dishonest and criminal. His claims, like his report on the co-conspirators, lacked any robust foundation, as subsequent reporting by the Washington Post and others makes clear. But the broad strokes of Carlson’s claims seem already been accepted by many on the right as true, with any questions about his evidence being sanded off as unimportant to the understood reality.

This is why the claim that the FBI spurred the violence on Jan. 6 is useful. It suggests that the common understanding of that day – an understanding inconvenient to Gohmert, Gaetz and others who promoted false election-fraud claims – is incorrect. It shifts responsibility away from Trump and the right and onto the government itself, a now-familiar target of the right’s frustration.

That the claims lack any substantive evidence doesn’t derail the effort at all.

That’s because the lack any substantive evidence of a conspiracy is ironclad proof that there is one, and it’s good – those people are damned sneaky!

How does this happen? Paul Waldman has some ideas about that:

Conservatives haven’t had a lot of high-profile, practical victories lately, ways they can show their supporters that their side is winning important battles. Democrats took the White House and control of Congress, Obamacare remains in place, same-sex marriage is legal, and those on the right fear they’re losing every cultural conflict.

So if you can’t defeat a real enemy, why not take on an imaginary one?

Thus it is that “critical race theory” – an academic approach to understanding the way race operates within systems and institutions – has become the new conservative bugaboo.

Critical race theory is their new friend now:

Though it is no more a topic taught to children than post-structuralism or computational quantum chemistry (if you ever encountered it before this year, you probably went to grad school), the entire American right is now donning its battle gear to fight this threat to their children’s education and way of life. The fact that this is a phantom threat is essential to understanding how the strategy works.

“We will eventually turn it toxic,” wrote the conservative think-tank fellow who played an important role in birthing this effort. “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’”

That’s the plan:

Turning outrage into action, a wave of bills that have been filed in state legislatures that either explicitly or implicitly ban the discussion of critical race theory in schools. Among states where such bills have recently passed are Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Idaho and Iowa. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) promised to “make sure there’s not a single school board member who supports critical race theory.”

But that’s just a game:

The key characteristic of this manufactured controversy is that it is a symbolic battle masquerading as a practical one. By passing laws to ban an idea that is never taught in schools from being taught in schools, they’re trying to create a threat, then claim they vanquished it, thereby offering their supporters a feeling of reassurance and agency.

That doesn’t mean these bills will have no practical impact; teachers are reporting that they’ve become terrified of even addressing topics around race now that it could run afoul of state law. But none of this has anything to do with what critical race theory actually is; it’s a stand-in, a tool to create a new Lost Cause narrative in which conservative Whites are society’s true victims.

Waldman says this is like Sharia Law a few years ago:

Many Republican legislators didn’t know precisely what it was, but they wanted everyone to be afraid of it, so in state after state they passed laws forbidding its use in court.

The current controversy has something in common with that one, that when you find the GOP legislators most enthusiastic about passing a ban, chances are they’re knuckleheads who have no idea what they’re legislating about. When pressed about what critical race theory really is, Republican legislators seem to know only that it has something to do with race and it makes White people feel bad.

That may be what’s most important here:

Another key element of these frenzies is that they’re usually marked by a combination of organic local activism and elite direction from conservative organizations, often located in Washington. And critically, they are fed by agenda-setting and cheerleading from conservative media – especially Fox News. They’re simultaneously grass roots and artificial turf, which creates the self-reinforcing cycle that spreads and sustains them.

For instance, the liberal group Media Matters for America recently documented that Fox News has been bringing on one guest after another, identified only as concerned parents or educators, to complain about how critical race theory is allegedly infecting their schools. But it turns out that these reg’lar moms ‘n dads “also have day jobs as Republican strategists, conservative think-tankers, or right-wing media personalities.”

That hammers home the message:

A central focus of those media discussions is that what may seem at first like an intellectual or symbolic discussion will have tangible effects on your life, effects that are positively revolutionary and terrifying. So when President Biden signs a law, making Juneteenth a national holiday – a worthwhile gesture, but not much more – Tucker Carlson tells his audience that “our country is getting a new Independence Day to supplant the old one.” Might as well cancel that Fourth of July barbecue.

But there’s nothing new there:

On one level, this is all a backlash to the national debate about race that emerged after George Floyd’s murder last year. That debate, which featured lots of institutions and people trying to grapple with the persistence of racism, left conservatives feeling intensely alienated, even threatened – feelings which were ripe for exploitation by right-wing political and media figures.

But it goes deeper, into the broader cultural alienation conservatives have been experiencing for years.

The idea that your own children will be taught something you disagree with has long been a potent weapon to rile people up, particularly conservatives who already feel their children are growing up in a world that rejects their values, and adopting ideas about race and sexuality and gender that are far more liberal than theirs.

They may even grasp that the large societal forces that fill them with anxiety – perhaps none more than the steady racial, ethnic and religious diversification of America – are out of their control. They can elect a xenophobic bigot as president, but immigrants will continue to arrive and he’ll fail in his project to make America white again.

And that made all of this inevitable:

That’s enough to make you despair. But you can pass a measure at your local school board or a law in the state legislature and say, “We banned critical race theory from the classroom! Victory is ours!”

That’s the nice thing about imaginary enemies: They’re not hard to defeat.

But there is the real world. The rest of us live there.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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