When, in the early 1990s, I first arrived in Washington, D.C. as a student from the newly free Czechoslovakia, the Republican party was a beacon of hope. It steadfastly advocated for liberty, both political and economic. It harbored no illusions about Cuba and other totalitarian states. It largely understood the importance of a strong American role in the world. I became an honorary Republican.
More generally, I was impressed by American political culture and the professionalism of the news media. They presented a sharp contrast to Central Europe’s post-Communist mess, in which vicious smears, naked lies, and corruption were our daily bread. I remember how much I wished Czech and American media and politics were alike.
And now they are. A significant portion of U.S. politics and media slid down the sewage to be as bad as ours were back then.
The sorry state of American politics is not due solely to Republicans, but they are by far the more responsible party. It is frankly astonishing how closely today’s GOP resembles in mentality the Communist party of my youth, right down to Donald Trump’s brownnosing to Moscow. It is incredible to see Fox News, let alone Newsmax and OANN, use the same methods as Czechoslovak TV and Rudé právo (Red Right), the official Communist paper, in the 1980s.
An example: In February 1989, nine months before the Velvet Revolution that toppled the Communist regime in Prague, Rudé právo published a long article entitled Who Is Václav Havel? It smeared the imprisoned dissident with lies and sinister implications of his family’s supposed collaboration with the Nazis. To show Havel’s alleged alienation from ordinary people, the paper quoted from an interview in which Havel reminisced on his childhood. When he was a boy, Havel said, his wealthy family had a butler, maid, gardener, and chauffeur, which naturally created a social barrier between him and his surroundings. There the quotation ended. What the paper failed to mention was the rest of the passage, in which Havel confessed that he felt ashamed and struggled to overcome the barrier. Quoting out of context has become normalized for the GOP propaganda machine on Fox, Newsmax and elsewhere.
Lying about democracy, a mainstay of the old Communist press, has also become standard for American media outlets aligned with Trump’s GOP—as witness the months of lies about the “stolen election,” for which there is no evidence. At least in the United States, some of those outlets have had to issue retractions and disclaimers.
And then there are the verbal pirouettes of whataboutism. They formed the bedrock of Commie propaganda. Whenever the Communists were forced to acknowledge errors and imperfections in running the economy (which they eventually ran into the ground), they ramped up their propaganda about racism and homelessness in the United States to create the mirage of moral equivalence. Does that sound at all familiar?
Another tactic is selective attention. Watching Fox and its competitors, one is rarely confronted with the reality of the January 6 insurrection in its full scale and moral ugliness, as that which does not conform to the party line does not exist. After all, it is a well-known fact that there were no airplane crashes or train wrecks in communism, since the media did not report on them. . . . When real journalists like Bret Baier or Chris Wallace tell the truth or ask tough questions of GOP spin doctors, one suddenly has the same sense of surprise as watching the reformist journos doing something slightly more daring during the Gorbachev perestroika than just parrot the official story. Which I admit is unfair to Wallace, Baier, and those few remaining real press men and women over at Fox, but I cannot help myself with the feeling.
Many articles and books (including Charlie Sykes’s excellent How the Right Lost Its Mind) have sought to understand and explain how the slide toward propaganda began. None of them, though, has gone far enough—back nearly sixty years, to the early days of the modern conservative movement.
And as much as I admire Ronald Reagan and his role in the defeat of communism, I must start with his 1964 speech in support of Barry Goldwater, “A Time for Choosing.” The speech’s impact on conservative politics was enormous and largely laudable, but it also contained an early sign that something might have been a bit off with the movement he was helping to build. It was like watching small shoots of weeds that over decades were allowed to grow, eventually killing the crops of an honorable party.
In 1964, Reagan and Goldwater redefined politics on the right, making it more idea-driven and goal-oriented instead of just pragmatic. The strategy would succeed beyond the Gipper’s wildest dreams. Still, Reagan’s address includes this paragraph:
I’d like to suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There’s only an up or down: [up] man’s old—old-aged dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism. And regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would trade our freedom for security have embarked on this downward course.
The mode of thought to which this passage opens the door is dangerous. It implies that the other side is not just wrong on specific matters of contention, but dangerous—that it is pushing in a potentially deadly direction. No longer do we have the realm of democratic politics in which two parties spar over the right course of action yet, regardless of who wins, the system remains intact.
Reagan, it must be said, was not alone in this stance—other intellectuals, commentators, and politicians said similar things both before and after he did. But his speech is worth singling out for its huge influence on conservative thought and rhetoric. He suggested that by promoting a larger government role the other side would lead America, to borrow Hayek’s term, down the road to serfdom.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is now clear that this was wrong. Who was the ‘other side’? It was the liberal Democrats, the party of JFK (who lowered taxes) and LBJ, whose portion pursued higher taxes and a more robust social safety net. You might have thought their policies were wrong and harmful, but to suggest that they were essentially totalitarian, that in fact there was no qualitative difference between them and the Communists in Eastern Europe, is a huge stretch.
The second half of the twentieth century saw dozens of countries with robust welfare and high taxation not succumbing to totalitarian impulses, not coming even close to autocracy—certainly no closer than today’s Trumpist GOP. The Hayekian legend that high taxes empower the government and eventually and necessarily lead to tyranny should have been rejected even in the 1960s, but it most certainly must be retired by now. It was entirely consistent with the emerging neoconservative philosophy to argue that high taxes remove incentives for innovation and hard work, and can have many unintended deleterious consequences, but misleadingly dangerous to suggest that they are directionally totalitarian.
And what of the conservative media? William F. Buckley famously sidelined the Birchers, whose psyche so resembles a sizable chunk of today’s GOP. He was able to do that because of courageous leadership, but also because in those days elites still wielded real power in movements. Had Twitter been around in the early 1960s, Buckley would have had a steeper hill to climb.
From then on, conservative media grew in numbers and influence. They played an important role in shaping the movement, organizing ideas, and helping to promote policies. Many editorial rooms also developed something resembling a siege mentality. To an extent it was understandable. As the majority of the mainstream press was indeed left-liberal, the small right-wing magazines and journals, followed in the 1980s by radio shows and in the 1990s by Fox News, saw themselves as advancing the cause in an enemy territory. There was cohesion, team spirit, and camaraderie in the fight.
There was also lots of wishful thinking and willful misperception of the world outside the conservative ramparts. Bill Clinton, as crystal-clear a centrist as there ever was, was often portrayed as a socialist. The same, and even worse, happened to Barack Obama, a mild-mannered center-left liberal. The man who is nothing but tolerant was depicted as Saul Alinsky II spiced with Jeremiah Wright. There can be nothing more distant from a real conservative sentiment than guilt by association, yet there we were. But what the heck—why not? The libs were evil, right?
A curious thing happened. At the same time that the rise of the internet, smartphones, and social media weakened elites through the 1990s and the early 2000s, conservative media grew in importance and influence. Yet the siege mentality did not abate. Indeed, on less intellectual right-wing platforms it became par for the course. Government was no longer just a problem but an enemy. Democrats and their allies in Hollywood, the universities, and the news media were not just wrong but bent on destroying America.
Since the GOP and conservative media let the unhealthy inclinations on their extremes grow unchecked, they became especially vulnerable to the mass overthrow of sanity, responsibility, and conscience we are witnessing today. The extremes moved to the center, took over and became hugely profitable, both economically and politically.
Reagan’s speech was an early signal. In it, he also said: “If we lose freedom here, there’s no place to escape to. This is the last stand on earth.”
The last stand—or, as some might put it nowadays, Flight 93.
There is a time and a place for such rhetoric, of course, as when Lincoln referred to the “last best hope of earth” or Churchill promised “we shall never surrender.” But those were wartime speeches by wartime leaders. In democratic politics, there is no last stand. There is only a struggle, a peaceful one, between competing ideas, policies, and visions of the future. It is a struggle that never ends.
And friends of democracy should be wary of rhetoric that casts peacetime politics in existential, ultimate, and decisively final terms.