Since time immemorial, the con artist’s sucker pitch to his targets has been the same. “You are special: you are savvier, more clear-sighted, more clued-in than the average clod, and because I like you so much, I’m gonna let you in on a little secret if you act now.”
This reflexive conformity, the inclination to follow the leader like iron filings attracted to a magnet, is getting dangerous.
A decade ago, Rick Perlstein examined this aspect of an American political movement when he wrote about mail-order conservatism. This was the newsletter promotion of right-wing politics mixed in with various snake-oil advertisements that began, in Perlstein’s telling, with the Goldwater campaign in 1964. It blossomed in the 1970’s, went establishment during the Reagan presidency, and, with the advent of the internet, social media, and Donald Trump, it metastasized into a mighty industry.
The advertisements in these movement conservative screeds specialize in miraculous alternative (meaning fake) medical cures that the Establishment doesn’t want you to know about; sure-fire investments to ride out the coming apocalyptic crash (in former days usually involving overpriced gold coins, but various crypto-currency scams now); and diverse kinds of purported survivalist gear, mostly camping equipment that is much cheaper at Walmart.
Perlstein, who wrote the piece well before Trump lurched Frankenstein-like onto the political stage, was perceptive in his recognition that bogus marketing was integral to modern American conservatism, as well as prescient in seeing that the con-artist’s pitch of a miracle cancer cure was becoming part and parcel of mainstream Republican rhetoric.
As anyone who paid attention during the debate over the Affordable Care Act or the controversies over social distancing and vaccination will understand, the bedrock of Republican rhetoric is an abstract appeal to freedom. The pitch goes like this: “Unlike those contemptible snowflake liberals, YOU, dear Fox News viewer (or Breitbart reader, or whoever), are too smart to be taken in by the siren song of the Nanny State. That way are the indescribable horrors of socialism and the gulag.”
This come-on actually offers its audience nothing tangible other than a feeling of spiritual kinship with Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett. The real-world consequences of having a mouthful of rotting teeth, or dying on a ventilator of COVID are photoshopped out of the alluring picture of untrammeled freedom.
The kind of freedom that movement conservatism offers is also radically different from the common understanding of that word since the Enlightenment: the rights of equal participation in a system of consent of the governed under the rule of law. Nor is it freedom as understood by ethicists since ancient Greek times: optimal autonomy under the proviso of reciprocal rights to others (the golden rule) and practiced with rational self-control and an absence of greed or malice.
Freedom, among the base of Trump’s Republican Party, means license to do whatever you feel like on impulse—too bad about the cop you concussed on January 6th, or the elderly woman deathly ill from COVID because you refused to wear a mask, or the election worker now in hiding because of your death threat. This kind of freedom is the freedom of the Freudian id, bursting out of its civilized constraints like the alien creature in John Carpenter’s The Thing.
But there is a flip side to this freedom. Its practitioners imagine that they are unique individuals because of their political beliefs, that they are a small remnant of uncorrupted Americans who see through the Establishment’s scam and are able to think on their own. There are memes in the conservative world for this. As per The Matrix, they have “taken the red pill” so that they can see the truth. One such MAGA adherent referred to me in an email exchange as a “normie,” an acknowledgement that his views were not the norm.
(This attitude contradicts the unspoken assumption that “real Americans” are a “silent majority” that constitutes the true consensus in the country. But according to Umberto Eco, many of the common characteristics of fascist movements contradict one another. In a sense, the strength of fascism is precisely its ability to offer a whole shopping list of emotional commitments, whether they are consistent or not).
Naturally, followers come by this belief in their rare political insight by watching exactly the same opinion shows on Fox News or reading the same viral post on Facebook. You can be sure that if Tucker Carlson propounds some adolescent slogan on Thursday evening, by Friday morning a whole legion of rugged individualists will be squawking it verbatim like a troop of parrots. And it will instantly be incorporated into the talking points that the Republican National Committee sends out to every GOP press secretary on Capitol Hill.
This reflexive conformity, the inclination to follow the leader like iron filings attracted to a magnet, is getting dangerous. It is feeding stochastic terrorism. Within days of execution of the search warrant for the classified documents at Mar a Lago, threats against the FBI spiked, and two Trump supporters died attacking law enforcement in the manner of Middle East suicide bombers. And Lindsey Graham, Trump’s Mini-Me, is now walking a fine line between predicting violence and advocating it in the event Trump is prosecuted.
It may seem hopeless, but there have been at least a few examples of movement in the opposite direction. One of the more instructive portions of the January 6th Committee’s hearings was the testimony of a Trump supporter who apologized for his actions in the storming of the Capitol. The scales had fallen from his eyes, and he acknowledged the absurdity of joining a herd of zombies crying for their bogus freedom.
For the sake of what’s left of our shaky, starkly imperfect democracy, there needs to be a lot more critical thinking and a lot less follow the leader