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. . .
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.
I think this is correct. The Republican party has attracted a disproportionate number of paranoid style conspiracy mongers for a very long time, but the election of Trump, and even more so the subsequent transformation of Trumpism into mandatory Republican orthodoxy, mark an important shift.
The Republican party is now a cult. Lots of people who vote Republican aren’t full-fledged initiates yet of course, and there are plenty of money men who are cynically going along for the ride, but the base of the party is now a literal cult. And Atkins is right that America’s respectable journalistic institutions aren’t capable of describing this reality.