Many commentators are suggesting that both right and left are equally to blame for all the polarization between them. They’re wrong. The reason for all the bitterness between left and right is entirely the right’s fault. Right-wingers who suggest otherwise are self-deluded — and usually projecting.
Exhibit A: Newt Gingrich. On June 18, Gingrich capped off a week in which he once again blamed the left for a mass shooting by suggesting on ABC’s This Week that the Russiagate investigation is “baloney” because there is no evidence that Trump colluded with the Russians. When anchor Martha Raddatz suggested that an investigation is needed to reach this conclusion in the first place, Gingrich responded with the non-sequitur that Bill Clinton, John Podesta’s brother and the “Iranian deal” should be investigated.
When Raddatz suggested that the investigation is not just about Trump, Gingrich responded with another non-sequitur: Trump did not commit obstruction of justice by firing Comey.
And when Raddatz questioned Gingrich’s false statement earlier in the week that the president cannot in principle commit obstruction and reminded him that he himself tried impeaching President Clinton for this crime, Gingrich dodged with the same non-sequitur: “[T]here’s no evidence” that Trump committed obstruction.
What Gingrich exhibited in just this one interview is a problem that is rampant throughout not only the Trump administration but also the modern Republican Party: bad reasoning. Like the rest of them, Gingrich is marvelously inept at persuading. His points don’t even qualify as sophistry because sophistry at least has the form and appearance of valid, cogent argumentation.
In 2008, Susan Jacoby wrote in her book The Age of American Unreason that the American right has “been so effective at turning the once honorable word [“intellectual”] into a political pejorative. The right wing has been able to get away with this disingenuous logic — and with putting it in the mouths of genuinely anti-intellectual right-wing politicians — because nonreading Americans know less and less about their nation’s political and intellectual history.” Similarly, five years later, then-Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal urged his fellow Republicans to “stop being the stupid party.”
Unfortunately, the GOP never heeded Gov. Jindal’s uncharacteristically sage advice. Instead, they continued in precisely the reverse direction and chose Trump to be their standard-bearer.
Despite his boasts, Trump is hardly a trendsetter. He is merely following the lead of the right’s most prominent propagandists on Fox News and hate/outrage/grievance radio: Newt, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, the formerly influential Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones, Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin, etc. None of them can reason well. When challenged, they don’t act like good thinkers would — by listening carefully and then responding with careful, effective, fact-based arguments. Instead, they interrupt and shout down their opponents, belittle them with some pejorative term (“feminazi,” “libtard,” “snowflake,” “elitist”), attack their character or motives, and then avoid further challenge of their vapid rants by escaping to advertisements.
Reactionary demagogues have effectively programmed millions in their audiences to argue in this willfully — indeed, proudly — ignorant manner. Hence the demonic, furious, malicious, sneering comments that routinely populate right-wing blogs and comments sections, not to mention social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Based on their language, often incoherent and always full of rage and indignation, one would think that President Obama, Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi march into their homes every day, steal their money and food, and then — on the way out — ridicule them for all their adversity.
Needless to say, such baseless, inflammatory comments do not measure up to the kind of rational political dialogue envisioned by our Founding Fathers and encouraged by academic institutions. Just the opposite, they are the odious residue of minds poisoned by exposure to thousands of hours of manipulative, deceptive, McCarthyist filth. This kind of cynical indoctrination and the divisions it has caused not only among citizens but also among family members are vividly captured in Jen Senko’s brilliant but tragic movie, The Brainwashing of My Dad.
All of this toxic irrationality is very frustrating for the left, who, unlike the right, don’t have it all figured out. Quite the contrary, they always want to learn more, to make intellectual and moral progress, to pursue difficult questions and try to solve difficult problems. They are not afraid of different perspectives, which is why only they, not the right, value multiculturalism, immigration, diversity and scientific exploration.
Of course, the right will deny this self-proclaimed open-mindedness and point to students’ suppression of free speech at some colleges and universities. But while intolerance is generally wrong, one big exception to this rule is intolerance of intolerance (bigotry) itself. All that people like Ann Coulter, Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer have to offer is demonization — demonization of non-whites, of Muslims and of the left.
As Henry Drummond eloquently proclaims in Inherit the Wind, “Yes — the individual human mind. In a child’s power to master the multiplication table, there is more sanctity than in all your shouted ‘Amens’ and ‘Holy holies’ and ‘Hosannas’! An idea is a greater monument than a cathedral, and the advance of man’s knowledge is a greater miracle than all the sticks turned to snakes or the parting of the waters.” Similarly, the core tenet of Hannah Arendt’s philosophy was that thinking for oneself is essential to both morality and humanity.
Unfortunately, this singular, sublime capacity is entirely squandered by the right. Instead of exercising it — whether by reading books, pursuing higher education, seeking job retraining, figuring out ways to help needy communities or just trying to discover more about the vast, mysterious universe we inhabit — they prefer to immerse themselves in a mindlessly repetitive echo chamber; pompously regurgitate its vacuous, often false, talking points whenever the opportunity arises; and eagerly create such opportunities when they don’t arise.
This unenlightened, know-it-all mindset, completely impervious to conflicting facts and theories, is just not the stuff of rationality, progress and constitutional democracy. It is, rather, the stuff of superstition, cults and fascism. Fortunately, the brainwashed right constitute a minority — only 35 to 40 percent — of the American population. This is why Republicans have to cheat to win local, state and national elections. Because they can’t be honest about their self-serving, oligarchical motives, they have to resort instead to the most ruthless, unscrupulous, anti-democratic tactics: voter suppression (including voter purges), unconstitutional gerrymandering and dissemination of fake news.
The right would argue that an article like this is “divisive.” Indeed, for eight years, they accused President Obama of dividing America. But they’ve got it entirely backward. The election of the first black president alienated the right, but the fault for this alienation lies entirely with the latter. The same is true today, in Trump’s America; the right, not the left, are the real haters.
To borrow from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (April 16, 1963), we on the left are “not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”
Ken Levy is an associate professor of law at Louisiana State University.