The case against trying to “understand” modern conservatism

We are navigating a political landscape that is unlike anything the U.S. has seen in modern memory.

The current Republican President of the United States is a serial liar who earned the endorsement of the KKK.

The White House is being run by a man who “built a platform” for white nationalists.

The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the “birthplace of modern conservatism,” has tapped as its keynote speaker Milo Yiannopoulos: professional troll and for-real proponent of child molestation.

Can we please stop pretending the big problem in this country is that we don’t know how to talk to each other, as opposed to the fact that the current conservative leadership is morally bankrupt?

The political right is large and meandering and has its own idealogical scale, but it has also spent the last 18 months in an identity crisis. The  GOP strategy – what was left of it, that is, after the party was officially hijacked by the Trump regime at the RNC – played itself out with last year’s electoral wins, leaving a vacuum that was quickly filled by those right-of-right: the far end of the idealogical spectrum from which the current president and his advisory team were plucked, a newly emboldened band of extremists whose views are mainstream now that they’re preached from the White House. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, hate groups are growing in the United States. Are we surprised? No, we are not.

Here’s the latest entry in the diary of the conservative identity crisis:

Michelle Fields, conservative journalist, took to Twitter to decry Yiannopoulos being CPAC’s keynote – to her credit. But rather than being lauded for this, her conservative followers defended Yiannopoulos and attacked her. In fact, for the last 24 hours, social media has been blowing up with conservatives literally defending pedophilia.

We’re watching the right consume itself to stabilize a new normal; those who live in the more moderate areas of the conservative idealogical spectrum are learning the hard way that their belief system is extinct. They, individually and as a group, have two choices: conform or risk irrelevance.

For those of us on the left, who are figuring out how to move forward from here, this is important because we have to stop indulging in fantasies that there’s a line too far for conservatives to cross.

We are working with a conservative movement that defends child molestation. (And this remains the case even if the media coverage gets hot enough that Yiannopoulos gets dropped, because his statements – and his years-long record of tormenting people and literally trying to get people to be killed or to kill themselves – has long been public record.)

Not all conservatives agree with this. Not all Republicans agree with this. Not all Trump voters agree with this. But this is the current direction and leadership of their political movement, and if your Trump-loving, CPAC-attending friends and family are silent right now then the reality is that not even pedophilia is enough to get them to step off the train.


The problem isn’t that we don’t “get” it. The current administration omits mentioning Jews in their Holocaust Remembrance statement and glorifies the cruel and brutal Andrew Jackson. The Republican party increases abortions in their fight to end abortion and casts a safety net over violent offenders in order to paint immigrants with a broad brush. This is not the party of nuance and we on the left do ourselves no favors when we overthink their messages into some kind of complex strategy. This is “remove a splinter from your finger with a chainsaw” territory and the one benefit to that is that we all “get” it.

The big problem we’re facing is that the modern conservative platform advocates a zero-sum game. There are winners and losers, and the winners have already been chosen and the losers don’t matter. It’s a platform of open exploitation and abuse of the most vulnerable members of our society, who represent a subjugated loser class whose humanity is irrelevant.

Kids don’t matter. Minorities don’t matter. Refugees don’t matter. Immigrants don’t matter. Muslims don’t matter. Persons with disabilities don’t matter. Gay and trans people don’t matter. This is the platform of the new conservative movement, one that gets dressed up in pretty, flag-themed swag like “religious freedom,” and “freedom of speech.” “Freedom,” in these cases, referring not to the existential rights of the marginalized, but to the emotional comfort and satisfaction of the chosen ones. In an alt-news and alt-facts world, we also get to tear the shiny paper off of new, alt-interpretations of what and who America stands for.

“This isn’t conservatism,” Michelle Fields wrote. But, isn’t it? Isn’t it conservatism, when the oldest and arguably most influential conservative lobbying group in the country taps a proponent of child molestation, a bully, a promoter of hatespeak and abuse,  as their keynote speaker? Isn’t it conservatism, when everyday conservatives defend it? Isn’t it conservatism, when conservative politicians are on board?

In what way is it NOT conservatism, when from the movement’s membership through its representatives through its institutions, there is  support for these beliefs?

There is hope in the persistence of people like Michelle Fields – and John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Mark Sanford, and those among our conservative family and friends that are using their voices right now – who refuse to quietly exit stage left. Their opposition should reassure us. The GOP has been remade multiple times in its long life, and it can be remade again if folks like them don’t get too tired to carry their outrage. But they don’t represent the political brand built by Bannon and governed by Trump and endorsed at CPAC, and if they’re going to fix the big problem here – the problem that, it must be acknowledged, they all contributed to by embracing a political climate that intentionally cultivated ignorance and conspiracies into order to deliver a programmable electorate – they’re going to have to stop pretending they represent the millions of people who are in ecstasy over being one of these new “movement” conservatives… Conservatives who have now walked so far down this path that taking just one more step, even if it’s into the realm of child molestation, is easier to justify than making the long trek back to where they started.

But make no mistake – reshaping conservatism, if it can be reshaped, is something that will happen from the right. We need it to happen because the country is at its best when we have sane voices at the table, but we cannot influence it from the left and we shouldn’t try. That’s the work of Michelle and John and Lindsey and Mark. We can cheer them on as they work to assemble a next-stage conservatism with nothing more than a hazy vision and an allen wrench, but we should also stay the hell out of it because the instant we say, “I think those two pieces go together,” their allies will grab those two pieces and burn them to nothing.

Our work is to engage smarter and build something better.

Our work is to do what lefties do best and apply all our overthinking tendencies and strategic skills and foresight (at which we are, consistently, better than the right) into plans. We’ll re-read Alinsky and figure out how to transform our ideologies into tangible calls for change. We’ll work on healing our own moderate-left and extreme-left divide so our house is one people will actually want to come to. We’ll build organization around our movement, we’ll flip red districts blue… and we will take on the hard work on bridging divides but NOT by crossing the line into an alt-universe in which every seat is in the mud. (I have thoughts on what the new rules of engagement should be, which is another post coming in the next day or so.)

But while we do this – please, for the love of all that is holy – let’s stop lecturing each other about how the problem is one of our interpersonal skills or understanding. There is no moral imperative to find empathy for a movement that aligns itself with sex abusers and liars. We need to hold onto our horror at what we see, because what we’re hanging onto is what’s left of our humanity.