Magazine | November 7, 2016, Issue

Asymmetric Rhetorical Warfare

Some of you won’t read this column until after Hillary Clinton is elected 45th president of the United States. But I’m writing it before she is, and so it feels like I should offer some summation of these, the longest 83 years of my life, or perhaps a few weighty portents of things to come.

But, really, what’s left to be said? Much less by your wearied scribe. Our misery is so over-determined at this point that the mere continuance of this election seems proof that time is a sadist. I mean, at this point the coffin is more nails than pine. With each new foul discharge from the Republican nominee, my couch feels more and more like Milliway’s — the “restaurant at the end of the universe” in Douglas Adams’s comic sci-fi novel of the same name — where time-traveling diners clever enough to make a reservation after their visit can watch the Big Crunch, over and over, from inside a temporal bubble that rocks back and forth across the end of everything.

Okay. Maybe that’s a bit dark.

But like a lot of us, I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about how the institutions of the Right (one lesson of all this is that you can no longer, and probably never rightfully could, call them “conservative” institutions) can better serve their constituencies. How do we produce a public attuned to all the subtle and unsubtle ways that progressive assumptions and prejudices skew the discourse without egging them on so much they go full Alex Jonestown Massacre?

What we don’t want is to produce figures such as Bill Mitchell. If you’re not familiar with Mitchell, an upstart Internet radio host and madman, I envy you, because MIT propeller-heads have named him the layman with the most social-media influence in the election as he flatters his conspiracy-addled followers with “100 percent” guarantees that Hillary will lose and assures us that the GOP nominee’s ground game isn’t in a massive data operation, “it’s in our hearts.” In a recent Weekly Standard profile, we learn that Mitchell is a 56-year-old lover of musical theater, and that “being a bachelor left him enough time to obsess over his favorite news sites, Breitbart, and the blog of Gateway Pundit, where he’d been a frequent commenter for years.”

Poor Bill’s personal reckoning cometh, and that right soon. I don’t envy him his November 9, but I do wonder what can be done to keep his successors off the model-airplane glue.

I’ve long been an apologist for asymmetric rhetorical warfare. I’ll explain what I mean by example. Years ago I appeared on a podcast arguing, contra a progressive interlocutor, that opposition to aggressive, expensive schemes to counteract potential climate change — things such as carbon taxes, cap-and-trade, and alternative-energy subsidies — do not actually require denying the underlying science suggesting that anthropogenic carbon emissions can affect climate. But because climate alarmists so rarely distinguish between that fairly compelling science and the far shakier climate models that suggest impending catastrophe, and because they often simply assume that evidence of man-made climate change is ipso facto an argument for punching the global economy in the crotch, it makes a certain amount of sense that conservative opinion elites would resist yielding any rhetorical ground on the subject.

This dynamic has played itself out across a number of policy areas in recent years, and it is becoming increasingly clear that it is a mistake. To pick just one example, it turns out that conservative wonks such as NR contributor Avik Roy have been largely vindicated for warning that Obamacare was horribly designed and doomed to cost more and appeal to fewer Americans than promised. But because Roy’s and others’ arguments were complex and obscure, and because the bill’s proponents were content to cast all opposition as being by or on behalf of heartless corporate shills, the popular conservative discourse descended to similarly simple-minded depths and made the debate an all-out battle to stop “socialized medicine.”

There is of course plenty of truth in that characterization, but in making the debate comprehensible for laymen and defining it in terms that would get their blood up, the GOP severely limited its own ability to maneuver. It so raised the stakes that even legitimate victories — such as the work by Marco Rubio and others to close the spigot on taxpayer bailouts for insurance companies — were ignored or interpreted as capitulations.

This is the painful bit of truth in the Left’s insistence that conservative institutions precipitated the alienation, and eventually the complete cognitive secession, of the segments of the GOP electorate who turn to Drudge and Breitbart and Infowars for their information. The bad news is that I don’t have any solutions. The really bad news is that we’ll have plenty of time to think them up.

Of course the Left and its collaborators in the press can hardly be held harmless in this whole mess. Four years ago they elevated “binders full of women” to a kind of statutory rape, and they spent last spring solemnly warning that Ted Cruz was the real monster, and they have generally taken every opportunity to display their contempt for the concerns that could drive folks to the soothing pledges of a low-rent sociopath and the legion of Baghdad Bobs who promise his impending triumph.

A promise that — if you’re only just getting around to reading this issue after it sat on your coffee table a few days — you know was empty before the polls even closed on the West Coast.

Daniel Foster — Daniel Foster is a former news editor of National Review Online.

In This Issue



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