Conservative Derangement Syndrome: What Are They Thinking?

Sara Robinson

Over on the right wing, the conservatives are all a-Twitter because someone dug up a YouTube video from last February in which White House environmental staffer Van Jones calls Republicans “assholes.” And then yesterday, Glenn Beck breathlessly revealed that back in 2004, Jones signed a petition calling for further inquiry into 9/11.

Let’s not let ourselves get distracted by this, people. First off: the conservatives lost their right to get upset about public profanity the day Dick Cheney threw the F-bomb at Pat Leahy on the floor of the Senate. Even George W. Bush got caught on tape calling a New York Times reporter “a major league asshole.” Thanks to their own legendary potty-mouths, there’s not a shred of moral high ground left for the GOP to stand on here. Jones’ apology is a hell of a lot more than Leahy got from Cheney — so it should be more than enough here.

Same deal with the video. Any party that’s got its top leaders running around selling the idea of non-existent health care “death panels” and telling us that Obama is the next Jim Jones (that’s the new meme next week, by the way — look for it) long ago since forfeited its right to call anybody out on conspiracy theories. Their credibility on the subject is even flimisier than their forgery of Obama’s Kenyan birth certificate. So, y’no, STFU.

The real story here, as Karl Frisch of Media Matters lays out quite elegantly, is that Glenn Beck is about to lose his TV show:

The story goes something like this: Van Jones helped found ColorOfChange.org which, “exists to strengthen Black America’s political voice,” particularly online. Fox News’ Glenn Beck said President Obama has “a deep-seated hatred for white people” before going on to say that “this guy is, I believe, a racist.”

ColorOfChange.org kicks off a campaign calling on advertisers to drop their sponsorship of Beck’s show. To date, at least 57 companies have ceased advertising on Beck’s Fox News program. Beck refuses to apologize and goes after Jones calling him, among other things, one of the President’s “radical advisors” who is “fighting a revolution.”

In vintage Beck, the Fox News conspiracy-theorist-in-chief bizarrely asked: “Will progressive pigs fly right out of Van Jones’ butt and pedal bicycles to” replace coal power? Heck, even CNN’s Howard Kurtz noted that Beck had “trashed” Jones while “neglect[ing] to mention” that Jones had co-founded the group which is currently leading the boycott of his Fox News show.


For those of us who carry around spotting scopes and field guides to study the right wing, it’s fascinating to watch Beck head into the final turn of what appears to be his death spiral. He may be going down — but it’s clear that he’s decided it won’t be a total loss if he can at least take Jones — perhaps the most inspirational black leader in America after the President, and the most effective environmental leader, period — right down with him. They lesson the right wing wants us to take away from this is for every one of theirs we take out, we’ll lose one of our own. It’s gang-war eye-for-an-eye logic — and it’s more evidence that what the conservatives are playing now isn’t anything remotely like politics, but increasingly looks like full-out war.

Where is this violent, irrational fury coming from? Why can’t the right wing simply accede gracefully to the idea that their time is over (for now, and maybe for good if they keep this up long enough to alienate the younger generations — they’re well on their way), and drop back and become the loyal opposition, as political parties here and around the world have always done? It’s hard for liberals to fathom this. We tend to see accountability moments and power shifts as times of lessons learned, career chapters closed, and justice restored. It’s painful, but the world goes on. But right-wingers experience accountability and power loss very, very differently — in a way that creates profound derangement and terror whenever they’re faced with even the mere threat of it.

Let me explain.

It’s not news to anyone that the conservative movement has an authoritarian streak a mile wide and twice as deep. The desperate drive to quiet one’s existential fears by acquiring ultimate control and unaccountable power — rules for thee, but not for me — is at the heart of conservative political theory, economics, and culture. And when their control cracks and their power ebbs away, it creates a panicked sense of loss that’s bubbling up now in a whole range of strange and wondrous right-wing freakouts, from the teabaggers to the moonbat conspiracy theorists to Glenn Beck’s bizarre deconstructions of UN statuary. (Apparently, not even one of the devout Christians at FOX recalled that the whole “swords into plowshares” idea — the motif of a UN sculpture which Beck darkly called out the other night as a “Communist” image straight out of the USSR — actually comes straight out of the Bible. And it appears there not just once, but three times — in Isaiah, Amos, and Micah. Sunday School FAIL.)

The core problem is that authoritarian logic defines “liberty” in the context of a natural, God-given hierarchy. Freedom is — by definition — a direct function of social status. The higher your status, the more liberty you have to force lesser beings to do your will — including the power to punish them for crossing you, and freedom from the fear that they can or will get back at you in return. (Whenever you hear conservatives talking about “freedom” and “liberty,” remember this definition — it’s the codebreaker that allows you to hear the subtext of what they’re really saying to each other.) This kind of “freedom” is, in the end, the only kind of liberty that really matters. Since any loss of status automatically dooms them to live under someone else’s thumb, authoritarians will resist giving up power or control (which they see as their “rights”) by any means necessary. Live free or die.

This explains a lot. First of all, it makes it easy to see why conservatism is constitutionally incapable of letting go of status markers like race, religion, wealth, and gender. These factors are the strongest determinants of where people sit in the hierarchy, and therefore how much freedom they’re entitled to and who else they get to push around. In the conservative view (no matter how much they try to sidestep it or pretty it up), the Constitution was written to preserve the “liberties” of straight white Christian men of means. They, in turn, exercise their freedom by constraining the liberty of everyone else (even if they have to resort to bullying and violence to keep the underlings in their places. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do). Messing with that order, as progressives have always sought to do, is tantamount to killing America as they understand it. We want justice. They see it as treason.

This view of freedom also explains why conservatives overreact so bizarrely to any perceived loss of control. To the authoritarian right, having Democrats in charge is directly synonymous with losing the only “liberty” that matters. Any restriction on their accustomed power feels like punishment — and they react particularly badly to it, because in their view punishment, by its very definition, is only for the Little People. Allowing someone else to hold you to account is the ultimate proof that you’ve lost your most precious asset — control — and are now someone else’s bitch. Naturally, this is about the most traumatic thing that can happen to an authoritarian leader. They’ve lost the status that defines their freedom, along with the power that keeps their deepest fears at bay.

And just to make things even crazier, there’s that unquestioned assumption that showing mercy is a sign of weakness. Authoritarians are quite willing to dehumanize and abuse outsiders when they’re in control. So when they’re knocked out of power, they just assume their enemies will do exactly the same, if not worse. (They’ll also deride us as weaklings when we fail to meet that expectation — there’s no winning this one.) This bone-deep terror that we’re going to do to them, at minimum, what they’d do to us adds extra urgency to their panic. This deep fear is what’s being pegged by all those weird accusations about granny killing and death panels — accusations that say a whole lot more about their own intentions and fantasies than they do about us.

Finally, there’s the apocalypticism — the final pit into which Beck is now descending. Color of Change (perhaps unwittingly, perhaps not) dove right into this whole noxious slime pit when it dared to hold Glenn Beck accountable. (And to make it worse, they’re doing it by leveraging the very same free market that FOX so deeply reveres. Oh, the irony.) To Jamie Rucker — the real organizer of CoC’s appeal to the better angels of Beck’s advertisers — and the rest of us on the left, holding Beck accountable for his words is a matter of simple justice. To Beck, though, we’re violating his sacred deal with God and upending the entire order of his universe. The Lord gave him his TV show. Only the Devil himself can take it away. And right now, that devil looks a whole lot like Van Jones. It’s the End of The World As He Knows It — which, if you’ve got an ego the size of Beck’s, means it must be the end of the world for everybody else, too.

You can hear it in almost every broadcast now: Beck sees himself as the lone warrior in a great cosmic battle, single-handedly holding the line between God’s divine order and the evil hordes (led by Jones, Rucker, and Color of Change) out to sweep it all away. It feels like annihilation. It feels like a fight to the death. And if he, as God’s own handpicked spokesperson, is going down, then he has a sacred obligation to take down the Devil’s own with him.

In the process, he’s also setting an example for how the righteous who come after him will fight on after he’s gone. The right-wing freak show will be with us for as long as the Democrats are in power. We’ll make better sense of it if we bear in mind that behind every new act is the same swirling haze of incendiary, mind-altering paranoia and projection — a phantasm of phlogiston and fear that’s the energy source keeping the whole circus lit and running. It may be completely unreal (or surreal); but underneath it all, there’s a deranged logic at work that we need to understand if we’re going to effectively defend our own.

But we know this for sure: If Beck succeeds in damaging Jones and Color of Change — a decision that’s largely in the hands President Obama — you can count on this being the start of a fast and furious conservative witch hunt aimed at picking off every other progressive leader. What they’ll learn is that this kind of minor smear is all it takes to turn liberals against each other — and we’ll effectively be in the position of letting the craziest people on the right wing decide for us who our leaders will be.

The lunatics are already running the GOP’s asylum. We’ll be even crazier than they are — and lose any chance we have of returning the country to sanity — if we let them tell us how to run ours as well. There’s no need for any angst or debate: Let’s just get Glenn Beck off the air, and let Van Jones get back to work saving the planet.

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