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Of Conservative Traitors and a Cure for Madness

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I'd like to thank Charles Johnson for his excellent essay, The New Tribalism. In my book, Blowing Smoke, I found myself searching for a word to describe the vague web of race, religion, culture, and politics that the right wing has used to construct and exploit a new collective identity. I called it a new class-consciousness, but I think that Johnson's term tribalism more aptly captures the jumble of racial and social bonds that the right has used to mobilize white, Christian conservatives as a political bloc.

If you read below the fold of Johnson's article, you'll notice a number of vitriolic comments from readers. These commenters are not TPM regulars. They have been stalking Johnson around the Internet for years, literally. The one called diaryofdaedalus has tried to register at Johnson's blog under at least a dozen different aliases. He has his own blog that alternates between bashing Johnson and exposing the "myth of Serbian genocide." Apparently, he even chose the name Daedalus because Johnson used Icarus as a stage name in his former musical career.

Why such obsession? It's a bitter example of what happens when conservatives like Johnson challenge the bigoted rhetoric of the right wing. The explanation requires some back story.

Charles Johnson is the founder of the political blog, LittleGreenFootballs.com. Like Josh Marshall, Johnson was a pioneer of the blogosphere, except that Johnson approached from the right. He was a staunch of supporter of President Bush and the Iraq War. At LGF, he exposed the fraudulent Killian documents that questioned Bush's service record in the National Guard. The fraud ultimately precipitated Dan Rather's resignation from CBS News. Johnson also co-founded Pajamas Media, which aggregated a network of mostly conservative blogs, including that of Fox News darling Michelle Maulkin.

But in the past few years, Johnson began to criticize representatives of the paranoid right, including Glenn Beck, Ron Paul, and some of the popular bloggers whose careers he had once fostered. In 2007, he sold his stake in Pajamas Media. Finally, in November 2009, he officially split with the right, citing the growth of racism, homophobia, conspiracy theories, hate speech, and other hallmarks of persecution politics. He wrote, "The American right wing has gone off the rails, into the bushes, and off the cliff. I won't be going over the cliff with them."

As a result, Johnson's name has been smeared across the conservative blogosphere, and a few of the more obsessed malcontents stalk him online wherever he contributes.

Other conservatives who have challenged right-wing demagoguery have suffered retaliation as well. Former RNC Chairman Michael Steele and Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA) both ended up apologizing under pressure after they dismissed the political significance of Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing pundits. Former Bush speechwriter David Frum lost his fellowship at the American Enterprise Institute after he criticized Republicans' association with Limbaugh and Sarah Palin. Former Rep. Bob Inglis (R-SC) advised his constituents to turn off Glenn Beck's show and lost resoundingly in the Republican primary.

What crime have these critics committed that has earned them such bitter reprisals? In the eyes of the right wing, they are guilty of no less than treason. Not only have they challenged their allies' political ideology, they have also betrayed their tribe, to use Johnson's term. Tribes typically reserve their harshest penalties for traitors.

But there is something else. I previously argued that right-wing persecution politics is a form of rationalization and that most of its practitioners are aware--on some level--of their own shameful bigotry. As a result, the vitriol actually masks a deep insecurity that is the Achilles heel of paranoid movements. Liberals cannot effectively exploit that insecurity. We're too easily absorbed into the paranoid worldview.

Conservative critics, on the other hand, have tremendous power. Their challenges are not so easily dismissed. I suspect that the person known as diaryofdaedalus spends a significant part of his life attacking Johnson because Johnson holds the key to his delusion. Daedalus is an anti-Muslim bigot. On some level, he probably knows that and is ashamed of it. It matters little to him if a liberal calls him a bigot, but he thought that Johnson was an ally, a member of his tribe. Johnson's repudiation thus threatens his delicate worldview, and that threat is unforgivable.

This particular individual may never give up his delusions, but many others are more receptive to challenge. When enough people from across the political spectrum and especially those from the right denounce the paranoid fantasies peddled by Limbaugh, Beck, Palin, and others, they can undermine the rationalizations upon which persecution politics is founded. If that happens, the whole house of cards may tumble down in an historical instant. It happened to Joe McCarthy. It happened to the John Birch Society. We just need a few more people like Charles Johnson who aren't afraid to risk their reputations and livelihoods to speak the truth.

Thank you again to Josh Marshall for hosting this book club and to Versha Sharma for facilitating it. Thank you to Michael Maeillo, Michael Orion Powell, Michelle Goldberg, Barry Lynn, and Charles Johnson for contributing your insights. And thank you to the many readers who have commented intelligently on these threads.

For more details on Blowing Smoke, please see blowingsmokebook.com


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