In a typical Friday WaPo summary of current conservative rhetoric – “The Last Refuge of a Liberal” – Charles Krauthammer demonstrates why he is so widely revered among the faithful: At the moment of decision, he will shamelessly and pugnaciously reinforce complacency, bravely take up the cause of cowardice, and adopt any argument, no matter how contemptibly inane, for the sake of expressing contempt.
Here’s how Dr. Krauthammer defines the “ugly sight” of “liberalism under siege” in four short paragraphs – deploying a mode of obfuscation and misdirection that conservatives from the lowliest internet commenter to the dean of rightwing intellectuals cling to like so many Pit Bulls clinging to soup-bones.
— Resistance to the vast expansion of government power, intrusiveness and debt, as represented by the Tea Party movement? Why, racist resentment toward a black president.
— Disgust and alarm with the federal government’s unwillingness to curb illegal immigration, as crystallized in the Arizona law? Nativism.
— Opposition to the most radical redefinition of marriage in human history, as expressed in Proposition 8 in California? Homophobia.
— Opposition to a 15-story Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero? Islamophobia.
Does Krauthammer actually deny that racism, nativism, homophobia, and Islamophobia figure in those four “oppositions”? Of course not, because he knows that to do so would be laughable. But has anyone been saying that every person in opposition is a red-in-the-face, spittle-spewing full-time bigot? Does everyone who has ever uttered a bigoted remark, laughed at or told a bigoted joke, experienced or sympathized with a xenophobic impulse deserve to have scarlet letter “B”‘s tattooed on either cheek, both sets? No one starts out with such absurd assumptions.
Meanwhile, the stubborn refusal to confront lesser real world charges effectively concedes them. Therefore, the real meaning of Dr. Krauthammer’s argument, of the argument that he and all the lesser tools of the rightwing ideological apparatus have been making all Summer, is not that racism, nativism, homophobia, and Islamophobia are non-existent on the right. His argument can only be that, to whatever extent they do exist, they are unimportant, but, like virtually every other “mainstream” and “sober” conservative pundit of any note, Krauthammer is not intellectually brave enough to take this or any other position on the realities of rightwing populism openly. The issue must simply be bypassed rhetorically – because even to acknowledge it, even to make the slightest concession, would call for an honest and open accounting.
Is the new populist right driven by bigotry on any level and to any extent? If so, then how much would be too much? Is there any “down side,” short- or long-term, to ignoring where not encouraging and elevating the worst elements in American political and social life? Answering such questions, even recognizing the the potential relevance of such questions, would in turn force the right either to separate itself from the popular wellsprings of its support, or to confess that it knows full well what it’s doing.
The price of sheer denial to the right is its own moral and intellectual hollowing out. A man like Krauthammer – or like Bill Kristol, or Rich Lowry, or the other shirking guardians of American conservatism’s intellectual self-respect – surely must know that they are merely playing roles, have exchanged credibility for pragmatic cretinism – that is, for self-interested opportunism, the first and last refuge of moral cowards. They advance a depiction of the broad left that in itself amounts to a stereotype, and defines conservatism and liberalism both as political bigotries, deformations of the mind and spirit facing each other across a divide that can no longer be crossed by reason.