The Right’s New Abnormal Normal
Will the very online war on Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce (and other forms of nihilistic acting out) doom Donald Trump in November?
I broke from the Republican Party and what used to be called “the conservative movement” two decades ago, on the eve of the 2004 presidential election. The break was largely over policy. (Among other things, I strongly opposed the Iraq War and the Bush administration’s endorsement of an anti-gay-marriage constitutional amendment.)
But I was also shocked to see the intensely hostile reaction of readers of First Things (the conservative religious magazine where I worked at the time) to a short essay I wrote about the birth of my first child and my aspiration to play a larger role in raising him than was typical in more traditional families. Response to the essay was intensely angry. And vulgar. And bigoted. And, in many cases, moronic. A couple of readers wrote in to tell me that my wife had stolen my testicles. (The precise language used was a touch more colorful than that.) Others accused me of undermining the rightfully (and biblically founded) patriarchal order of the family. And still others insinuated that my desire to help my wife change diapers and rock my son to sleep in the middle of the night was a function of a deep-seated longing to lactate.
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Why am I starting a post about the online right’s vomiting forth of conspiratorial hostility toward pop superstar Taylor Swift and Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce by retelling this old story?
Because of what some of my friends on the right said behind the scenes about that torrent of vile responses from First Things readers. I was shaken by the onslaught. Was this our audience? The people paying my salary by way of their yearly subscriptions? My colleagues and I at the journal, like the small audience of staffers at sister magazines and ideologically allied think tanks in New York and Washington, were intellectuals. We cared about ideas, and arguments, and evidence. Some in this audience disagreed with some of the points in my essay about fatherhood, but most of their objections were civil, elegant, nuanced, and thoughtful. That’s what I’d grown used to while toiling away in this elite conservative world, imagining that the roughly 30,000 subscribers to the magazine looked at the world in a similar way, possessed a similar temperament, and operated with similar intellectual habits.
But was this true? My friends assured me it was. And even if there were some people in our political coalition lacking in a certain … refinement, there was no need for concern. Politics is like that, with ideological affinities bringing lots of different kinds of people together. And anyway, we were the ones in charge. It was my boss at the magazine who visited the White House for private meetings with the Republican President of the United States, not the people who spewed venom at me for my fatherhood essay, just as it was other members of the First Things circle who suggested language for the president’s major speeches and whom the president appointed to his Bioethics Commission. We were running the show, not the masses of voters who placed our ideas in proximity to power on Election Day. I needed to learn to accept this perfectly normal division of labor.
I didn’t fully believe this account of things then, and I believe it far less today.