A normal person couldn't be blamed for enjoying a certain grim satisfaction watching movement conservatives go careening over the cliff with their bizarre attempt to smear 12-year-old Graeme Frost. Sure, it's fun to watch Michelle Malkin's pants go down in flames. Who wouldn't enjoy that?
But it's worth remembering that the stakes here run deeper than simple takedowns. There are two serious issues at stake here: how we Americans see our relationship to the government, and how we handle our relationships with each other -- especially those we disagree with.
There are signs that even a few movement conservatives can see the ground coming up. The Wall Street Journal's editorial page on Sunday signaled that it might be time to shut down the controversy -- a sure sign they know it's gone badly:
While that was a political stunt, the Washington habit of employing "poster children" is hardly new. But the Internet mob leapt to some dubious conclusions and claimed the Frost kids shouldn't have been on Schip in the first place.
As it turns out, they belonged to just the sort of family that a modest Schip is supposed to help.
Not that this has particularly slowed the yowling mob pursuing the Frost family, including a defiant Michelle Malkin, who already has pretty much self-immolated in leading this fiasco. Indeed, as their bus plunge gains in velocity, they seem to be ratcheting up the ugliness a notch, with comments like these surfacing among right-wing bloggers at sites like RedState:
If federal funds were required [they] could die for all I care. Let the parents get second jobs, let their state foot the bill or let them seek help from private charities. […]
I would hire a team of PIs and find out exactly how much their parents made and where they spent every nickel. Then I’d do everything possible to destroy their lives with that info.
Even more disturbingly, as ThinkProgress reports, for this kind of rhetoric, RedState got a big thumbs-up from the White House:
Rather than distancing themselves from the smear campaign, the White House today decided to embrace RedState and reward the blog with an official White House posting.
In a post entitled “Democrats’ SCHIP Budget Gimmick,” Nicholas Thompson, a staffer in the White House’s Office of Strategic Intiatives, rallied the conservative troops around Bush’s hard-line stance, reminding them that “we are less than one week” from Congress’ veto override vote.
In addition to the grotesque unseemliness of hounding a family in their home, one of the real reasons the conservative movement has taken this cliff plunge is that their drivers have been seeing a road that isn't there: their "facts" have all evaporated in thin air, as the WSJ editors noticed. But with Malkin and her minions, that simply hasn't been a problem before, so why should it be now?
As near as I can tell, the right-wing blogosphere has spent the past three years fantasizing obsessively about uncovering a new Rathergate. It was their great triumph (Blog of the Year from Time magazine!), and now it seems like hardly a month goes by without the hysterical discovery of yet another faked photo, planted note, or lying liberal. Almost without fail, though, they turn out to be.....wrong. Embarrassingly, completely, unquestionably, flat-on-their-faces wrong.
Being wrong, in fact, has never stopped movement conservatives in the past. Nor has it stopped the media from treating them as legitimate. Eric Boehlert described this in some detail earlier this year, detailing some of the ways Malkin has embarked on a series of factually screwed-up crusades that have only revealed her estrangement from basic standards of truthfulness (yet have simultaenously won her glowing valentines from the likes of Howard Kurtz).
-- Her embrace of the fanatics pushing various Terri Schiavo conspiracy theories.
-- Her unprofessional smear of photojournalists working in Baghdad.
-- Her insistence that a suicide bombing in Oklahoma was actually a harbinger of the looming Muslim jihad on American shores.
-- The bizarre conspiracy theory she concocted regarding the design of the Flight 103 memorial.
-- And most infamously, who could forget her leading role in the 'Jamilgate' fiasco, wherein she tried to claim that a Baghdad reporter's source was actually nonexistent, but found out that not only was he very much real, she'd also endangered his life.
Malkin, however, does care on some level. She craves to be respected. And she knows on some level that she’s been knocked down on the canvas -- and she’s deeply embarrassed. But, she’s decided to double down rather than acknowledge the mistake and move on to other battles. It’s as if she were the commander-in-chief or something.
Indeed, Malkin's recalcitrance is symptomatic of a general conservative-movement trait: never, ever admit you are wrong. It's one of their core tenets: Being Right Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry. That's how they've handled every issue that's come down the pike, from the Iraq war to Katrina to SCHIP.
But as satisfying as it might be to watch Malkin finally consume herself in the bonfire she's built, there's are, as Colin McEnroe suggests, much bigger fish frying here. For starters, it's useful to keep in mind that the underlying issue that Malkin and Co. are assaulting is the basic matter of middle-class solvency:
Malkin and her friends don't want to fix that problem. On the contrary, they insist on it! They insist on the risk of bankruptcy as kind of a moral imperative; and they say members of the shaky, eroding American middle class who are not willing to put up with the ruination of their financial health from medical bills are leeches and wussies! Wow.
This is the politics of hate. Screaming, sobbing, inchoate, hate. It would never, not in a million years, occur to me to drive to the home of a Republican small business owner to see if he “really” needed that tax cut. It would never, not in a million years, occur to me to call his family and demand their personal information. It would never occur to me to interrogate his neighbors. It would never occur to me to his smear his children.
The shrieking, atavistic ritual of personal destruction the right roars into every few weeks is something different than politics. It is beyond politics. It was done to Scott Beauchamp, a soldier serving in Iraq. It was done to college students from the University of California, at Santa Cruz. Currently, it is being done to a child and his family. And think of those targets: College students, soldiers, children. It can be done to absolutely anyone.
This is not politics. This is, in symbolism and emotion, a violent group ritual. It is savages tearing at the body of a captured enemy. It is the group reminding itself that the Other is always disingenuous, always evil, always lying, always pitiful and pathetic and grotesque.
Or, as John Cole put it more simply: "These people are authoritarian thugs."
The rhetoric matches the agenda here, and it has a specific quality -- namely, both are eliminationist in nature. The purpose of hounding people in their private homes is not merely to punish them for speaking up but to intimidate anyone else who might consider doing the same -- that is, to eliminate opposition. And observe the language being directed at the Frosts, such as that from RedState's mbecker: "[they] could die for all I care," and he would like to "destroy their lives."
As I wrote some time back:
How is any kind of normative political discourse possible in this environment? How is it possible to be civil to people who constantly are placing you under assault? How can there be dialogue when the normative rules of give and take and fair play have not only been flushed down the drain, but chopped into bits and swept out with the tide? Do the advocates of civility place any onus on the nonstop verbal abuse, and absolutely ruthless, win-at-all-costs politics emanating from the conservative quadrant? And do they really expect liberals to refuse to defend themselves, when even doing so gets them accused of further incivility?
It's important to make an issue of eliminationist talk precisely because it is so poisonous to the national discourse. For starters, its innate divisiveness belies its practitioners' demands for "national unity." Moreover, its targets are in a lose-lose position: if they attempt to continue to practice the old-fashioned politics of traditional civility out of principle, they are doomed to be bulldozered; but if they stand up and fight back, they're accused of being uncivil. (It's funny how bullies act all wounded and picked on when somebody punches back.)
This is easily the ugliest facet of a conservative movement that doesn't have many attractive ones to begin with, and the more the general public sees it in all its mouth-foaming glory, the less they want anything to do with them. With polls a month ago showing something like 86 percent support for SCHIP, nasty attacks on 12-year-olds seem unlikely to change the public's mind. (A more recent Rasmussen poll showed 57 percent disapproved of President Bush's veto of the SCHIP bill.) More important, there's a growing consensus that, like the centrists at Poliblogger, we are "sick to death of these people and their views of both politics and public discourse."
Yet at the same time, eliminationist rhetoric creates a vicious upward spiral that inevitably expresses itself in violence: When its practitioners face the inevitable retaliation, their response always is to ratchet it up another notch, until the back-and-forth gets so ugly that hardly anyone can tell who is worse. This is not discourse; it's a recipe for the destruction of our democratic institutions.
So while we should allow ourselves to enjoy our low mordant chuckles at the spectacle of the conservative-movement bus plunging off a cliff with Michelle Malkin maniacally cackling at the steering wheel, it's best to remember that it's still just a metaphor and a cartoonish one at that. They'll be back, like Wile E. Coyote or Freddie Krueger, after dusting themselves off and pretending nothing untoward has just occurred.
Because there's one other facet of the movement-conservative mindset that will always be in play: they never give up. Defeat just makes them more determined. Once they've gotten their taste of flying monkeyhood, they won't be turning back. There already are harbingers that some of the characters involved in this controversy -- notably Free Republic and others -- will be playing an increasing role in street-level right-wing "advocacy" in the coming months. (I'll be reporting on these developments as more details emerge.)
And besides, as Eric Boehlert observed, being spectacularly wrong has never slowed this crowd down before, especially not in terms of how they are regarded by the Beltway media. Indeed, we should probably look for more glowing profiles of Malkin and her friends in the coming months.
The Frost family fiasco, I suspect, was just a shot across the bow. The 2008 election cycle could well get very interesting, and not necessarily in a good way.