Democrats Need To Reverse Engineer Republican Gaslighting

In order to understand how we got here, Democrats should analyze the tactics GOP strategists used to lead the Republican base into an alternate reality.
President Trump (AP), Fox News Anchor Sean Hannity (AP), President Reagan and GOP Strategist Lee Atwater (Bill Fitz-Patrick), and GOP Strategist Frank Luntz (Gage Skidmore)

President Trump (AP), Fox News Anchor Sean Hannity (AP), President Reagan and GOP Strategist Lee Atwater (Bill Fitz-Patrick), and GOP Strategist Frank Luntz (Gage Skidmore)

When Republican strategists appalled by what they see from the Trump administration attempt to give liberals on Twitter advice on how to better talk to voters, the response is almost always disdain and criticism. After all, these are the same strategists who created the very monsters they now seek to destroy, and in the current environment of bad faith and partisan tribalism, it seems almost inevitable that their advice is suspect.

But what if like mad scientists in a sci-fi movie, they realize the error of their ways and are attempting to genuinely atone for their mistakes? Yes, they were able to get downright monsters elected, but having seen what they’re doing to their own country, they may well be aghast and willing to lend their expertise to those who want to defeat them. And before you dismiss them, keep in mind that they were able to craft today’s suicide pact between Red America and the conservative project.

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Knowing how they did it is a perpetual mystery to many liberals and who better to offer the required insight than the very people responsible for it? It’s not like reading an electorate ostensibly excited by liberal ideas but unwilling to actually show up and vote for them has been a strong suit of Democratic advisers. Let’s not underestimate the accomplishments of Republican strategists. They managed to convince tens of millions that giving away all of their money to corporate welfare will somehow bring them untold riches, and that anyone who tells them otherwise is in on a conspiracy to destroy them.

They were able to conflate basic services any civilized government is expected to provide for its people in the developed world with tyranny and theft. Over decades, they successfully turned personal responsibility for one’s life and choices into the outright obliteration of empathy for one’s friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens as an extension of their Southern Strategy which recast elections in America not as a civic exercise, but a defense against anyone different. And they managed to turn well defined political terms like “socialism” into a universal stand-in for everything wrong, evil, or even remotely inconvenient, including broken elevators in luxury hotels in Austria.

That last example comes to us from Frank Luntz, who met with GOP leadership after Obama’s victory in 2008 and advised them to abandon any semblance of logic and reason in their arguments for histrionic fear-mongering and rage. The subsequent laser focus on emotion and the constant invention of existential crises by Fox News and its imitators set the stage for the Tea Party, the semi-organized face of paranoid, enraged, white middle-aged terror of change, and ultimately gave us President Trump while changing the conservative lexicon to a hyperbolic buzzword salad delivered in the same fashion as a sermon for a doomsday cult.

In short, they successfully terrified the country into voting against its best interest to preserve itself from, well, its own desire to improve itself. Undoing that has proven to be no trivial feat, and it’s incredibly difficult to give people a message of hope when any meaningful vehicle to deliver that hope has been branded as a part of some sinister conspiracy to destroy them or replace them by immigrants, globalists, or radical bogeymen created by far right media. And perhaps paradoxically, this is exactly why we need Republican strategists’ help. By knowing what emotional triggers they pulled to break the system as we know it, we can begin to design proposals meant to disarm them.

Of course, there is a catch. The strategists in question must be actually willing to look into truly bipartisan solutions and more interested in the fate of the country than yet another partisan victory for the sake of victory as just another notch in their belt. They don’t have to be perfect allies, in fact it’s probably better if they’re not if we consider what groupthink and the unquestioned worship of Emperor Trump The First of House MAGA has done to the Republican Party. It would be folly of the highest order to rally around another ideology that takes no prisoners, sees compromise as treason, critics and opponents as subhuman, and accepts no dissenting opinions, and demanding purity of thought is the first way down a slippery slope to an intellectually inbred political hellscape.

But the bottom line is that the same people who were able to turn literal drawings on a napkin into a political movement which seized the world by its throat can surely turn well thought out and reasoned policy papers into something people would want to explore further. And experts in stoking fear can certainly tell us how to push the right buttons — no pun intended — to de-escalate decades of manufactured tension and paranoia. Because today, sadly, the languages and values of liberal and conservative America are different, we need human Rosetta Stones to act as interpreters to both, and it’s critically important to enlist those who speak fluent Republican.

It’s far from perfect, but that’s what reality dictates, and dealing with the world as it should be instead of as it is hasn’t won liberals many victories. While the enemy of your enemy may not necessarily be your friend, at least you’re on the same side for the time being and can take on a greater foe before you return to settling your own differences. And if those differences are at least coming from the same place of empathy and decency, and a willingness to actually solve real problems for the benefit of all Americans instead of fanning imaginary crises, that’s just healthy debate in any democracy, isn’t it?

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Opinion // 2020 / Democrats / Elections / Media / Republicans