Ordinarily, I might gloat.
Last week, a prominent conservative pundit conceded a point yours truly and countless others have been making for a long time. Namely, that in their constant assaults on mainstream news media, conservatives have wrecked the very idea of objective, knowable fact. In effect, they broke reality. And Donald Trump came oozing out of the ruins.
“We’ve basically eliminated any of the referees, the gatekeepers,” said Wisconsin radio host Charlie Sykes in an interview excerpt that was tweeted by Oliver Darcy of Business Insider. The net effect, he said, is that Trump will say some stupid thing Sykes knows to be false, but that his listeners still expect him to parrot. And if he doesn’t, “then suddenly, I have sold out.”
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“When this is all over,” he mused, “we have to go back. There’s got to be a reckoning on all this. We’ve created this monster.” He added that, “At a certain point, you wake up and you realize you have destroyed the credibility of any credible outlet out there.” As a result, he said, conservatives “are reaping the whirlwind.”
Sykes would want you to know he is not backing down from the idea that mainstream news media are biased against conservatism. Nor should he.
News media, like any institution created by human hands, harbor biases, including against the political right. I still remember the light that went on in my head when a conservative media critic decried the frequent use of the modifier “arch” to describe those who hold staunch right-wing views. After all, when’s the last time you heard someone on the left called an “arch liberal”?
That’s one example: There are others. But instead of calling out biases in the mainstream media structure or simply creating a parallel media structure to tell their side of the story as women, African-Americans, LGBTQ people and other marginalized communities have done, conservatives sought instead to raze mainstream media to the ground.
Sykes, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and others advanced a narrative in which no institution or authoritative source – not statistics, not science, not history, not polls, not CBS, CNN, The Miami Herald or The New York Times – is legitimate if it contradicts conservative orthodoxy or simply questions the latest harebrained conspiracy theory.
The result has been nothing less than the unraveling of the American mind. We have become a nation of junk history, junk science, junk fact, junk logic, junk thought, a nation where not knowing things is no longer a bar to high office and may even be an advantage, a nation where it is necessary to debate whether a birth certificate is really a birth certificate and Donald Trump followers think the election will be “rigged.”
Nor are bizarre conspiracy theories limited to the right. As anyone who has ever argued the supposed link between vaccines and autism can attest, they have infiltrated the left, too. This, then, is the legacy of modern conservatism: a nation where left and right have no real ability to communicate across the issues that divide because, in a fundamental sense, they have no language in common. We cannot confront our most pressing problems because we cannot even discuss them.
It’s gratifying to hear Sykes admit conservative culpability, but any temptation to gloat is drowned by the reality of America’s plight. Don’t forget: We’ve now had a generation of young people come of age with ignorance, intransigence and incoherence as their daily norm. The damage from that is profound and will not be easily fixed. It took us years to get here.
It will take years more to find our way home.
Leonard Pitts Jr.’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.