Straw men and strange bedfellows

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In my college days I was a Goldwater Republican. My roommate and I saw eye-to-eye. Today he is a conservative Republican, and I am a progressive Democrat. We remain close friends, but this divide troubled me. I asked him to help me understand why the right harbors so much animosity towards the left. He responded with a link to a lecture given in 2020, by Tom Klingenstein of the Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank. I now understand the anger. If Klingenstein’s arguments were honest and factual, I would be angry too.

Klingenstein’s lecture is a collection of straw man fallacies, by which one misrepresents or exaggerates an opponent’s position so that it can be easily attacked. In effect, one rebuts an argument that is never made. His portrayal of the Democrat’s border policy is a good example.

America has a tradition of welcoming immigrants. A bronze plaque on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty proclaims, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” For more than 300 years, people have risked everything to come here. Today, that yearning has overwhelmed our southern border. Our bipartisan immigration laws are outdated, and the sheer number of people seeking entry through Mexico has overwhelmed both our border security forces and our court system.

Democratic officials have consistently supported legislation that would alleviate the problem in ways that are consistent with American principles and tradition. In 2007, the “gang of eight,” made up of Republican and Democratic senators, proposed comprehensive immigration legislation, which passed the Senate, but failed in the Republican-controlled House. Republicans have blocked every comprehensive immigration effort ever since.

Last December, conservative Republican Senator James Langford of Oklahoma introduced another comprehensive, bipartisan immigration package. Again, it passed the Democratic-controlled Senate but failed in the Republican-controlled House. Former President Donald Trump had intervened. fearing that the legislation’s enactment would eliminate immigration as a campaign issue in the 2024 presidential election. If Langford’s bill passed, Trump would not be able to blame the Biden Administration for the border chaos that Republicans have allowed to go on. Incredibly, Langford, who had been chosen by his party to work on the legislation, was then censured by his fellow Oklahoma Republicans for sponsoring the bill.

Klingenstein would be hard pressed to defend the Republicans’ record on immigration. Instead, he chooses a straw man argument, claiming that President Joe Biden and the Democrats want open borders. In his words, “Democrats require … not just endless affirmative action but genuine socialism, (and) open borders ….” and “They must get us to believe that borders are racist.” There may be some people in our nation who believe that, even a few Democrats, but to say that it is the thinking of all Democrats is beyond dishonest. It is a shameless lie.

Klingenstein goes on to construct straw man arguments focused on multiculturalism and Black Lives Matter in which he misrepresents, exaggerates, distorts, and disparages the Democrat’s position, making nonsensical claims like Democrats “wish to destroy the traditional mother-father family.”

Why is Klingenstein so brashly dishonest? Surely he realizes that American democracy depends upon an informed electorate, on people knowing the facts. And he must also know that misinformation undermines our democracy.

But that may be his objective.

And how can his audience be so gullible?

He has receptive and conditioned listeners. Most of Klingenstein’s followers are Christian fundamentalists who believe fantasies such as “Noah and the Ark” and “Jonah and the Whale” are true. For them, the statement “Democrats want open borders” is easy to believe.

Klingenstein’s straw man arguments are typical of the propaganda that has come from the right for decades, starting with Rush Limbaugh’s “feminazi” diatribes. Now, his methods have been perfected by Fox News and Fox hosts like Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson — all of whom were shown to have lied to their audiences in the nearly $1 billion Dominion court settlement. Yet Fox News’ dishonesty continues, which shows how profitable sowing hatred has become. Rush Limbaugh, for instance, garnered an $85 million annual salary.

Trump, who Klingenstein suspects was brought by divine intervention, is notorious for disregarding truth. He has practiced spreading propaganda for 15 years starting with “birtherism” against former President Barack Obama. Just last week, Trump claimed at the Danbury Institute that “you just can’t vote Democrat — they’re against religion. They’re against your religion in particular.”

Another lie.

Democrats are not against any religion, but they are against those who insist that everyone must abide by their religious beliefs. Democrats are for freedom of religion, the right to follow your conscience and believe as you choose. For 250 years, that has been a fundamental right of every American.

Who would benefit from undermining our democracy and democratic institutions? Who benefits if an autocracy replaced our great liberal democracy? Donald Trump certainly would benefit — for he would then avoid federal prison by quashing the multitude of federal cases against him. And there are two other groups that would benefit — Christian fundamentalists and would-be oligarchs — the followers of Jesus and the moneychangers he drove from the temple. Strange bedfellows.

The rest of us, the vast majority of Americans, would suffer economically, and our rights would be restricted.

Some Christian beliefs are no longer aligned with the will of the people. Accepting the Bible as absolute truth, Christian fundamentalists are certain that the majority is wrong and feel obligated to force non-believers to follow their righteous ways. Those in the Danbury Institute, for example, believe that abortion is against God’s law and must be prohibited in all circumstances. As in the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, which overturned Roe v. Wade, the freedom to think otherwise must be denied.

Far more than abortion is at issue. Christian beliefs regarding homosexuality, gay marriage, gender dysphoria and birth control are also out of step with the majority view. The core issue here is that fundamentalists cannot accept an essential American principle. The founders believed that “the people,” not religious fanatics, would decide what is morally right and wrong.

A Trump autocracy will reject the will of the people, and compliance with fundamentalist belief will be mandatory. The irony is that good, Christian evangelical people, who imagine dire consequences for a society that does not abide by holy scripture, think that to save society, they must destroy it, even the one that had guaranteed their religious freedom.

The overthrow of democracy would also benefit would-be oligarchs. They would become like those in Russia. There, Putin and a group of extremely wealthy people control Russian industry and banking. The 10 wealthiest individuals have a total net worth of more than $100 billion.

The Russian people on the other hand are not so well off. The income of the average Russian citizen is less than $800 per month. And inflation in Russia is 7.8%, more than twice that of the U.S. rate of 3.4%. If you are a multi-billionaire with a $500 million yacht, these statistics may not matter much, but they certainly do if you work for a living.

Trump’s campaign is, in great part, financed by wealthy donors and corporations. And he assures them that he will increase their wealth. At the end of May, he promised corporate CEOs $110 billion in tax cuts in exchange for $1 billion in donations to his campaign. A second Trump administration will most certainly favor business and wealthy Americans — not to mention brazen corruption.

My college roommate may not agree, but thinking through Kingenstein’s rhetoric I have come to the realization that the right’s strategy to overturn democracy is to make people hate the country they love. For organizations like Fox News and the would-be oligarchs, the motivation is financial gain. For the fundamentalists, the goal is an American theocracy. And for Trump it is self-preservation. Strange bedfellows.

Bob Topper, syndicated by the Oregon Peace Institute’s PeaceVoice program, is a retired engineer.