Approximately two hundred years ago, America was enjoying what historians refer to as the “Era of Good Feelings.” The era characterized the Presidency of James Monroe, who was the last American president to run unopposed for the highest office in the land. But that was then, and this is now. Future historians may describe today’s America as the “Era of Bad Feelings.” America is, indeed, experiencing a carefully curated “Era of Bad Feelings.”
Several months ago, I addressed an audience of about one hundred men and women. I began by asking everyone to raise their hand if there had been no politically caused stress within their family. Not a single hand went up.
The rough and tumble of American politics is as American as apple pie. But what we are experiencing today is different, dangerously different. We are living through a carefully curated miasma. A deliberate and well-orchestrated effort to create friction to keep the country off balance and to keep the national mood sour and the people anxious. It is not a new phenomenon in relatively recent world history. Josef Goebbels, the infamous NAZI Minister of Propaganda, spoke nearly a century ago of the ease with which people can be manipulated to do terrible things. “What luck for governments,” he observed shortly after Hitler came to power, “that people don’t think.”
Think of the personalities today who carefully practice what Goebbels mastered with great skill and effect. Think of Alex Jones, who tapped into this public gullibility to which Goebbels alluded. Jones, who this week was found liable for damages stemming from his rabidly outrageous rants about the Sandy Hook massacre of children being a hoax, knows, just as Josef Goebbels knew, and the likes of Steve Bannon and Donald Trump and Victor Orban know, that there is within any society a distressing public appetite for utterly outrageous calumnies. And the more outrageous, the more ravenous the sycophantic appetite becomes. Jones, of course, does it for money as he hawks various products by mesmerizing his gullible audience with over-the-top absurdities. Others embrace these carefully curated lies for pure political power.
Steve Bannon also understands how to manipulate the masses. As he bragged to writer Michael Lewis, “the way to deal with them (the media) is to flood the zone with shit.”… “This is not about persuasion,” Bannon once reportedly proclaimed, “This is about disorientation.” Indeed. Bannon has never been bashful about this Gobbelsian-like strategy. “What Trump’s gonna do is declare victory. He’s gonna declare himself a winner…that doesn’t mean he’s a winner; he’s just gonna say he’s a winner.” Trump, Bannon proclaimed, would declare victory on election night—even if he were losing. Listening to the hour-long audio, one hears Bannon predict that Trump’s false declaration of victory would lead to widespread political violence, along with “crazy” efforts by Trump to stay in office. And so, Trump did, and many of his followers have been doing crazy ever since. Goebbels would be ecstatic.
Victor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary and a darling of the American far right, headlined the CPAC convention this week along with Donald Trump and a host of new MAGA Republican primary winners. Speaker after speaker at the conservative conclave served, with a straight face, generous portions of debunked stolen-election red meat to an enthusiastic crowd.
Orban, who was once a leading anti-communist in Hungry, has devolved into an impressive authoritarian in his own right. He has delivered to the Maga crowd a scapegoat to demonize in the person of George Soros. Soros, a liberal, and an incredibly wealthy investor, has donated billions to promote liberal democracy and international cooperation. He founded and funded Hungary’s Central European University (CEU), which quickly became an impressive and prestigious bastion of liberal, democracy-promoting, independent thought. Orban, neither liberal, democracy-promoting, nor tolerant of independent thought, has effectively run CEU out of Hungary. American ultra-conservative talking heads have, in turn, also made Soros the prime target of conspiracy theorists. Soros, who as a young teenager saw fascist authoritarianism up close and personal in Nazi-occupied Hungary, is not one to shy away from a fight, notwithstanding assassination attempts on his life. Soros has been the leading donor to the Secretary of State project, which seeks to elect Democratic candidates to Secretary of State positions at the state level. The impetus for the Secretary of State Project took hold after the 2004 election, when Kenneth Blackwell, a Republican Secretary of State, ruled that Ohio would not count properly registered provisional ballots that had been inadvertently submitted at the wrong precincts.
It’s not just the 2020 election hijinks.
The dismantling of ROE by the conservative Trump-majority Supreme Court also contributes to this new Era of Bad Feelings. A recent poll conducted by Generation Lab and Axios reveals that 50 percent of young voting-age Americans are really upset, with forty-one percent expressing anger and 32 percent expressing hopelessness. Young voters are taking notice as Republican-led legislatures rush to implement near-total bans on abortion, with two out of three respondents declaring that state abortion laws would influence where they choose to live and, accordingly, where they will choose to work and pay taxes. It will undoubtedly affect how they vote. Concurrently, a poll by the Pew Research Center found that nearly 60 percent of all respondents disapproved of the Supreme Court’s decision.
Overwhelmingly Republican Voters turned out in conservative Kansas this week to turn down by nearly 60% a referendum proposal to end access to abortion in the Sunflower state. Peggy Noonan, an excellent writer and thoughtful journalist, who considers herself pro-life, observed in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, “…the pro-life advocates who filled the rhetorical void competed over who could be the most hardline: There should be no exceptions for rape, if it even was rape. There should be no exceptions for the life of the mother. That gives dishonest doctors room to make false claims. Maybe we can jail women for getting abortions. It was gross, (she wrote) ignorant, and extreme. It excited their followers but hurt the cause they supposedly care about. There was an air of misogyny, of hostility to women. It was, unlike the most thoughtful pro-life arguments of the past 50 years, unloving, unprotective, and punitive. People heard it and thought: No, that’s not what we want.”
And Friday, the Indiana Republican-controlled legislature passed legislation, which Governor Eric Holcomb immediately signed, that prohibits nearly all abortions from the moment of gestation. Several Republican-controlled states have teed up similar legislation, which will shortly become law in those states.
Republican rhetoric in state after state will be viewed by many as misogynistic and hostile to women, and voters are taking note. With mid-term elections less than 90 days away, there is growing speculation that Republicans salivating at the prospect of sweeping congress in the mid-terms might be a bit premature. It may all boil down to what party America blames most for this new Era of Bad Feelings in which the country finds itself.