The GOP fringe just went mainstream
Stop, hey, what's that sound? Actually, it's the noise a great political party makes when it loses what's left of its mind. And it happened — where else? — on Fox News , when Mitt Romney bought fully into the claim that gas prices are high thanks to an Obama administration plot.
This claim isn't just nuts; it's a sort of craziness triple play — a lie wrapped in an absurdity swaddled in paranoia. It's the sort of thing you used to hear only from people who also believed that fluoridated water was a communist plot. But now the gas-price conspiracy theory has been formally endorsed by the likely Republican presidential nominee.
Before we get to the larger implications of this endorsement, let's get the facts on gas prices straight.
First, the lie: No, President Barack Obama did not say, as many Republicans now claim, that he wanted higher gasoline prices. He did once say that a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions would cause electricity prices to "skyrocket" — an unfortunate word choice. But saying that such a system would raise energy prices was just a factual statement, not a declaration of intent to punish U.S. consumers. The claim that Obama wanted higher prices is a lie, pure and simple.
And it's a lie wrapped in an absurdity, because the president of the United States doesn't control gasoline prices or even have much influence over those prices. Oil prices are set in a world market, and America, which accounts for only about a tenth of world production, can't move those prices much. Indeed, the recent rise in gas prices has taken place despite rising U.S. oil production and falling imports.
Finally, there's the paranoia, the belief that liberals in general, and Obama administration officials in particular, are trying to make driving unaffordable as part of a nefarious plot against the American way of life. And, no, I'm not exaggerating. This is what you hear even from thoroughly mainstream conservatives.
For example, last year George Will declared that the Obama administration's support for train travel had nothing to do with relieving congestion and reducing environmental impacts. No, he insisted, "the real reason for progressives' passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans' individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism." Who knew that Dagny Taggart, the railroad executive heroine of "Atlas Shrugged," was a Commie?
OK, this is all kind of funny. But it's also deeply scary.
As Richard Hofstadter pointed out in his classic 1964 essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," crazy conspiracy theories have been a U.S. tradition ever since clergymen began warning that Thomas Jefferson was an agent of the Bavarian Illuminati. But it's one thing to have a paranoid fringe playing a marginal role in a nation's political life; it's something quite different when that fringe takes over a whole party, to the point where candidates must share, or pretend to share, that fringe's paranoia to receive the party's presidential nod.
And it's not just gas prices, of course. In fact, the conspiracy theories are proliferating so fast it's hard to keep up. Thus, large numbers of Republicans — and we're talking about important political figures, not random supporters — firmly believe that global warming is a gigantic hoax perpetrated by a global conspiracy involving thousands of scientists, not one of whom has broken the code of omerta. Meanwhile, others are attributing the recent improvement in economic news to a dastardly plot to withhold stimulus funds, releasing them just before the 2012 election. And let's not even get into health reform.
Why is this happening? At least part of the answer must lie in the way right-wing media create an alternate reality. For example, did you hear about how the cost of Obamacare just doubled? It didn't, but millions of Fox viewers and Rush listeners believe that it did. Naturally, people who constantly hear about the evil that liberals do are ready and willing to believe that everything bad is the result of a dastardly liberal plot. And these are the people who vote in Republican primaries.
But what about the broader electorate?
If and when he wins the nomination, Romney will try, as a hapless adviser put it, to shake his Etch A Sketch — that is, to erase the record of his pandering to the crazy right and convince voters that he's actually a moderate. And maybe he can pull it off.
But let's hope that he can't, because the kind of pandering he has engaged in during his quest for the nomination matters. Whatever Romney may personally believe, the fact is that by endorsing the right's paranoid fantasies, he is helping to further a dangerous trend in U.S. political life. And he should be held accountable for his actions.