You hear the word “radical” a lot these days. It’s usually aimed like a lethal weapon at Democratic office-seekers, especially those who want to unseat a Republican incumbent. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, the Georgia Republican, rarely utters her challenger’s name without branding him as “radical liberal Raphael Warnock.”
Such is the upside-down world we’ve come to inhabit. These days, the true radicals are the enablers of President Donald Trump’s ongoing attempted coup: the media bloviators on Fox News, One America and Newsmax who parrot his lies about election fraud; and the members of Congress who plan to object on Wednesday to what should be a pro forma step of approving the electoral college results, so that President-elect Joe Biden can take office peacefully on Jan. 20.
But instead of being called what they are, these media and political figures get a mild label: conservative.
News outlets that traffic in conspiracy theories? They’re branded as “conservative.” Politicians who are willing to bring down democracy to appease a cult leader? (“Acting on the basis either of fear of the president or sheer political opportunism,” as The Washington Post’s Dan Balz explained.) Just a bloc of “conservatives.”
As The Hill put it in a typical headline Monday: “Cotton breaks with conservative colleagues who will oppose electoral vote.”
In applying this innocuous-sounding description, the reality-based press does the public a terrible disservice. Instead of calling out the truth, it normalizes; it softens the dangerous edges.
It makes it seem, well, not so bad. Conservative, after all, describes politics devoted to free enterprise and traditional ideas.
But that’s simply false. Sean Hannity is not conservative. Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama are not conservative. Nor are the other 10 (at last count) senators who plan to object.
“There is nothing conservative about subverting democracy,” wrote Tim Alberta, the author and Politico correspondent. He suggests “far right” as an alternative descriptor.
Not bad. But I’d take it a step further, because it’s important to be precise. I’d call them members of the radical right.
My high school Latin comes in handy here: “Radical” derives from the concept of pulling something up by the roots, which seems to be exactly what these political and media types seem bent on doing to democratic norms.
The dictionary definition says radical means “advocating extreme measures to retain or restore a political state of affairs.”
Members of the radical right won’t like this, of course. They soak in the word “conservative” like a warm bath. Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan – extreme even among the extremists – leans heavily on the word in his official bio. (“Jordan served as Chairman of the House Republican Study Committee, the largest caucus of conservatives, advancing conservative ideas and solutions on Capitol Hill.”)
To its credit, Jordan’s home-state Cleveland.com avoids the word as it detailed his recent activities in a news story: “A vocal backer of President Donald Trump’s reelection, Jordan also attended rallies in Pennsylvania to claim the election was being ‘stolen’ from Trump, and . . . signed onto a Supreme Court brief to back a lawsuit that Texas filed to throw out election results from Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Georgia.”
The language problem here points to a larger, more troubling issue: The radicalism of the right has been normalized. It’s been going on, and building, for decades. Don’t worry, this mind-set reassures, it’s all fine. There are different ways of looking at the world, liberal and conservative, and they are about equal.
That, of course, is misleading hooey.
Heather Cox Richardson, a history professor at Boston College, used a more precise phrase as she recently assessed what has transpired over many decades to culminate in today’s election denialism: This is “the final, logical step of Movement Conservatism: denying the legitimacy of anyone who does not share their ideology. This is unprecedented.” She called it “a profound attack on our democracy” and predicted that it wouldn’t succeed.
“This tent that used to be sort of ‘far-right extremists’ has gotten a lot broader,” Georgetown law professor Mary McCord, a former federal prosecutor who oversaw terrorism cases, told NPR. Now, the line between fringe extremists and mainstream Republican politics and right-leaning media is so blurred as to be almost meaningless.
And too much of the reality-based media has gone along for the ride, worried about accusations of leftist bias, wanting desperately to be seen as neutral, unwilling to be clear about how lopsided these sides are.
On Jan. 20, we can still presume, Trump will be gone from the White House. But his enablers and the movement that fostered him, and that he built up, will remain. That’s troubling.
We should take one small but symbolic step toward repairing the damage by using the right words to describe it. It’s a start.