The day Chris Christie's Bridgegate scandal broke, with the release of damning emails and text messages, the immediate response of Fox News was flat-out denial. For six long hours, the network simply said nothing about the scandal, according to Media Matters. In total, Fox devoted less than 15 minutes to the scandal all day, compared to more than two hours by MSNBC and CNN. It was striking, but not surprising. Chris Christie was the Republicans' great white hope, the one candidate capable of possibly winning the White House in 2016, and this scandal posed an immediate and obvious threat to that prospect. Since Fox had famously clung to denial as Romney lost the 2012 election, it was not really surprising to see them revert to denial once again.
Ten days later, Fox did it again, when Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer went public with her charge that Christie withheld tens of millions of dollars in requested aid because she wouldn't OK a real estate deal he wanted. That day, again according to Media Matters, Fox mentioned Christie just three times, compared to 44 on MSNBC, and 38 on CNN.
Thanks to Oprah, denial is one of the best-known of the so-called ego defense mechanisms, mechanisms individuals subconsciously use to deal with anxiety, fear, even primordial terror. Although best known and understood in individual terms, the phenomena of group denial is common enough as well — just ask any Cubs fan, for example, as he waits for next year. Or consider another example from Fox: its decade-plus promotion of global warming denialism.
Given that, it's not surprising that Fox responded to Christie's crisis with denial, or that other defense mechanisms also showed up as the scandal unfolded. What's interesting, though, is how they showed in two distinct, yet overlapping ways: Conservatives were far from being alone. On the one hand, Christie's conservative supporters quickly shifted gears to a second line of defense: contrasting Christie's supposedly heroic owning up in his marathon press conference with Obama's alleged dissembling over a variety of pet peeve pseudo-scandals beloved on the right — Benghazi, the IRS, etc.
On the other hand, Christie's broader support in the bipartisan punditocracy resisted reality, too, but in ways that more subtly reflected the defense of a different, though somewhat overlapping group identity. Still, the punditocracy's rah-rah picture of Christie was so immune to reality that uber-pundit Mark Halperin immediately praised Christie's press conference performance, and several days later (Jan. 12), he even tweeted:
Best ’16 political news for @GovChristie: no one else in the field is strong/rising or had a great ’13. He remains as strong as anyone else
Indeed, even after Christie's poll numbers first collapsed, there were still defenders questioning who else could win. But now that reality has finally sunk in, with successive new (and resurfacing) waves of scandal allegations, every Christie response yielding more questions than answers, and the man himself drawing open public ridicule, it's a perfect time to examine the role that defense mechanisms have played in helping Christie survive politically for as long he has. The initial conservative-linked mechanisms are easier to isolate and identify, but the centrist-supporting ones may ultimately be even more fruitful sources of new insight into how politics works — or doesn't — these days.
I'm hardly alone in my awareness of defense mechanisms' role in politics. When a bully snivels that others are unfairly beating up on him, that's an example of another well-known defense mechanism, what psychologists refer to as “projection” — and ordinary folks refer to as “the pot calling the kettle black.” Led by a few pioneers like David Neiwert, of Orcinus, the Bush-era blogosphere gained a keen appreciation of the role projection plays in conservative politics. In his 2003 Koufax Award-winning series, "Rush, Newspeak and Facism," Neiwert wrote:
Indeed, one of the lessons I've gleaned from carefully observing the behavior of the American right over the years is that the best indicator of its agenda can be found in the very things of which it accuses the left.
In August 2012, I wrote a sort of pre-GOP convention field guide for Al Jazeera English, “How the Republican brain plays defence.” In it, I wrote, “While no one has a monopoly on ego defence mechanisms, the post-Bush Republican Party has an awful lot more to be defensive about.” In addition to denial and projection, some examples I cited included:
Displacement: Redirecting negative emotions, ideas, actions, etc., to a (less threatening) substitute target. Absolving Wall Street for destroying the economy, then turning around and blaming teachers, firefighters and police officers for local budget deficits -- that's a perfect example of displacement in action ...
Splitting: Separating negative and positive impulses, emotions, ideas, etc. Splitting is arguably the most primitive defence mechanism. It underlies other defence mechanisms such as Dissociation: Separating oneself from parts of your life – and Compartmentalisation: Separating conflicting thoughts into separated compartments ...
Rationalisation: Creating logical reasons for bad behaviour. Voter suppression laws were initiated based on the fantasy of massive voter fraud, but since there is no such massive voter fraud, they fall back on rationalisations -- protecting against potential fraud, protecting "the integrity of the vote", etc. ...
Compensation: Making up for a weakness in one area by gaining strength in another. A lot of conservative "get tough" policies fall into this category ...
Reaction formation: Converting unconscious wishes or impulses that are perceived to be dangerous into their opposites. A prominent example is Republican/conservative support for female or minority political figures who are particularly unsuited or unqualified for the positions they are proposed for ...
Once Christie responded with his marathon “me-me-mea culpa” press conference, the Fox News response was to cover Bridgegate by shifting focus to Benghazi instead. Again, according to Media Matters, “Fox & Friends devoted five segments during its January 10 broadcast to the growing scandal surrounding Republican Gov. Chris Christie ... But in every segment purporting to discuss Christie, the hosts and guests used the story to attack President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by bringing up the September 2012 attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya.”
Media Matters also highlighted a broader conservative pattern of invoking Benghazi and other Obama administration pseudo-scandals, in order to cast Christie's response as heroically honest, straightforward and decisive by way of contrast. Those cited ranged from Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham to Dana Loesch, Erick Erickson and Steve Doocy.
The not-so-sub subtext for this second response was the conservative article of faith that Obama is a master conspirator constantly hoodwinking the American public with insidious, if not outright treasonous plots. This article of faith is particularly important, since Obama hatred has emerged in the post-Bush era as one of the last foundations on which conservative group identity can be based. Christie angered the base when he welcomed Obama in the aftermath of Sandy. Invoking irrational Obama hatred is the perfect countermeasure for unifying support behind him — even if only for the moment, not the long haul.
This right-wing obsession with Obama pseudo-scandals is an example of delusional projection. Projection is a defense mechanism that comes indifferent forms and flavors. As one reference explains:
To be haunted by the false belief that person X wants to hurt you [false because in fact you want to hurt person X] is projection, but to delusively see evidence of X plotting against you would make it delusive projection.
Delusional projection is an obvious recurrent element in right-wing narratives about Obama, as it has been in narratives about black men since the colonial era. Delusional evidence is embraced ferociously, no matter how flimsy or nonsensical it may be, because of the psychological needs it fulfills. This was particularly evident with the flowering of birtherism during the 2008 campaign — it's a psychologically safe way to disqualify a black man from being president, while pretending it has nothing to do with race. Of course the exact parallel with Ted Cruz, born in Canada to an American mother, clearly shows how hollow this claim actually is: Just like Cruz's, Obama's mother was American, ergo he's a natural-born citizen, no matter where he was born, so all the speculation over Kenya is and always was utterly irrelevant, nonsensical.
But the narrative was never supposed to be about facts in the first place: It was about whether you believed it or not, which is to say, it was about declaring a tribal allegiance to the tribe of conservative birther believers. The more ridiculous the belief, the more meaningful the commitment. Repeated sharing of delusional evidence is the foundation of how that tribal identity is maintained, and the same sort of tribal identity maintenance lies at the core of the repeated embrace of delusional evidence in the IRS and Benghazi pseudo-scandals, among others.
Once you understand the logic of delusional projection, it's no longer mysterious trying to comprehend the conservative resort to Benghazi and other pseudo-scandals, best exemplified in the compact form required by tweets, Here are three cited by Media Matters, as mentioned above:
Christie has already fired people over Bridgegate. Obama promoted those who 'got even' on his behalf in IRS.
"The contrast between Barack Obama and Chris Christie in terms of owning a mess and fixing it is now pretty stark."
.@GovChristie just did what Barack Obama has not done, and that is hold somebody accountable for a big screwup #IRS, DOJ, ACA, Benghazi
Of course, regarding Loesch's tweet, Christie didn't fire anyone over Bridgegate — at least not according to him. He fired deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly for supposedly lying to him — not for anything she did in Bridgegate per se. Indeed, he fired her without even talking to her, making no attempt whatsoever to find out what she had done and why. What's more, a) not only did no one"'get even" on Obama's behalf in the IRS, b) Obama had no power to fire the career staff involved in the IRS pseudo-scandal, but c) he did bring pressure through his secretary of Treasury, and d) Steven Miller, the acting director of the Internal Revenue Service, did resign almost immediately, e) followed one day later by the resignation of Joseph Grant, the just-appointed commissioner of the agency's tax-exempt and government entities division, while f) Lois Lerner, head of the IRS tax-exempt-organizations division, refused to resign, and was placed on administrative leave, but eventually did resign several months later, g) meaning that no one involved was promoted by Obama. In short, there are so many lies packed into Loesch's tweet it's hard to keep track of them all.That's why it's so helpful to understand them as all playing interrelated roles in a single defense mechanism — the delusion projection on which so many Obama pseudo-scandals are built. Turning to the tweets by Erickson and Doocy, we can see an added sort of usefulness of referring to delusional projection, since their reliance on the lies that Loesch spells out has become much less explicit, and thus harder to directly refute.
Things are significantly more complicated among the “serious people,” where a wider range of moving parts are involved, but the ultimate principle is the same: The best group ego defense will be one that most strongly affirms the group, while marginalizing, if not demonizing any threats to group identity, cohesion and coherence. In this case, the group is probably best conceived of as the political establishment as a whole, with its core represented by the middle-aged white male punditocracy, with its posture of seriousness, superiority and pragmatism — all entirely immune to its own record of blindly supporting disastrously failed policies. If we want to understand the defense mechanisms that may best protect Christie going forward, we will have to understand those who helped create him in the first place.
The media's key role in promoting Christie has been well captured by Media Matters on multiple occasions. On Dec. 20, 2013, for example, Emily Arrowood wrote:
In the last month alone, TIME magazine has declared that Christie governed with "kind of bipartisan dealmaking that no one seems to do anymore." MSNBC's Morning Joe called the governor "different," "fresh," and "sort of a change from public people that you see coming out of Washington." In a GQ profile, Christie was deemed "that most unlikely of pols: a happy warrior," while National Journal described him as "the Republican governor with a can-do attitude" who "made it through 2013 largely unscathed. No scandals, no embarrassments or gaffes." ABC's Barbara Walters crowned Christie as one of her 10 Most Fascinating People, casting him as a "passionate and compassionate" politician who cannot lie.
It's hard to square all this earlier coverage with the emerging flood of scandal stories — some, like the Hoboken Rockefeller Group extortion threats, truly hidden, to be sure, but others, particularly Sandy-related ones, only hidden in plain sight. Earlier, I referred to the birther narrative as not being about facts, but belief, “about declaring a tribal allegiance.” The media's Christie promotion reflected a disturbingly similar tribalism, in view of all the incipient scandal stories they chose to downplay, ignore or write off before the initial Bridgegate documents were released on Jan. 8.
What's more, from all this effusive praise, you'd probably expect New Jersey to be a real economic success story — a perennial selling point for governors with White House dreams. You'd certainly expect its unemployment rate (7.8 percent) to be lower than America's as a whole (7.0 percent at the time). Or at least significantly better than its neighbors Pennsylvania (7.3 percent) or New York (7.4 percent) In fact, there's virtually no hard data that makes Christie look good. Hence the need for defense mechanisms, even among the self-congratulatory sober realist types.
But it's not just the media acting on its own. As usual, the media was merely a mouthpiece for the political establishment as a whole. That same month, a National Journal poll of political insiders overwhelmingly cited Christie as the politician who had had the best year in 2013, according to 60 percent of Democrats and 71 percent of Republicans.
After the scandal broke and Christie gave his self-indulgent press conference, Eric Boehlert wrote a mini-roundup piece, “How The Media Marketed Chris Christie's Straight Shooter Charade,” in which he noted:
I detailed some of that absurdly fawning coverage in 2010 and 2011, but then I largely stopped writing about the phenomenon simply because it became clear that the press was entirely and unapologetically committed to peddling Christie press clippings. They liked the GOP story and it was one they wanted to tell, just like they had been wed to the John-McCain-is-a-Maverick story. So they told it (selectively) over and over and over and over, regardless of the larger context about Christie actual behavior and his record as governor.
One could dig through Media Matters posts for more illustrative examples, unflattering Christie stories that the media either denied or compartmentalized in order to preserve their pro-Christie narratives — and even more are emerging every few days now. But for digging deeper into the why of it all, a couple of articles here at Salon are more to the point: “Chris Christie’s Forgiving Fan Club: Why Elite 'Centrists' Will Back Him All the Way” by Alex Pareene and “How the Media Created Chris Christie,” by Joan Walsh.
First, you have to understand the source of the Christie love. As a rich Northeastern Republican, with the typical rich Northeastern right-leaning Republican’s hard-line right-wing economic agenda, combined with certain less stringent positions on various other issues, elite “centrists” were already inclined to like him. But Christie is basically the dream candidate of the masculinity-obsessed middle-aged male centrist-worshiping pundit. He’s “tough,” because he shouts at people. He’s “brave,” because he supports various broadly unpopular positions related to government spending and taxing. And he’s also a “reform-minded” “moderate,” because … well, because centrist pundits say they like reform-minded moderates and they like Christie so he must be one of those. [Emphasis added] The fact that all this was wrapped up in a Jersey accent gave him supposed populist cred, despite his elite background.
Not only does this description begin bringing into focus a core group whose identity is being protected — the masculinity-obsessed middle-aged male centrist-worshiping pundit — it also includes both implicit and prima facie examples of defense mechanisms: The prima facie example is idealization (believing someone is all good, or at least far better than they truly are), exhibited in the italicized sentence. Of course, what's being idealized is itself largely a product of displacement — as described above, the displacement of blaming public sector unions for the devastation caused by Wall Street. That's the most noticeable implicit defense mechanism involved in Pareene's description.
Idealization and its opposite, devaluation (believing someone is far worse than they are), both derive from a more primitive mechanism, splitting, which I mentioned above. Idealization is normal and healthy in children; it's part of how we shape ourselves into what we'd like to become. But it's far more often the opposite in adults. A typical example of such harmful idealization would be a battered woman describing her abusive boyfriend with lavish praise, especially when stressing sensitivity and caring. In Christie's case, things are more complicated, since Christie's blame-shifting and bullying of public sector unions has a much more direct abusive impact on middle-class voters at large than it does on the monied elites the pundits represent.
Christie was also idealized as a corruption fighter, based on years of self-promotion as the Bush-era U.S. attorney for New Jersey, which effectively blinded most observers to his own pattern of corrupt politics, which has lately become impossible to ignore. At the time, however, the media effectively gave Christie a pass for two ostentatiously corrupt acts last year: first, his appearance in the U.S. taxpayer-funded “Stronger Than the Storm” commercials, and second, his creation of a costly, unheard-of October special election for U.S. senator, so that he wouldn't have to appear on the same ballot with popular Newark Mayor (now Sen.) Corey Booker. These acts were so blatantly outside the norms of good behavior that the media simply seemed incapable of of digesting them, in large part because they were so deeply committed to their idealized concept of who Chris Christie was.
In both these respects, the basic mechanism of idealization dominated the media, reflected in its excessive praise for Christie referred to above, as well as in its repeated denial of less flattering information about him, such as that previously referred to by Boehlert.
Picking up on Pareene's analysis, Walsh wrote:
As Pareene points out, the central fetish of the mainstream pundit class has been fiscal austerity and rolling back the welfare state. So as long as Christie hummed Bruce Springsteen songs while sticking it to the union workers and struggling folks Springsteen sings about [emphasis added], he was a Beltway hero.
The italicized passage once again highlights the idealization process in action, a direct parallel to the battered woman praising her abuser's sensitivity. Then Walsh added:
I think there’s something else at work, something psychological, maybe, and harder to get at. I think the mainstream media and its dominant pundits are unable to take in exactly how far to the right the Republican Party has swung in the last decade, and so they need to invent “moderates” to keep from writing over and over about the party’s departure from political sanity. And when their moderates either show themselves as extremists, as Christie has repeatedly, or else as severely flawed politicians, as Christie has lately, those pundits either ignore it or rush to rescue them over and over.
Walsh implicitly touches on several different examples of defense mechanisms in this passage. First is the broad-based pundit class denial of how extreme the GOP has become. Second is the similarly broad idealization involved in the invention of “moderates.” Third is the specific denial when a figure like Christie disappoints. Fourth is the specific idealization involved in the “rush to rescue them over and over.”
However, idealization isn't the only defense mechanism that can come into play in the rescue process. That process can potentially involve all manner of other defense mechanisms. A sympathetic press corps can create excuses (rationalization), shift blame (displacement), manufacture imaginary alternatives or conceptual frameworks (fantasy), demonize enemy figures (projection), the list goes on and on.
In particular, as Pareene noted, “On Friday, the 'Morning Joe' gang decided that the real scandal in Christie’s office was Barack Obama’s administration.” The link leads to an account at Crooks and Liars:
"Is this as bad as the IRS scandal that Barack Obama basically just sort of brushed off?" Scarborough asked Donny Deutsch. "I think if we are going to be critical of Chris Christie, we have to be critical of a culture in Washington D.C. where Barack Obama has allowed one scandal after another to break and then say, oh, I didn't know anything about it."
"If we go after the culture, we have to go after the culture of Barack Obama who has one scandal after another scandal after another scandal hit and he says the same thing every time, 'I had no idea about it,'" he continued. "Nobody ever pays."
On the surface, there's virtually no difference between Joe Scarborough's line and that of Fox News, Loesch, Erickson or Doocy. But beneath the surface, there is a difference, since somewhat different group identities are being protected against different sorts of threat. The implicit conservative defense is that all the Obama pseudo-scandals are real — and only scratching the surface of his truly monstrous nature. In the post-Bush era, conservatives define themselves most cohesively in terms of being anti-Obama, which explains what's most important about this defense.
But things are different for the “grown-ups” as a whole, and Scarborough is speaking for and to them. The “grown-up” consensus is that it doesn't really matter what Obama's own actions or intentions might be, something is wrong with all those apparent scandals piling up, and Obama is just making excuses. Whatever the underlying reality may be, Obama's the president, and it's his job to clean things up. And he's not doing it!
The foundation for this mind-set is a magical belief in the power of bipartisanship, “grown-ups”, etc., etc., etc. ... all the folks who helped bring us eight years of utter disaster under George W. Bush. Running for president, Obama somehow managed to convince the Democratic base he was running against all that, while convincing the establishment he was running to save it. Naturally, the establishment — the folks who write the really big checks — turned out to be right about his intentions, as was immediately evident, as soon as he started appointing people to his administration.
But he and they were both mistaken about the magical powers involved. It takes two sides to be bipartisan, and Republicans just said no — even to the healthcare reform law based on Romneycare and a decades-old Heritage Foundation framework. Obama had no idea what to do next, but the punditocracy did: blame Obama. To do otherwise, they would have to question their own identities and core beliefs. For them Christie is the defense mechanism. He works with Democrats in New Jersey, the way that Obama has failed to work with Republicans in D.C. Underneath everything else that's going on, this is why the pundit class has viscerally and extravagently supported Chris Christie. They could no more admit that his “bipartisan success” depended on a good deal of arm-twisting, bullying and dirty backroom deal-making than they could admit that “Obama's failure” is due to unprecedented GOP opposition.
In time, of course, they have had to admit it — and much more quickly than anyone might have imagined. As happened with Nixon, the weight of evidence simply became too much. But for a while, at the very least, their defense mechanisms bought them some time — time in which to come up with new defense mechanisms, new fantasies, new idealizations, a new great white hope. Unfortunately for them, time's up, and they're still flailing around on all counts.
Even worse, the still-emerging multifront Sandy-related set of scandals only serves to justify the Tea Party Republicans in Congress who initially denied any relief funding. When Chris Christie and Rand Paul squared off over this at the time of the initial vote, Chris Christie walked away the clear winner, with nary a scratch on him. For Paul, it seemed like almost a knockout blow as far as his 2016 election hopes were concerned. Now, the tables have turned, and the few scraps of snark that Paul has let fly are likely only the beginning of what's to come.
Not only has Chris Christie's corruption of the Sandy relief process potentially done serious damage to the entire “responsible” GOP wing, the bipartisan establishment that blinded itself to what he was doing is itself also culpable for giving the Tea Party something it almost never has: actual empirical evidence it can use to attack its enemies. Nothing could better illustrate how deeply damaging defense mechanisms can ultimately become.