The year is a week old and already we have a contender for the dumbest culture war moment of 2015: Sarah Palin having one of her many paranoid meltdowns, this time over a stupid photo of her son standing on a dog, which she posted on her Facebook page with a suggestion that the moment was cute and admirable. When the inevitable criticism came, she freaked out and tried to turn the whole thing into a morality play about the supposed oppression of conservative Americans that has been the theme of her entire career. In fact, it’s the central claim of the entire right-wing movement, and the engine that keeps the money flowing both to politicians and to right-wing con artists like Palin, who make a living by lying to conservatives about how they’re under attack.
Many people were understandably put off by the photograph, which confirmed a lot of suspicions that Palin can’t be bothered to teach her children the basics, like respect for animals. But she zeroed in on PETA, because it was another opportunity for her to peddle a paranoid rant about how conservatives are under attack. “Did you go as crazy when your heroic Man-of-Your-Lifetime, Barack Obama, revealed he actually enjoyed eating dead dog meat?” she whined.
The implication of the rant was obvious: That liberal concern for animal welfare is not sincere, but merely a cover for the real motivation, which is attacking conservatives because of our hateful hearts. Never mind that PETA is not really a mainstream liberal organization, but is in fact routinely criticized by actual liberals all the time for siphoning money away from organizations that actually protect animals. And never mind that PETA does not actually worship Obama but instead has issued silly denunciations of him for that one time he killed a fly on camera. And never mind that the Palins have held themselves out as the arbiters of responsible parenting, which is all called into question by clear evidence that they, in reality, indulge childish misbehavior instead of teaching responsibility.
The narrative is that conservatives are under attack from liberals for no other reason than pure liberal evil, so the facts must be bent to suit that narrative.
It should be surprising that Palin was able to spin a silly little dustup over a dog into a full-blown the-world-is-out-to-destroy-conservatives paranoid meltdown, but sadly, it’s par for the course. And it’s not just Palin who sees liberal bogeymen out to get her around every corner, either. The world of right-wing punditry is one where conservatives are under constant assault by liberals who want to destroy everything they hold dear, often for hazy reasons that amount to little more than “because liberals are evil.”
The great irony here is that the biggest threat to conservatives doesn’t come from liberals at all, but from the conservative pundits themselves, who readily exploit their audiences by feeding them a bunch of scary lies in order to extract money and political support from them. In many ways, the right-wing of this country is less a political movement than a bunch of charlatans conning the rubes out of their hard-earned money.
Take Mike Huckabee. Media Matters compiled an end-of-year roundup of just how much Huckabee is willing to push paranoid fantasies of death and destruction to his followers, all to sell them on overpriced snake oil. Among the folks allowed to sell to his email list, you have a financial firm that scares people into bad investments with conspiracy theories about Barack Obama and a survivalist company that sells overpriced MREs to people by hinting about imminent societal collapse.
Over the weekend, Huckabee sent out an email, complete with his smiling visage up top, titled “#1 Item You Should Be Hoarding."
"I don’t know exactly when or how a crisis will hit. But from everything I see, it could be soon and it could be a big one,” the sponsored content read. Right underneath, Huckabee warns that “angry, unstable and potentially dangerous people” are out to hurt police officers because of protests against police violence. Taken together, a picture emerges: Huckabee invokes racial paranoia about supposedly riotous protesters and then turns around and tells you that you need to buy overpriced MREs in case of a “crisis." Scare conservatives into thinking black people are out to get them, and then ask them to give you money in order to keep them safe from the imaginary threat.
The same con is run over and over again, both directly for profit and indirectly for political gain. Right Wing Watch compiled a rather depressing list of the five nuttiest conspiracy theories coming out of the right in 2014, such as claiming that Mexican immigrants are coming to the U.S. to enslave white Americans or that President Obama was somehow conspiring to infect Americans with Ebola. Not only do these lies help grease the wheels for exploitative advertisers selling shoddy products, but they help achieve political ends that couldn’t be gained through honest argument. It’s not a coincidence that Ebola panic vanished after the mid-term election. Once the Republicans rode into office on fears that Democrats were somehow trying to give conservatives infectious diseases, the need to keep scaring people about Ebola dried up. But there will be some new imaginary threat on hand to scare people into voting Republican again in 2016.
That’s why the Sarah Palin dog dustup matters, because it’s not just a matter of some paranoid, easily rattled ex-politicians wildly overreacting to some deserved criticism. Palin’s words are part of a larger lie that exists only to fill the coffers of right-wing leaders and to scare up votes for people who aren’t qualified to run for dogcatcher, much less national office—the lie that liberals are out to destroy conservatives, because liberals are a bunch of action movie villains who are motivated by pure evil. Palin is able to convince thousands of Americans that some critical comments about how she treats her dog are part of a vast conspiracy to destroy their way of life. That kind of paranoid thinking is the fuel that powers the modern American right.