Rhetoric is a double-edged sword—it can be spoken by heroes and villains alike. President Biden uses rhetoric to reassure Americans that we are back on track to be the leading light for democratic values. Donald Trump uses rhetoric to undermine the American democratic system for personal gain. Not to ignore reality, of course, not all liberals use positive rhetoric and not all conservatives use destructive rhetoric. But one overarching trend in US media is clear: extremist rhetoric from conservative media is getting worse.
This isn’t just me making this observation, it’s an observation by real experts in the field. Frankly, it would be hard not to notice it if one’s been paying even a modicum of attention to the tide changes in the GOP for the past 10 years. One of the ghastly faces behind this rightwing phenomenon is Fox News’ flagship gadfly Tucker Carlson. Carlson is famous for his white supremacist-tuned dog whistles and openly racist diatribes.
A conservative defending this might evoke the First Amendment’s right to freedom of expression, or, stepping back a bit, by defending conservative media’s rhetoric as mere hyperbole. First, it is true that the First Amendment grants freedom of expression. Second, it is true that at least sometimes, the words coming out of the smug mouths at Fox are mere hyperbole. But the line blurs rather quickly. When does riling the base with rhetoric become such a profound ethical quandary—one that indeed likely evades constitutional scrutiny—that its utility to engender political support is supplanted by its capacity to inspire societal destruction?
Clearly, Fox and other conservative outlets aren’t too bothered by where that line might be. Indeed, it seems the party of patriots and “family values” thinks that undermining democracy is good for their bottom line.
But all this begs asking: Where does conservative media go from here? Assuming they haven’t reached their low—and man are they good at outdoing themselves—when will rightwing politicos start pledging allegiance to the Klan during primetime? Will they go so far as to say there’s an ongoing “civil war” between the left and the right? Will it be even worse than that? My imagination can only be so perverse.
Whatever the case, it is worth noting that the trend to extremism for rightwing media has been a long time coming. Where it ends, or even slows down, however, is far from clear.
Democracy thrives in snarkiness