As those of you who follow the Chimps know, we’re particularly interested in studying the political narrative. Most of our commentary is after-the-fact, meaning that we see how the narrative was managed or manipulated at some point in the past, and we record our observations about those events. It’s rare that we get a chance to see a political narrative as it is being crafted in real time, because it can be difficult to follow such non-linear events as they play out over days, weeks, or months. But we happened across this timely Lawyers, Guns & Money blog post, and it offers an excellent, almost textbook case study.
Erik Loomis is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Rhode Island. When Fidel Castro died a few weeks ago, instead of writing a one-sided piece full of empty rhetoric and overblown hyperbole, Loomis did what historians do. He wrote a lengthy, semi-scholarly blog post that reflected on Castro’s life and work in an evenhanded, dispassionate way. In Castro: It’s Complicated, Loomis spoke candidly of Castro’s many flaws and failures, but he also mentioned some of the positive contributions Castro made to Cuban life and society. The post was an interesting read, intended to educate and inform readers, and certainly not a leftist screed or a work of political propaganda.
Loomis published his post on November 26th. Two days later, it was picked up by something called “The College Fix,” a student-written, online publication that bills itself as “Your Daily Dose of Right-Minded News and Commentary from Across the Nation” (italics in original). The article, entitled “Professors praise, defend Castro: ‘Inspiration, remarkable, powerful, complex,'” compiled selected excerpts from Loomis’ post and from other articles written to commemorate Castro’s death. While mostly free of editorial content, the article opens by noting that “[S]everal college professors defended [Castro’s] legacy and praised the man for what they described as his vision, courage and strength against colonialism, capitalism and racism.”
From there, the post moved up the right-wing food chain to “LifeZette,” an online publication run by media personality Laura Ingraham. It’s here that we can see the narrative building start. The headline, dated November 28, alerts readers that “College Professors Gush Over ‘Charismatic’ Castro.” These college professors, we’re reminded, are “[h]igher education elite” who apparently inhabit “liberal college campuses” and who offer a narrative that “heaped praise on the Communist leader.”
Next up was none other than Breitbart, Steve Bannon’s home for wayward racists, misogynists, white supremacists, and sundry other morally-challenged far right ne’er do wells. Given its readers’ evident intellectual challenges, Breitbart has never had the luxury of being able to dabble in subtleties. “Leftist Professors Across U.S. Mourn Fidel Castro’s Death,” the headline announces. As with the student-run College Fix, Breitbart’s piece is short on editorializing and long on what the author thinks Breitbart readers will see as inflammatory quotes.
To this point, Loomis’ work had languished in the sewers and backwaters of far-right media. The jump to the big leagues came when Jonah Goldberg, writing in the Los Angeles Times, went full-on right-wing Old Faithful as only he can, spewing much steam and fury but little of meaningful substance. His November 28th column, “Fidel Castro died as he lived – praised by useful idiots,” is a virtual grab bag of GOP sound bytes and talking points. By now, Loomis had moved up in company as well, being mentioned in the same breath as Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the “gold medal [winner] in the Useful Idiot Olympics.”
Armed with nothing more than a few quotes sounding like what a politician and a historian might sound like, Goldberg speculated, without so much as a whiff of irony, that –
[T]he American left … would take [Castro’s] bargain: No more elections, no more free speech, no more civil liberties of any kind, but socialized medicine and literacy for everyone! American political dissidents, homosexuals, journalists and the clergy, just like in Cuba, can languish in prison or internal exile, but at least they’ll be able to read the charges against them.
Loomis’ blog post and Trudeau’s statement were “typical of a whole genre of Castro eulogies.” Castro “apologists … parrot Cuban state propaganda … while dispensing antiseptic euphemisms for the brutal reality” of Castro’s regime. On and on it went, in that overheated collegiate rhetoric style that makes a reader stand back and think “Ah, yes, Goldberg.”
Loomis’ climb up the GOP political narrative ladder culminated when he was contacted by a Tucker Carlson producer, inviting him to appear as a guest on “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” which, as far as the Chimps can tell, is Fox News’ attempt to revive the ever-popular Howdy Doody Show. Loomis, who didn’t earn his Ph.D by being anyone’s fool, sensibly ignored the invitation.
In the space of about 48 hours, Loomis’ rather obscure blog post went from nowhere to approaching the Mount Everest of Republican political narrative hackery. Note, too, that this is not an instance of the narrative being generated from the top-down. Here we see the conservative grassroots at work, picking up progressive commentary, then handing it off to outlets with ever-wider reach. Along the way, each niche author or commenter adds her spin or his characterization to the mix. By the time it percolates all the way up to national media, the GOP narrative is on full display.
The point, we emphasize again, is not what the narrative said but how it was created. Launched from the bottom up, this bit of sophistry was crafted by a well-organized, efficient and effective conservative propaganda network. And, as the Chimps have mentioned elsewhere, it is a network that progressives have yet to effectively replicate. Why? That’s a subject the Chimps will take up in a later post.
But here’s a thought to chew on between now and then: Gotta give ’em what they want.