The Right-Wing Hucksters Who Dare Not Be Named

By Conor Friedersdorf

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President Obama's critics "seem eager to believe he is a lightweight," John Podhoretz writes in Commentary, "and he is not." Conservatives underestimate him to their own detriment, he argues, utterly failing to know their adversary, for when they're not calling him "a golf-mad dilettante," they're indulging in the polar-opposite delusion that he's a power-mad Kenyan Marxist.

The unintended result:

The notion that Obama is a dangerous extremist helps him, because it makes him seem reasonable and his critics foolish. It also helps those who peddle it, because it makes them notorious and helps them sell their wares. But it has done perhaps irreparable harm to the central conservative cause of the present moment -- making the case that Obama's social-democratic statism is setting the United States on a course for disaster and that his anti-exceptionalist foreign policy is setting the world on a course for nihilistic chaos. Those are serious arguments, befitting a serious antagonist. They may not sell gold coins as quickly and as well as excessive alarmism, but they have the inestimable advantage of being true.

As you can see, I've boldfaced the part of that critique that focuses on conservative movement hucksters*. After calling them out for so many years, it was nice to see Jonah Goldberg acknowledge back in January that the right has an "unhealthy share" of hucksters whose rhetoric is driven by lucre rather than conviction, and it's nice to see Podhoretz echo the criticism, because it's absolutely true. So long as conservative hucksters thrive, movement conservatism cannot.

They do "irreparable harm."

There's just one thing. In the same way that Goldberg believes there are movement-conservative hucksters "eager to make money from stirring rage, paranoia, and an ill-defined sense of betrayal," but never actually says who these hucksters are, Podhoretz disdainfully reiterates that right-wing personalities are making their profits at the expense of the ideology they purport to be advancing, but he doesn't actually identify the individuals who are perpetrating that fraud.

An honest question, guys:

How do you expect to stop these people who you identify as scheming hucksters doing irreparable harm to your cause if no one with intramovement credibility ever directly critiques their bad work? It seems like you've both spent a lot more time feuding with people who call out the hucksters than with the hucksters themselves. I know the names atop my list. Rush Limbaugh. Mark Levin. Sean Hannity. Glenn Beck. That isn't to say that a worthwhile list couldn't be made up without those names on it. There are so many to choose from. All I can say for sure is that you've got individuals in mind who, by your own admission, are doing damage to the movement you're both invested in far more earnestly than they are ... and you'll only criticize them obliquely. As best I can tell from regularly seeing your work, they're the only sort you disdain but won't name.

Perhaps it isn't fair to pick on you for holding back. Lots of elites in the conservative movement totally agree with you, but haven't even had the courage to make the vague critique you've articulated. You guys aren't going nearly as far as I'd like, but at least you're naming the problem. Yet conservatives must name names if the hucksters are to be defeated. Outsiders like me aren't enough. Dissidents at The American Conservative aren't enough. Insiders-turned-"apostates" like David Frum aren't enough.

I don't know if Podhoretz and Goldberg would be enough either.

But if even guys like them don't go farther than they have, given what we know of their beliefs, the cause is doomed, and folks making bank off dumb alarmism will keep flourishing. The talking points that prevail on the right will continue to badly miss the mark, the critique of the Democrats in power will continue to be weaker than it really ought to be, and the GOP will continue to lose. Am I missing a more actionable critique? If not, isn't it long passed time to make one?

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*Daniel Larison points out the problems with Podhoretz's warnings about Obama's foreign policy.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/03/the-right-wing-hucksters-who-dare-not-be-named/274479/