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I’m a baby boomer, which means that I’m old enough to remember conservatives yelling “America – love it or leave it!” at people on the left who criticized racism and inequality. But that was a long time ago. These days, disdain for America – the America that actually exists, not an imaginary “real America” in which minorities and women know their place – is concentrated on the right.
To be sure, progressives still see a lot wrong with the state of our society, and seek change. But they also celebrate the progress we have made, and for the most part the change they seek is incremental: It involves building on existing institutions, not burning everything down and starting over.
On the right, however, you increasingly find prominent figures describing our society as a nightmarish dystopia.
This is obviously true for Donald Trump, who views the world through blood-colored glasses. In his vision of America – clearly derived largely from white supremacist and neo-Nazi sources – crime is running wild, inner cities are war zones, and hordes of violent immigrants are pouring across our open border. In reality, murder is at a historic low, we’re seeing a major urban revival and net immigration from Mexico is negative. But I’m only saying that because I’m part of the conspiracy.
Meanwhile, you find almost equally dark visions, just as much at odds with reality, among establishment Republicans, people like Paul Ryan, speaker of the House.
Ryan is, of course, a media darling. He doesn’t really command strong support from his own party’s base; his prominence comes, instead, from a press corps that decided years ago that he was the archetype of serious, honest conservatism, and clings to that story no matter how many times the obvious fraudulence and cruelty of his proposals are pointed out. If the past is any indication, he will quickly be forgiven for his moral spinelessness in this election, his unwillingness to break with Trump – even to condemn him for questioning the legitimacy of the vote – no matter how grotesque the GOP nominee’s behavior becomes.
But for what it’s worth, consider the portrait of America that Ryan painted last week, in a speech to the College Republicans. For it was, in its own way, as out of touch with reality as the ranting of Donald Trump (whom Ryan never mentioned).
Now, to be fair, Ryan claimed to be describing the future – what will happen if Hillary Clinton wins – rather than the present. But Clinton is essentially proposing a center-left agenda, an extension of the policies President Barack Obama was able to implement in his first two years, and it’s pretty clear that Ryan’s remarks were intended as a picture of what all such policies do.
According to him, it’s very grim. There will, he said, be “a gloom and grayness to things,” ruled by a “cold and unfeeling bureaucracy.” We will become a place “where passion – the very stuff of life itself – is extinguished.” And this is the kind of America Clinton “will stop at nothing to have.”
Does today’s America look anything like that? No. We have many problems, but we’re hardly living in a miasma of despair. Leave government statistics (which almost half of Trump supporters completely distrust) on one side; Gallup finds that 80 percent of Americans are satisfied with their standard of living, up from 73 percent in 2008, and that 55 percent consider themselves to be “thriving,” up from 49 percent in 2008. And there are good reasons for those good feelings: recovery from the financial crisis was slower than it should have been, but unemployment is low, incomes surged last year, and thanks to Obamacare more Americans have health insurance than ever before.
So Ryan’s vision of America looks nothing like reality. It is, however, completely familiar to anyone who read Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” as a teenager. Nowadays the speaker denies being a Rand devotee, but while you can at least pretend to take the boy out of the cult, you can’t take the cult out of the boy. Like Rand – who was basically writing about America in the Eisenhower years! – he sees the horrible world progressive policies were supposed to produce, not the flawed but hopeful nation we actually live in.
So why does the modern right hate America? There’s not much overlap in substance between Trump’s fear-mongering and Ryan’s, but there’s a clear alignment of interests. The people Trump represents want to suppress and disenfranchise you-know-who; the big-money interests that support Ryan-style conservatism want to privatize and generally dismantle the social safety net, and they’re willing to do whatever it takes to get there.
The big question is whether trash-talking America can actually be a winning political strategy. We'll soon find out.