Leave politics aside for a moment, if you can. What does the word “conservative” mean to you, outside of that cursed arena? To me, it connotes respecting tradition, caution when it comes to change, and hewing to the tried and true. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as “tending or disposed to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions; marked by moderation or caution; and marked by or relating to traditional norms of taste, elegance, style, or manners.”
Returning to the political realm, does any of that apply to so-called conservatives today?
When Mitch McConnell refused even to hold hearings on Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court on the specious grounds that it couldn’t be considered in a presidential election year, what manner of existing views, conditions or institutions was he maintaining?
And when he upended that supposed rule to rush Amy Coney Barrett through the confirmation process just weeks before the 2020 elections (when early voting was already underway), how did that show moderation or caution?
When candidate Donald Trump mocked a disabled journalist and trashed the parents of an American soldier killed in action, what traditional norms of taste or manners was he upholding?
Once in office, when he lied again and again about almost anything, what principle of honest government was he serving?
And when he knowingly and repeatedly lied that the 2020 election was stolen, and plotted to overthrow the results, how does that in any way conform to any reasonable concept of conservatism?
Fox TV’s Tucker Carlson is often described as a “conservative commentator.” How so? In what way does he respect tradition, caution or moderation?
When he praises — “idolizes” is probably a better word — Hungarian autocratic prime minister Viktor Orbán, what part of his tenure does he most appreciate: curtailing press freedom, moving to restrict or eliminate LGBTQ rights, or embracing “Christian democracy”?
As if following Carlson’s playbook, the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) was held in Budapest this year. Speakers included Trump and Mark Meadows, his former chief of staff. Another speaker was described in The Guardian newspaper as a “notorious Hungarian racist who has called Jews ‘stinking excrement,’ referred to Roma as ‘animals’ and used racial epithets to describe Black people.” This is “conservative”?
And what is conservative about the members of Congress who have tried to portray the January 6 mob as a bunch of “tourists” quietly visiting the Capitol, or those at the podium that day urging the crowd to “fight like hell,” or Senate Republicans refusing to approve an investigation into that day’s deadly violence?
Words matter. Calling McConnell or Carlson or a January 6 rioter conservative is to normalize their behavior. “Conservative” is such a comforting word; it connotes thoughtful consideration, reasoned debate, consideration of others’ viewpoints. It suggests adherence to the law, not gaming the system or trying to overturn an election based on lies. It allows the reader or hearer to relax: These are not crazy people, they’re just conservatives and patriots.
When McConnell said when he took over as Senate majority leader that his first job was to ensure that President Obama was a one-term president, that was not a conservative statement. It was an extremist saying he had no interest in governing despite the fact that he was leading a government institution. When Missouri Senator Josh Hawley raised a fist in salute to the January 6 insurrectionists, that was not a conservative act. It was a direct violation of his oath of office.
There are other words the mainstream media can use for these people. My favorite happens to be “extremist.” It’s short and businesslike. It doesn’t need any explanation; it nicely stands on its own. It could be modified, if desired, as in “right-wing extremist” or “anti-democracy extremist,” though that’s probably not necessary.
Some members of this crowd can of course be further identified as white supremacists, neo-Nazis, racists and other such categories. I hope the wordsmiths in the media can and will find many other terms that both clarify and elaborate on “extremist” or “extremism.”
What’s essential is to give the extremists no quarter, no place to hide behind comforting, compromising, euphemistic — and deceptive — words like “conservative.”