The 2020 Republican National Convention wrapped up on Thursday, mercifully putting to rest an over-the-top four-day exercise in anxiety amplification. This year’s gathering featured a cavalcade of histrionic speakers spelling out the end days of the USA in apocalyptic tones.
Sitting here in my office on the Asian side of the Pacific, it’s easy to shake my head at this madness and while dismissing it as an alarming peculiarity of the right back home. But if we turn our eyes to South Korea, we can clearly see that conservatives here have been infected with a similar virus that also causes them to eschew facts and lap up the strangely soothing milk of conspiracy and paranoia.
More on that in a moment. But first, a look at the RNC.
Doom and gloom were the name of the game, with speech after speech describing an America that’s on the brink of collapse. The message was clear: Not only were unwashed, rioting mobs – in concert with the Democratic Party – burning down the nation’s cities, but they were coming for your suburban enclave next. And the only one who can keep the barbarians at the gate and safeguard our precious way of life is you-know-who.
While most of us outside of the Cult of Trump chuckled, rolled our eyes, and recognized this pandering for what it was, it was nakedly clear that the Republican Party was peddling concentrated fear as their driving issue. After all, this is a party that couldn’t even manage to come up with a platform this time around. Instead of a list of ideals and policy objectives, they issued this simple statement:
“RESOLVED, That the Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda.”
That’s it. This sort of blind fealty to a leader – with nary a mention of policy goals – should send shudders down the spine of anyone with a reasonable mind, but we’re not living in reasonable times. For the modern Republican Party, this is just business-as-usual in a ferocious race to the bottom of fear-mongering, relentless attacks on democracy, and the wholesale rejection of reason.
The fact checkers of The New York Times and other mainstream media had their work cut out for them this week, with so many of the speakers at the Republican panic prom regurgitating half-truths and outright lies in order to whip their base into a frenzy.
This is nothing new of course – especially given President Donald Trump’s own junkie-like addiction to fiction – but when prevarication and rejection of facts become the default setting for one of the nation’s two main political parties, you know that something rotten is afoot.
Of course anyone who hasn’t been living under the sea for the past decade knows that the American right exists in a fantasy bubble of paranoia, made-up facts, conspiracy theories, and confirmation bias – a kind of Bizarro World where reality is reversed and then spit back out.
This sort of immunity to facts is bad enough on its own. However, when wedded to outlandish conspiracy theories it enters into a real hall of horrors. While whisperings about secret cabals manipulating world events have been currency on the far-right for ages, it’s only in recent years that these sort of unhinged narratives have entered the mainstream.
Boosted by talk radio bloviators such Alex Jones and the hellmouth of the right-wing Internet, conspiracy theories are now as much a part of the modern Republican mindset as notions of small government, opposition to abortion, and vigorous defense spending.
After all, Donald Trump got his political start by pushing “birtherism,” the continually debunked theory that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the US. Then came “Pizzagate,” which purported Hillary Clinton and other major Democrats were operating a pedophilia ring out of the basement of a popular DC-based pizzeria. This premise was met with widespread mockery until one of its adherents showed up with an assault rifle and shot up the place.
The newest, and perhaps most frightening, version of this ever-morphing hydra of paranoia is “QAnon,” a deranged theory that again uses the idea of pedophilia to suck in the gullible, of which there is sadly no shortage. This nonsense is embraced widely among the Trump crowd, and we’re now even seeing Republican candidates who sign on to it winning primaries.
Soon this toxic garbage will be seriously discussed by some in the halls of Congress, further polluting the waters of the national discourse.
Worst of all, this wholesale assault on reason has meant that the American right views basic science with hostility, at least when it doesn’t comport to their ideological angle. Climate change is dismissed as a “liberal hoax,” and Covid-19 is played down as just “another flu,” with legions of conservatives refusing to wear masks out of purely tribal objections.
Like the US, South Korea is extremely polarized, politically, with the center-left Democrat Party currently calling the shots. President Moon Jae-in was elected in the wake of the impeachment, removal, and subsequent arrest of conservative president Park Geun-hye, who also happens to be the daughter of the late dictator Park Chung-hee, the country’s longest-serving leader, a figure who is still largely revered by the right.
I heard it first from Mr Shin, one of my older students: “Moon Jae-in is a communist,” he said, as if it were a universally accepted fact. “He’s a North Korean agent.” Now before you dismiss Mr Shin as some kind of yokel, rest assured that he’s an educated, articulate, successful retiree. When I asked where he came about this information, he confessed to getting most of it from YouTube. None of the mainstream sources could be trusted, he told me, because “It’s all fake news.”
Mr Shin represents a large, very disgruntled part of Korean society: older conservatives who, like aging Trump supporters back home in the US, feel like their country is being taken away from them. However, rather than agree to meet their adversaries in the middle and debate the actual facts, they have retreated into church groups and corners of the internet where their own biases are not only confirmed, but magnified. And this leads them to embrace outright lies.
The graying Korean right have recently found their voice in the Reverend Joon Kwang-hoon, chief pastor at Seoul’s Sarang Jeil Church and torchbearer of an interfaith conservative movement united against anything to do with Moon Jae-in. His church has become the de facto headquarters of the anti-Moon forces in recent months, and Joon has been openly defiant of quarantine restrictions, encouraging his followers to gather en masse in direct opposition to government policy.
This recently came to a head, where, over the Liberation Day three-day weekend, Joon held a series of massive anti-government rallies in Seoul, attracting tens of thousands of people, many of whom – believing the threat of Covid-19 was exaggerated to benefit the current administration – refused to wear masks.
The result has been a resurgence of infections. Hundreds of members of the Jaeil Sarang congregation have tested positive for the virus, along with the good reverend himself. The worst part is that people came from all over the country to attend these rallies, got infected, and then brought the virus back to their corners of Korea. The result is the biggest outbreak since the cluster at Daegu’s Shincheonji church back in March, but unlike that particular spike, this one has been disseminated all over the peninsula.
This pandemic presented a perfect opportunity for humans of varying political stripes to come together and conquer it. Some countries have managed it well, while others have stumbled. The United States has been an abject failure – not because we lack the institutions or infrastructure, but rather because the right’s ceaseless attack on facts and reasons have undermined those things to such a degree that they can no longer function at a national level.
South Korea was recently held up as an example on how to respond to Covid-19, but now we are seeing cracks in the armor. These vulnerabilities present themselves not because of Covid-19 itself, but due to a far deadlier virus called “rejection of reason,” a phenomenon I once thought unique to the Republican Party that has also sadly managed to take root here in Korea.