I’ve been paddling in the turbulent waters of “extremist” ideology lately, from both sides of the political continuum. If our nation’s democratic spectrum can be described as a bell curve, these would be the “long tails” of that curve. Those are the places inhabited by the fanatics, the conspiracy theorists, the QAnon cultists on the far right—and on the far left, what’s the equivalent—AOC? Bernie Sanders? No—these folks are far too tame. Maybe Antifa?
The Dictionary.com definition of “extremism” is “a tendency or disposition to go to extremes or an instance of going to extremes especially in political matters … ,” though for most of us, it’s easier to castigate our political enemies as “extremist” while trying to occupy as much of that “vital center” as possible by seeming to be “mainstream.” It’s a delicate dance.
Let’s consider what we mean by “mainstream”—that widest part of the bell curve where most voters would place themselves. Unfortunately, the word has taken on the character of an epithet lately, especially with reference to the “mainstream” media. It’s that vast territory of major metropolitan newspapers like The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and publishing networks like McClatchy. It’s the airwaves where major “legacy broadcasters” like CBS, ABC, and NBC try to speak to that broad “center.” The best of them, a shrinking professional group of serious journalists, seek a national consensus that will forge the destiny of our democracy. Unfortunately, in their zeal to achieve “balance,” they often flood the airwaves with “what-aboutism,” giving equal time to extremist arguments that defy common sense.
On television, where most Americans turn for “breaking news,” CNN strives to be a center-left cable news outlet, while MSNBC is more openly Democratic in its hosted programs: Their talk show hosts regularly feature liberal interest groups—though “extremists”? Doubtful at best.
And then there is Fox “News”—Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing bastion that offers an increasingly volatile mix of shrill chest-thumping nationalism and occasional overt racism. It’s leading prime-time hypocrite is Tucker Carlson, who tells his Fox colleagues privately that he “passionately hates” Donald Trump while simultaneously coddling the former president and his fanatical followers with a steady diet of election denialism, “white replacement theory,” and scathing attacks on all things “woke.”
Murdoch has confessed that he personally leaked advance copies of Biden-Harris campaign ads to the Trump campaign in the midst of the 2020 election. That gift was a valuable contribution that required, at the very least, a disclosure to the Federal Election Commission.
Here are just a few samples of far-right extremism gathered from just the last month:
1. Donald Trump, in a campaign video released over the weekend: “The greatest threat to Western civilization today is not Russia, it’s the collapse of the nuclear family and fertility rates, like nobody can believe is happening … it’s the Marxists who would have us become a godless nation worshipping at the altar of race, and gender, and environment.” And in an earlier tweet, he bemoans “the socialists, globalists, Marxists, and communists who are attacking our civilization; [they] have no idea of the sleeping giant they have awoken. On November 2024 they will find out like never before. We did it twice and we’ll do it again.”
2. Marjorie Taylor Greene chose the most recent President’s Day to tweet: “We need a national divorce. We need to separate … red states [from] blue states. … From the sick and disgusting woke culture issues shoved down our throats to the Democrat’s traitorous America Last policies, we are done.”
3. Tucker Carlson tried desperately to re-write history by cherry-picking 42 seconds of more than 40,000 HOURS of GOP House Speaker McCarthy’s illegal leak of Capitol Police video of the deadly insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021. Could he seriously suggest that the riot was led by “peaceful sightseers”?
4. Daily Wire host Michael Knowles at the Conservative Political Action Committee in early March ginned up his gun-toting followers to attack transgender people with this: “For the good of society … transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely—the whole preposterous ideology, at every level.”
It’s a small step from these inflammatory expressions to violent attacks targeting liberals, Democrats, LGBTQ-plus people, Jews, and racial minorities for extinction. Extremists from both sides must remember that their opponents are fellow Americans, fellow human beings.
We might take inspiration from James Baldwin’s observation that, “We can disagree and still love each other—unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”
We’re all swimming in the same stream—and the best way to avoid the riptides and rocky shoals is in the mainstream, not the extremes.
John Ashbaugh has been engaged in local politics since arriving on the Central Coast in 1977. Write a response for publication by emailing [email protected].