WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 07: The bust of U.S. President Zachary Taylor is covered with plastic after blood was smeared on it when a pro-Trump mob broke into the U.S. Capitol building on January 7, 2021 in Washington, DC. Following a rally yesterday with President Donald Trump on the National Mall, a pro-Trump mob stormed and broke into the U.S. Capitol building causing a Joint Session of Congress to delay the certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory over President Trump. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images)
By Margaret Wright
I tune into local right-wingers. Radio, socials, blogs. For me, an intake of diverse viewpoints, including extremist ones, is crucial background research. It’s also a civics exercise. Careful doses of even the most rank propaganda can modulate one’s own knee-jerk impulses, craft relevant lines of inquiry, hone protective instincts. I see it as a kind of emotional inoculation against reactionary forces.
That regimen is part of what braced me for what took place on Jan. 6. And it’s why I expected the maniacal power grab to continue after that crisis stabilized.
Grassroots activism here in New Mexico apart from right-wingers is deep and widespread to an extent that I remain hopeful that the dangerous ideologies held by too many neighbors and local power brokers could fade into obscurity.
I’ve also clung to the tentative faith that people who “speak truth to power” might safeguard against violent, counter-revolutionary insurrection. Just last week, a former page-one editor for the Chicago Tribune stood out as a scant member of the mainstream willing to admit that “the media (including me) have been unintentionally complicit in the rise of fascism that threatens our democracy. [We] have long tried to treat Republicans and Democrats equally. Some, like me, thought that was the way to be fair. In fact, it was the way to be lazy and not have to sort out the facts.”
I used to edit Page 1 stories for the Chicago Tribune, including many from Washington. In this thread, I explain why the media (including me) have been unintentionally complicit in the rise of fascism that threatens our democracy. 1/9
— Mark Jacob (@MarkJacob16) September 27, 2021
The failure by management at mainstream local news outlets to openly condemn the New Mexico Republican Party’s anti-democratic extremism is itself disturbing.
We’re all too aware at this point that fear, division and violence spill over when anti-democratic reactionaries are humored and “heard out.” Counteracting systemic, violent extremism requires long-term prevention and eradication efforts, starting from the top down. Individuals who veer into right-wing extremism can’t be pulled back and held to account absent their own will to do so.
As a lurker, I noticed as one of New Mexico’s primary conservative news outlets, KKOB News Radio, shifted its messaging in January after a directive by a top executive at station owner Cumulus Media told show hosts “to stop spreading rhetoric about a stolen election or face termination.” While the station still airs nationally syndicated lickspittles like Dan Bongino and Mark Levin, local programming at least regularly promotes vaccination and other public health measures to combat the ongoing pandemic.
Even these mildest gestures toward facts, moderation and democratic electoralism rankle the Trumpy base of local listeners, some of whom I’ve noticed proclaiming that they’ve turned away from KKOB to tune into a lower-wattage AM station operated by Albuquerque mayoral candidate Eddy Aragon.
Aragon has been embraced, if not passionately promoted, by the New Mexico Republican Party under the leadership of former congressional representative and Tea Party/Freedom Caucus member Steve Pearce. Aragon is running in the ostensibly nonpartisan mayoral race as the lone registered Republican against incumbent Tim Keller and the previously pro-Trump, anti-accountability Bernalillo County Sheriff Manny Gonzales.
Gonzales, meanwhile, has garnered endorsements of other police alongside generous campaign investments from well-heeled private real estate developers, including the self-proclaimed “largest landlord in New Mexico,” Doug Peterson.
Pearce’s GOP is fully entangled within the network of U.S. authoritarianism, from Pearce’s fellow Tea Party/Freedom Caucus frat brother in 45’s White House, former Chief of StaffMark Meadows, down to figures like two of the country’s most dug-in anti-abortion fundamentalists.
The party has elevated former New Mexico state house candidate Dinah Vargas, who posed alongside New Mexico Civil Guard militia members outside an event last summer in which Otero County Commissioner and Jan. 6 election certification rioter Couy Griffin said the only good Democrat was a dead one.
Republican Party members hold fewer public offices in New Mexico, many with tight margins of victory, and it’s a wonder to watch them metaphorically stuff en masse into a messaging oil tank, screaming themselves hoarse as their own choir develops tinnitus (or more literally, COVID-19).
Fear-mongering and political polarization render any partisan more prone to misinformation, manipulation, elite astro-turfing and weaponization. But one of the strongest tendencies of today’s Republicans is steadfast suffocation of cognitive dissonance, to say nothing of self-reflection and accountability.
Their most rabid base supports — even enacts — political violence. The party’s close organizational associates are climate ecology- and democracy-destructive mercenaries bought and paid for by U.S. oligarchical interests like the American Legislative Exchange Council and Koch Industries. The New Mexico Republican Party and its adherents are today our own localized authoritarians. For the sake of civic plurality alone, their impulses deserve wholesale public shunning and political exile.
Right-wing propagandists like John Block and the Rio Grande Foundation have glommed onto the wave of anti-public health organizing that arose alongside the pandemic. The foundation’s Vice-President Patrick Brenner rode right-wing outrage into his candidacy for the Rio Rancho Public Schools board. Like his Libertarian boss Paul Gessing, Brenner favors public school privatization, generates white-flighted panic about critical race theory and vilifies unions.
He’s opposed to public health measures for combating a pandemic that has killed close to 5,000 New Mexicans but wants to mandate that school children read a book series one critic described as “wretchedly contrived, grotesquely unethically indoctrinating, cliché-ridden heaps of steaming garbage.”
These people have copious agency, and pro-authoritarian right-wingers in positions of power are leveraging that to subjugate the agency of any “other” member of their perceived opposition.
In repeated instances the past five years, I’ve found myself convulsed by an acrid form of gratitude: Thank you, dark matter, for arranging things so my two grandfathers, both World War II veterans who instilled anti-fascist values in their offspring, died before they had to witness today’s full-scale eruption of U.S. authoritarianism. They escaped watching their national government — one they believed has potential to evolve into genuine representation of its constituents and which they’d risked their young lives to uphold — nearly fall to insurrection by right-wing nationalists.
They were, however, not entirely spared the sight of seemingly democratic people and institutions either caving to or passively standing by as power-ravenous, corrupt, white nationalist, evangelical-authoritarian strains of U.S. politics engulfed the Republican Party. They did live through Nixon’s Watergate, the Iran-Contra affair and George W. Bush’s selection by the Supreme Court in 2000, aghast as reasonable figures in their home country — viewed by many as a place of progress — cowered rather than confronted the rot now rampant.
Tunnel vision and incompetence within the Grand Old Party are among precious few factors that have so far saved this republic from worse horrors posed by the contemporary right-wing. And like all abusers and their enablers, they are quick to turn on anyone not towing the line, including those closest to them. Since the 2020 election especially, including here in New Mexico, there’s been ample internecine bickering.
They’re more than welcome to inflame each-other as the rest of us outside their oily bubble pursue liberation. As grotesque a spectacle as it is to witness a self-immolation, if that’s the local embodiment of white colonial authoritarianism burning itself alive, then we rejoice to behold it — before praying for more rain.
Margaret Wright is a freelance journalist whose previous work has appeared at the Santa Fe New Mexican, New Mexico Political Report, Santa Fe Reporter, KUNM News and Popula, among other local outlets now shuttered. She wrote this column for Source New Mexico, a sibling site of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where it first appeared.
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