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Today’s GOP: Descendants of the Grand Evocateur, Morton Downey, Jr.

Today’s GOP: Descendants of the Grand Evocateur, Morton Downey, Jr.
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BY DON PORTOLESE

I finally got around to watching the movie, “Evocateur” about Morton Downey, Jr. a few nights ago, and, I must say, it was far more enlightening than I had thought it would be. I had been putting it off for quite sometime, given Mr. Downey’s obnoxious persona and dangerous examination of important issues. I had seen a few of his shows back in the late 80s and wondered if a documentary about that chain-smoking loudmouth would yield anything of interest. Yet, at CNN’s behest, I decided to give it a watch. And like many other writers and political pundits, I was astounded by the parallels between the lynch-mob populism of Downey and his audience and the conservative movement of today.

It was no wonder that the seeds of Downey’s appeal took root so quickly in late 80’s New York. For New Yorkers, this was an era of heroes like Bernhard Goetz and a city that had simply degenerated into a cesspool of crime and filth. Liberal bogeymen seemed more interested in defending the criminal rather than the innocent victim. However, with the advent of Mr. Downey, the innocent victims weren’t so innocent anymore. They had congealed into an unruly mob that would rather scream people out of the argument than engage them in any form of serious debate (hmm, sound familiar?).

As the republican scrum for the nomination ramps up, it is easy to see that the conservative movement has borrowed significantly from Mr. Downey’s playbook. While these GOP hopefuls may claim to hail from the compassionate conservatism of Ronald Reagan, they are far more a product of Downey’s angry pageantry. Downey was by no means a man interested in facts or any form of nuanced thinking. He lamented the deteriorating moral fiber of our country as he continued to pave the way to its very demise through ruthless and profane attacks against some very moral people.

For Downey, this was meant as a form of entertainment, a precursor to reality T.V. However, it has been coopted by the conservative movement and has become their modus operandi. Their inability to take into account any other point of view, or anything that doesn’t smack of the black and white divide, not only plays out among republican candidates but also on so many “news” programs today. Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck are certainly Downey disciples who understand that conflict translates to notoriety and nuanced thinking rarely enters into the ratings equation.

Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir reviewed “Evocateur” when it first came out. He saw Downey as a seminal father to news programs on both sides of the political divide. I certainly agree. In a climate where political debate has become a scrappy, name-calling, no-fly-zone of truth, it’s easy to see that political agendas matter more than factual accuracy and the shrill voice of populism trumps any desire to really solve any of the problems our country faces.

However, while the left leaning MSNBC has its own propaganda churning, most notably with Downey era hypocrites like Al Sharpton and condescending news showmen like ex-anchor Keith Olbermann, the left doesn’t scream at you. They may ask you to be quiet or ignore you, but they will not out and out tell you to shut up. This is a uniquely right-wing thing. A brand of arrogance that is far more profane than anything that a shock-jock like Howard Stern (another Downey disciple) could stain the airwaves with.

Like Downey, today’s GOP is continually on the attack. They brandish their swords in defense of “conservative” values but would rather hack up the argument before they realize which side of it they should be on. They whip their constituents into an angry lather in order to pit them against their own best interests. And this is far more diabolical than anything Mr. Downey did.

The current litter of rightwing presidential wannabes is either obscured by the shadow of Donald Trump’s billion-dollar persona or attempts to grab some of his limelight by aligning its message with his. Either way, they all operate in the same bubble. Rather than accept our changing values and demographics, they see their fundamental mission as one of dragging us back to the past. A past dominated by white, Christian values that no longer hold sway in this country. The same values that Morton Downey, Jr. championed in between long drags on his cigarette. And like Downey, they choose divisive issues to debate rather than finding common ground, because that is what garners attention in the ratings game that our political process has become.

Back when Morton Downey, Jr. was a kinder and gentler man he wrote a book of poetry entitled, “Quiet thoughts make the Loudest Noise.” He obviously scrapped that mantra when he turned against his liberal upbringing and saw his rightwing rage as a ticket to stardom. However, when diagnosed with lung cancer, he reverted back to it, calling many of the people he had verbally abused on his program to apologize for having done so. As the end drew near, Morton Downey, Jr. became a husk of his former bellicose self. He was a man humbled by his disease and ashamed of having betrayed himself and his principles for a shot at the big time.

Unfortunately, today’s conservative movement sees no shame in continuing along their path of anger and arrogance. They have yet to experience any life-changing catharsis that would humble them. They are simply unable to surrender their delusions of American exceptionalism and macho jingoism in order to embrace the changing world we currently live in. Lamentably for conservatives of today, this humbling may only come after they are trounced in the upcoming presidential election. However, judging from their unrepentant attitudes, even this seems highly unlikely.

 

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