Groucho Marx used to ask contestants, “Have you stopped beating your wife?”
A number of Republican candidates showed that they still hadn’t mastered that one when the media came asking them about the Confederate flag in South Carolina.
Like so many chumps undone by Groucho, they thought that they were showing off how noble they were, when all they did was answer, “Yes, I did stop beating my wife. And I mostly oppose it now.”
Instead of looking like heroes, they looked like guilty men confessing to a crime.
Like most questions the media asks Republicans, it was a loaded question meant to set up a narrative. The question feeds into the narrative. The answer itself doesn’t really matter.
The difference between condemning the Confederate flag and supporting it is the difference between, “No, I haven’t stopped beating my wife” and “Yes, I have stopped beating my wife.”
Either way it’s a story about the Republican position on beating women and the Confederacy.
The media does this all the time. It manufactures a story. Then it reports on the story that it made up. Then it keeps the story alive by interviewing people about its own narrative.
The media appears to have avoided asking Hillary Clinton about the flag despite her husband signing a bill into law that stated the Arkansas state flag commemorates the Confederacy and sending letters of congratulations to the United Daughters of the Confederacy. When she does make the inevitable statement, it will be spun as a rebuke to Republicans and there will be no questions about Arkansas.
The Republican candidates were being asked about the flag in order to connect their party to the Charleston church massacre by way of the flag. The whole premise of the question was guilt by association. There was no practical reason to ask Scott Walker, running for president from the notorious Southern outpost of Wisconsin, about a flag flying in South Carolina.
What they were really being asked is, “Have you racist Republicans ended your support for killing black people.”
Too many Republican replies came down to some version of, “Yes, we have.”
Once the media had its answers, it was able to do three things.
- Assemble a series of stories connecting Republicans to the flag and to the church massacre
It didn’t matter that most of the Republicans in the stories were condemning the flag. The association alone created a linkage between Republicans, the flag and the massacre. Like the wife beating query, the question creates its own aura of association and guilt.
- Manufacture a Republican “debate” on the topic
This is one of the media’s favorite tricks. It seeks out a Republican with an outlier opinion; it asks other Republicans about the issue and “reports” on the debate within the Republican Party. The media kept the “War on Women” going with that particular trick. Romney and Jeb Bush were stupid and egotistical enough to help the media pull the same trick with the Confederate flag.
- Investigate whether the Republicans have really stopped beating their wives
This is the best part of the whole ghoulish circus because it allows the media to write long background pieces like “The GOP’s long history with the Confederate flag” while accusing Republicans of really being hypocrites for only claiming to oppose the flag while continuing their racist opposition to Obama.
We’re now at stage 3.
All it took to get to stage 3 were Republicans willing to comment on an issue that they shouldn’t have commented on. The media would have gone to stage 3 anyway, but without comments from Republican presidential candidates, the stories would have been buried at Salon and Slate, instead of getting top billing in the mainstream media. By responding, the Republican candidates gave the story legs.
There were two correct responses to the question.
Scott Walker said that the shootings shouldn’t be politicized until the victims were buried and the families have a chance to mourn. It was a sensible response that left the media gritting its teeth.
“We should honor the dead and the families by allowing them to bury their loved ones. And then you could perfectly ask me that question at some point in the next week or two when that's done,” he said.
Of course by then the media’s window of opportunity will have passed and everyone knows that. The media accused Scott Walker of dodging the question, but it was a feeble attack.
The other response is to challenge the premise and turn the question around on the asker. The Republican Party had defeated slavery while the Democrats had championed it. Democratic mobs of immigrants stirred up by community organizers had raged across the same northern cities where its media elites now smugly rule, burning black orphanages and murdering Republican supporters.
The Democratic Party’s two previous presidents, Carter and Clinton, were both tainted by racist associations. South Carolina had, until not all that long ago, been a Democratic stronghold.
Not enough Republicans are willing to expose the media’s agenda by challenging its premises. Instead most tried to position themselves on the right side of the issue while describing it, correctly, as a decision for the state. It was a matter of child’s play for the media to tear them apart as hypocrites.
This isn’t about the Confederate flag. It’s about Republicans who still don’t seem to have caught on to the media’s tricks or figured out how to counter them. It’s also about liberal Republicans who are eager to help the media do its dirty work and don’t realize that their media pals see them as the enemy.
Too many Republicans have been taught by their strategists and consultants to see the media as people who can help them tell their story, but the media is only here to tell its story in which they are the villains. In the past, even a biased media might have contended itself with sabotaging their stories, but these days the media develops its own fully formed stories and works to fit Republicans into them.
The media is the most dangerous opponent of any Republican running for political office. It has more money, more people and more talent than any conventional political opponent. It also commands more airtime, column inches and pageviews. It has the same mission as any political opponent, but with few of the same limitations.
What the media does best is tell stories. That is also what the best political candidates do. An election is a contest of stories. The best story is the one that people find the most compelling.
Any Republican who wants to win the White House will have to beat the media. He will have to tell his story without letting the media fit him into its story. The media will tell the same story that it tells every time. It will invent gaffes, accusations of racism and invest him with an air of malice and incompetence.
He will not only have to tell a better story, but avoid letting himself get trapped in the media’s tale. To do that he will have to understand the story that the media is trying to tell and how it intends to fit him into it. Like a battle, he must know the enemy’s strategy in order to ambush it or avoid it. What he can’t afford to do is to assume that he can charm the media or impress it with his good intentions.
The media is not here to help him. It is here to hurt him. In its story, he loses. His party loses. Conservatives lose forever. The mobs of progress move forward and make over the world their way.
A Republican who can’t handle the flag question will spend the election being stitched up as racist, sexist and the worst monster since John McCain and Mitt Romney. A Republican who lets the media fit him into its narrative can’t win. The election will not belong to Republicans who let the media tell their stories. It will belong to those that challenge the media’s stories with more compelling stories.
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