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The Disgust Is The Product

A still image from the Citizens For Sanity ads that ran during the MLB Playoffs, this one juxtaposing Bernie Sanders and words accusing him of having a love affair with violent criminals.
Screengrab via YouTube

Friendship is certainly not the right word for it, and even relationship isn't quite it either, but over the course of a long season a person will develop a let's say familiarity with the advertisements that pad out televised baseball games. These advertisements are not your friends, because you are never really glad to see them; continuing to see them, against your will, over the course of six or seven months, may echo some relationships from your mid-20s but does not count in any meaningful way. But over time you will come to recognize them. It's like if there was someone who lived in your neighborhood that you saw every time you went out, and that person always smiled and walked up really close and said, right to your face, "Verizon." You would not like this, probably, but you would soon be able to identify The Verizon Guy, and maybe over time come simultaneously to think of him as a constitutive part of what it was like to go outside and to not think of him at all.

The purpose of the uncommonly ugly and wildly racist political ads that have run during MLB playoff broadcasts on Fox Sports 1 is to be noticed, which to some extent is the purpose of every advertisement. While these were unmistakably political advertisements—one was about how "illegal immigration is draining our paychecks, wrecking our schools, ruining our hospitals, and threatening your family," another was more broadly about how Democrats think crime is good, and like it—they weren't quite campaign ads. Because the organization behind them enjoys a tax-exempt nonprofit status pegged to its purported nonpartisanship, the ads can only get so specific—in this case, it is 30 seconds of dudgeon and dread and shots of swarthy faceless hordes and an exhortation to "tell Democrats to stop hurting our children."

Back in August, when this organization started running television ads about how "woke left-wing politicians are destroying girls' sports," Ian Prior, a strategic consultant working for the group, told Politico that the group "is not an ideological organization: we stand for reason, common sense, objectivity, equality, the neutral rule of law, and open scientific inquiry." Prior's quote was, at bottom, just what a reactionary organization's strategic consultant would say when he knows he can kind of say whatever. And because the organization doesn't really advocate for anything, it thus claims a non-ideology—it may not have any Solutions that it's willing to cop to, but it sure does seem to hate Problems. But the endeavor is clearly political, and in a way that is not even remotely abstract: Nurturing those specific feelings of disgust and rage is effectively the entire political program of the Republican Party at this moment.

In theory, if not necessarily in practice, ideology exists at a remove from that kind of grubby, rube-running, retail stuff. If the political part can be understood as what a party actually does, the ideological aspect would be the ostensible reason why it does it. Given that the politics looks like what it looks like—one lavishly fetishized crisis after another, each carried forward through aligned media with the goal of creating in the consumer a constant state of furious full-spectrum derangement—the ideology is easy enough to guess. The obvious goal of all this is to get and keep people ready to do or think very strongly about how cool it would be to do some righteous violence against every other person and thing that exists. The name of the organization behind the advertisements, naturally, is Citizens For Sanity.

Nothing about this organization will surprise anyone who knows how the politics business works. It is one of those places in which the skittering goblins that filled out the administrative state during the Trump years have gone to hibernate until such time as they get back into power and begin rubbing their hideous wet wings together again. Open Secrets reported that the organization has members in common with Stephen Miller's America First Legal Foundation, another scrupulously non-ideological nonprofit; Citizens For Sanity's treasurer, who is also America First Legal Foundation's vice president, was a driving force behind the Trump administration's attempts to repeal DACA. Citizens For Sanity board member John Zadrozny went from working for an anti-immigration organization designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center to a top position in Trump's Immigration and Customs Service. This is all funded by donors whose identities are protected by law.

There are a lot of places like this. Everyone knows everyone else; every organization has some unctuous and bombastic name in the 1776 Lorem Ipsum style favored by political communications professionals. They raise money from the same people. Citizens For Sanity uses some of that money to do what it does—billboards alongside highways that say things like "Protect Pregnant Men from Climate Discrimination" and "Democrats Hate You"; newspaper ads that say "Joe Biden is giving your money to illegal immigrants. Your kids don't matter to him at all"; and also the ads that ran throughout the postseason baseball games broadcast on Fox Sports 1. Citizens For Sanity has described itself as taking a "satirical" approach to political advocacy, which is sort of a high-flown way to describe a billboard that says Democrats Hate You but is more broadly correct. "Our cultural ecosystem is dressed up with nice-sounding talking points," Prior explained to a very strange website called The Nevada Globe, "but we are trying to boil it down to the basics." Beneath the acid sarcasm and undisguised spite of its advertisements, Citizens For Sanity absolutely plays like a satire of this political moment, and works in the clarifying way that satire is supposed to work. That the organization's attempt to caricature their enemies does a better job boiling down contemporary reactionary politics to its seething and scandalized essence is also satirical in its way. The sharpest satire isn't necessarily the easiest to laugh at, and anyway the essence has never been tough to read.

In its current state, Trumpism is entirely about feeling and fantasy. Instead of any plan to deal with crime, for instance, there is only the lascivious going-over of the problem; there is no program, or really any policies to advocate for, that is more expedient for the party than just continuing to fixate on it. There is a constituency—they are confused and vengeful and fucking livid, they are daily taking in and making up strange new stories to keep themselves that way, they are less mis- or disinformed than they are living inside the bilious and vengeful lore that sustains and explains their movement—and there is what that constituency feels, but there is nothing else. It is again worth noting that this constituency chooses to feel this way, every day; the most comfortable Americans have opted to wander this wilderness of prurience and threat and weird ugly lies instead of living in a reality they would have to share with anyone else. Where there might otherwise be ideology—where there might, actually, have been anything else—there is only politics. Of course it is ugly, small, even more fantastically dark than the truth of the moment. Being ugly, in precisely that way, is the reason that it exists. What began as a cynical set of best practices for keeping distracted people attached to their televisions has become the sacrament itself; they have built a church and then just fucking filled it with cable news.

In a characteristically thoughtful post about the advertisements at Baseball Prospectus, Steven Goldman wrote about how strange and jarring it was to see Citizens For Sanity's ads during these last weeks of extremely exciting and good baseball games, in part because those games consist, as baseball games do, of the best efforts of people from all over the world. "The dissonance tears something within you and you may feel distanced from the joy of the game," Goldman writes. "It’s exactly what they wanted." This is true, and the contrast between the baseball and the advertisements standing athwart it, yelling slurs, was certainly a big part of why I found the ads so repellent. But I also think that this collision is useful. It is not just that the two are in contrast, but that they are in some fundamental sense in conflict. You have these games, unfinished and alive and lit up with brilliance and the basic human thrill in things not yet known, and then you have its opposite: finished, closed, fearful, hateful, heaving itself into the way of all that life.

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