A few things happened on Monday that are beyond dispute.
1. The Heritage Foundation hosted a panel to air the views of some of the most outspoken anti-Muslim figures in the conservative movement.
2. During the event, one of the panelists, Brigitte Gabriel, responded to a Muslim attendee's objection to demonization of Muslims with a long diatribe in which she declared the vast majority of Muslims "irrelevant" in the same way peaceful Nazi-era Germans were "irrelevant" with respect to irredentism and genocide that warranted the country's destruction. (The full implications of the analogy were not explored.)
3. The diatribe, including the problematic Nazi comparison and other problematic comparisons, drew a standing ovation from practically the entire audience.
4. The person on the receiving end of the diatribe later claimed to have felt "targeted" by others in the room.
5. The panelists separately dabbled in conspiracy theories about the Muslim Brotherhood's influence within both the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton's inner circle.
6. When the event ended, conservative pundits and activists said nothing, and continued to say nothing for hours and hours, until eventually it came to their attention that Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank had written an unflattering summary of the event.
On Tuesday, they rendered their verdict on items 1-6 by completely ignoring items 1-5. They then organized a vicious smear campaign against Milbank for omitting tertiary details that change nothing about items 1-5, and more generally for not putting the events he witnessed in a more flattering light. They found an unlikely ally in Politico's media reporter Dylan Byers who condemned the column for rendering subjective judgments he disagreed with, based on a partial clip of the hourlong event.
American conservatives are famously far more sensitive to the harmful consequences of accusations of racism than they are to the harmful consequences of racism itself. And on Tuesday they turned that peculiar value system into performance art. To them, none of the proceedings at the Heritage Foundation on Monday were nearly as offensive as the liberties they claim Milbank took when he summarized them.
As a matter of strategy, I believe the impulse we witnessed this week is more harmful to modern conservatism than, to pick at random, the very impulse Gabriel would like more Muslims to exhibit. The great irony in all this is that you can apply a boiled-down, generous version of Gabriel's analysis (that a factional minority can drive a reactionary agenda) to modern conservatism, and it brilliantly captures the dilemma facing the movement she's a part of today. But of course if I or anyone commenting on American politics were to render that analysis by concluding that "non-racist, non-reactionary conservatives are irrelevant," the ensuing outrage on the right would make the response to Milbank's article seem mild by comparison.
But that's not really the left's m.o. To the contrary, liberals from the president on down have been engaged in a years-long lament that the non-reactionary element of the Republican Party refuses to assert its obvious relevance over its reactionary rump. Obama's working theory (to which I don't entirely subscribe) is that eventually a big electoral defeat will catalyze some kind of political cleansing in the GOP.
In the meantime, the same conservatives who believe that the worst thing about Monday's Heritage panel was Milbank's summary of it have absolutely nothing to say about North Carolina GOP Senate Candidate Thom Tillis, who almost unthinkingly drew a distinction this week between growing black and Hispanic segments of the population, and the segment of the population that's more or less stagnant. Except instead of calling that segment "white," he called it "traditional."
Many of them are also very excited about the likely candidacy of Mississippi Republican Chris McDaniel, who has a colorful history of making racist and sexist statements, and whose ties to neo-Confederate groups seem almost quaint next to headlines like this.
It is within their power to self-police. For anyone who can remember back to 2008, the picture above this piece is a reminder of that fact. Nevertheless, I'm quite confident that the conservatives who read this article will find my distillation of Tillis's and McDaniel's liabilities far more problematic than anything Tillis and McDaniel have actually said and done. To that end, Gabriel's dismissal of irrelevant, moderate majorities may have just been a remarkable feat of projection. But if other conservatives believe that Gabriel and her fellow panelists were merely, gently suggesting that Islam is a religion with a radical faction that Muslims should work harder to subdue, they should really take a long, cold stare in the mirror.
Brian Beutler is a senior editor at The New Republic.