Civil Liberties

Snowden and the Right

Edward Snowden’s actions will ultimately tear apart the GOP, says Michael Tomasky.

Here’s something I’ll certainly be keeping one eye fixed on as the Edward Snowden story advances: the degree to which the American right takes him up as a cause célèbre. They’re up a tree either way. If they do, then they’re obviously guilty of the rankest hypocrisy imaginable, because we all know that if Snowden had come forward during George W. Bush’s presidency, the right-wing media would by now have sniffed out every unsavory fact about his life (and a hefty mountain of fiction) in an effort to tar him. If they don’t, then they’ve lost an opportunity to sully Barack Obama. Since they like smearing Obama a lot more than they care about hypocrisy, my guess is that they will lionize him, as some already are. But in the long run, doing that will only expose how deep the rifts are between the national-security right and the libertarian right, and this issue will only extend and intensify those disagreements.

First out of the gate Sunday was Glenn Beck, who tweeted in the late afternoon, not too long after The Guardian posted the interview with Snowden: “I think I have just read about the man for which I have waited. Earmarks of a real hero.” Shortly thereafter, another: “Courage finally. Real. Steady. Thoughtful. Transparent. Willing to accept the consequences. Inspire w/Malice toward none.” And two hours after that: “The NSA patriot leaker is just yet another chance for America to regain her moral compass and set things right. No red or blue JUST TRUTH.”

Beck, I will concede, has a degree of credibility on the red/blue issue. He criticizes Republicans sometimes. Even so, it amounts to a speck of dust when set against his near-daily sermons (for years now) about liberal and Democratic fascism. So I wonder about the degree to which Beck would have hopped up to throw rose petals at young Snowden’s feet if he’d come forward in this way under the Bush administration.

About Beck, we can wonder. About the others, I think there is no reason to wonder at all. If Snowden’s parents had got about the business of conceiving him five or six years before they did, and the progeny had taken up this line of work in 2007 or 2008, it’s obvious that The Daily Caller and, two right-wing outfits that Sunday evening were triumphantly bannering Snowden’s comments and the National Security Agency’s announced investigation into the matter, would have been savaging the guy. By close of business today, the rumors about his sexuality would be rampant.

They just want any cudgel they can find to beat Obama over the head, so Snowden suits their purposes for now. But let’s see where they go on this one over the long haul. On Sunday morning, Sen. Rand Paul called for a Supreme Court–level challenge to the NSA, in the form of a class-action suit, to end this data-mining. How’s that going to sit with John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Reince Priebus, and the moneymen behind the Republican Party? Not very well.

Yes, the subject of the national-security state gives liberals and Democrats fits. We’re not “supposed” to do or support this sort of thing, because we believe in and hew to certain civil-libertarian principles. Conservatives, on the other hand, burdened with no such principles, can let it rip. No one expects ethical behavior of them in these arenas in the first place. It thus amuses me to watch conservatives attack liberals on the grounds of “hypocrisy” (if, say, they defend the Obama administration on this story) when everyone knows that (most) conservatives think civil liberties are some conspiracy against America.

But the bigger an issue conservatives try to make of this now, the more controversial the question of citizen-monitoring will become, and when that happens, the blowback is going to be much fiercer on the right than on the left, especially as we head toward 2016. On the left, Democrats will speak of the need for “balance” but not force a major debate on the issue, particularly if the nomination is essentially Hillary Clinton’s for the asking.

But on the right, the issue threatens to be much more disruptive. What used to be the Ron Paul–crank-libertarian faction, easily outnumbered by the neocons, is growing, and his son—a senator rather than just a congressman, young rather than curmudgeonly old, able to appeal to groups his father could not—is a much stronger standard-bearer for the anti-war-machine, pro-civil-libertarian message. Paul, it seems, is definitely running for president, and given the field, he’ll probably be in the first tier of contenders. He’ll have the ability to force a debate about these issues in a way his father never could.

The war caucus still dominates inside the GOP. But what really dominates the Republican Party mindset, what conquers everything, is the thermogenic desire to see Barack Obama have a bad day at the office, whatever it takes. So to the extent that Snowden proves useful to them in the coming days and weeks, they will use him. And liberals should say: let them.