“You’re being attacked, congratulations!”
That is the sentiment I send to all grassroots conservatives who fought the good fight this election season. And it should be our heartfelt response any time we see Americans under assault by the establishment media for choosing to advance the principles of self-governance or advocate for values that conflict with elitist sensitivities.
One of the early church fathers, St. Boniface, encouraged his parishioners to “run to the roar.” He wasn’t talking about the applause of the Roman crowd. He was referring to the jaws of waiting lions in the arena. From his perspective, the lion wasn’t a punishment but a recognition of a life well-lived. It was this attitude of sacrificial service to a cause that eventually defeated Rome, and that caused the emperor to legalize Christianity then leave Rome and seek a new capital city. Rome, the city whose primary identity was as the center of a secular empire, transitioned for centuries thereafter to become known primarily as the capital of a global religion.
We now come to the end of electoral campaign attack season and are entering the season of “attacks to advance framing and narratives.” To prepare for the new “attack season,” I thought it might be worthwhile to pass along to fellow grassroots activists the lessons I have learned on how to think about political and media attacks you may face. The primary point of my recent book, Yellow Balloons, is that there are only three things we control, and one of those is the perspective we choose — how to look at things.
Like many of you, I have been attacked many times through campaign mailers, hit pieces by the establishment-funded media around our state, and anonymous internet postings. I often hear about the attacks from well-meaning friends who are either incensed or concerned for me. From now on, I hope to receive only congratulatory notes when I am attacked, because I believe the proper perspective is to think of being attacked the same way a basketball player should view being double-teamed. It is a great compliment and a statement about that player’s impact on the game.
I have learned these lessons through practical experience, but also from friends and allies. Life is a team sport, and we often need help from teammates to adopt a true perspective.
The majority of establishment and pay-to-play media around our state are losing readership, and most are dealing with financial difficulties as a result. A Pew Research Center fact sheet is telling:
—Less than 10 percent of the U.S. population subscribes to a newspaper, print or digital. And that is falling.
—People spend three minutes or less on a newspaper website.
—Newsroom employment has dropped from 71,400 in 2004 to 39,210 in 2017.
Although establishment media influence is dwindling, many media continue to faithfully attack grassroots activists, donors, and elected officials who seek to restore representative government by displacing lobby and establishment interests.
How should these attacks be viewed? How should we respond? Here are three practical tips I’ve learned from being a popular target.
1) DON’T REACT
The first rule is to not help them with their attacks. You help the media who do not like you when you react to their provocations. They write attack articles in large part so their targets will react. Their goal is to get you to adopt their framing, engage their narrative, and amplify the attention.
In politics, the primary fight on any issue is over how it will be framed. For example, the establishment media advocate framing “transparency” in terms of whether they and their allies know everything there is to know about you, so they have ammunition with which to attack (including with the force of government, as many of our friends have experienced).
Of course, they omit gross abuses in this framing, such as legislators not being required to disclose revenue they receive from government contracts. In their framing, “transparency” should apply to private citizens. Rather than react, the right response is to advocate for the proper framing. In fact, “transparency” is important in government and other public interests. Meanwhile, private interests should be entitled to privacy.
So, do not bother to talk with the media who do not like you. They are not seeking insight. They have already decided their angle, and want to use your response to legitimize their attack.
2) REALIZE THAT HARDLY ANYONE WILL CARE
Given the facts about diminishing media influence, almost no one will actually read or remember media attacks. Then why do you get expressions of concern from friends when they occur? Because they are your friends.
It costs millions of dollars and relentless publicity to be recognized outside your community. Can you name anyone who played in last year’s Super Bowl other than Tom Brady? If you are not an avid Eagles or Patriots fan, you probably had to stop and think, and your first thought was, “Who played the Patriots last year?” Eagles tight-end Zach Ertz caught the winning touchdown pass and was a major star in the game. Remember him? Perhaps, after being reminded. But likely not. And the Super Bowl is always the number-one media event of the year.
Similarly, most people can’t name their state legislators, who spend large sums to attempt to have their names remembered.
Media attacks create the illusion that everyone is watching you. Stepping back and realizing “that is just not true” is the right response for two reasons. First, it is true, and humility is simply recognizing things as they are. Living in reality is the vastly preferred and life-giving way to live. Second, it puts the attack in proper perspective, which allows it to fall flat.
3) CONGRATULATE YOUR FRIENDS WHO ARE ATTACKED
It is human nature to console people when they are abused. But in political conflict, attacks result from effectiveness. Consider the conflict we call a “football game.” The defense often emphasizes attacking the quarterback by “blitzing” to reduce his effectiveness. The best quarterbacks look forward to being “blitzed” — rather than react, they take advantage of resulting mismatches down the field.
When your friends are attacked by the establishment media, the appropriate response is, “Keep up the good work, you must be doing an exceptionally good job!” It is important to recognize the underlying nature and incentives of the establishment media in our state.
Some Final Words
There may be publications you can work with and media folks you find are willing to be factual. It is still important to bear in mind that they operate in an environment that is steeped in conflict, and that their policy framings are often hostile to the grassroots objective of representative government.
As an example, here is a prediction. No mainstream media reports on the upcoming race for the Speaker of the Texas House will frame the election as, “Will Democrats retain effective control of the House they enjoyed under Joe Straus, or will Republicans demand change?” Instead, their framing will be, “Will the House select a ‘moderate’ or someone who is too conservative?” The establishment wins if we allow them to make that the story once again.
Media attacks often provide an additional benefit. They let us know which of our efforts are most effective. We can learn from the attacks. What we must not do is react, adopt their framing, or be deterred.
Here are a few examples I want to applaud:
—The 12 members of the Texas House Freedom Caucus — less than 10 percent of the chamber — for enduring relentless attacks since their formation two years ago. They drove substantial aspects of the 2017 legislative session, helped cause the exit of Speaker Straus, and remain united on the need for policy reforms in 2019. Despite establishment attacks, only one of their members was seriously challenged in the election. I hope many more will now join their ranks.
—Attorney General Ken Paxton for his commitment to conservative principles that made him a target of attacks designed to chase him from office. He is winning because the truth is on his side, and because he refuses to buckle.
—Julie McCarty, JoAnn Fleming, and the other grassroots activists who have been assaulted — verbally and otherwise — for standing up for citizens. They have spoken truth to power in their neighborhoods and cities, where the “social cost” for not bending to the establishment can be greatest.
The list of Texans attacked by the establishment could go on and on. These men and women serve as a reminder that weathering attacks is merely a price for political success. It should be a badge of honor.
Our goal as citizen-activists should be to “earn” such attacks. We should run toward these attacks, and celebrate together that we are making progress.
I hope you will all attend the Empower Texans Conservative Leaders Gala on December 1 in Las Colinas, where we will celebrate many of the grassroots heroes fighting for liberty in our great state.
God bless all the Grassroots, and God Bless Texas!