Tag Archives: GOP base

Common Ground? With Whom?

Periodically, I get messages from readers of this blog, or encounter essays and columns in mainstream publications with the same, urgent theme: Americans need to work on understanding each other. Those of us to the left of the reactionary right need to be more generous in our appraisals of those with whom we disagree. We need to find a common ground from which we can build productive dialogue.

For the greater part of my professional life, that message strongly resonated with me. During the thirty-plus years I was an active Republican, most of my friends and family were Democrats, and I was keenly aware of the unfairness of dismissing all Republicans as rightwing racists and anti-Semites. (Yes, the roots of Trumpism have always been visible in the GOP, but those attitudes were once relegated to the fringes, just as “fellow-travelers” were sidelined by the Democrats.)

When I became the Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, I launched a publication called Common Ground, dedicated to the proposition that good people could have different, principled approaches to public policy, and that organizations dedicated to support of the Constitution and Bill of Rights needed to demonstrate that America’s legal framework respects those differences.

More generally, both as a woman and a Jew, I have seen firsthand how damaging and unfair it can be to “other” those who are different, to judge and dismiss people based on their identities.

All of which brings me to my unprecedented discomfort with the contemporary, well-intentioned pleas to “understand” the people on the “other side” of the political divide.

At risk of running afoul of Godwin’s Law, I want to pose a question: How do we now evaluate the behavior of the “good Germans” who failed to condemn the behavior of the Nazis?

An old book review from Forbes —by none other than “conservative” Steve Forbes–detailed the various reasons why Germans who weren’t Nazis nevertheless “went along” with Hitler. Forbes found the book, The German War, to be “an extremely interesting yet disheartening tale of a civilized people’s descent into barbarism.”

Much of the collaboration was “patriotic.”

A number of German soldiers and officials were uneasy or outright horrified by what was happening, but most did nothing about it. All but a handful of non-Nazis supported the war to the end because they believed defeat would lead to Germany’s annihilation..Most Germans convinced themselves that the war was one of self-defense, a fight for survival, because the evil French, Russians, British and Americans and their “Jewish masters” all wanted to destroy Germany…

Germans also engaged in moral equivalence: The bombing of German cities by the U.S. and Britain was in retaliation for the Reich’s treatment of Jews, but what was happening in the death camps and shooting pits was really no different from the Allies’ “terror” bombings.

Survival of the “real” (Ayran) Germany. False equivalencies. Unsettlingly familiar…

Obviously, not all of the people who continue to call themselves Republicans are racists prepared to acquiesce to barbarism. The GOP continues to contain plenty of good, moral people–and I agree that we should continue to look for them, and when we encounter them, “reach out” and engage and make good-faith efforts to understand where they are and why they remain.

But the majority of today’s GOP is another matter entirely. We have steadily mounting evidence of its march toward reaction, racism and yes, barbarism. Former high-level Republicans who have left the party warn that elected officials like Paul Gosar , Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert and a significant number of other “deplorables” (sorry!) are now the mainstream of the GOP. They really do reflect and represent the people who voted them into office.

I submit that seeking “common ground” with such people is suicidal–that there is a monumental and morally-significant difference between debates over such things as the efficacy of tariffs or the contours of the social safety net and arguments over the human rights of people who don’t look like us.

Yes, it is important to understand why people react to cultural change or economic disadvantage in such irrational and destructive ways. Such understanding is necessary in order to fashion policies to minimize the dangers such reactions pose.

But that’s a long-term goal.

In the shorter term, it is critically important that we highlight the immorality and profoundly anti-American nature of what political observers are witnessing–not because doing so will change those who are lost to logic and human connection, but because failure to do so will lull the many “good Americans” who haven’t been paying attention into quiescence.

Ultimately, it isn’t the “bad guys” who threaten American values. It’s the “good guys” who remain unaware and/or disengaged. “All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing…..”

A Faustian Bargain

There are currently three categories of Republican elected officials: the incredibly stupid (QAnon believers, pandemic and climate change deniers, the “representatives” who make you wonder who in the world voted for them); the not-stupid-but-willing-to-pander; and a very few willing to publicly oppose both. (And when I say “very few,” I mean one or two at most.)

Of course, there are also the “Never Trumpers” who are mostly former lawmakers or former campaign strategists, but for purposes of this analysis, I’m only categorizing those currently holding public office.

Senator Josh Hawley falls into the second category. He is someone willing to pursue goals by taking positions that he knows to be ridiculous and unlikely to succeed in order to ingratiate himself with the rabid, uneducated GOP base.

Of course, he isn’t the only one. The execrable Ted Cruz and ten other Senate Republicans–including Indiana’s dim, embarrassing Senator Mike Braun– also plan to protest the non-existent “voter fraud” that led to Trump’s loss. Like Hawley, Cruz clearly knows better. The two of them are already competing for the 2024 GOP nomination, which will largely be delivered by the party’s ignorant Trumpian base.

It’s the very definition of a Faustian bargain– an action or agreement in which a person sells his soul, abandoning his spiritual values, moral principles and presumed afterlife in heaven, in order to reap a benefit in the here and now.  Another way to put it is to make a deal with the devil.

Peter Wehner called Hawley out in a New Year’s Eve article in The Atlantic. Wehner suggests that Hawley’s planned objection to the Electoral College vote is evidence of what he calls “the enduring power of Trumpian unreality.”

Hawley knows this effort will fail, just as every other effort to undo the results of the lawful presidential election will fail. (A brief reminder for those with faulty short-term memories: Joe Biden defeated Trump by more than 7 million popular votes and 74 Electoral College votes.) Every single attempt to prove that the election was marked by fraud or that President-elect Biden’s win is illegitimate—an effort that now includes about 60 lawsuits—has flopped. In fact, what we’ve discovered since the November 3 election is that it was “the most secure in American history,” as election experts in Trump’s own administration have declared. But this immutable, eminently provable fact doesn’t deter Trump and many of his allies from trying to overturn the election; perversely, it seems to embolden them.

One such Trump ally is Tommy Tuberville, the newly elected senator from Alabama, who has suggested that he might challenge the Electoral College count. And there are others. But what makes Hawley’s declaration ominously noteworthy is that unlike Tuberville—a former college football coach who owes his political career in a deep-red state to Trump’s endorsement in the GOP primary against Jeff Sessions—Hawley is a man who clearly knows better. According to his Senate biography, he is “recognized as one of the nation’s leading constitutional lawyers.” A former state attorney general, Hawley has litigated before the Supreme Court. He graduated from Stanford University in 2002 and Yale Law School in 2006. He has clerked for Chief Justice John Roberts; he taught at one of London’s elite private schools, St. Paul’s; and he served as an appellate litigator at one of the world’s biggest law firms.

Wehner accurately calls Hawley’s planned action unpatriotic “civic vandalism.”

He quotes an acquaintance of Senator Hawley for confirmation of his assertion that Hawley is perfectly aware that the election wasn’t “rigged” or otherwise illegitimate, and that the legal arguments he his parroting are ridiculous. Nevertheless, he has calculated that he will benefit politically from the lie, from the pretense. He has made his deal with the devil and has dispensed with any shred of integrity he may once have had.

As Wehner says,  this is obviously a very bad sign about the direction of the GOP in the coming years.

What is happening in the GOP is that figures such as Hawley, along with many of his Senate and House colleagues, and important Republican players, including the former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, are all trying to position themselves as the heirs of Trump. None of them possesses the same sociopathic qualities as Trump, and their efforts will be less impulsive and presumably less clownish, more calculated and probably less conspiracy-minded. It may be that not all of them support Hawley’s stunt; perhaps some are even embarrassed by it. But these figures are seismographers; they are determined to act in ways that win the approval of the Republican Party’s base. And this goes to the heart of the danger.

Quite right. The current Republican base is racist, ignorant and terrified of modernity. (It is also uncomfortably large.) A willingness to pander to that base isn’t simply a Faustian bargain–it’s an overwhelming threat to America’s future.

 

“A Path I’m Not Willing To Take”

By this time, any American even minimally interested in politics is aware of the speech made a week or so ago by Senator Jeff Flake. Flake took to the Senate floor to announce that he would not be running for re-election, because in the party of Trump, such a campaign would require him to go down “a path I’m not willing to take.”

Vox reported on the speech and its reception.

“Reckless, outrageous, and undignified behavior has become excused as telling it like it is when it is actually just reckless, outrageous, and undignified,” he said, referencing President Trump. “And when such behavior emanates from the top of our government, it is something else. It is dangerous to a democracy.”

Flake’s remarks were met with a standing ovation from those in the room, including Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Bob Corker (R-TN), who have both made their fair share of biting comments about the president.

The Huffington Post was among the numerous outlets reporting on Flake’s denunciation of “Trumpism.”

“It is time for our complicity and our accommodation of the unacceptable to end,” he said.

In a stunning takedown of President Donald Trump, Flake pleaded with his colleagues to “respect each other again in an atmosphere of shared facts and shared values” and called the president’s behavior “outrageous” and “dangerous to democracy.”

“I will not be complicit or silent,” Flake said. “When the next generation asks us, ‘Why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you speak up?’ What are we going to say?”

It was a great speech. But–as many others have pointed out–it wasn’t accompanied by meaningful action. Flake has obediently voted for virtually all of the measures supported by Trump and Ryan, and worse still, he isn’t going to stay and fight.

The other two Republican Senators who have spoken out–Bob Corker and John McCain–are also leaving the Senate. It raises the question why Republicans who plan to run for re-election (many of whom we know to be equally appalled by Trump) aren’t speaking publicly.

I think we know the answer to that question. It’s what is known as a lack of cojones–not to mention integrity– when contemplating the current GOP “base.” The number of Americans who identify as Republicans keeps shrinking, but those who remain include most of the voters who still support Trump. The radicalization of the party’s base has gone so far, it has eclipsed even Senators whose own opinions lie on the far edge of sanity.

A superficially unrelated article, also from Vox, provides a window into the “thought process” (a generous description) of that base.

“We’ve had this view that the voters were with us on conservatism — philosophical, economic conservatism,” said conservative intellectual Avik Roy in an interview with Zack Beauchamp. “In reality, the gravitational center of the Republican Party is white nationalism.”

The article looked at a phenomenon called “rolling coal.” The New York Times reported  on it in 2016; it’s the name given to the practice of modifying a truck’s diesel engine “so that it spews thick, toxic black smoke in order to … well, to be obnoxious.”

Entire dissertations could be written about rolling coal. Even more than Trump’s ascension, it seems to perfectly capture a moment in time, an inarticulate yawp of protest from angry white men. They feel disdained and overlooked and they will blow thick black smoke in your face until you pay attention….

What FOX and talk radio have been teaching the right for decades is that native-born, working- and middle-class whites are locked in a zero-sum struggle with rising Others — minorities, immigrants, gays, coastal elitists, hippie environmentalists, etc. — and that the major institutions of the country have been coopted and are working on behalf of the Others.

There’s much more in the article, and I encourage you to click through and read it, but its relevance to the silence of so many GOP elected officials is in its description of the hostility of a significant percentage of today’s Republican base. These are voters who don’t care about policy, or civility, or traditional Republican positions. They can’t define conservatism.  They just want to stick it to those “others.” In the immortal words from Network, they’re mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore.

And they frighten–and cow– Senators and Representatives for whom job security is more important than the country, the public good or self-respect.

 

An Epiphany? Or Indigestion?

I was on the treadmill at the gym, watching panelists on “Morning Joe” react to the daily stream of Trumpisms, when I had an epiphany of sorts. Or maybe it was just a bout of indigestion…

We are framing America’s worsening political divide all wrong. We aren’t having a debate between Left and Right, Conservatives and Liberals. We are having a culture war.

Think about it.

Republicans with whom I worked for many years–those in my age cohort–are appalled by what the party has become. They are no less conservative than they ever were, if you define conservative by reference to a genuine political ideology and policy preferences that are congruent with that ideology. They look at today’s GOP, and they don’t see anything approaching a coherent philosophy– or for that matter, any real engagement with reality, or with ideas of any sort.

That reaction isn’t limited to older, bewildered, garden-variety Republicans. It’s also common among  the pundits and think-tank scholars who once represented the intellectual core of a conservative GOP–Norman Ornstein, David Brooks, Jennifer Rubin, Charlie Sykes and numerous others. As Sykes–a radio commentator popular with the Right before he joined #nevertrump–recently wrote,

[Trump] tapped into something disturbing that we had ignored and perhaps nurtured—a shift from freedom to authoritarianism, from American “exceptionalism” to nativism and xenophobia. From his hard line on immigration and rebuttal of free trade to his strange fascination with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump represented a dramatic repudiation of the values that had once defined the movement.

Social scientists have characterized this shift in GOP orthodoxy as a move to the extreme Right. I think a recent column by David Brooks hints at a more accurate description. After analyzing arguments made by both sides in the gun control argument, he wrote the following (the emphases are mine).

The real reason the gun rights side is winning is postindustrialization. The gun issue has become an epiphenomenon of a much larger conflict over values and identity.

A century ago, the forces of industrialization swept over agricultural America, and monetary policy became the proxy fight in that larger conflict. Today, people in agricultural and industrial America legitimately feel that their way of life is being threatened by postindustrial society. The members of this resistance have seized on issues like guns, immigration, the flag as places to mobilize their counterassault. Guns are a proxy for larger issues.

Four in 10 American households own guns. As Hahrie Han, a political science professor, noted in The Times Wednesday, there are more gun clubs and gun shops in this country than McDonald’s. For many people, the gun is a way to protect against crime. But it is also an identity marker. It stands for freedom, self-reliance and the ability to control your own destiny. Gun rights are about living in a country where families are tough enough and responsible enough to stand up for themselves in a dangerous world.

The lines I have emphasized describe the people who form the base of today’s GOP. They are not “conservative” in the political philosophy sense of that word; instead, they are trying to “conserve” a world and a reality that is fast disappearing. The nativism and xenophobia that Sykes references are characteristic of people who feel themselves under siege and desperately want someone to blame.

The increasing hostility between the so-called GOP “establishment” and the party’s ever more rabid base is in part a disconnect between people who have relatively coherent and informed policy preferences and people who are frightened and angry and acting out. (I say “in part” because if you define the current GOP establishment as its elected officials, there’s sufficient intellectual dishonesty and outright corruption to justify a good deal of that hostility.)

If we mischaracterize our dangerous and chaotic political environment as a rational (albeit impassioned) debate between philosophies of the Left and Right, we will continue to fight the wrong battles. Thoughtful Conservatives and Liberals can and do find areas of agreement and work together in the public interest. Philosophical and policy differences are irrelevant, however, to beleaguered culture warriors who see modernity as an existential threat, and seek vindication of their worldview in an authority figure who personifies their belligerence and shares their contempt for reason, expertise, moderation and complexity.

We need to fight the right battle.

I wish I knew how.

 

 

The Party As Cult

Evidently, McConnell and the Senate GOP are still intent upon taking healthcare away from millions of Americans–despite the overwhelming unpopularity and utter immorality of that effort. If this current vote fails, they’ll fall back on their determined sabotage of the ACA and continue their refusal to work with Democrats to tweak and fix that measure’s flaws.

All because their “base” can’t abide the fact that a black President passed it.

On several occasions, I’ve remarked that today’s GOP bears less and less resemblance to the party I once worked for, and more and more resemblance to a cult. I used the term in its broadest and least precise sense–to indicate a walled-off reality–but I recently came across the following description of cult behavior, and it made me think that, at least for the so-called “base,” the comparison may have been more apt than I realized.

There seems to be a typical mindset within most destructive cults. This is often characterized by black and white thinking, a low tolerance of ambiguity and a relentlessly judgementa1 attitude. Members of such a group often think in “we, they” opposing terms regarding those outside their group. This mindset frequently produces feelings of superiority and/or spiritual elitism, claims of supposed “persecution” and unreasonable fears.

The description sent me on a Google search for information about the characteristics of cults. The so-called “unsafe” groups evidently share certain behaviors: affinity for authoritarianism, a lack of tolerance for critical inquiry and analysis (any criticism is labeled “persecution”), isolation and fear of the outside world, and loss of a sense of humor.

To be fair, any group of zealots–left or right–exhibits these characteristics. But the degree to which the Republican base falls within this description is striking. The penchant for authoritarian leadership, wholesale rejection of science and scholarship, isolation within an information “bubble,” excessive fear of terrorism, and the utter lack of a sense of humor (which requires a sense of proportion), are hard to miss.

We live in a time when the increasing complexity of the world around us requires a tolerance for ambiguity, a willingness to consider contending and unfamiliar perspectives and an ability to recognize the common humanity of people who do not look like us. Those are responses that many people simply cannot manage.

Political scientists analyzing the motivations of Trump voters in the wake of the 2016 election have identified “resentment”–especially but not exclusively racial resentment– as a primary characteristic.

That finding brings us back to the description of cult behaviors: black and white thinking (no pun intended), rejection of ambiguity and uncertainty, tribalism and claims of persecution (War on Christmas, anyone?).

The 64 Thousand Dollar question is: will this pass? Are these fearful and self-defeating attitudes mostly confined to older Americans who will die out, leaving the social and political landscape to a less panicked, less tribal and more intellectually nimble younger generation?

We can only hope.