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Two Perspectives on Growing Indifference to Moral Bankruptcy



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As researchers and scholars at an institute whose focus is policy and governance, we seek every day to understand the ongoing crisis of democratic self-governance in our nation. In so doing, we may consider two broad interrelated perspectives. One may chart the decline of the Republican Party into a collective of leaders willing to lie continuously to Americans and to work actively to undermine the civil and human rights of specific targeted populations and in both ways, undercut the shared norms and beliefs that underpin the rule of law and self-governance itself. So understood, the country’s governance crisis is a crisis of leadership brought on by partisan leaders willing to sully self-rule in their quest for power. Adopting this view does not, however, explain why those officials have adopted that course or why it has been accepted by a significant minority of Americans who identify with their party.

        To describe, if not fully explain, our governance crisis, one must turn to a different set of concerns, a second perspective, that ultimately profess to provide at least some measure of understanding of what might be animating those voters’ behavior. That is, one must consider the dynamics of the other principal valence in the democratic governance equation, the citizenry, as well. And exploring either officials’ actions and behaviors or those of citizens is complicated because each constituent part affects the other and each is the product of complex social, cultural and economic forces. It is easy to contend that each set of forces—leader choices that have degraded democracy and citizen behaviors and attitudes that have done the same—is at play and has contributed to many Americans’ flirtation with authoritarian populism and with the many GOP leaders who have embraced that stance. I here offer some reflections on specific elements of the dynamic interplay of these concerns.

        I begin by describing two recent personal encounters with the individual who has cut my hair for some 34 years. In consequence, he has learned something about me, and I have learned something about him as well. I have found him to be a devout evangelical Christian, ambitious, hard-working and smart. He likes to share what he is doing (he can fix anything, I think) and to learn from his many clients. He has lately, especially during the last three years or so, spoken of the polarization he is witnessing among his customers concerning how they view the world. While he laments it, he has also wanted me to know where he stands on these concerns and to some extent why.

        So, in December he asked whether I had seen or knew of the political commentator Dinesh D’Souza’s book, 2,000 Mules and the film based on it, which alleged that several unnamed left-wing nonprofit organizations had paid individuals to stuff vote-by-mail drop boxes during the 2020 national election and thereby thrown that contest to Joe Biden.1 I chose only to say I had heard of it and knew little concerning it. In fact, the allegations in the book and film have been thoroughly discredited and the author and filmmakers have refused to provide the evidence they say backs their claims. Nevertheless, as National Public Radio has reported, the movie has “remained highly influential in the pro-Trump election denial movement.”2 My barber was plainly enamored of the film’s empty conspiracy mongering and more than willing to accept and press those assertions with others. I went away from our exchange pondering why a smart person not only countenanced such nonsense, but also exhibited a mindset determined apparently to believe virtually anything that might rationalize contentions that have repeatedly been shown to be lies. He seemed actively interested in identifying a conspiracy theory that would rationalize his a priori desires concerning the 2020 election, however unhinged from reality those might be.

        Just two weeks ago I learned a bit more about his evolving views during a return trip to his salon when he shared a story concerning his father, who founded and operated a local barber school until his death. On his deathbed, according to my stylist, his father told his youngest son always to “remember that you are a Democrat.” My barber then went on to say that his dad was, “of course,” a conservative and that times have changed, and that he would be a Republican today. I listened and was fascinated to learn that while his father had deeply admired John and Robert Kennedy, he did so, in his son’s telling, because both leaders judged people by the content of their characters. Today, however, my stylist observed, the Democratic party to which the Kennedys belonged has turned that aphorism on its head and now judges people by their skin color or sexual preference alone. This, he suggested, he could not abide. Notably, this argument is central to today’s GOP grievance politics rhetoric and to its accompanying claims that specific books and school curricula should be banned or censored and certain individuals’ rights to self-determination should be ended or abridged. In my barber’s telling, at least, this stance is justified by a contention that Democrats and others have lost their way and are conspiring in wildly inventive and devious ways to prevent reasoned individuals (i.e., Donald Trump) from ruling and from being able to enact supposedly commonsense views. I did not comment directly in this instance either, but instead listened carefully, as I think it vital to understand better what is animating these empirically unsubstantiated assertions and beliefs.

        Meanwhile former President Trump, recently indicted in New York and now running for the Republican presidential nomination for a third time, has offered ever more shrill rhetoric and conspiracy claims concerning his legal troubles; the January 6, 2021, invasion of the Capitol by a mob that he incited by lying to them; and the alleged capacity of the Democratic Party to organize or unfairly present these events in surpassingly surreptitious ways. Here is a recent excerpt of the sort of rhetoric he daily provides his audience and which most GOP officials have either directly accepted or tacitly supported:

The Thugs and Radical Left Monsters have just INDICATED (sic.) the 45th President of the United States of America, and the leading Republican candidate by far, for the 2024 nomination for President. THIS IS AN ATTACK ON OUR COUNTRY THE LIKES OF WHICH HAS NEVER BEEN SEEN BEFORE. IT IS LIKEWISE AN ATTACK ON OUR ONCE FREE AND FAIR ELECTIONS. THE USA IS NOW A THIRD WORLD NATION, A NATION IN SERIOUS DECLINE.  SO SAD!3

        To state the obvious, a grand jury of ordinary Americans decided to indict Trump and not Democratic party officials, and that jury was most assuredly not comprised of nefarious thugs and monsters. There also is zero empirical evidence that anyone “stole” the 2020 election from Trump but there is much evidence, contrariwise, that he sought illegally before it and since to undermine its legitimacy. Indeed, he may yet be indicted on charges linked to the latter allegations in Georgia. Finally, the United States is not now a “third world country.” However one may interpret “third world” here, which Trump offered as a pejorative, the assertion is irrelevant to his recent indictment, which concerns his payment of hush money to a woman to keep quiet about their alleged affair during the run up to the 2016 election. These facts notwithstanding, Trump’s post clearly pressed his supporters to accept fantastic conspiratorial thinking and to become angry and aggrieved, much as my barber has shown himself to be about others supposedly receiving special treatment from government and a culture that would countenance such actions. Trump, who is actively fundraising with these claims, asked openly that those who believe his assertions adopt a position of anger and animosity toward a vaguely depicted group of Americans who are purportedly desirous not only of hurting him and the GOP, but of destroying the nation as well. There is no evidence for any of this, but that is hardly the point. Trump wants foremost to rile and persuade those prepared to believe his allegations to support him in his quest for power.

        Given overt and tacit GOP official support for Trump, it seems unlikely that members of that party will soon call him out for his lies or back away from employing rancor, cruelty and hatred to mobilize and divide voters. In the dual democratic equation outlined above, that leaves the general citizenry to stop this sort of usurpation of reality and of our regime. Yet, if my barber is any indication, rancor and hatred fueled by claims of iniquitous trespass, coupled with long standing racial animosity against “those people,” who Trump routinely describes as demeaning and debased thugs aiming to undermine the nation by their actions, is animating a substantial minority of our nation’s citizens to accept the former chief executive’s assertions. What is clear to this group above all is that “they,” a vast swathe of Americans, should be hated and distrusted and that therefore even the most absurd arguments concerning their alleged goals must be believed. In this telling, “they” constitute an “enemy within.”

        As it happens, this behavior appears to characterize many MAGA GOP supporters, especially in evincing a hatred of “others,” including many of their fellow Americans, on grounds that those individuals are responsible for changing their perceived economic and social circumstances in negative ways. Trump is not only running for office once more on a platform of racial animosity and racism, but he has also combined those assertions with appeals to nihilism, overt hostility to any who disagree with anything he might endorse, and profound antipathy to the responsibilities of self-governance and the rule of law in a heterogeneous society. In fact, in his vision, those conditions must be equated with control by a despised other. Those attributes, and the fact that he has appealed to a strong percentage in the GOP, coupled with his recent call to overturn the Constitution, suggest why he remains a dangerous force in U.S. politics.4

        It remains an open question whether Trump is leading those who support him or instead is proving willing to channel their anger and hatred-fueled angst. That is, it is unclear whether a share of the American electorate is threatening American democracy and should be held responsible alone for that fact, or whether Trump and other Republican officials have not only helped create that anger, but also actively worked to fan it in the menacing ways it has now revealed itself. Doubtless, some of each has occurred, but the question remains salient to understanding how and why, for example, anyone would believe Trump’s quoted posting above, let alone vote to support a person and Party who would espouse such outright lies and attacks on the nation’s Constitutional order and social reality.

        While these questions are now central to American governance and whether democracy can be sustained in our nation going forward and are therefore elemental to the Institute’s mission and activities, I confess a certain weariness with charting them, for they signal a population willing to exhibit indifference and even hostility to a growing moral bankruptcy among a share of their leaders and fellow citizens and a desire actively to support that descent. I also confess a similar disillusionment with claims and claims-makers who assert that it is fine to lie to Americans and to embrace anti-egalitarian claims, embrace mob rule and violence and undermine voting rights in the name of instrumental partisanship. This attitude may yet help to undo our polity and unravel our shared purpose and belief in freedom and equality, the only ties that bind us and legitimate our shared governance. If it does, if many individuals continue to apologize for such contentions and to suggest that expressions of concern are merely partisan when they are called out for doing so, those citizens and supposed leaders will have only themselves to blame. History teaches it is possible to disagree on policy options and courses without embarking on a cynical and cruel politics of bigotry and nihilism that ultimately calls for autocracy. The question Trump and his party have once more sharply placed in relief in our politics is whether the American citizenry writ large still believes in the possibility of self-governance. Here at the Institute, we will continue to work within these currents and seek to make sense of them. Not only have we been called upon to do so by our charter and role at a leading university, but it is also a moral imperative that we do so.


1 Dreisbach, Tom. “Here’s what Changed in Dinesh D’Souza’s ‘2,000 Mules’ Book After it was Recalled,” National Public Radio, October 25, 2022,, Accessed March 30, 2023. 

2 Dreisbach, “Here’s What Changed.”

3 Trump, Donald as quoted in Sykes, Charles. “Indicted: What Happens Now?,” in The Bulwark, Morning Shots, March 31, 2023,, Accessed March 31, 2023. 

4 Edsall, Thomas. “The Unsettling Truth About Trump’s First Great Victory,”  The New York Times, March 22, 2023,, Accessed March 22, 2023; Pengelly, Martin. “Biden Rebukes Trump for Saying ‘Constitution Should be Terminated,’” The Guardian, December 4, 2022,, Accessed March 30, 2023.  

Publication Date

April 1, 2023