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On Sharing the Facts but Imagining Politics Otherwise



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David Brooks, the long-time conservative activist, television commentator and New York Times columnist, has a memorable way with words. Recently, in conversation with Bret Stephens, a similarly oriented colleague who is also featured in The Times he discussed what has happened to the Republican Party during the last several years and observed:

When the [GOP] establishment got discredited (Iraq War, financial crisis, the ossifying of the meritocracy, the widening values gap between metro elites and everybody else), and suddenly all the people I regarded as fringe and wackadoodle (Pat Buchanan, Donald Trump, anybody who ran CPAC) rose up on the wave of populist fury. Everybody likes a story in which the little guy rises up to take on the establishment, but in this case the little guys rode in on a wave of know-nothingism, mendacity, an apocalyptic mind-set, and authoritarianism. Within a few short years, a somewhat Hamiltonian party became a Jacksonian one, with a truly nihilistic wing. … Then [2012 and following] the congressional Republicans began to oppose almost every positive federal good, even George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism. Trump brought the three horsemen of the apocalypse—immorality, dishonesty and bigotry. The party, complicit in all that, is dead to me, even though, I have to say, a good chunk of my friends are Republicans.1

        Writing in the Washington Post, Dana Milbank has argued similarly that the modern Republican Party has lost interest in governing. Once having attained the majority in the House radical so-called “Freedom Caucus” members demanded a long list of promises from Kevin McCarthy before allowing his election to Speaker on the 15th ballot. Thereafter, the new majority has done almost nothing but promote and embrace lies on a variety of topics, including the Internal Revenue Service, non-existent infanticide and a similarly mythic and “weaponized” Deep State, among others. As Milbank noted pithily in quoting Montana Republican Ryan Zinke’s comments concerning the fantastical Deep State claim:

“Despite the ‘deep state’s’ repeated attempts to stop me, I stand before you as a duly elected member of the United States Congress and tell you that a deep state exists and is perhaps the strongest covert weapon the left has against the American people,” he told the House. Zinke was speaking in support of a new Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government, or, as Democrats call it, the ‘Tinfoil Hat Committee.’ In substance, it’s the QAnon committee, with a remit to probe the ‘deep state’ and other wacky conspiracy theories. With the panel’s creation, QAnon completes its journey from message board for the paranoid to official policy of the House Republican majority.2

        The radical fringe of the GOP now dominates that party and is positioned to poison virtually all attempts at governance, since the Republican House majority is so thin, including negotiations on the debt ceiling and budget and efforts to fund our nation’s response to Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. This is the same group of House members that has sought to relabel those who murdered at the United States Capitol “patriots,” and that intends to “investigate” the laudable efforts of the special bipartisan House Committee that carefully and thoroughly examined the evidence of the Capitol insurrection. A share of its members also has lately pressured McCarthy to announce that he would entertain efforts to expunge Donald Trump’s impeachments.

        As one reads the news each day, it is as if Brooks’ GOP Horsemen of the Apocalypse have indeed ridden into Washington, D.C., declaring the false true, arguing that all those who might contend otherwise are simply partisan, and declaiming in favor of authoritarian assertions, whether offered in the U.S., Brazil, Russia or elsewhere. It is as if the world has gone mad, or that one is living in Wonderland. The question that this tragically absurd scenario begs is why these Republican party leaders, who routinely lie to their constituents, and who have been complicit in the spread of cruel hatred and conspiracy claims, continue to gain the support of a share of Americans.3 This situation is nowhere better symbolized than the GOP House leadership’s embrace of George Santos, who has been shown to have lied about virtually every aspect of his life and qualifications in his recent run for election.

        Another example is the fact that 147 Republican House members refused to certify the national election—after the Capitol riot on January 6, 2021—on no evidence, and none has been forthcoming that their action was in any sense legitimate, but neither their district’s residents nor their colleagues have held them responsible for their contemptible unethical behavior.4 Their action legitimized Trump’s lie that the election had been stolen for their constituents. The explanation for silence concerning their behavior is always that GOP officials fear that calling these leaders out for their embrace of this lie would alienate “the base.” But regardless of how one calculates that base—and polls suggest that 7 in 10 Republican supporters believe that President Biden was not legitimately elected, or perhaps 15 percent of the country—they are doing so based on no factual evidence whatsoever.5 Rather, as Milbank noted, and has long been obvious, they have accepted an array of conspiracy claims and lies to delegitimate that outcome.

        This fact highlights a significant, difficult and enduring question, and one that I can understand could demoralize Brooks and Stephens and many others alike: In the face of overwhelming and obvious empirical reality, why have so many GOP supporters adopted this stance toward the election and likewise not only chosen to accept, but also often apparently demand, a raft of other lies about virtually every topic imaginable from their would-be leaders? Many analysts have explained this phenomenon simply as partisanship, but partisanship, at least as traditionally understood, need not, and historically has not been accompanied by a willed belief in easily disproved fantasies and lies that these individuals (officials and citizens alike) continue to adopt and press.

        Others have suggested that this constellation of beliefs, which finds many of these same individuals willing to embrace authoritarian claims and violence to ensure their views (however ill-conceived) hold sway, reflects a hyper-attachment to specific norms or values, irrespective of their truth or provenance—a close kin to the partisanship claim. In this view, many of the base are “zealots,” but this argument, helpful as it is, does little to clarify their willingness to accept fantasies aimed at debasing those with whom they might disagree, or to their predilection to delegitimate those individuals and a wide array of other innocents as well to palliate their fears.

        Brooks and Stephens’ formulation is considerably more complex and, in many ways, more harrowing than these contentions, as their arguments suggest that the current GOP, now a narrow majority in the House, and beholden to its especially radical element in that body as a result, has rejected the foundations of liberal governance (rule of law, faith in democracy, free speech, political compromise).  Its leaders have adopted an anti-intellectual stance, repeatedly accepted immorality of multiple sorts and overtly campaigned on behalf of bigotry in a variety of forms, including xenophobia, antisemitism and racism. This formulation, whose dynamics are self-reenforcing, leads to arguments that suggest today’s GOP and its supporters are animated foremost by a shared belief that democratic governance must be jettisoned if they are successfully to address their anxieties concerning the changing character of society and their allied concern that they may no longer be superior within it. 

        What seems to be different here from any traditional understanding of partisanship as an animating force for this group is the nihilism now prevailing within the party and many of its voters’ corollary disinterest in ensuring freedom and equality as preeminent values.  These citizens and their cheerleaders do not appear concerned, or even aware, that their efforts to find a way to undermine democracy for those they target will also very likely result in their own loss of freedom. It is this scenario that has so disaffected Brooks and Stephens and it cannot be explained by any traditional understanding of partisanship, as it represents an attack on the foundations of liberal governance and not simply disagreement about policy paths occurring atop an underlying consensus on fundamental values.  

        What is also quite different in the current governance scenario, is that it has produced a professional class of leaders and legislators who value personal brand and power above all else and have therefore shown themselves willing to do and say anything to garner media attention and to feed and maintain the anger and animus that assures them supporters. Not only is this not partisanship in any traditional understanding of the term, but it has led to a situation in which these officials lie, conspiracy monger and deny all accountability claims as a central feature of their roles and personae to garner support. Rhetoric suggesting Democrats are communists, that President Biden and all in his administration are dedicated to destroying the country, that hordes of immigrants are coming to rape and pillage and “steal your stuff,” and that Black and brown citizens are receiving huge sums of undeserved support while voting illegally, are now fodder for these faux warriors who rage against these myths to curry favor with supporters who appear to revel in them. Many of those voters are willing, as Brooks noted, to accept these contentions at face value because, at bottom, they are willing to believe that the pursuit of knowledge and truth is itself suspect. They are content instead to accept the wild and simplistic rhetoric on offer that confirms their existing fears and prejudices, self-righteous anger and claims of social superiority.

        This orientation is now positioned via the GOP to shape the very possibility of governance in this nation going forward and will surely pollute, if not dominate, the public conversation in every way in the coming period. Given this reality, one may offer several tentative observations at this point. First, today’s GOP is no longer a democratic party in the traditionally understood meaning of that term as founded in bedrock values that support the animating features of liberalism. Whether it can be made so once more is not clear, but the two long-time conservative observers, thinkers and activists featured here have concluded that such is impossible (Brooks) or highly unlikely (Stephens), whatever their personal hopes. Second, the Republican Party is now an intensely radical organization, whose putative leaders have shown themselves willing even to support Neo-Nazis and Proud Boys. The GOP’s House leaders today have repudiated any classic understanding of conservatism in favor of engaging in endless attacks against governance and targeted social groups as allegedly responsible for its supporters’ angst, rather than seeking to address the conditions that may have led to that disaffection. Third, this party will need to be defeated in the courts and at the ballot box, but whether such can occur in any definitive way in the face of widespread gerrymandering, the often-superficial character of modern electoral campaigns, the character of today’s judiciary and its supporters’ broad nativism remains an open question.

        At a very basic level, winning this existential battle depends ultimately on the larger population’s support for the rule of law and democratic governance, even as the bulk of the Republican party is now actively seeking to undermine those claims. It is unclear as I write who will win this tug of war for the general public’s heart. Finally, all of this suggests the significance, for scholars and analysts, of seeking to tell the truth, and not to succumb to criticisms that doing so constitutes partisanship, and to redoubling efforts to reach citizens with facts and reasoned interpretations of events amidst a welter of deliberately mendacious and shrilly hyperbolic ones. However unsettling and perilous the nation’s current governance situation may be, our country’s central values constitute a valuable and animating clarion call to continue to wage efforts to preserve and more fully realize them.


1 Stephens, Bret and David Brooks. “The Party’s Over for Us. Where Do We Go Now?” The New York Times, January 11, 2023,, Accessed January 11, 2023. 

2 Milbank, Dana. “Can you govern on a lie? House Republicans give it a try.” The Washington Post, January 13, 2023,, Accessed January 13, 2023.  

3 Martin, Raquel. “McCarthy won’t call for George Santos to resign,” WTAJ News, January 12, 2023,, Accessed January 14, 2023. 

4 Yourish, Karen, Larry Buchanan and Denise Lu. “The 147 Republicans Who Voted to Overturn Election Results,” The New York Times, January 7, 2021,, Accessed January 12, 2023. 

5 Greenberg, Jon. “Most Republicans still falsely believe Trump’s stolen election claims. Here are some reasons why,” Politifact: The Poynter, June 16, 2022,, Accessed January 10, 2023. 

6 Milbank, “Can you govern on a lie?” 

Publication Date

January 17, 2023