Morality has left the Building
Watching GOP House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy first lie, when his original opposition to former President Donald Trump’s “Big Lie” and the violence it had fomented at the Capitol on January 6, 2021 came to light in recent days, and thereafter rush to reassure Trump of his devotion when a recording of his criticisms was released, has provided an important lens into what is occurring among the leaders and faithful within the party.1 The reality that this incident revealed became especially clear when McCarthy met with his caucus to “explain” what had occurred and to lie once more, contending that the episode had not “really” unfolded as it plainly had, but that the media had misinterpreted and presented his on-the-record remarks.2 Since Trump had suggested that he was not bothered by the minority leader’s previous criticism, because McCarthy’s repudiation of his stance had made it clear that he (Trump) controlled the GOP, the congressman’s colleagues “forgave him” his supposed lapse. He remains minority leader and is well-positioned to become House Speaker, his long-time aspiration, should Republicans win control of the chamber in November 2022.
McCarthy’s actions not only represent an evocation of the growth of authoritarianism and fascistic thinking in the Republican Party, they also and simultaneously constitute yet another example of the decline of any capacity to judge right from wrong within the GOP. Indeed, I found myself thinking of the famous statement that routinely followed Elvis Presley concert performances, “Elvis has left the building.” Those announcements were necessary because his fans were so devoted that they often continued to clamor for his reappearance following all planned encores and had to be informed that their idol was no longer available to perform. One might say by analogy, that for the GOP, morality has left the building, replaced by an unbridled pursuit of power, cronyism and white Christian authoritarianism. But unlike Elvis’s fans, who were disappointed by his departure, morality’s absence here is fine with ardent GOP supporters, who continue fervently to call for more of the same from their leaders.
To be clear about my meaning here, the Oxford English Dictionary defines morality as follows:
Of or pertaining to character or disposition, considered as good or bad, virtuous or vicious; of or pertaining to the distinction between right and wrong, or good and evil, in relation to the actions, volitions, or character of responsible beings; ethical.3
McCarthy’s mad dash to reassure Trump when his “disloyalty” to the Party’s putative leader became public and his blatant lies concerning his behavior make very clear that neither he nor his fellow Republicans in the House and many in the Senate are concerned with “character, good or evil or right and wrong,” as morality is defined. Rather, they are concerned with power, and that power is now reflected in their shared ignominious toadying to Trump. McCarthy’s stance and tactics illustrate three key elements of fascist/authoritarian thinking as discussed by Yale University historian Timothy Snyder in a prescient and thought-provoking book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from The Twentieth Century.4 I treat each briefly in turn:
- Accepting displays of loyalty as reality
- Abandoning reason
- Accepting “othering” as a way of life and rejecting all opposition of any kind.
Snyder cited the Czech dissident thinker and playwright Vaclav Havel’s 1978 essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” to illustrate the dangers of accepting incantations of loyalty as reality. Havel offered what he dubbed the parable of the greengrocer, who placed a sign in his window, “Workers of the World Unite,” simply to avoid any issues with the government and not out of any real belief in that catchphrase and presented the following observations concerning the purport of the shopkeeper’s actions:
We have seen that the real meaning of the greengrocer’s slogan has nothing to do with what the text of the slogan actually says. Even so, the real meaning is quite clear and generally comprehensible because the code is so familiar: the greengrocer declares his loyalty in the only way the regime [read the GOP, here] is capable of hearing; that is, by accepting the prescribed ritual, by accepting appearances as reality, by accepting the given rules of the game, thus making it possible for the game to go on, for it to exist in the first place.5
McCarthy’s lies to declare an obvious falsehood reality, and thereby to assuage any concerns the “Dear Leader” might have concerning his loyalty, echo Havel’s warning that to accept “a prescribed ritual” is to permit the broader game of lies to continue. It also allows lying for power to remain afoot, in this instance the Big Lie that the election was stolen and, more deeply, that any who dare suggest otherwise are not merely opponents, but also evildoers who must and should be derogated and worse. Whether those promulgating Trump’s lie actually believe it or are, like the greengrocer, excusing that stance as necessary, even prudent, hardly matters in practice, as the result in either case is a collectively endorsed descent into fascistic madness.
The minority leader’s posturing illustrated another tendency of such thinking, one Snyder labeled, “a blatant abandonment of reason.”6 McCarthy’s original condemnation of Trump’s attempted Capitol coup was both truthful and apt, and yet because the former president has attained a cult-like following among many GOP faithful, the party leader repeatedly and publicly repudiated those remarks to curry favor with that group and with Trump. As Snyder observed,
You submit to tyranny when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case. This renunciation of reality can feel natural and pleasant, but the result is your demise as an individual—and thus the collapse of any political system that depends on individualism.7
McCarthy not only undertook a Faustian bargain when he rejected truth in his quest for power, he now resides in a bubble, a prison of unreality of his own devising, and one that has made him utterly dependent on the whims and favor of one individual. As Snyder has aptly concluded, “Post-truth is pre-fascism.”8
The House Republican leader’s decision to embrace Trump and his Big Lie in the face of all evidence and reason to the contrary also found him arguing that an unspecified media was engaged in a conspiracy not only against him and the GOP, but against the nation. This danger was plain even during Trump’s campaign for the presidency when he,
banned many reporters from his rallies, and regularly elicited hatred of journalists from the public. Like the leaders of authoritarian regimes, he regularly promised to suppress freedom of speech by laws that would prevent criticism. Like Hitler the president used lies to mean statements of fact not to his liking and presented journalism as a campaign against himself.9
McCarthy has followed this sordid example, and in so doing he has helped to institutionalize a penchant in his party and among its supporters to declare that all opposition to them is disloyal to the nation and therefore properly to be viewed as criminal or worse. Plainly, the GOP leader has aligned himself with a view of the world that celebrates usurpation of the rule of law, of reason and of freedom in favor, de facto, of one person’s caprices and shifting conceptions. This stance, too, is pre-fascistic.
The most important concern underlying McCarthy’s actions is that he believes he can profit by assuming the positions he has taken because so many GOP faithful continue to support them. That fact begs the key question of why that remains the case, despite overwhelming evidence that should long ago have persuaded those partisans to abandon their advocacy. Indeed, the fate of our Republic may well ultimately hinge on the continued willingness of this relative minority of Americans to accept Trump and his party’s anti-democratic propagandizing and policies.
As with many complex phenomena, this scenario does not have one fount. I have long emphasized the role of social and economic grievance-mongering and anxiety and racism and social hierarchy as wellsprings of this behavior. I have also highlighted the role of scapegoating and chauvinistic nationalism as central features of its exposition. I want here to highlight one other stream of research: the role of individual psychological disposition and education in creating the painful scenario in which our country now finds itself enmeshed.
In an important book in 2017, Open Versus Closed: Personality, Identity, and the Politics of Redistribution, Christopher Johnston, Howard Lavine and Christopher Frederico argued that many individuals supporting the increasingly fascistic politics of the GOP are doing so because they are predisposed psychologically to that orientation:
As partisan conflict has been extended to cultural and lifestyle issues, engaged citizens have organized themselves into parties by personality, a process we refer to as ‘dispositional sorting.’ In particular, those with ‘closed’ personality traits have moved into the Republican column over the past few decades, and those with ‘open’ traits have become Democrats. More generally, open citizens now take their economic policy cues from trusted elites on the cultural left, while closed citizens adopt the positions of those on the cultural right.10
The authors did not assume that such inclinations are fixed, but they did contend that these represent general orientations to the world and that Americans have sorted themselves by political party/ideology accordingly. Their contention raises a vital concern in turn: how it is, that despite nominally enjoying the most highly educated population in its history, the United States has nonetheless entered a period in which significant swathes of its citizenry are demonstrating open hostility to education and to novel experiences and difference, and who are willing instead to support leaders calling for the active subjugation of ideas, groups and possibilities so labeled. To say this is to ask afresh how one of our country’s major parties has fallen into an obvious authoritarianism that both reflects the attitudes and beliefs of its core supporters and works to deepen those tendencies.
It is also to ask broadly whether our educational system, which the GOP is actively seeking to employ in jurisdictions it controls to ban books and to censor possibilities for youth learning and acculturation as citizens, can continue to play its rightful democratic roles. To raise this concern is to lift another, whether our students are now gaining the capacities necessary in their elementary and secondary educations to uphold liberal democracy in a deeply pluralistic society, or whether they are increasingly ill-prepared in such terms because they are taught to see the world and humanity as sites of truncated, tyrannizing and instrumental possibility, rather than approach them with wonder and imagination. To the extent the former is true, it certainly raises the likelihood that a share of our nation’s citizens would willingly support authoritarian claims precisely because they are ill equipped to resist or challenge them by both disposition and education. This scenario helps one to understand what is occurring within the GOP among that party’s most radically anti-democratic supporters, a behavior that is encouraging actors such as McCarthy to adopt their perverted political posturing.
Withal, the House minority leader’s repudiation of the truth he once was willing to speak, and his party’s acceptance of his bald-faced lie, suggest that the GOP has lost its moral and ethical moorings and has now adopted a fascistic orientation and agenda that is endangering the foundations of our Republic. For his part, McCarthy has made himself a shameful and shambling symbol of the rise of an immoral, authoritarian anti-democratic politics in the United States. For him and for his GOP, morality has indeed left the building.
1 Burns, Alexander and Jonathan Martin. “McCarthy Feared G.O.P. Lawmakers Put ‘People in Jeopardy’ After Jan.6,” The New York Times, April 26, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/26/us/politics/mccarthy-republican-lawmakers.html, Accessed April 26, 2022.
2 Bowden, John. “Republicans Applaud Kevin McCarthy After he Defends Trump’s Resignation Comments, Report Says,” The Independent, April 28, 2022, https://sports.yahoo.com/republicans-applaud-kevin-mccarthy-defends-154117217.html, Accessed April 28, 2022.
3 Oxford English Dictionary. “Morality.” Oxford English Dictionary, https://www.oed.com/oed2/00151262, Accessed April 30, 2022.
4 Snyder, Timothy. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from The Twentieth Century, New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017.
5 Snyder. On Tyranny, p. 37. Also, Havel, Vaclav. “The Power of the Powerless,” The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities,” Bard College, March 23, 2011, https://hac.bard.edu/amor-mundi/the-power-of-the-powerless-vaclav-havel-2011-12-23, Accessed April 28, 2022.
6 Snyder, On Tyranny, p. 68.
7 Snyder, On Tyranny, p.66.
8 Snyder, On Tyranny, p.71.
9 Snyder, On Tyranny, p. 73.
10 Johnston, Christopher, Howard Lavine and Christopher Frederico. Open Versus Closed: Personality, Identity, and the Politics of Redistribution, Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2017, p. 4.
May 2, 2022