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The GOP Descent into Nihilism

It would be easy to dismiss the continuing stream of lies emanating from Republican Party leaders, on grounds of both their obvious emptiness and their soul-wearying character. But doing so would be a grave mistake, as millions of individuals embracing the GOP have shown themselves willing to accept all manner of absurdity to assuage their perceived persecution at the hands of alleged elites who are purportedly practicing what their party’s leaders call “radical socialism.”[1] Those citizens and officials have accepted former President Donald Trump’s thought-numbing descent lockstep into demagoguery and anti-democratic claims, with the major share embracing his Big Lie that the November 2020 election was “stolen” from him.

In doing so, they have followed Trump into a moral wasteland that, as Peter Baker noted following a summer of civil rights-related protests in September 2020, they, as overwhelmingly white individuals, deserve, by virtue of their skin color, to dominate American politics, but have been deprived of their birthright by office holders too willing to redistribute their hard-earned resources to undeserving minorities. These citizens have adopted this stance irrespective of the fact that many elected officials at the national and state levels are Republicans and that the Party has often held both national and state majorities in recent decades. For his part, Trump has consistently accorded his followers that rage-filled aggrieved standing as Whites and routinely stoked their resentment against minorities and “Democrat” or “Liberal” elites:

After a summer when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets protesting racial injustice against Black Americans, President Trump has made it clear over the last few days that, in his view, the country’s real race problem is bias against white Americans. … Not in generations has a sitting president so overtly declared himself the candidate of white America. While Mr. Trump’s campaign sought to temper the culture war messaging at the Republican National Convention last month by showcasing Black and Hispanic supporters who denied that he is a racist, the president himself has increasingly made appeals to the grievances of white supporters a centerpiece of his campaign to win a second term.[2]

Trump’s play to a concocted and overtly Whites-only styled grievance politics assumed a deadly and seditious form on January 6, when he incited a mob to invade the nation’s Capitol on the basis of his assertion that he had been fraudulently denied a victory he never won in November 2020. He did so on no evidence whatsoever, nor has he, or any of those representing him, ever produced any. More than 60 separate courts of law, and dozens of elected and appointed election officials, have dismissed his allegations as baseless. Whatever mix of feelings and urges is animating those GOP voters willing to support Trump’s fact-less claims, they cannot be justified on the basis of electoral wrongdoing. His support does appear, however, thoroughly ensconced in race and racism as well as ongoing economic change. It is worthwhile briefly cataloguing a share of Trump’s concerted efforts to appeal to these twin valences. For example, he refused to repudiate the Neo-Nazis and white supremacists who marched on the Lawn of the University of Virginia in 2017 spewing hate-filled slogans, even when their event turned deadly. As Baker has recounted, Trump also:

… has described American cities as hotbeds of chaos, played to ‘suburban housewives’ he casts as fearful of low-income people moving into their neighborhoods, sought to block a move—backed by the Pentagon and Republican lawmakers—to rename Army bases named for Confederate generals, criticized NASCAR for banning the Confederate flag, called Black Lives Matter a ‘symbol of hate’ and vowed to strip funding from cities that do not take what he deems tough enough action against protesters.[3]

Regarding the economy and trade, Trump withdrew the nation from pacts and undertook a range of tariff and retaliatory actions against allies and enemies alike. His administration contended that such protectionist steps were assisting those supporting them. The Tax Foundation has found instead that the former president’s self-initiated trade war resulted in a reduction in U.S. Gross Domestic Product, a loss of some $80 billion dollars in revenues and a loss of 179,800 full-time equivalent jobs.[4] Thus, while Trump argued he was protecting his followers from the vicissitudes of economic change while also providing them targets of ire, his actions were actually actively harming their collective interests.

Despite Trump’s hundreds of lies encompassing a welter of topics, which have persistently been revealed for what they are by a host of scholars and journalists, including his Big Lie concerning the election, he has nonetheless used those successfully to persuade his followers to continue staunchly supporting his anti-democratic, racist and anti-pluralist vision of American governance. Dani Rodrik of Harvard University’s Kennedy School has argued that Trump’s continuing allure for a share of the electorate rests on four interrelated claims:

  • a direct effect from economic dislocation to demands for anti-elite, redistributive policies
  • through amplification of cultural and identity divisions
  • through political candidates adopting more populist platforms in response to economic shocks
  • through adoption of platforms that deliberately inflame cultural and identity tensions.[5]

Of these tropes, Trump has shown himself especially adroit at persuading GOP followers that an unspecified elite is taking their money and giving it to unworthy minorities, even as he takes every opportunity to play deliberately to their economic and racial fears to ensure his personal power. The upshot most recently of these efforts was his orchestration of the removal from her leadership role of Congresswoman Liz Cheney, who was the number three ranking Republican leader in the House of Representatives. Cheney had refused to declare her fealty to Trump by embracing his election lie and the former president successfully sought her replacement with a sycophant.[6] That is, using his continuing strong support among the GOP rank and file, Trump pressed Republican House office holders this past week to remove a Party leader who had dared to continue to tell the truth and to speak out in favor of democracy. The result is a GOP in which one must now embrace Trump’s Big Lie to serve as a party leader.

Trump’s smallness of character and bullying on display in this episode are not new. He revealed each throughout his tenure. Far from reviling him for it, his followers instead have lionized him on grounds of a curious blend of his appeals to their fears of difference and economic change and their willingness to target groups to assuage both of those ongoing concerns. Bullies across time have drawn this same measure of adulation by many and revilement by others.

Many historians have recently drawn comparisons of the present political moment to Reconstruction and Jim Crow politics, and I believe those analyses both illuminating and fair. But, as grotesque as Southerners’ defense of slavery and bigotry was during those eras, at least they pressed their horrific claims openly and honestly. Trump and his Party today are instead actively lying to their supporters and breeding a mis-targeted sense of grievance among a portion of the population while offering little or no real succor to its members and providing no indication of plans to do so. Indeed, Republican leaders’ persistent attacks on governance deprive a large share of their followers of the very instruments that might help to address the conditions they fear most. More, Trump’s decision to appeal openly to race and racism and his wholesale attacks on the rule of law have torn at the foundations of the regime. Indeed, the Republican Party today does not offer a platform or set of policies. It instead daily offers lies concerning a non-existent “radical socialist” agenda and rails against mythic individuals who should not be permitted to vote. Meanwhile, Trump and GOP leaders encourage false grievances against everything from wearing masks in the face of the pandemic to accepting social strictures concerning gatherings for the same reason.

Writing in The Atlantic concerning national politics during the years leading up to the Civil War, Yale University historian Joanne Freeman has argued that Southern leaders’ bullying behavior and sanctimonious declarations that slavery must be honored or unrest or worse would ensue, closely resemble the dynamics of today’s Republican Party whose leaders and members self-righteously tilt against supposed grievances and injustices. Today, however, the lion’s share of those alleged injustices have no basis.  Nonetheless, as Freeman has noted of the run-up to the Civil War, however:

Still, the bullying went on—not least because it paid dividends back home. The nation was watching, and it mattered. In an age when many congressmen were one-term wonders, Southern ‘fighting men’ often were reelected, their constituents clearly approving of their aggressive tactics. And in time, that logic spread. The intensification of the nation’s ongoing slavery crisis fueled a spike in Southern bullying in Congress, and that anger proved contagious. Thus did Southern bullying pave the road to civil war.[7]

The bitter irony characteristic of today’s GOP leaders is that they have embraced a twice-impeached former leader whom they know is lying to the American people and have continued to gaslight their constituents with a range of lies designed to create or heighten imagined indignation in order to maintain and secure power. They have willingly embraced sedition and a known liar and would-be autocrat. And perversely, as Charles Pierce has observed, they have engaged in that Faustian bargain for what are thoroughly contrived, but nonetheless dangerous stakes:

In a way, our current moment is profoundly embarrassing. In the days of which Freeman [has written], the issues were profound—human beings as property, the essential validity of the country’s founding principles, the passing of an agrarian society into an industrial one, all taking place against a backdrop of genocide against the native inhabitants of the continent. Now, we’re arguing about surgical masks and about the perverted imaginings of a Republican Party lost in its own talk-radio reality show and in its devotion to a half-mad Florida recluse who wants to watch things burn. Our monsters are poisoned papier-mâché.[8]

Our nation now has a major political party whose leaders are not interested in the country’s governance. Instead, following Trump, those individuals are lost in endless efforts to manufacture complaints in their quest for power and they have demonstrated a willingness to do so even when their actions endanger our nation’s democratic way of life. Power is their only touchstone and desired elixir, whatever the costs for the nation of their efforts to pursue it.

Notes

[1] Richardson, Heather Cox. “Letters from an American,” May 7, 2021, https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/may-7-2021, Accessed May 7, 2021.

[2] Baker, Peter. “More Than Ever, Trump Casts Himself as the Defender of White America,” The New York Times, September 10, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/06/us/politics/trump-race-2020-election.html, Accessed May 15, 2021.

[3] Baker, “More than Ever, Trump Casts Himself as the Defender of White America.”

[4] York, Erica. “Tracking the Economic Impact of U.S. Tariffs and Retaliatory Actions,” The Tax Foundation, September 18, 2020, https://taxfoundation.org/tariffs-trump-trade-war/, Accessed May 14, 2021.

[5] Rodrik, Dani. “Why Does Globalization Fuel Populism? Economics, Culture and the Rise of Right-Wing Populism,” National Bureau of Economic Research, July 2020, https://www.nber.org/papers/w27526, Accessed May 14, 2021. 

[6] Edmundson, Catie and Nicholas Fandos. “Republicans Oust a Defiant Cheney, Confirming Trump’s Grasp on the Party,” The New York Times, May 12, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/12/us/politics/liz-cheney-trump-republicans.html, Accessed May 12, 2021. 

[7] Freeman, Joanne. “America Descends into the Politics of Rage,” The Atlantic, October 22, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/10/trump-and-politics-anger/573556/, Accessed May 14, 2021. 

[8] Pierce, Charles. “The Deterioration of the House,” Esquire, May 15, 2021, https://link.esquire.com/view/5f0232556a52b25201322b9ae75kv.2z9/a8407844,  Accessed May 15, 2021.

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