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Reflections on A Continuing Pall



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As we end this year, I find myself continuing to mull the results of the November 2022 national election. I am also thinking about the man who wants to be the new Republican Party Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, who has announced that if he is elected by a majority of that chamber’s GOP members, he will not pursue a vigorous policy agenda (indeed, the party has not developed one). Instead, he plans to launch a passel of investigations into the activities of President Biden’s son, Hunter, and of the House Committee that has examined the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2020. That bipartisan committee has undertaken a remarkably thorough review of that deadly event, planned and fomented by former President Donald Trump.

        McCarthy’s agenda sets reality aside and embraces a bizarre conspiracy-mongering mindset in which Trump’s Big Lie concerning the 2020 election must be regarded as true, that the many wacky assertions concerning the attempted coup being the product of the police, or “false flag” Democrats were fact, and the like. These forays will waste taxpayer dollars, but McCarthy has concluded that he cannot gain the post he has long coveted unless he embraces these fantastical claims. In short, the continuing story of the GOP in the United States is its principal supporters’ fulsome adoption of lies and a liar as its heart and soul and the unwillingness of that Party’s elected leaders to challenge that choice.  

        In accepting the imagined fears and downright absurdities pressed by Trump and his allies and adopted by its most rabid supporters, rather than seeking to lead them, Party officials have taken political stands and adopted a political strategy concerning the January 6 insurrection predicated on illusions, falsehoods and conspiracy theories. As the columnist Charles Pierce has observed, this is completely unlike previous similar violent events in U.S. history, including Shay’s Rebellion, in which those involved were animated by very real concerns:  

For me, the difference between the violence of January 6 and all of these previous explosions of political controversy is that most of them were about something tangible. The Sons of Liberty realized the real limits of being a colony. Farmers who followed Daniel Shays were legitimately at the edge of financial ruin. People opposed to the Constitution were opposed to a new form of government. The utter breakdown in the mid-19th Century was prompted by an inhuman economic system that had to be ripped out, root and branch, and a sanguinary conflict was the only alternative.1

In sharp contrast, Pierce has rightly asked,

What was January 6 about? It was about nothing tangible, nothing real. It was about delusions and theories, carried over the air on waves of sound, or across the country in millions of pixels. It was about a rigged election that wasn’t. It was about imagined oppressions, podcast tyrannies of the twisted imagination. It was about mob violence as a getaway vehicle for a criminal president. There was an essential—and delusional—nihilism about it that made it all the more threatening, all the more terrifying, and less and less American.2

        The continuing concern raised by this bleak reality is at least two-fold in character: how a share of the Republican base of supporters is willing to accept these perversions and why GOP leaders are likewise willing to follow that group’s descent into unreality in such sheep-like fashion, irrespective of that stance’s implications for democratic governance.

        For his part, former Secretary of Labor and University of California Professor of Public Policy Robert Reich has suggested that this situation is quite simple and that it inheres foremost in the cult-like behavior of Trump’s supporters. As Reich has framed the issue, our nation’s ongoing democratic governance crisis is principally rooted in the fact that a solid share of GOP Trump supporters has continued to support the former president irrespective of his lies, outrageous behavior and cruelly anti-democratic positions. For Reich, the challenge is:

In two words: The base. Utah’s Republican senator Mitt Romney, no friend of Trump, put it bluntly last week: ‘I think we’ve got, I don’t know, 12 people or more that would like to be president, that are thinking of running in 2024. If President Trump continues in his campaign, I’m not sure any one of them can make it through and beat him. He’s got such a strong base of, I don’t know, 30% or 40 % of the Republican voters, or maybe more, it’s going to be hard to knock him off as our nominee.’  That’s the problem in a nutshell, folks. It’s not so much the size of Trump’s base. Even 40 percent of Republican voters is a relatively small group nationwide, especially considering that fewer than 30 percent of all voters are registered Republicans. It’s also the intensity and tenacity of their support, which gives them effective control over the Republican Party. They worship him. They won’t budge.3

        While this contention appears likely to be true, it begs the questions of why and what factors have led so many individuals to follow an obvious huckster and liar so slavishly—to “worship him”—and why and how other GOP leaders have rationalized silence or active support of Trump, even as he has called for overthrowing the Constitution based on his lie concerning the 2020 election and has dined recently with two of the nation’s most prominent Nazi apologists and anti-Semites.4 For Reich, GOP officials have shown themselves willing to see the U.S. Capitol sullied, its police senselessly murdered and maimed and the lives of U.S. lawmakers and the then Vice President profoundly endangered, and for many, to lie about those who undertook that action thereafter, because they cynically fear losing their posts and nothing more. If so, one may readily contend that the entire group should be dismissed from Congress as having violated their oaths of office that demand that they protect the nation from usurpation. But even if one is willing ethically to countenance such remarkably cynical and immoral behavior and allow that these officials are “merely following the dictates of those who elected them to office,” however deranged, that still leaves the large looming question of the profound hypocrisy of Trump’s followers to be explained.

        I am haunted by Pierce’s point that as a group this “GOP base” appears willing to jettison freedom and democratic institutions on little more foundation than largely imagined fears and slights. This situation is simply extraordinary. The reasons I and others have considered to explain the group’s willingness to do so include fear of social change and heterogeneity, overt and covert racism, long-term Republican Party attacks on governance to serve the interests of this nation’s capitalists, economic concerns born of globalization and, GOP unwillingness to address those matters via government.  The Party and Trump especially have also exploited the allied claims of xenophobia and isolationist nationalism to mobilize these citizens. Beyond these factors, the Republican Party has aligned itself with specific constituencies who care most deeply about single issues including, particularly, those who wish to see unfettered gun rights and ownership, and those who seek the end of all abortion rights and access in this country.

        While each of these elements merits analysis, I want here to focus on the wanton hypocrisy and unethical behavior of the putative GOP leaders who know that Trump has lied to his (and their) supporters and that his so-called policies have actively harmed his base, more often than not, but who have not come forward to point out these facts in the name of their quest for power and, as Reich asserted, their desire to retain their current positions.

        Edmund Burke famously distinguished between delegate and trustee forms of representation, and James Madison perhaps even more famously expressed concern that leaders could not simply follow the dictates of popular will in all cases and ensure the preservation of freedom.5 As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has described this distinction:

Historically, the theoretical literature on political representation has focused on whether representatives should act as delegates or as trustees. Representatives who are delegates simply follow the expressed preferences of their constituents. … In contrast, trustees are representatives who follow their own understanding of the best action to pursue. Edmund Burke (1790) is famous for arguing that ‘Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests, which interest each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but Parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole. … You choose a member, indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not a member of Bristol, but he is a member of Parliament.’6

        If one takes these arguments seriously and acknowledges the fact that history teaches that popular beliefs are frequently neither informed nor deliberative, the GOP’s official silence in the face of calumny and in the name of their supposed obeisance to their constituent’s will can be dismissed for the hypocrisy and claptrap it represents. More plainly, these officials are guilty of standing by while citizens are actively misled and of dishonoring their offices and roles as they have done so. I know of no writer who has more plainly or elegantly called out the hypocrisy of such behavior than Frederick Douglass. The indictment of hypocrisy contained in his impassioned and famous 1852 speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July,” could as well be applied today to those GOP officials willing to see United States democracy denigrated and its citizens’ rights and freedom endangered by a demagogue’s pursuit of personal power and wealth:

To him [the American slave], your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.7

        As one who has spent a significant share of his life in the academy and believes deeply in the power of reasoned possibility, I stand with Douglass in the hope that those GOP officials who have abandoned their responsibility can be brought once more to exercise it by reminders of their hypocrisy and by the shame they now bear that such invocations are even necessary. This nation cannot long endure with so substantial a minority in its midst willing to follow an unprincipled and empty figure, and with a major share of a primary political party’s officials equally engaged in that despoiling.

        It remains for most Americans to prevent the usurpation of their nation’s principles and their own rights at the ballot box. Those who seek to inform those citizens must continue to explore and share their findings concerning how matters have come to this pass for the GOP and its “base.” Americans who care about their country’s democracy must continue to seek ways to communicate the implications of the so-called base’s beliefs to them and others so that ultimately, they may consider those afresh for themselves. We may collectively hope that such efforts will produce change, if not a fully accountable reckoning, in the coming period. Meanwhile, a dark pall of danger continues to hang over the U.S. experiment in self-governance.


1 Pierce, Charles. “Political Violence, Imaginary Grievance,” Last Call with Charles P. Pierce, November 26, 2022,, Accessed December 14, 2022. 

2 Pierce, “Political Violence, Imaginary Grievance.”

3 Reich, Robert. “When will the GOP reach the Anti-Trump Tipping Point?” Robert Reich, Substack, December 15, 2022,, Accessed December 15, 2022. 

4 Haberman, Maggie and Alan Feuer. “Trump’s Latest Dinner Guest: Nick Fuentes, White Supremacist,” The New York Times, November 25, 2022,, Accessed November 25, 2022; See also Astor, Maggie. “Trump’s Call for “Termination’ of Constitution Draws Rebukes,” The New York Times, December 4, 2022, Accessed December 14, 2022.   

5 Burke, Edmund.  Reflections on the Revolution in France, London: Penguin Books, 1790 [1968]; Madison, James, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, 1787–8. The Federalist Papers, Isaac Kramnick (ed.), Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987.

6 Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “Political Representation,” [2018 revision],, Accessed December 17, 2022. 

7 Douglass, Frederick, “Frederick Douglass’s ‘Fourth of July’ Speech [1852],” San Diego State University [PDF], July 5, 1852,, Accessed December 16, 2022.    

Publication Date

December 19, 2022