Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

The Worse Demons of Our Nature

In calling for passage of the Voting Rights Act, LBJ was summoning what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. He was asking – no, he was demanding – that we transcend bigotry and make good at last upon the promises we made to each other in declaring our nationhood and professing our love of liberty. The political process responded, as it should when big ideas come along, to ride the current of history.
Gerald Ford, speaking at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in 1997.
When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're not sending you. They're not sending you. They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.
Donald Trump, announcing his run for president in 2015.

If progress sometimes depends on successfully appealing to "the better angels of our nature" of kindness, compassion and a sense of equality to extend rights, respect and aid to those less privileged, then regressive and oppressive forces often rely on the worse demons of our nature, appealing to fear, anxiety, greed, bigotry, jealousy, spite and the urge to domineer others. Unfortunately, for decades, U.S. conservatives and the Republican Party have stood for plutocracy and bigotry. Meanwhile, their authoritarian strain has grown stronger, to the point that a significant faction is threatening democracy itself in the United States. The most popular political figures for the conservative base are those who give them permission to deny reality and to behave awfully toward their fellow Americans.

Donald Trump remains a prime example. Although some conservatives and Republicans have tried to disown him, he's no aberration, and instead acts firmly in the conservative tradition. (See the post linked above for more, and also for "conservative" versus "Republican"; this post will treat the terms pretty interchangeably unless the distinction matters.) Trump is just less stealthy and more likely to say the quiet parts out loud, lumbering and lashing out as the monster from the conservative id. A bully and a bullshitter, he heavily traffics in spite, and the conservative base loves him for it. He stands for power and privilege over merit, in many noxious flavors – plutocracy, bigotry, self-aggrandizement, political party over country, and authoritarianism over empiricism. He wants to be praised even when he does a poor job, wants his ass kissed at all times, and denies any reality he doesn't like. A few key incidents exemplify his rotten character and the destructive traits he's encouraged in his supporters, from the rabid fans to the more quietly complicit.

Trump's 2015 announcement of his presidential run put his bigotry front and center, a longstanding personal trait and a central part of his appeal to his voters. Sean Spicer's first press conference for Trump occurred shortly after Trump's inauguration, which drew a much smaller crowd than Obama's. Spicer aggressively lied to please Trump's ego, falsely claiming that "This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe." It was a bizarre performance. Trump wanted everyone to accept and repeat his obvious lie, kissing his ass as he was used to, and like other sycophants, Spicer was happy to feed Trump's vanity. That spectacle was appalling enough on its own, but it's particularly remarkable that Trump and Spicer apparently, delusionally, thought they could bully the press into playing along. (Afterward, Trump campaign strategist Kellyanne Conway infamously denied that Spicer was lying, but was instead offering "alternative facts.") Anyone who wasn't already alarmed by Trump and his cronies should have been by that incident. (Anyone who cheered it was troubling.)

In 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated Puerto Rico, causing billions of dollars in damage. The Trump administration's response was underwhelming, but Trump bragged about what a "great job" he had done, sought praise, blithely compared the disaster's death count to other disasters, and complained about any criticism. In 2019, Trump tweeted about Puerto Rico as if was another country instead of a territory of the United States, lied about the aid given to it, and fought against giving any more aid, even though it was sorely needed. In this case, Trump's fixation on vanity over reality had more dire consequences than the Spicer press conference. The same was certainly true about the Trump administration's abysmal response to the global COVID-19 pandemic; a Lancet study released in February 2021 concluded that the U.S. could have avoided a staggering 40% of its COVID-19 deaths.

Conservatives and Republicans largely haven't cared about Trump's broken promises and lack of accomplishments, and signaled this attitude even before the election. A June 2016 article in The Washington Post found that "Many of Trump’s fans don’t actually think he will build a wall — and they don’t care if he doesn’t." Trump's aspirations, and anger directed at people they hated, were enough for them. Trump himself might have wanted a wall, but was too lazy to actually do the work to get one. (One that didn't fall over or wasn't easily scalable, anyway.) His supporters apparently – shockingly – haven't even cared if Trump's negligence and the conservative noise machine's persistently anti-science, anti-vaccine messages have made them sick or even killed them. The data show that "pro-Trump counties continue to suffer far higher COVID death tolls." When the Republican Party was first being called an "authoritarian death cult," it might have been slight hyperbole, but sadly, the pandemic showed the label was dismayingly accurate. After seeing everything Trump and his administration did and failed to do, more Americans voted for him in 2020 than in 2016. The most accurate statement Trump has probably ever made was him bragging in 2016 that "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and wouldn’t lose any voters."

One of the most telling incidents about Trump, conservatives and the Republican Party was the October 2016 leaking of the 2005 Access Hollywood tape with Trump bragging about his fame allowing him to sexually assault women and get away with it. ("When you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. . . . Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.") The tape should have sunk his campaign, and some conservatives and Republicans condemned Trump, but the majority of them (including some critics) still voted for him in 2016. (Conservative claims of higher moral values than their political opponents have always been bullshit, of course.) Trump apologized when the tape came out, but by November 2017, he started pretending that the tape was a fake and it wasn't him. This is batshit crazy stuff (as several people pointed out), or more to the point, it's authoritarian behavior – Trump once again telling those surrounding him that he wants them to kiss his ass, deny objective reality, and agree with a lie favoring him.

One of Trump's favorite terms is "fake news" – which, of course, means true stories that Trump doesn't like. It's hard to quantify to what degree Trump's fans believe him when he claims news is "fake," just as it was hard to tell how many of Rush Limbaugh's listeners believed the constant lies he told, or to what degree Fox News viewers or other heavy consumers of conservative media believe its coordinated propaganda. Many obviously do believe whatever lies they're told, including lies about accurate reporting. But Trump, Limbaugh, and many other conservative figures have always sold both a sense of superiority and one of persecution to their followers; their pitch is that they're much better than their chosen political opponents, who not only treat them terribly unfairly but are a grave threat to the righteous conservative faithful and thus the country. Limbaugh's legacy wasn't just lies, it was his nastiness, an approach that Ann Coulter, Trump, Tucker Carlson and countless conservative commentators and grifters have used for decades. When Trump calls something "fake news," it's not an empirical assessment of accuracy; it's the assertion of an authoritarian leader. He's not simply lying or bullshitting; he's essentially saying "I know you hate these people and I do, too." He's giving his followers permission to hate others, and to reject reality. The professional conservative operatives know that Trump's "fake news" attacks are bullshit, but view them as useful. Within the conservative base, some of them likely know deep down if not consciously that Trump is lying but don't really care. He lets them pretend; he lets them wallow in gleeful spite. To quote a 2020 post:

The conservative base does not hate many of their fellow Americans because they believe false things. They believe false things because they hate many of their fellow Americans. This is one of many reasons conventional fact-checking does not work on them.

The white supremacist group the Proud Boys was excited after the first 2020 presidential debate when Trump wouldn't outright condemn them and instead told them to "stand back and stand by." They viewed it as an endorsement and encouragement. More mainstream Trump supporters hold less extreme views, but the core dynamic and Trump's primary appeal remains similar: he encourages the worse demons of their nature, giving them permission to behave horribly toward their fellow Americans and to deny any realities they don't like.

These dynamics became the most dangerous to date with Trump's Big Lie that the 2020 election was somehow stolen from him, and with the resulting insurrection attempt on January 6th, 2021. It's not possible to discuss the insurrection in depth here (check out Digby's extensive archives on the subject), but the House select committee hearings and other reports have established (among other things) that Trump planned to declare victory regardless of the election outcome long before his actual loss, plotted ways to overturn the election, knew that he had lost, collected roughly a quarter of billion dollars to fight the election results, encouraged his supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol, approved of their violence, and didn't care if people died, including his own vice president. (Of course, people did die as a result of the insurrection.) If ever the actions of a president were cause for removal from office and other consequences, this was it – trying by multiple means, including violence, to overturn a fair election. Likewise, if ever there was a political morality test "gimme," this was it – condemn the insurrection, stand for democracy, put the country's well-being above other interests, and hold the transgressors responsible. This was a moment for even hyperpartisan hacks to drop their habitual bullshit and heed the better angels of their nature.

Americans as a whole responded better than Republicans. A 2021 Monmouth poll found that 72% of respondents thought "riot" was an appropriate description of the January 6th events, and 56% thought that "insurrection" was appropriate. But 33% also felt it was a "legitimate protest." That's a minority, thankfully, but a significant, disturbing minority. Many conservative commentators have tried to downplay the extremism and danger of the insurrection. A December 2021 Washington Post/University of Maryland poll showed that Republicans as a whole likewise downplayed the violence and danger of the insurrection compared to their fellow Americans. Congressional Democrats impeached Donald Trump for a second time for his "incitement of insurrection," but despite all the evidence, only 10 House Republicans voted for impeachment and 197 voted against. In the Senate, only 7 Republicans voted for conviction and 43 voted for acquittal, so the two-thirds majority required for conviction was not reached. As they often have for decades, Republicans put their party before their country. Adding to those damning actions, in early 2022, the Republican National Committee censured Republican U.S. Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for participating in the House's January 6th committee, claiming that they had (emphasis added) "been destructive to the institution of the U.S. House of Representatives, the Republican Party and our republic." (Some Republicans, including Mitch McConnell, did object to the censure.) Not content with that degree of Orwellian doublespeak, the RNC also declared that the January 6th insurrection represented "legitimate political discourse." Trump loyalist and Republican Senator Josh Hawley defended the RNC, saying, "Listen, whatever you think about the RNC vote, it reflects the view of most Republican voters." If so, we need to question if the majority of Republican voters support democracy and accountability for trying to overthrow it – and if the answer to the second part is "no," then the answer to the first part is realistically "no" as well, despite any lip service to the contrary. The overwhelming majority of congressional Republicans have failed their country on both counts.

The recent midterm elections offered concerning developments, but also some bright spots. It bears mentioning that good people do exist who identify as conservatives, whether we call them due process conservatives or something else, even if they're significantly outnumbered in the U.S. conservative movement and in the Republican Party. It's heartening that in the midterm elections, Republican candidates who were election deniers, touting Donald Trump's Big Lie that the 2020 presidential election was somehow stolen from him, often did not do well. 'Election deniers running for secretary of state were the election's biggest losers,' and election denial hurt the Republican Party overall. Those losses were aided by self-described conservatives and Republicans.

Still, it's very troubling that the Republicans ran 291 election deniers, and 170 of them won. And roughly 70% or Republicans believe Trump's Big Lie. A huge portion of one of America's two major political parties believes a significant, dangerous falsehood (or pretends to). Republicans were building an "army" to overturn election results by "challeng[ing] voters at Democratic-majority polling places," which in actual practice has often meant harassment. In Cochise County, Arizona, Republican officials refused to certify the 2022 midterm election results "despite no evidence of anything wrong with the count" simply because they didn't like Democrats winning some top races. Interestingly, holding out had the potential to backfire on them, because if all 47,000 plus county votes were thrown out, some elections would flip to Democrats. Weeks later, the officials finally complied with a court order and certified the election. (The Republicans might still face criminal charges for their breach of duty.) This is sore loser behavior, childish, petulant, entitled and dangerous.

More alarming, as of May 2022, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, "nearly 400 [voter-]restrictive bills had been introduced in legislatures nationwide," and the chief cause seems to be "white racial resentment." And the conservative-dominated Supreme Court recently heard arguments for Moore v. Harper, a North Carolina gerrymandering case. Conservatives – backed by plenty of dark money – are pushing an "independent state legislature theory,” which means state legislatures could ignore state courts and their own state constitutions, allowing them to rig elections in their favor. It's a batshit theory with "exceedingly thin" evidence, but the North Carolina state legislature is controlled by Republicans, so they think this will solidify their domination even further. They're far from alone; Pennsylvania Republicans have worked to rig the courts to bypass judges who might uphold fair elections instead of favoring Republicans. Similarly, Republican candidate for Wisconsin governor, Tim Michels, vowed that if he won in the 2022 midterms, Republicans would "never lose another election." Michels thankfully lost, but democracy itself shouldn't be imperiled every election.

Conservative opposition to fair play is nothing new. To look just at this past decade, after Barack Obama's re-election in 2012, some Republicans discussed changing their approach, given that demographic trends did not favor them. Any such renouncing of the evils of plutocracy, bigotry or unfair play was thrown out, however, when a perfect storm of factors and an outdated, idiotic electoral system allowed Donald Trump to be elected president in 2016 over Hillary Clinton despite losing the popular vote. Republicans, who had engaged in unprecedented obstructionism in blocking judicial nominees under Obama, were happy to turn around and appoint as many conservative and far-right judges as they could, including stealing two supreme court seats. (They also came up with self-congratulatory, alternative realities of those events to justify their actions.)

This general, dishonorable approach is not likely to change, regardless of the Republican leadership. Now that Trump apparently cost Republicans victories in the midterms, some Republicans have suggested moving past him, but we've seen this dance before; they're sure to embrace him again if he wins the nomination for 2024, or happily go with Ron DeSantis and his similarly awful policies and comparable cult of personality. (On the PBS NewsHour on 12/16/22, conservative commentator David Brooks cited a USA Today poll saying that, "by 2-1 margins, [Republican voters] want Trumpism, his approach, but they don't want Donald Trump." Notice Brooks trying to distance Trump from conservatism, too.) Trump is horrible, but he's symptomatic of a much deeper rot in American conservatism and the Republican Party. If current trends continue, any candidate who promises power and sells spite is likely to do well.

If major Republican nominees for the 2024 elections aren't reality-deniers, bigots or authoritarians, it'll be a relief, albeit clearing an awfully low bar. Even when conservatives and Republicans don't directly imperil democracy, when they get in power, unfortunately, things typically get much worse for the vast majority of Americans; the system is increasingly rigged against them. The George W. Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 primarily benefitted the most wealthy Americans, as intended, just as Ronald Reagan's tax cuts in the 1980s were. The Trump tax cuts were similarly plutocratic, funneling even more money to the wealthiest Americans to please rich donors. Contrary to Republican claims, the corporate tax cuts did not trickle down and the tax plan did not pay for itself; they just gave rich people more money. Conservative economic policies, whether they're called supply-side, trickle-down, Reaganomics or something else, have never delivered, as decades of evidence show. It strains credulity to pretend that conservatives actually believe that their policies work for anyone other than the rich. (It also would be nice if mainstream political coverage more prominently covered the actual consequences of policies, considered the corruption angle, and didn't pretend that conservatives really believe the bullshit they spout.) But on this subject and many others, conservatives and Republicans publicly deny reality. It's rarely as blatant as denying an election, but it's still harmful.

It's not as if conservatives' awful economic and fiscal policies are an outlier, either, or that their echo chamber is something new. In 2010, self-described libertarian Julian Sanchez wrote several posts bemoaning "epistemic closure" in conservative discourse, for example, sticking with Fox News and rejecting information from mainstream, credible outlets like The New York Times, even among supposed conservative elites. A few conservatives agreed with Sanchez whereas many others didn't, and either didn't really understand or truly engage with the critique. Sanchez' take was welcome but utterly unsurprising for anyone who followed conservative media (including the blogosphere) in previous years. (For a more detailed look at conservative policies, see a 2018 post, "What's to Be Done About Conservatives?") Trump supporters merely continued the epistemic closure trend, living in "an alternative universe" and loving his rage and rejection of any media outlet he didn't like.

So where do we go from here? Although it's heartening that American democracy has survived the 2020 elections, the 2021 insurrection, and the 2022 midterm elections, it shouldn't be at risk in every election. And the country's well-being shouldn't be imperiled every time conservatives gain power, even if they abide by election results. We can always expect conservatives to try to rebrand themselves as they've done frequently, and trying to call mainstream American conservatism "Trumpism" as if it's some new aberration and not the continuation of past awfulness is just the latest example. The Democratic Party has plenty of problems we've discussed before and will again, but the Republican Party is almost completely toxic and corrupt, and now often explicitly antidemocratic. It needs to lose for about 20 years before its leaders consider changing their approach. Unfortunately, even that won't be sufficient, because conservative billionaires, think tanks and dark money organizations are always playing a long game to make the U.S. more conservative, including overturning laws and principles that most citizens quite reasonably believe long settled. The conservative-dominated Supreme Court's decision to ignore precedent and sound medical practice to overturn Roe v. Wade after nearly 50 years is the most glaring recent example, but it's hardly the only one, nor is it likely to be the last one.

I'm not sure a conservatism exists that is truly beneficent, helping the majority of people, and better than other political philosophies, but it does seem that as an ideology, or as actually practiced by real people, conservatism has less harmful strains than the current ascendant one. The people critiqued in this post don't need to be this horrible; it's a choice. U.S. conservatism focuses on fighting for power and privilege; it believes in bullying to defeat merit, and sometimes democracy itself. It is almost always plutocratic, often bigoted, and sometimes authoritarian (which intertwines quite naturally and toxically with the first two). To reference two older posts, in terms of "The Four Types of Conservatives," the Sober Adults are in ever shorter supply, and the Reckless Addicts, Proud Zealots, and Stealthy Extremists have even more power. Conjunctions of stupid, evil and crazy have become increasingly common. Meanwhile, liberals and other nonconservatives cannot directly fix conservatism or the Republican Party, either (despite occasional pundit whining that somehow they should). Conservatives have to do that themselves. In the meantime, it's the job of everyone else to hold conservatives accountable, keep them out of power (through democratic means, naturally), and work for a fairer and more functional system.

This isn't the cheeriest post, but hope still exists. The midterm election presented some encouraging results. And in August in conservative Kansas, 59% of voters "rejected a proposed state constitutional amendment . . . that would have said there was no right to an abortion in the state," in a sharp rebuke of the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. The pandemic exposed how many workplace practices and other rules are bullshit, even if many labor and human rights fights still need to be won. It's also easy to forget about some lasting social progress. Support for same-sex marriage now stands at 71%, up from a mere 27% in 1996. That is truly extraordinary. Some of that is the result of positive peer pressure, but it also shows how people's fears can evaporate when they're shown to be ridiculous, and how powerful it can be to recognize others' humanity. Conservatives are attacking LGBTQ rights and need to be defeated, but U.S. society as a whole is increasingly not with them.

Abraham Lincoln ended his 1861 first inaugural address, after several states had seceded from the Union but before the Civil War officially started, on a conciliatory, optimistic note. He soon faced a more open and much more deadly conflict than we currently do. But it still seems that the best way to fight our worse demons as a nation is by investing in our better angels.

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

(Cross-posted at Hullabaloo.)


spirilis said...

This is very good and I like it! .....but
It might not be a game but it is played like one A win is simply the start of a new round. Maybe if people realized that every election is a gamble of everything for the status quo they would take the vote more seriously.

Larry Lennhoff said...

Not to gainsay Lincoln, but I feel that if we had hung a significant percentage of the Southern military and political elite for treason, broken up large plantations and gave the promised 40 acres and a mule to newly freed enslaved persons, and kept the Union army in place to suppress white vigilantes and enforce voting rights the United States would be a happier, more prosperous, and fairer country than it is today.

We can’t change the past, be we can learn from it. When someone says we need to “look forward not back” whether after the George Bush administration or after 1/6 my response is the same: “I look forward to investigations, arrests, fair trials and whatever convictions and penalties are merited, especially in term of preventing certain people from ever holding any office of trust in the US."