Let Me Tell You What I Want

Cards on the table for the Republican party.
By Jonathan V. Last, Editor

(Photo by Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)

1. The Before Times

I am sometimes criticized for being reflexively anti-Republican.

“Why can’t you get onboard with Ron DeSantis? He’s not as bad as Trump!”

Or, “Why do you have to criticize Ben Sasse? He voted for impeachment that second time!”

Or, “Does every Republican have to be a martyr, like Liz Cheney? Wtf do you want from these guys, JVL?”

Fair questions. Let me tell you some of the things I want.

I want leaders who are calm and in command during important moments. The most striking part of Thursday’s hearing was the video package of Nancy Pelosi’s conduct during January 6. Here, for instance, is her calling Virginia Governor Ralph Northam:

Pelosi is totally composed. She follows the formalities of office in addressing the governor. She has already reached out to the Republican governor of Maryland. In asking Northam about potentially deploying his state’s national guard, she isn’t making demands—she’s evaluating options and is careful to inquire about what the rules are regarding the movement of one state’s National Guard to another jurisdiction.

No hysterics. No histrionics. No exaggerations. Pelosi is not grandstanding or complaining about how this is the worst attack in American history or about how unfairly she and her colleagues are being treated.

Whether or not your political preferences line up with Pelosi’s, hers was the kind of leadership this country needs in moments of crisis.

I want professional politicians who are capable of viewing the world rationally and working together to execute the basic functions of government.

Here’s Pelosi again, this time on the phone with Mike Pence. We only get to hear her side of the conversation, but it’s not hard to piece together what he’s saying.

Pelosi: We’re trying to figure out how we can get this job done today. We talked to Mitch about it earlier. He’s not in the room with us right now, but he was earlier and said, “Yeah, we want to expedite this” and hopefully they could confine it to just one complaint, Arizona, and then we could vote and that would be, you know, just move forward with the rest of the states. . . .

The overriding wish is to do it at the Capitol. What we are being told very directly is it’s going to take days for the Capitol to be okay again.

We have an Evangelical Republican from Indiana, who is the sitting vice president, working directly with the liberal Democrat from San Francisco in order to save the ship of state and get the job done.

That’s what I want out of American politics. I want a baseline level of professional cooperation from elected leaders that approximates Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi on the afternoon of January 6.

Let them fight about policy and legislation until the cows come home. Let the parties go to war over abortion and tax cuts and Medicare and the defense budget and all the rest. That’s great.

But I want a world where, when it comes to foundational questions such as the peaceful transition of power, those arguments all drop away and the two parties hold hands and act like professionals.

I’ll give you more of my Want List in a second. But if you’re new here and just coming to The Bulwark for the first time, I do this every day. Every. Damn. Day. You should sign up and get our stuff, for free. You can do that right here. Just click on the “free option” at the bottom.

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Okay. Back to my rant . . .

I want politicians to say what they think. One of the overriding impressions I’ve gotten from the January 6th Committee is that some large percentage of the people who worked for Donald Trump believed that their boss was a madman. Not an odd duck. Not an eccentric. Not a misunderstood genius. An actual madman.

Based on myriad testimonies it is clear that they simply assumed, as a matter of course, that Trump was a pathological liar. That he was irrational. That his grasp of basic history, common knowledge, and the law was laughable. That he could not be reasoned with. That he did not have America’s best interests at heart. In short: That, whatever policies he might be cajoled to sign off on, he was manifestly unfit for office.

And here I’m not talking about the opinions of Resistance Twitter. I’m describing the views of many of the professional Republicans who worked for Trump and saw him on a day-to-day basis.

They knew this. And they wouldn’t say it out loud.

I promise you this: In the real world, neither Pat Cipollone nor Mick Mulvaney would hire a guy like Trump to make the office coffee. In the Marines, Jim Mattis wouldn’t have let a guy like Trump shine his boots. If John Kelly ran into a guy like Trump in a bar, he’d put him through a window.

But in the upside down world of American politics, these men all became Trump’s underlings. And not only that, they all refused to tell their fellow Americans what they knew, from firsthand experience, to be true about our president.

I want politicians who are willing to stand up for democracy.

I love Ben Sasse. Truly. Great guy. In 2020, he swallowed his whistle and his pride so that he could get reelected to the Senate. I didn’t think this was a great idea, but whatever. That’s a judgment call and it was his to make.

But Sasse made that sacrifice so that he could keep his seat at the table and be a force for good.

And now he’s just . . . walking away? With four years left on his term? As the ship is making a big ol’ circle and heading back toward the iceberg?

If Sasse was going to walk from the Senate, then what was the point of knuckling under to Trump so that he could get reelected?

If Sasse was done with politics, he could have run out the clock on his term and gone full YOLO. Voted however he wanted. Said whatever he wanted. Even left the GOP and become an independent. He could have been Adam Kinzinger, but with four years left on a seat in the United States Senate. How powerful would that have been? To have a smart guy, like Sasse, in the Senate, beholden to no man or party as America confronted the next crisis?

I am deeply sympathetic to the costs that waging such a fight would entail. Sasse has a family and young kids. Trying to save democracy while getting pummeled from all sides—especially your own side—isn’t a fun job, that’s for sure.

But I want leaders who are willing to put themselves on the line.

I want politicians who are open to supporting someone from the other party.

Not all the time. This isn’t The West Wing. We have a two-party system and partisanship makes demands of officeholders.

But in exceptional cases, we ought to be able to transcend partisanship.

Take Adam Kinzinger. With his Country First PAC, he’s supporting Lisa Murkowski, Brad Raffensperger, Katie Hobbs, Josh Shapiro, Larry Lazor, and others. It’s a mix of Republicans and Democrats whose unifying trait is that they are all pro-democracy.

Is that so hard? Is it totally unreasonable to expect a politician to be capable of voting for someone from the other party every once in a while?

Is it crazy to suggest that a supposedly “normal” Republican, such as Ron DeSantis or Glenn Youngkin, should not be actively campaigning for crackpots such as Doug Mastriano or Kari Lake? That Chris Sununu shouldn’t be hugging Don Bolduc?

Would it kill them to say, “Yeah, for this one race, for this specific reason, at this moment in time, Team Donkey is the better option.” Or even just: “Am I supporting my party’s nutjob? No comment.”

Democrats in Georgia crossed over to vote for Brad Raffensperger and Democrats in Utah made way for Evan McMullin. I want this street to run both ways.

I want Republicans to STOP FUCKING LYING.

We are not children. All politicians lie. I get that. But it’s one thing to lie by saying, “I, Senator Smith, promise that if elected, I’ll balance the federal budget.”

It’s another thing to do this:

Watch the two videos. The one in the tweet is Scalise on June 9, 2022. Then go to the 4:46 mark here. You can see Scalise literally standing there while Pelosi is on speaker phone with DoD asking for troops to come and put down the insurrection.

So that’s what I want out of the Republican party. To be honest, it doesn’t seem like much. But also, it seems basically impossible. Because the Republican party is beholden to Republican voters. And a large cohort of Republican voters affirmatively do not want any of these things.

A political party can only be as good as its voters let it be.

2. Happy Talk

Deep breath. I feel better now. So here’s some sunshine: This summer a cheetah at the National Zoo had a litter of cubs. They’re adorable!

3. Darmok, his arms wide open.

Yesterday our office Slack devolved into some hot TNG talk and my colleague Sonny Bunch passed along a piece I’d never seen about how an episode of Star Trek prefigured the rise of meme culture:

“Darmok,” the 102nd episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, is a longtime favorite among both Trekkies and linguists. Case in point: the first time I saw it wasn’t on TV but in a linguistic anthropology class at the University of Minnesota. In the episode, Picard and the Enterprise crew encounter the Children of Tama, who speak entirely in metaphors and references—a system that stumps the Trek world’s universal translator, which can only translate the literal meaning of the words.

Last month, I was in Chicago for the American Copy Editors Society conference, where I attended (among many other great talks) a session on conlangs led by Sea Chapman. Unsurprisingly, “Darmok” came up during the presentation—so unsurprisingly, in fact, that Chapman had a prize ready to hand out to the first audience member to mention it. It led to some impassioned conversation about the episode and the Tamarian language among the audience members, including fellow conference presenter James Harbeck, an editor trained in linguistics, who made this great point: “Language doesn’t work that way, but memes sure do.” . . .

“The Darmok and Jalad episode bothered me when I first saw it years ago because that’s not a plausible fully functioning language,” he told me. “The first thing that struck me when I watched it—I believe I saw it the first time it aired—was ‘How do they learn it?’”

It’s a fair point: how do you learn the references the first time if you have no language to describe them besides the references themselves? According to Memory Alpha, a short story in the Star Trek anthology The Sky’s the Limit later explained that Tamarian children learned the stories by seeing them acted out. But even if that’s enough to get the point across, you’re still missing ways to talk about certain really specific or concrete things. As Harbeck put it, “How in hell do you build spaceships or innovate in any real way if the language is made only of these lexicosemantic icebergs?”

More plausible, he says, would be if the references used in the episode weren’t meant to be the Tamarians’ entire language but something like a ceremonial register—for example, a type of language only used for diplomacy. This would definitely be more similar to the way we use memes, since they’re only a part of our language and not an entire language in and of themselves. Just like you need to know the story of Shaka for “Shaka, when the walls fell” to make any sense to you, a lot of memes won’t mean anything if you don’t have the background. Most also have their own syntax and format conventions—and when a corporate social media account gets them wrong, the failed attempt ends up in /r/fellowkids (whose name is itself, of course, a meme reference).

Read the whole thing.