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The Sickness of Republicans and Conservatism Inc.
They can't tell the truth because they are terrified of their audience.
1. Root Causes
Last night the president of the United States—the commander-in-chief of our nation’s armed forces—stood at a podium inside a recently fortified White House and declared that he was the legitimate winner of the election.
This is what he said:
If you count the legal votes, I easily win. If you count the illegal votes, they can try to steal the election from us.
He said a lot of other things, too. Most of them lies.
And here is what the recently reelected Republican senator from Maine had to say in response:
That’s a direct quote. Since November 4, Susan Collins has tweeted exactly one public statement. This is it:
Though that’s probably better than what Marco Rubio has said:
That tweet belongs in the Louvre.
And even that is better than what House minority leader Kevin McCarthy had to say:
No hedging and obfuscating there. The highest ranking Republican in the House knows exactly which side he’s on and isn’t afraid to say it.
And even that is still better and more responsible than what we’re seeing from many of the unelected precincts of Conservatism Inc.
Please understand that I am not bringing this up as a means to dunk on these people. There’s actually something important going on here and it speaks to the future.
Be part of the fight for this future. Because it’s happening. Right now.
2. There Is Only Pro-Trump and Anti-Anti-Trump
The reactions on the right to Donald Trump’s attempt to subvert the election break down into three camps.
(1) Abject support. This the talk radio / MAGA twitter / Professional Conservative wing and they are going to insist, as part of their dogma, that Trump was the winner of the election. That the election was stolen by “illegal” votes. That America is over and blah blah blah.
Anyone not willing to stipulate to this will be read out of the movement. Full stop.
(2) Deep concern. This is where the “more” responsible parts of the party/movement will stand. They say that while they have not seen any definitive evidence yet, a lack of evidence doesn’t mean that Trump is necessarily wrong.
They will tug at their chins and solemnly intone how desperately important it is to uphold the integrity of the election. And they’ll try to signal that they’re with Trump in spirit by always using the phrase “legal votes” as a dogwhistle.
But since some of these people have contracts with mainstream cable networks or ambitions to run for office, they’ll go to pains not to say that the election was stolen. Only that it might have been and that Trump’s statements must be taken seriously and thoroughly litigated and . . . well, blah, blah, blah.
(3) Both sides. On Wednesday, Biden campaign lawyer said, “we’re winning the election, we’ve won the election and we’re going to defend that election.” This occasioned a great deal Very Deep Concern for how both sides were guilty of the same infractions.
Which is crazy. Why?
A campaign lawyer is a subordinate, not the principal. The Biden campaign’s principal—Joe Biden—has consistently said the right things about the state of the vote count, and he contradicted his lawyer’s statement shortly after it was made.
There is an enormous difference between the statements of people who hold power and people on the outside of power. This is why Trump’s prospective refusal to accept the results of the 2016 election were less worrisome than his prospective refusal to accept the results of 2020. The possession of power creates danger, which is why the burden to be scrupulously honest and fair sits more heavily on incumbents than challengers, always.
And not that it matters, but the Biden campaign lawyer was—simply as a factual matter—correct. The Biden campaign had won. This was obvious to every serious observer. It has subsequently been proven to be true. And while the race hadn’t been officially called at that point, that’s a semantic difference.
All of which is to say that while the Biden campaign lawyer probably shouldn’t have said what he did, any attempt to paint it as an equivalent wrong is willfully obtuse. It’s the difference between being caught speeding and committing vehicular homicide. Both are violations of the law. No serious person thinks of them as the same class of offense.
Why are Republicans and professional conservatives sorting themselves into these three positions when they all (or nearly all) know better? Why can’t they simply say the truth? Which goes something like this:
The president is lying. There is no evidence of fraud. His actions are dangerous and un-American. He is, right now, demonstrating that he is unfit for office. Americans of all stripes must come together to condemn this behavior and support the president-elect, Joe Biden.
And the answer is: Because they are afraid of their audience.
This isn’t the first time.
This is what Republicans and conservatives did about the Obama birth certificate bs. This is what they did about the idea of impeaching Obama. It’s what they did for 20 years with Rush Limbaugh, who they all knew was a huckster, but didn’t want to criticize because he could move votes and sell books.
The people who make their livings directly from the base tell the base exactly what they want to hear. And the people who operate at a remove from the base do everything possible to appear sympathetic to them and avoid openly contradicting them.
Because they know what the base wants. And they’re afraid of them.
I say all of this not by way of criticism, but explanation. Because this is a big part of how we got into this mess in the first place. By having the political elites on one side so terrified of their audience that they refuse to tell them the truth. Which enables and magnifies the toxicity in our political life.
It doesn’t have to be this way. I want to share with you a video of John McCain from October of 2008, at the height of a presidential campaign, as he interacts with his supporters.
Listen, not just to these two cranks, but to the crowd. John McCain knew what these people wanted to hear and he refused to give it to them. Not only that, he put them in their place.
That’s what political courage looks like.
There is none of it left in the current version of the Republican party or the conservative movement. Look at how these people have acted over the last four years. Watch how they’re acting right now. Susan Collins with her strategic silence. Nikki Haley with her pathetic attempt to pivot toward the future.
And understand that this moral bankruptcy affects all of us. Because it shapes the world we live in.