This post begins by reaching back to March 15, 2016. My post in this blog that day was “Batshit crazy, the stupid party.” The quote that became my title was an indelicate criticism of the state to which the Republican Party had fallen, a phrase uttered not by Democrats, but by prominent Republicans including Sen. Lindsey Graham and Gov. Bobby Jindal. Conservative political historian Matt K. Lewis lamented that although conservatism used to have “big, thoughtful ideas,” it had “lost its intellectual bearings.” Former conservative political historian later Max Boot said the Trump surge “proves every bad thing Democrats have ever said about the GOP is basically true.”
In this post, Part One is what I published in 2016, approaching five years ago. Trump was not a factor in GOP behavior then. But Republicans’ behavior (and regrettably, some of Democrats’) was quite enough to weaken our republic in bits and pieces, loosening its commitment to roles and responsibilities demanded by the Constitution. The very brief Part Two looks at what Constitutional irresponsibility has brought us to and, in general, where America should go next.
I don’t think deterioration is unique to the Republican party, nor even the combination of the party and its tethered television outlet, Fox News. I don’t revere everything Pres. Obama has done, nor do I criticize everything Pres. George Bush did. Somewhat allied with Lewis, however, I do consider that the Republican party has been in decline since possibly the 1960s and surely since the 1980s, with a further marked descent since 2000. It is not the first political party to get lots of mileage out of untruths. Esteemed Democrat JFK won the presidency due in part to his damning, though inaccurate charge that that his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, had allowed a terrifying missile disadvantage vis-a-vis the USSR.
But I have additional motivation with respect to the Republican party: I fear that the US without a competent opposition to Democrats is a less robust, less philosophically muscular country. However, to my great regret, the current Republican party has forfeited that role by increasingly allying itself with the influences of xenophobia, bigotry, paranoia, and anti-science. (On a given issue, I might agree or disagree with a Republican position.) We can find small mindedness, short-term focus, careerism, fudging, and spinning, along with problems of agency in politicians of both parties. Each party condemns the other about actions for which it itself is guilty, for example, in recent years we’ve seen the reversal of which party is on which side of the Senate’s cloture rule.
Both parties stoop to intentionally quoting statements out of context in their arguments. For years Republicans have kept up an incessant drum beat of lies about Obama’s Democratic administration despite their being simply untrue, such as Obama’s “apology tour” or Obamacare’s inclusion of death panels. Neither was true, but the drum beat was too energizing to sacrifice to mere truth. In my opinion, however, while I’d not proclaim the Democratic party blameless, for the past fifteen years Republican conduct has been the most shameful.
Of course, bad things happen in every administration. It’s never difficult to find things to criticize and well-deserved aspersions to cast. Unfortunately, it is hard to assess those aspersions, since the honesty of both parties may be in question and any issue’s importance may be misrepresented. As to importance, the rule seems to be that any act of the opposition that can be shown to be shady or questionable becomes important regardless of how trivial it is. What we can know is that choosing which charges to make and how crucial to say they are can never be trusted as unbiased and proportional.
Democrats, for example, would charge that the unending Benghazi investigations may have revealed unfortunate or unacceptable behaviors, but compared to George Bush’s plunging the Middle East into a complex, extensive, and costly war is like comparing a skin rash to cancer. But whatever the wrongdoings that might be discovered about Benghazi, is it not curious that Republican elected officials have investigated the skin rash with a righteous fervor they never exhibited with respect to the cancer? They apparently value their role in making partisan points greater than their obligation as public servants, the role to which they were elected and for which they took an oath. All taken together, there is nothing done by the Obama administration or the Democratic party since the start of the century that comes close to Republican misdeeds.
Republicans have evolved into the anti-science party (see my post “Scientists (that’s plural!) define science,” August 19, 2013), substituting political judgment for scientific consensus whenever ignorance might be courted. They have reduced biology and climate science to political issues. Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin would have been right at home, having their highly disciplined truth-finding judged by magistrates and priests. Federal scientific advisory committees have been diluted with non-scientist Republicans beginning as early as the George Bush administration, in an attempt to avoid any “unacceptable facts,” hardly the action of a party interested foremost in facts rather than dogma. Congressional hearings carefully select outlier scientists to corroborate political positions instead of the reverse.
The party has dishonored an earlier history of substantive concepts and those “intellectual bearings” Matt Lewis mentioned: its mistaken belief that blocking ideas constitutes producing ideas, to risking the country’s financial health for small partisan victories, to treating compromise and playing by the rules as unnecessary, to outright lies and deception, and recently to conducting “debates” as if reruns of the Jerry Springer Show. Pity. The Republican party (along with unaffiliated conservatives) was at one time a party of political concepts that gave us William F. Buckley, Morton Blackwell, and—to go back further in the history of conservative thought—Edmund Burke and a number of America’s Founders themselves. It is not necessary for either Republicans or Democrats to agree with these thinkers, but it is important to recognize what is lost when the lowest common denominator of judgment and intellect replaces them. Today’s Republican party has given us George Bush, Sarah Palin, and Fox News clown Glenn Beck among other intellectual leaders.
Disinformation is a political strategy, one that hampers citizens’ ability to make rational decisions in complex matters. Millions of conservatives, sustained and abetted by the party, carried the torch of disinformation by spreading preposterous claims about Barack Obama and Democrat officials. I have reviewed many of these, often taking time to check their authenticity, sometimes engaging the senders. If anything was more pronounced than the implausible rumors, it was the attitude of senders that seemed to be if the farfetched claims aided their cause, then accuracy mattered little or none.
Did Democrats act as if everything George Bush did was wrong? Unwilling to limit their criticisms to only the obvious and massive mistakes, some Democrats did just that. It is a human characteristic to slip into unfair criticisms and can be found in any party and about any party. I have known Democrats, for example, to act as if Bush’s time at his ranch was a dereliction of duty, just as inconsequential as similar charges Republicans have made about Obama. The difference is that in the past seven years, the Republican party raised unwarranted criticism and counterfactual deceptions to an art form. When I watch the angry, shouting, sometimes violent behavior at a Donald Trump rally, I see people understandably angry due to their own real pain and fear, but also misinformed by the Republican falsehoods. Obama is a Muslim. Obama wasn’t really born a citizen. Obama is ripping American apart. Obama is a socialist. Obama is responsible for divisions in the country. Obama ignores the Constitution.
Although the Fox News faithful have been shown to be less informed about national and international events, you can be sure they are certain about where blame lies for any problem that comes up. No one seems to care whether the stories are accurate or “fair and balanced,” just that they fit fans’ brain receptors like a drug. Years of such aided ignorance brought the nation almost far enough to pave the way for Obama’s defeat four years ago. We shall see if doubling down on similar disinformation and innuendo will usher a Republican into the White House this year. And that brings me to this year’s debates.
The unbelievable antics of Republican party candidates for president are, well, beyond belief. Continued descent into Jerry Springer Show politics brings us closer to its becoming the new normal. We have already developed an inability to grasp how disastrous it could be for the globe’s most powerful country to toy with political psychosis. Observers outside the US have reason to worry about so powerful a nation exhibiting paranoia and anti-intellectualism. While the Democratic contenders fight it out almost totally on policy issues, their Republican counterparts conduct a verbal slugfest. At times, they’ve seemed to be trying to out-Christian each other (see my post “Democrats vs. theocrats,” January 30, 2016), to out-condemn “political correctness” in each other (see my post “Political correctness,” April 20, 2014), and to out-shout each other with sins of Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Do they debate policies? Yes, somewhat, though there is a tendency only to bring up issues that enable an anti-Obama political point to be made. In any event, grownups are in short supply. I wonder if the candidates, if asked, would say their performance adds to the vaunted American exceptionalism or detracts from it (see my post “American exceptionalism, American bloviation,” November 11, 2015).
Let’s turn to another drama I call “A Justice Delayed is Justice Denied.” Due to the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the Republican party has to deal with more than its embarrassing primaries behavior. A less conservative justice than Scalia will change the tilt of the court for years. Understandably irritating to Republicans is that the sitting president has the job of nominating a replacement and the job of the Senate is to “advise and consent.” There is no Constitution provision that excuses assigned duties just because a party doesn’t care to perform. The country was titillated or shocked (depending on party), by the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s announcement that, despite the Constitutional obligation, the Senate would simply not do its job; that is, even if Obama faithfully performs, the Senate will not. This irresponsible action—supported by most Republicans in Congress—is not just a matter of disagreement on some policy decision, but far worse. It is an intentional change in the Constitutional rules, as if a football team unilaterally changes the rules to its benefit during the game.
(McConnell, as Republican leader, famously declared at the beginning of Obama’s first term that the “number one goal” of Republicans was to make Obama a “one-term president.” Funny, one would think any party’s main goal would have something to do with fulfilling the responsibilities of governing, in fact to perform so well that its political chances are increased honestly. (What happened to the concept of “loyal opposition”? Republican Congressional behavior after that point was, in fact, consistent with its less-than-patriotic goal.)
Republicans’ stated justification for this kind of contemptable action varies, but is often rather transparent. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley compared Obama to King George III—for his ostensible “executive overreach,” in any event also a tactic of Bush. Grassley hadn’t noticed that. Senator John Cornyn said that if Obama nominates someone, Senate Republicans will make “a piñata” of the nominee—that said with no idea who the nominee will be! Moreover, said Cornyn, “I don’t think the voters are really interested in seeing the ideological balance of the court changed for the next 30 years by a lame duck president.” Of course, it is not “voters,” but Republicans who might feel that way. Cornyn has no idea what voters want and doesn’t care. Nor does it matter. McConnell and his colleagues have decided that no president—no, this president—should be allowed a nominee in the last year of his (or her) term.
Compounding the dishonor, the Republican establishment began a rumor that refraining from nomination in a president’s final year is a time-honored practice. It is not. This tactic should not surprise us, for the right wing of House Republicans has acted that way since early victories of the Tea Party. Lying and obstructionism, not governing, have become an acceptable theme of political leadership. Authoritative repetition substitutes for truthfulness until the lie is believed as truth; that is closer to 1984 than is comfortable.
We’re at a dangerous and embarrassing position. It is dangerous because the political machinery, at least on the Republican side, is more engaged in its hyper-partisanship than doing its job for the country. It is embarrassing because the United States, the self-described indispensable country, is disgracing itself at the highest levels with uncivil and childish antics, wallowing in incompetence at facing and resolving diverse opinions, and shunning the science which has contributed to our ascent. This may turn out just to be a bad period, one in which we recover from humiliating political freefall as actually has happened before (e.g., the Jefferson/Adams campaign). But leaving that recovery to chance is excruciating [END OF 2016 POST HERE], frightening, and irresponsible.
Two years later, on June 16, 2015 Donald John Trump, host of an NBC reality show, “The Apprentice,” memorably descended an escalator in his New York Fifth Avenue tower to announce his candidacy for the 2016 Republican nomination for president. He had considered that long-shot move for 27 years. His winning would be impossible . . . until the unexpected happened.
Fewer than 43 months have gone by since January 20, 2017 when Donald Trump became president—though never became presidential. The Republican party dismissed one clue after another as Trump distorted the presidency, overlooked the equality of Constitutional Branches, misrepresented and lied about facts, and bullied the Senate into impotence. Month by month Republican senators became his cheering chorus, forsaking their vows and dishonoring their Constitutional responsibilities. This formerly proud “greatest deliberative body in the world”—symbolically the “First Branch of American government” due to its placement in the Constitution—turned much of its lawful authority over to the unfit president who would use their constituents against them. The august, 232 year old office of President of the United States has been tainted, its integrity sapped by a hollow man and his accomplices who despite their vows espoused and defended his many perfidies (see my post “Trying an impeached president,” January 20, 2020). The office that formerly could “make the man,” this internationally respected office has become at least for now—with Republican blessing—diminished to the level of a single incompetent, narcissistic, unethical, nonempathetic, and autocratic man in only 3½ years. Indeed, this man has “made the office” to his liking. The United States Presidency has been egregiously cheapened.
The nation is gripped in the tragedies of a runaway pandemic, tropical storm Isaias, economic disaster, and civil unrest over racial injustice (confronted by armed, Trump-ordered forces). This post has dealt with how I saw circumstances in the United States three to four years ago, circumstances that set the stage for what I wish to address briefly in my next post. Where are we now? What may be next? How can it be avoided? I’ll not cover those questions in detail nor with informed, predictive accuracy, being perfectly prophetic is far beyond me. However, I can assure you that my next post will be far shorter than this one, but much more important.