February 14, 2022
America is polarized between two tribes each seeing the other as threatening everything good and holy. That’s not news. However, the two sides are not mirror images.
Republicans’ loathing for Democrats is actually quite understandable — given the incendiary rhetoric they’re fed. As a former GOP donor, I’m flooded with Republican fundraising emails. They’re hair-raising. Here’s a verbiage sample:
“Radical left Socialists and their efforts to completely ruin America . . . tyrants who want nothing more than to strip you of your liberty . . . corrupt power-hungry radicals . . . doing everything in their power to rip Christianity from our culture . . . brutal, morally bankrupt thugs . . . dystopian wasteland . . . a party of racism and hatred attacking the very foundations of the country . . . the bloodthirsty deep state . . . wave of tyranny and oppression . . . Marxist dystopia . . . don’t care how much they have to lie, cheat or steal to achieve it.”
Our politics used to entail rational disagreements over issues and policies, altogether healthy in a free society. The over-the-top ferocity of today’s Republican talk is something new and different. And its cynical perpetrators know exactly what they’re doing.
Trump has always accused opponents of the very things he himself was guilty of. “Fake news?” Look at his “stolen election” lie. The syndrome pervades Republican messaging. It’s Biden they call an inveterate liar! And who’s “a party of racism and hatred?” Caring not “how much they have to lie, cheat or steal” to keep power?
Race is the elephant in the room of today’s U.S. politics. Many whites tolerated non-whites advancing — until a non-white president made them fear loss of caste dominance. That’s the Republican tribe. Trump’s recently saying whites are at “the back of the line” for Covid vaccines and treatment blatantly pumps their race anxiety. Even as they insist they’re not racist.
And too many seem unable to distinguish trustable information sources from unscrupulous manipulators, getting this diametrically wrong. Thus believing the likes of Alex Jones, not The New York Times. Rejecting true facts about Covid, in favor of rubbish from charlatans (often costing their lives). And failing to see the obvious: Trump’s “stolen election” lie was concocted simply because his diseased psyche couldn’t accept losing.
Recently when I sent out a January 6 meeting announcement, noting the anniversary, a friend emailed “Didn’t happen! Was set up by ANTIFA and the FBI — video proof all over the internet !!!!!!!!”
And this guy has a Masters in history. Such conspiracy theory crap is indeed “all over the internet.” But tons of genuine footage, eyewitness testimony, and other documented evidence show the true story. It’s not rocket science; just common sense. How can otherwise intelligent people think like my friend?
Confirmation bias is a well-known pathology — lapping up information bolstering one’s pre-existing beliefs while shunning anything contrary. The internet enables wallowing in cocoons of ideological reinforcement. Confirmation bias on steroids.
But while Democrats retain a grip on reality, Republicans marinate in an alternate universe. And while you can argue about Democrats’ policies, they’re advocated honestly and sincerely. Contrast Republican efforts to supposedly protect ballot integrity — a dishonest ruse to achieve their actual aim of keeping Democrats from voting. Few serious Republicans actually believe the last election was rigged, but are using that pretext to rig the next one.
So while rhetoric about Democrats threatening America is ludicrous, the threat posed by Republicans is all too real. January 6 was not some ANTIFA head-fake. Nor “legitimate political discourse” (as the GOP National Committee has officially voted to declare). January 6 was a bloody attempted coup by Trump and his cultist mob to overthrow a democratic election.
A recent analysis in The Economist quotes political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein that “[t]he Republican party has become an insurgent outlier — ideologically extreme, contemptuous of the inherited social and economic regime [the very antithesis of “conservatism” — FSR] . . . unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
And that was written in 2012! The pathology has since intensified dramatically. The Economist says “Democrats have also grown more hardline,” but their “shift is so much more modest” — quoting Mann and Ornstein again, calling this “asymmetric polarization.” And another political scientist, Matt Grossman, that “[w]hile Democrats see politics as an opportunity to implement policies,” Republicans “see it as an existential battle.”
Thus though Republicans long crusaded to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, when push came to shove they had nothing. Their “natural state” being not governance but “angry opposition.” Which they’re very skilled at. Right now all signs point to their recapturing Congress, and Trump could well win in 2024. Despite all their lies and culpability for January 6 and for the pandemic’s persistence.*
Yeats wrote, “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Democrats are not convictionless, though still mostly moderate; but Republicans are indeed full of passionate intensity, inversely proportional to the badness of their cause (and leader) and the irrationality of the lies propelling them. That emotive asymmetry between the parties helps Republicans win elections.
And because they do see themselves in an existential battle (race again a key subtext), their willingness “to lie, cheat, or steal” feels justified to them. In polls a third even say violence may be necessary to return Trump to power. Numerous election officials, especially Republicans, have received death threats (scaring many into quitting). Likewise many public health workers trying to do their jobs to combat Covid.
Add into this combustible stew the Republican gun fetish. With ideations of using guns to “resist tyranny.” Making all the “tyranny” rhetoric in those quoted messages especially scary. A further irony being that it’s so clearly Trump who threatens a fascistic regime that would destroy American democracy.
It was perhaps surprising that the “brutal, morally bankrupt thugs” storming the Capitol on January 6 were not far more numerous — with many more guns. But that was only a dress rehearsal. A lot of Republicans actually seem itching for a literal civil war, to fulfill their Gosar-like fantasies of physically destroying opponents. Our last civil war was a geographic division. The next would unfold everywhere — a much bloodier recipe.
Is that a real threat? Yes, argues a new book, Barbara Walter’s How Civil Wars Start. Reviewing it, The Economist disagrees: “No country as sophisticated, modern, liberal and democratic as contemporary America has ever descended into civil war.” Its military and police are professional and apolitical. Another January 6 “would have no chance of success.” Yet consider some other words in the review: “What matters is . . . whether politics revolves around identity.” And “political leaders who stir up fear of another group to win support are especially dangerous . . . the most effective grievance mongers are creative liars . . . Another risk factor arises when a large group fears it is losing status . . . the most disgruntled members of an aggrieved group may take up arms. At first they are too [few] to pose a serious threat — but social media can accelerate the descent into bloodshed.”
Most of that referred to other countries. Yet its applicability to today’s America is jarring.
If Trump loses again in 2024, Heaven help us. And if he wins, that goes double.
* Which (another inversion of reality) Republicans actually blame on Biden — rather than Trump’s prior idiotic bungling — and their own war on masks and vaccination.