The Belly of the Beast: Candid Republican Candidates

Niccolò-Machiavelli-I never imagined that, in my lifetime, I would witness politicians in Western liberal democracies make overtly racist statements, propose overtly totalitarian policies or disparage the very act of getting a good education. It is not that the xenophobia, racism and anti-intellectualism wasn’t always lurking just beneath the surface, cloaked behind the rhetoric of freedom or patriotism; it was always there, but something has changed.

Although the change in acceptable public discourse probably began with the slow but inexorable emerging of the “greed is good” message, it has only really been with the election of President Obama that I have noticed a steady movement towards the candid and seemingly unapologetic voicing of statements that are explicitly racist, sexist – indeed, there is no other word for it – totalitarian.

It began to rear its head during the 2007-2008 election campaign, with some strange and largely unintelligible statements by people like Sarah Palin, who seemed genuinely proud of the fact that her knowledge of global geography was a little lacking. On the right, it became something of a mark of pride to be unsure as to whether the US was at war with Iran or Iraq. Later, Michele Bachmann notably characterized immigrants as “millions of unskilled, illiterate, foreign nationals coming into the United States who can’t speak the English language.” Herman Cain insisted not only that American Muslims must be viewed as potentially treasonous, but also that banning the building of mosques was not an infringement on religious rights. Most spectacularly, Mitt Romney was captured speaking to a group of Republicans at a fundraiser about the 47%  –  Obama voters, characterizing them all as welfare-dependent moochers. At the time, most reasonable Americans were not surprised that none of these people were elected president. Even 4 years ago, this kind of airing of blatantly prejudiced remarks was not widely tolerated. But things have changed.

More recently Donald Trump, front-runner for Republican nomination, referred to Mexicans as drug-dealers and rapists. This is after publicly describing certain women as ‘fat pigs’, ‘animals’ and ‘disgusting’ for asking for a break to pump breast milk. He tweeted that “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.

His closest rival for the nomination, Ben Carson, has not only publicly stated that he thought Obamacare was ‘the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery‘  but compared abortion to human sacrifice,  has said that the Big Bang is a ‘fairytale’ and that Darwin’s Theory of Evolution was inspired by the Devil. He most recently characterized Syrian refugees as rabid dogs.

The crowd behind them are equally guilty of outrageous statements. Ted Cruz called the Supreme Court ‘lawless’. He also claimed “We need a hundred more like Jesse Helms in the U.S. Senate.” Jesse Helms was a notorious racist. Mike Huckabee has some very offensive views on women, their libidos and contraception that, frankly, stagger the imagination. Meanwhile, Rick Perry equates homosexuality with alcoholism. And Jeb Bush’s answer to women on welfare is “to get their life together and find a husband“. The list of jaw-droppingly ignorant statements goes on and on.

It isn’t that politicians have not allowed their demons to slip out in public before. It’s that it was considered an error before. But now, in 2015, it’s celebrated. I agree with Krugman’s analysis of this recent anti-refugee response: “Part of it, no doubt, is the familiar point that many bullies are also cowards. But I think it’s also linked to the apocalyptic mind-set that has developed among Republicans during the Obama years.” But it doesn’t explain how these blatantly racist, sexist, anti-intellectual public statements have become not simply tolerated but celebrated by a considerable number of American voters.

Liberals may shake their heads and tut-tut, but it’s slightly disingenuous. These are the positions liberals suspected the Republican candidates held all along. Many Democrats are quietly very pleased to see Republican candidates letting their ‘crazy’ show. It is probably moderate conservatives who are the most mortified. It is worth remembering that there are large numbers of Americans who –  while siding with the right on issues of taxation, government expenditure, and federal vs state power – hold very strongly to values such as religious freedom, minority and women’s rights, and believe a sound, reason-based education is the key to a more prosperous and healthier country. William Safire would be turning in his grave. I’m fairly certain both Trump and Carson would frighten Ronald Reagan.

When Trump heartily embraced the suggested idea of ‘Muslim Database’ and his willingness to shut down mosques, my guess is that many of his fellow candidates were stymied. This display of utter ignorance of the darkest times in history, of constitutional rights, the tone of blatant totalitarianism is hard to compete with. How do they match him for media attention while not seeming to advocate copying the Nazis?

However, if you take the time to read the Republican base responses on social media, you’ll find a sense of liberation, of jubilation and defiance in their postings. Finally here are presidential candidates who echo their own opinions, honestly and without shame. Candidates who say what they really believe, out loud and without apology, unmuzzled by the enemy: political correctness. For a significant number of Americans, this taking off of the lid or the gloves feels like honest emancipation.

These celebrants of this new ‘honesty’ do, honestly, see themselves as victims of discrimination. They conceive of ‘political correctness’ as an abstract overlord forcing them to swallow-down their views on race, on women, on immigration, on science. Whether it is pleasant or not, it is important to acknowledge that they feel oppressed. They’re also very frightened of losing what they truly believe is their god-given privilege to exercise power over non-whites, other genders, other nations, other religions. They are angry at and humiliated by science they can’t understand and systems of education that require fact-based, objective measures. They have, for years, been supporting and evolving in cultural vacuums that have left them unequipped to deal with the complexity of a 21st century world. For these people, Trump’s pitbull rage and Carson’s dogged embrace of mystical pseudo-science are much easier to comprehend and identify with.

Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic theorizes that what keeps social systems stable and ideologies ticking over are not only their explicit rules and belief structures, but what he calls their ‘obscene undersides’. It is, he says, the knowing nods, the winks, the implicit understanding, acceptance and enjoyment of hypocrisies that keeps Western liberal democracies standing. Until very recently, the explicit rules of this system – of equality, meritocracy, rule of law, respect for mastery and expertise, multiculturalism,  a judicious balance between individual rights and collective good – were publicly and almost unanimously affirmed. Meanwhile, most of us knew that it was more of an aspiration than a reality. There is rampant institutional racism, sexism, prejudice and enough hard data to prove it to choke a heard of elephants. The ladder of prosperity is not, by any means, equally accessible to everyone; there is no economically level playing field. We have always been deeply suspicious of science, even while we use it to technologize our lives. We say we believe the arts to be intrinsic to our culture, but we fund them poorly and explode in righteous indignation when they offend our sensibilities. But the deal was that we didn’t admit any of this out loud. To paraphrase Zizek, it’s like Santa Claus: no one actually believes in Santa (not kids and not parents), but we all pretend because we like the idea of Christmas. We believe that someone, somewhere, does believe in Santa. That keeps the whole thing going.

Yes, our liberal democracies are hypocrisies. They fail to live up to the hype. They have a corrupt, obscene underbelly – they always have had and always will have their shadow-states. The same is and was true of every  ideological system. Communism was a callous hell beneath its egalitarian surface. Feudal lords demanded taxes, men at arms and fealty from a population they used brutally. The Catholic church’s Christian doctrine could barely keep its ‘Christian’ ideals recognizable for all the lavish excess, corruption, power-games, brutality, and exploitation they indulged in. The Sharia-based systems of Iran and Saudi Arabia can barely maintain even the veneer of religious righteousness for all the power politics and the wealth at stake.

Unlike Zizek, I’m not so eager to see liberal democracy, however deeply flawed, fall apart. Mostly because I suspect that the aftermath of their collapse will cause a great deal more misery than is suffered by even the most disenfranchised in our current system. Because, historically, the alternatives on offer have been uglier and more brutal. While some idyllic sweeping clean of the slate may be attractive, while the gloves may come off for oppressed minorities, the mask will also come off for the powerful 1% who will no longer feel the need to make even a pretense of good or benevolent citizenship. Both clean slates and returns to some idyllic state of conservative order are delusional fantasies.

I acknowledge unethical nature of this stance, but I don’t see any less perversity in the fetish for absolute truth than I do in the hypocritical compromise. I just don’t have an appetite to see millions of people suffer on the way to something less imperfect.

I think we can claw our way back to civility. I think we can tell the likes of Trump that we are not ready for his brand of ‘honesty’. I think we can remind our extremist right-wing brethren that the emancipation of their repressed fears and prejudices are not tolerable to the majority and fundamentally dangerous to the fabric of our society.

All ‘opinions’ are not equal; some are more destructive and dangerous. And, while I don’t suggest they be quashed or censored, it behooves the media to consider the disproportionate air-time they give them.

Because this is the last part of this equation that needs addressing: the nature of our news media and our informational systems is such that calm, considered and moderate voices DO NOT GET EQUAL AIRTIME and DO NOT HAVE EQUAL COGNITIVE IMPACT. A media structure that decides what voices to allow based on advertising dollars is unwittingly authoring its own destruction.

Because, if the Donald Trumps of this world obtain enough power to close mosques, I can promise you they will go after any media outlet critical of their exercise of power next. That’s the problem with autocrats: they’re only ever interested in their own power and they will say anything, pander to any prejudice, adopt any ideology to get it.

Donald Trump is only white, conservative America’s voice until he gets into power. His bluster is not honesty; its strategy.

He is not one of you. He will leave your sorry, illiterate, frightened, ignorant white asses to rot in the economic dustbowl of America without a second thought, and call you losers and rapists when you complain about it.

That’s what princes do. Always.