Why has Republican rhetoric gotten so unhinged?

Some Republicans have dialed up the hyperbole to express their indignation about President Biden's vaccine mandates. Here are two tweets from South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster:

The American Dream has turned into a nightmare under President Biden and the radical Democrats. They have declared war against capitalism, thumbed their noses at the Constitution, and empowered our enemies abroad.
Rest assured, we will fight them to the gates of hell to protect the liberty and livelihood of every South Carolinian."

Hearing Republican politicians speak about the American dream while voting against a livable minimum wage and undermining unions and consumer protection, is always, well, a little rich.

This article first appeared in Salon.

In this little tirade, McMaster was merely piling on while reacting to the supposed tyranny of Biden's recently announced mandates for vaccinations or testing in the workplace and in school.

So: You will fight sensible policies in an ongoing global health crisis — one that has already taken at least 660,000 lives of your own countrymen — to the gates of hell? Beyond the obvious morbid jokes that statement naturally elicits (e.g., Trevor Noah: "Normally, that statement is hyperbole, but with COVID you might actually get the chance."), where can McMaster now go if he wants to further ratchet up this rhetoric?

  • Before I listen to you, you'll see me do-si-do with Satan himself!
  • Do so, and you'll be up the River Styx without a paddle, pardner!
  • I'd rather traverse down all nine levels of Dante's Inferno, with a poet, than be bipartisan with the likes of you!

And how about that use of "thumbing their noses"? With that aged locution, the good governor is, without doubt, speaking directly to his demographic.

If one wanted to use old-fashioned phrases or words, one might ask: What is it with this ceaseless perfidiousness from the right? Merriam-Webster defines "perfidious" as "untrue to what should command one's fidelity or allegiance." Synonyms include faithless, false, disloyal, treacherous and traitorous.

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One need only consider the Republican votes during the two impeachment trials of Donald Trump, or their Trumpian adherence to the Big Lie about the 2020 election, or their whitewashing of the deadly insurrection at the Capitol, to understand the word. It might be a fun game to connect the most apt synonym with specific members of the House or Senate.

For decades the Republican game has been to claim that liberals and progressives are out to ruin the country with their unholy desire to see a bit more sharing of wealth and resources. But the rhetoric they're employing lately seems truly biblical, end-times unhinged, of the "If you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore" variety. And it all seems to be a psychological projection of their own desire to bring the American experiment as a democratic republic to an end.

The left now understands (let us hope) that like the British aristocracy of the 18th century, the GOP is going to war to retain power by any means. We need a modern-day Paul Revere (and a William Dawes, who didn't get a mention in the famous Longfellow poem) to raise the alarm. Their signals in the Old North Church today might be: "One if by gerrymandered land, and two if by voters put out to sea."

Our modern-day Revere, Stacey Abrams, can see those three lanterns glowing, day and night. Even with her eyes shut.

Strangers on a train: The dark bargain that destroyed the Republican Party

As the Republican Party continues on its march toward fascism, it's easy to find yourself making political connections — even when you are trying your best not to think about politics.

This article first appeared in Salon.

Recently I was reading about astrophysics (understanding only an infinitesimal amount) and saw the Republican Party's implosion into Trumpism as akin to the formation of a black hole in space, where truth (instead of light) is unable to escape the event horizon.

I found myself in the same frame of mind while watching Alfred Hitchcock's 1951 classic "Strangers on a Train," about a couple of men falling into a conversation and making an unholy bargain, which one of them thinks is a macabre intellectual exercise not to be taken seriously.

Falling back into the dream of the film, I could not help but see the conniving, unhinged Bruno Antony (brilliantly played by Robert Walker) as a precursor of Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Ron Johnson and their ilk, those who have managed to kill off the old Republican Party and who are hard at work to murder majority-rule democracy — both through voter suppression and by inciting actual violence. For me, Guy Haines (played by Farley Granger) represented Republicans I understood, at least to a degree: Nelson Rockefeller, George H.W. Bush, John McCain, Mitt Romney, Liz Cheney. To me, those Republicans might have been willing to take advantage of others and perhaps stretch the law to avoid taxes or otherwise enrich themselves, but they would likely have ruminated over it and made sure to attend church service soon after banking the profits. In any case, they believed in the necessity of compromise, the work inherent in politics.

These are the so-called RINOs, or "Republicans in name only," a term which — now that I consider it — was always a form of gaslighting and projection. That term has been used to attack actual Republicans and make them seem like another group Trump voters could despise and blame for their failings and bad impulses — another "other." Newt Gingrich and his chortling crew sent the Republicans who understood that compromise was the way of politics (and who, it ought to be said, also took their oaths of office seriously) the way of the Oldsmobile. It was a Swift Boat operation done on their own people. We could all see they were Republicans, but we were told they were somehow not Republicans, or at least not real Republicans — they were RINOs. The fake Republicans pushed out the real ones.

And there it was: Gaslighting — the favored authoritarian manipulation of "don't believe what you see with your own eyes" — so named for the 1944 film "Gaslight" (directed by George Cukor with Hitchcockian flair), in which a criminal, played by Charles Boyer, purposively undermines the mental health of his wife (Ingrid Bergman, who won an Oscar for the role) by lying to her endlessly and saying that things she has seen with her own eyes are not true. You know, like Donald Trump has done to the public for years — indeed, for his entire adult life.

The overarching gaslighting that the modern Republican Party continues to perpetrate on the American public is that good old yarn about how lowering taxes for the wealthy and corporations will boost the economy — the so-called trickle-down theory, which George H.W. Bush memorably called "voodoo economics," before he was selected as Ronald Reagan's running mate, at least partly to shut him up. It always brings to mind something economist John Kenneth Galbraith wrote:

The modern conservative is not even especially modern. He is engaged, on the contrary, in one of man's oldest, best financed, most applauded, and, on the whole, least successful exercises in moral philosophy. That is the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.

The actual Republicans — who we are told by the likes of Matt Gaetz are not the actual Republicans — must have thought back in the Tea Party days that the Gingrich plan, the treat-the-opposition-as-your-enemy, shut-down-the-government, win-at-all-costs faction, would be a temporary thing, something to be countenanced for a short time. They clearly felt the same way about the antics of Donald Trump. It was all just kind of an unsettling joke, as Guy Haines thought of Bruno's proposed bargain to trade murders.

In the film, Bruno crashes a party and nearly strangles a woman while re-enacting the murder he has committed, which might remind anyone old enough both of Gingrich's crashing the GOP with his "Contract With America" (often referred to then as "Contract on America") and of the equally oddly named Grover Norquist, co-author of the "Contract," who often said he wanted a government small enough that he could drown it in the bathtub. (That phrasing seemed pretty personal — there's more than a hint of gruesome domestic violence in there.)

What Gingrich and Norquist brought to the party was the end of what used to be called "political comity" — seeing beyond different political positions and working together professionally to reach compromise. You know — pretty much the substance of politics.

There is a scene, both funny and unsettling, in "Strangers on a Train" in which Bruno and his mother (the memorable Marion Lorne, in her film debut) have a chance to catch up, and we learn a good deal about how Bruno became the person he is now. She fusses about his health and his attitude, remarking to her son that at least he had given up on his crazy earlier plan:

Mother: Now, you haven't been doing anything foolish?
[Bruno shakes his head while nuzzling her hand.]
Mother: Well, I do hope you've forgotten all about that silly little plan of yours.
Bruno: Which one?
Mother: About, um, blowing up the White House.
Bruno: Oh, ma, I was only fooling. Besides, what would the president say?
Mother [laughing with relief]: Oh, you're a naughty boy, Bruno! Well, you can always make me laugh.

When the film was made, the politics of the day were focused on the Cold War and distrust of anyone who might be sympathetic to the "other side." Looking at the film today, who could doubt that Bruno, like far too many Republicans, might be a QAnon believer, as well as a delighted supporter of Trump's Big Lie about the election, shrugging off the lack of any evidence while pointing to Chinese and Russian conspiracy websites. (In the film, Bruno works assiduously to plant evidence to tie Granger to the murder that Bruno actually committed.) Bruno would have been delighted to help with the planning for the insurrection of Jan. 6 and would have cheered others on from a discreet distance. And he would just as cheerfully deny everything he'd done. You can never pin down a psychopath. As we all know now, it is not possible to hold the shameless to account. They just cry persecution.

The images of the fight on the merry-go-round — sent into overdrive by a policeman who shoots indiscriminately, killing the carny operating the ride — are unforgettable. Granger's character, like, say, Liz Cheney and Mitt Romney, is trying desperately to hang on as Bruno kicks at his hands and the whole contraption seems about to break apart. It does, at least until a carnival employee crawls beneath the carousel to reach the controls, too late to save the ride and some of its passengers.

One story concerning the making of "Strangers on a Train," as told by Ben Mankiewicz on Turner Classic Movies, is that Hitchcock was haunted by his decision to allow the man to crawl under the frantically spinning merry-go-round. For years afterward, Hitchcock said, he got sweaty palms every time he thought about that day. If Donald Trump is directing this insurrectionist flick now in production from Mar-a-Lago Studios, he's more than happy to sacrifice anyone and everyone.

The old GOP is going the way of that merry-go-round, and even if someone were to try to get to the controls now (Who? The Lincoln Project? The Bulwark?) it seems too late to save anything worthy of a democratic republic. Conservatives who are not pro-white supremacy, pro-conspiracy, anti-science, and chock-full of grievances will need to create a new political party someday — and get themselves out of the carnival business, with its glaring lights, mesmerizing sounds and untrustworthy machinery.

How fascism came to America

It has been said that when fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross.

This well-known line has been attributed to a number of people — most often to novelist Sinclair Lewis, but also to socialist leader Eugene V. Debs and even to populist Louisiana senator Huey Long — but none of them wrote or said it in precisely the way it has come down to us. It appears to be an aphoristic stone nicely polished by being handled by a lot of people.

To have it reflect our current situation, we need to roughen it up.

When Donald J. Trump was running for president in 2016, Lewis's novel "It Can't Happen Here," written quickly in 1935 as authoritarian leaders were rising in Europe, started to sell out. In it, populist demagogue "Buzz" Windrip, a Democrat (i.e., a pre-Civil Rights Act Democrat, who would be a Republican today), wins the presidency. As Beverly Gage describes it in a 2017 essay for the New York Times, Windrip — who was based on both Long and the anti-Semitic radio priest Father Coughlin — is not exactly Trump, but he's right "there" in a number of respects:

Like Trump, Windrip sells himself as the champion of "Forgotten Men," determined to bring dignity and prosperity back to America's white working class. Windrip loves big, passionate rallies and rails against the "lies" of the mainstream press. His supporters embrace this message, lashing out against the "highbrow intellectuality" of editors and professors and policy elites. With Windrip's encouragement, they also take out their frustrations on Blacks and Jews.

So, just a super guy — someone you could really rally around. And shriek. And chant about putting people behind bars.

Apparently, the first iteration of the saying just had the bit about the time-honored false patriotism of wrapping oneself up in the flag. Then the faux-religiosity gambit of cross carrying was added.

I think we must now edit and append it further:

When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapping itself around the flag and holding a Bible upside down. And riding in a golf cart.

Except this fascism is not so much "wrapping itself with" the flag but more like sexually assaulting it.

Trump, a man who received five deferments from military service, seems to think the Stars and Stripes is a great-looking lady he can molest. ("I don't even wait!") I suspect he is less handsy with the gal he clearly respects more, the good old Stars and Bars.

Oh, I forgot the tear gas and rubber bullets. So, we append further:

When fascism comes to America, it will be sexually assaulting the flag, carrying a Bible upside down, riding in a golf cart, and enjoying the fact that tear gas and rubber bullets are in use against peaceful protesters.

OK, that's getting too long. But now, naturally, I'm remembering the time fascism was hiding in his bunker (no, not in 1945 Berlin — the more recent time, in Washington). No harm in trying it out, right?

When fascism comes to America, it will be sexually assaulting the flag, carrying a Bible upside down, riding in a golf cart, and enjoying the fact that tear gas and rubber bullets are in use against peaceful protesters — and then scurrying away to hide in a bunker.

But it just becomes less elegant, more ungainly — and so less memorable. There is so much one could add, beyond hiding in that bunker — incessantly watching "Fox & Friends," tweeting instead of working, lying like breathing — that the mind refuses to latch on to anything. There is no substance, just chaos.

Speaking of chaos, Trump and his gang of enablers have always reminded me of the year I spent in a fraternity. Somewhat to my surprise, I was elected pledge class president, and after a tumultuous year I tried my best to get a dozen young men through the seriously stupid, often dangerous and generally unhinged hazing of Hell Week, so they could, at last, become active members.

I don't care whether they were ever actually in a fraternity or not, but people like Matt Gaetz and Jim Jordan and their boisterous, under-thinking ilk — really, nearly all of the Republicans in Congress — are precisely like a bunch of entitled and semi-educated frat boys who are simply used to getting their way. They insist on it, as toddlers will do. Donald Trump is the president of this house, which has to be Delta Iota Kappa, yes, the proud DIK House. To parrot a favorite Trumpian phrase, as everyone knows, those DIKs should have long ago been kicked off campus and had their charter revoked.

OK, now I have to get the frat-boy concept in. It naturally rides with the golf cart, and it expresses so much—about white privilege, about entitlement, about binge drinking and barfing and "boofing" and generally being obstreperous and having one's way with "the babes" — one way or another. (Ask Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh if you need explanation of any of that.)

When fascism comes to America, it will be sexually assaulting the flag, carrying a Bible upside down, riding in a golf cart with various frat-boy buddies, and enjoying the fact that tear gas and rubber bullets are in use against peaceful protesters — and then scurrying away to hide in a bunker.

Oh, and crying about being a victim and about people not liking him. Well, the phrase is already unwieldy enough and even I've grown weary of it.

I know some of you would quibble with my calling this fascism. You might call this neo-fascism or proto-fascism. But I'm too exhausted at this point to look those up. Call it über-fascism or Kentucky Fried fascism or Adderall fascism, or whatever else you'd like.

Of course none of this is funny. Well, maybe it's mordantly humorous, the way you might laugh involuntarily as unmarked militarized police started shooting rubber bullets your way during a peaceful protest in the United States of America.

Though thwarted to date, the Republican assault on the votes of more than 81 million citizens continues. Eighteen 18 Republican state attorneys general, 126 Republican members of Congress, and a bunch of dead-silent Republican senators have proven themselves more than happy to go along with it. So much for their fervent belief in states' rights, and that thing called the Constitution.

And, yes, for the past number of years all journalists writing op-eds about the dangers of putting the grandson of a man named Drumpf in charge of anything are a bunch of Sinclair Lewis' Doremus Jessups, trying desperately to fight a tyrant with a mere pen. One does what one must.

It's an extended Hell Week in America, at least until this guy is out of office. So you better bone up on that Greek alphabet and be ready to "drop trou" (ask Brett about that one, too). Listen up, plebes, they want you to come out on the other end as active members of something bigly, something terrific — something that's definitely not a democracy.

If Trump wants a recount, make him pay up front

Earlier in this dizzying week, Donald Trump's campaign demanded a recount of the Wisconsin vote, even before it was completed. (Now they'd like to recount the entire election, but that's a different problem.) In an interview with MSNBC's Katy Tur, Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul said that the state has a "safe, secure and reliable" process but that a recount can happen if the vote is within a one-percent margin. He noted that if the vote is within 0.25%, the state pays for the recount; otherwise, the campaign requesting the recount must pay.This article first appeared in Salon.

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