Cross-posted at Daily Kos
Twenty-five years ago, as the Gulf War was winding down, Saddam Hussein had his troops place explosives at the sites of over 600 Kuwaiti oil fields. Knowing that he had already lost the war, his goal was literally to blow up the country he had failed to hold – out of no strategic objective, but simply sheer spite.
I’m starting to wonder if the Republican party has at last reached the same point. Many Trump supporters have expressed some version of Scott Biao’s statement that “I want him, as any one person can do, to go into Washington and blow it up.”
But what does this sentiment really mean, and what does it say about the party that chose Trump, in a highly competitive primary, as its candidate for president? This, I think: that the GOP has degenerated from a normal conservative party into a nihilist, rejectionist movement that has so completely given up on America as to no longer be willing to participate in the responsible governance of the country.
It is this genuinely radical perspective that has made this election so strange, so hard for the media to cover – and so threatening to our 240-year democratic tradition. Republicans no longer represent a conventional ideology that can be treated simply like any other in the public sphere. Rather, they are now rejecting the legitimacy of most of America’s major institutions, raising the disturbing question of how, and with what, they would attempt to replace them. This includes, as examples:
- The Executive Branch: increasingly since Reagan, the goal has been, not to improve Federal agencies, but to eliminate them – and in Grover Norquist’s infamous words, “reduce [government] to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”
- The Legislative Branch: the GOP has outdone the “Do-Nothing Congress” against which Harry Truman once railed, bringing legislative productivity to a dead halt.
- The Judicial Branch: the farce of refusing to even consider President Obama’s nominees, from the Supreme Court on down, badly hobbles our judicial system.
- The Media: The right has long used the manufactured meme of a “liberal media” as a way to deny the truth of any piece of journalism they don’t like – another right-wing trend that Trump has taken to the extreme with his utter rejection of fact-checking.
- Science and Academia: As with the media, dismissing entire fields, like climate science, as liberal conspiracies or hoaxes allows Republicans to tailor their version of reality based on their political necessities.
- The Voting system: The GOP attack on voting rights, predicated on the completely bogus charge of widespread voting fraud – now being vigorously spread by Trump – undermines the representativeness of our democracy, as well as the public’s faith in it.
Trump has risen out of the morass of the GOP’s long and escalating assault on these and other American institutions. In the process of heedlessly smashing the core machinery of democratic governance, the GOP has nurtured the cynicism of its base to the point that their masses no longer accept the legitimacy of their own party and leaders. This is how revolutions happen – when you raise people’s anger and expectations to a point beyond which they can no longer be satisfied within the bounds of the current system.
The other side of the conservative coin has been to contrast the alleged chaos of today’s liberal-tainted society with a sort of 1950s version of Eden that is portrayed as the only legitimate vision of what America can and must look like.
The trigger for the horrifying desperation to which the largely older, white, Christian, rural, poorly educated base of the Republicans have descended, I believe, is the increasing realization that the Leave It to Beaver world is now gone forever. Eight years of a black president, mostly likely to be followed by a woman president, with gays legally allowed to marry, racial intermarriage increasingly common, the U.S. becoming a ”minority-majority nation”, the largest expansion of government benefits in decades under Obamacare, marijuana being legalized, etc. – for someone consuming a daily diet of Fox, Limbaugh, Breitbart, etc., these must look like the end-times.
It’s hard for people in this ideological milieu to avoid the conclusion that we’ve reached the point of no return – at least without something along the lines of a revolution or coup, with a large dollop of ethnic cleansing thrown in. Hence, American conservatism, the belief in keeping the status quo mostly intact, has slowly died and been replaced by nihilism, “the belief that the destruction of all existing political, social, and religious order is a prerequisite for any future improvement.” This sequence of events fits with Nietzsche’s view that nihilism grows out the scenario of an idealist running up against reasons to stop believing in his idealistic visions.
This dark, cynical, destructive perspective is one of many reasons the media’s frequent conflation of Trump and Bernie Sanders as comparable revolutionary scourges of “the establishment” never made much sense. There is nothing comparable on the left to what the GOP has become, except in the darkest reaches of the Internet where 9-11 truthers and other lefty conspiracy theorists blather in obscurity, with zero support from the Democratic party.
In contrast, the Republican party has nominated as its presidential nominee a man who joyfully stomps on almost everything – beyond the blind worship of big business – that the party has ever claimed to believe in. Take, for example:
- Family values? Don’t even go there.
- Devotion to Christianity? Does Mr. “Two Corinthians” really know anything about it?
- Economic growth and stability? Even Fox Business admits that Trump’s plans make no sense and would likely crash the global economy.
- Actual business success? Perhaps the most underappreciated set of stories this campaign have been those describing how Trump’s businesses have been such a web of con jobs and utter disasters, including his destruction of Atlantic City.
- A realist foreign policy supporting American interests? In Putin’s interests more likely – the utter cluelessness of Trump’s view of the world inspiring 50 GOP foreign policy officials to declare that they won’t vote for him.
- Respect for the military and veterans? Look at Trump’s attacks on both John McCain and the Khan family.
I encourage you to run down such a list with your Fox-addicted father or uncle and ask them how they can support a presidential nominee who rejects everything they’ve been claiming to believe in for such a long time.
Very likely they will come back to the “blow it all up” justification for Trump. If so, then please ask them how they imagine that act of destruction to be carried out, what they envision a somehow “great again” America to be like and how we get from here to there.
Ultimately, does it all make any sense or is the Trump campaign just a massive temper tantrum triggered by feelings of helplessness, as senseless and tragic as Saddam destruction of Kuwaiti oil fields? All I know is that our nation and world cannot afford to let the nihilists take over and bring their dark vision to fruition. American democracy, nurtured and improved over two and a half centuries – while still highly imperfect – is too precious of an experiment to leave in the hands of arsonists.