Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Legitimacy is at the Core of Republican Hypocrisy

The arrogance of Republican hypocrisy is breathtaking. Trump, of course, is the most visible, blatant, and audacious, but it has been going on much longer than Trump has been on the scene. 

The most recent (as of this morning) has been the Eric Schneiderman debacle. After credible witnesses and contemporaneous corroboration of physical, mental and emotional abuse from someone who has been an outspoken advocate for #MeToo, Democrats rightly called for Schneiderman to step down, which he did. And Twitter was ablaze with the pearl-clutching condemnation of Republicans who were shocked and disgusted that a man in public office could behave so reprehensibly, and who must immediately be removed from that office.

But when confronted with abuse and assault accusations of their own, they stubbornly insist that A) all of the accusers, no matter how credible, are lying; B) the accused are denying any wrongdoing so must be believed; and C) that regardless of the truth or falsity of the accusations, their guy was elected by the people so it doesn't matter.

This extends to every corner of political and public life, from the accusations of corruption and self-dealing from the White House on down, to evangelical support of the most egregious moral failings of the President, and any kind of transgression that they would excoriate Democrats for. They lambasted President Obama for wearing a tan suit, which they accused of being 'disrespectful of the office', while giving a pass to the most vile insults that the current resident of that office throws around at anyone he doesn't like, including mocking a disabled reporter. They berated Michelle Obama for wearing a sleeveless dress, while giving the current resident's wife a pass for nude photographs.

It has always puzzled me, because it's not just the 'low-information' base and die-hard Trump fans who do this - it's smart, well-educated Republicans in and out of public office who do the same. How can they possibly keep a straight face? How can they constantly excuse and justify bad behavior of their own while being outraged over the slightest transgression - real or imagined - of any Democrat? How can they rail against the speck in their brother's eye while ignoring the beam in their own? How can they justify this to themselves?

I am thinking that it comes down to the issue of legitimacy.

In 1994, Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist, with the help of pollster Frank Luntz, came up with the "Contract with America", a manifesto of conservative ideology and Republican campaign platform wish list that painted Democrats and liberals as not just misguided but illegitimate - not just wrong but immoral. They made the case that conservative values must prevail, not just to improve the economy or strengthen America, but in order to keep liberal values out of the public sphere altogether. This document referenced traditional Republican ideas such as cutting taxes, slashing the safety net, a balanced budget amendment, tort reform, term limits, cutting regulations, etc. Along with that came language that encouraged the Christian Coalition to consider it a legitimization of their 'place at the table' of government legislation and a rejection of the separation of church and state.

Frank Luntz helped Newt to make the case that America itself was conservative, and therefore anything non-conservative was, by definition, un-American. Luntz gave Newt a treatise on language to define his position and denigrate the opposition, telling Republicans to use words like choice, children, common sense, confident, duty, family, freedom, liberty, opportunity, precious, prosperity, protect, rights, strength, tough, truth. And he told them to use words to define Democrats like abuse of power, betray, bizarre, bureaucracy, cheat, coercion, corrupt, decay, destroy, fail, greed, hypocrisy, ideological, intolerant, liberal, lie, obsolete, punish, radical, selfish, shame, steal, threaten, traitors, unionized, waste, welfare.

Of course, there have always been fundamental differences between the two parties/ideologies, and plenty of partisanship, but even with all that there was the idea of the 'Loyal Opposition' with whom you had vigorous, even heated debate on the floor, but respected as a person and a fellow congressperson. You might completely disagree with your opponent but at the end of the day you did not question their right to be there. Newt and company weaponized disagreement, and promoted the narrative that Democrats and liberal values must be eliminated at any cost from a voice in American government. This is not an exaggeration. They speak of a permanent Republican majority, and warn that if Democrats are allowed to have a say, that America itself is endangered.

This is why you hear things like "a child molester/rapist/felon/thief/traitor in office would be bad, but not as bad as a Democrat."

What has seeped into the subtext of the Republican narrative (obviously not all Republicans personally, but the frame, which is embraced by a large portion of the conservative electorate) is the idea that Democrats do not belong in office, period. That their very ideas are not legitimate and that their policies will harm America.

This gives them the freedom to hold a different standard.

If Democrats are fundamentally illegitimate, any steps to eliminate them from government are acceptable. If you believe that the premise of liberalism is dangerous and destructive and immoral, it is easy to justify doing anything possible to prevent or remove them from office. It's a logical extension of "the ends justify the means."

So, no matter what a conservative may do that is questionable, unethical, immoral or even illegal, the bottom line is that they are in the right. They may not be personally honorable but they are standing with a cause that is honorable and essential for the survival of America, so they are legitimate. Trump is just the most egregious and offensive example of this way of thinking. This is why evangelicals will back him no matter what. If a sinner can further God's purpose, then the sinner is not wrong.

Conversely, if a liberal or a Democrat transgresses, it is a confirmation of their basic illegitimacy. There is no cognitive dissonance there if you consider it within the frame of legitimacy over illegitimacy. A Democrat admitting and accepting responsibility for wrongdoing is proof of their fundamental unfitness. A Republican refusing to admit any wrongdoing is proof of their innocence and legitimacy.

Although there are few Republicans who will consciously attest to this underlying premise, and of course many moderate Republicans who do not subscribe to it, I believe that this is an overall driving force in motivating the actions of the current Republican party. A lie in the service of the truth is no lie.

Until we contend with this directly, I think this toxic dichotomy will continue and intensify. We must address this before we are shut out of our country's political process for good. As long as a Democrat in office is considered worse than a criminal, we will continue to have to fight a war for basic legitimacy itself.