Wednesday, January 01, 2020

March of the Republican Zombie Ants

There are species of ants that have been seen to exhibit behavior straight out of a horror movie. A seemingly normal, healthy carpenter ant, going about its normal ant business, suddenly exhibits strange behavior.

It leaves its nest, staggering and stumbling like a drunken sailor on shore leave, and begins searching for a plant to climb. When it reaches a particular elevation, it climbs onto the underside of a leaf and clamps its jaws down in a death grip onto a leaf vein on the north side of the plant.

There it remains, paralyzed and waiting to die.

But that is not all.

The final horror: after three weeks or so, the dead ant, devoured from the inside, is covered in fuzz, and displays a gruesome tentacle that has burst out from its head.

They are nicknamed "zombie ants", and they seem to be compelled by some malevolent force beyond their control to destroy themselves and then once dead, to create more like themselves.

The real culprit? A parasitic fungus called Ophiocordyceps unilateralis.

This fungus replicates itself by attaching its spores to the exoskeleton of an ant. As it penetrates the exoskeleton, it infects the host ant and compels it to march to its death, where it eats the ant from the inside and then once it has grown large enough, sends a long tentacle-like stem called a "fruiting body" out from the ant's head, which has pods containing spores. When the pods burst, the spores are scattered by the wind to infect other ants, and the process begins again.

The infected ant will look and act normal for a while as the fungus incubates, which is another brilliant move by Cordyceps because normally if an ant appears sick, the other ants will eject it from their colony in self-preservation. But once the infection develops enough, the fungus apparently invades the muscle bundles of the ant, interferes with its nervous system, and controls its movement. 

It compels the ant to climb to a certain height off of the ground, with the right amount of light and humidity that the fungus needs to grow and reproduce. Then it takes over the mandibles and forces the ant to bite down on the vein of a leaf on the specific side of the plant and paralyzes it so it can't unlock its jaw.

Then, after devouring the ant from the inside, it forces it to infect other ants.

One interesting thing about Cordyceps and related fungi is that, while an insect-pathogen itself (which kills and eats the ant, and then uses the corpse for its reproduction) it uses what is called a "secondary metabolism", which acts to immunize the ant from other pathogens, thus ensuring it is healthy enough to stay alive for the necessary amount of time to complete the fungus' reproductive cycle.

I can't help but see a parallel with the Republican party as it exists today with the infection known as Trumpism (or in the Latin, Trumpyceps republicanis).

Once-seemingly normal Republicans exhibit a puzzling and bizarre turnabout from ideas and principles that once were a hallmark of the Republican Party - fiscal conservatism, personal and fiscal responsibility, Russia hawkishness, respect for the rule of law, law enforcement agencies, and national security - and have replaced these with a march to self-destruction and the annihilation of the democratic process, replacing it with blind loyalty and support of a venal, lawless, cruel, dictator-loving would-be autocrat whose goal seems to be the elimination of the principle of government of, by and for the people in favor of a classic tinpot totalitarian state ruled by him, his family and his toadies, using the coffers and the power of the government for their own personal benefit and enrichment.

There was a time when Republicans were fiercely opposed to these things. There was a time when they would excoriate Democrats for being insufficiently supportive of law and order, too skeptical about the CIA and FBI, for being too soft on Russia and North Korea, for deficits and spending without balancing it with budget cuts.

Many of these Republicans whose mandibles are now permanently clamped to Trump's posterior were his most strident critics before the election. They raged about his immorality, his vicious invective towards anyone who he didn't like, his shady business practices, his complete and utter unfitness for public office of any kind, let alone the Presidency of the United States.

Now, they enthusiastically defend his every vile word and action to the death. They cheer while he insults our allies and destroys our relationships with them; they cheer while he grovels before Putin; they cheer while he encourages white supremacy, religious bigotry and lawless aggression; and they cheer as he attacks immigrants and cages children.

They defend his looting of the government coffers for his own enrichment; they defend his blatant nepotism and cronyism; they defend his dismantling of the State Department and rejection of diplomacy in favor of his secret plans to benefit himself and Russia at the expense of our own national security.

They support his outright rejection of legal subpoenas, they support his crazy claims of complete and total privilege - not just for himself but anyone he wants to keep quiet - and immunity from oversight and even of investigation of wrongdoing.

"Donnie is just all right with me!"

These Republicans, who had conniptions over the color of a suit that President Obama wore, have given Trump the green light to do whatever he wants. Overturn the conviction of a war criminal? Sure! Overrule security experts to give highest-level security clearances to his spectacularly unqualified daughter and son-in-law and many other people with no business being anywhere near a classified document? Go right ahead! Have secret conversations with our adversary Vladimir Putin and refuse to disclose the contents as required by law? Why not? Handing out his private number to have unsecure cellphone conversations and talking about important national security issues with world leaders surrounded by random paying guests at Mar-a-Lago? No problem! Bribery, witness intimidation, you name it - it's all good!

This is literally insane.

I'm no Republican and I do not support the bulk of the Republican agenda, but it seems there are some basic things here that normal Republicans in any other era would have howling fits about - even if (I would hope) another Republican president had done them.

There seems to be some kind of bizarre pathology that changes law-and-order, fiscally conservative, national-security-hawk Republicans into gibbering sycophants who will fight to the death for Trump's right to do anything he pleases, even things that are clearly illegal, even things that endanger the founding ideals on which our country was built.

The Trump fungus' "secondary metabolism" has immunized its victims against any other influence that could move them from their death march. Trumpyceps republicanis seems to have infected an entire political party, and it appears to be 100% fatal for democracy.