Soundings September 10: “A Mass-Delusion Event”

Recent days have seen the death of and ringing memorials for Senator John McCain, of Arizona, who endured years of torture during the Vietnam conflict and went on to serve for more than 40 years in the United States Senate and twice to serve as the Republican Party’s presidential standard bearer. The country has also witnessed a set of U.S. Senate hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and President Donald Trump’s nominee for the United States Supreme Court, in which the Republican Party sought to withhold more than 400,000 pages of documents pertinent to understanding that judge’s professional background and likely temperament, were he to be confirmed for the high Court. As I write, Kavanaugh looks set to win Senate confirmation on a strictly party-line vote. He is widely expected to provide a vote to protect Trump from legal accountability should the ongoing investigations into his behavior and that of many of his associates result in impeachment or charges against him.

In all of this, it has become very clear that for the most significant donors to the Republican Party—that percentage of the 0.01 percent of the American population that gives major gifts that drive both of our major political parties—it is more important to support someone who ensures they continue to receive tax cuts to increase their already immense wealth, judicial appointees who will support their firms and interests in cases in which their profits are pitted against the wages, health and well-being of their workforces, and a regulatory stance that will maximize their profits, whatever the implications of these positions for the American people writ large, the environment or for the polity as a governing structure.[1] This group of perhaps 15,000 or so people in a nation of more than 300 million citizens gives overwhelmingly to the most extremely ideological of their Party’s standard bearers. In doing so, they today are supporting Trump, who now controls that party. They are also de facto backing Trump’s ongoing assaults on the freedom of the press, the rule of law and on human and civil rights.

Trump dominates his party because its officials have permitted him to do so, apparently in fear that his supporters might punish them at the polls if they do not. Accordingly, they are placid and even numb while Trump, daily and in increasingly Lear-like fashion:

  • Rants against the Justice Department and his own Attorney General as somehow conspiring against him as they simply do their jobs
  • In ever more extreme ways, names new institutions as conspiring against him
  • Attacks human rights and dignity by such actions as ending American humanitarian support for the millions of Palestinian refugees trapped in a political situation they did not create and by proposing incarceration of refugee and immigrant children for longer periods than are currently legally allowed on grounds of bureaucratic “efficiency.”

This brief list could be extended significantly. It suggests that GOP officials and funders, via their complicit silence as Trump proceeds with a ceaseless barrage of often malevolent and mendacious actions, conspire to make a mockery of the fundaments of the U.S. Constitution and generations of American global leadership. McCain put what is occurring and what is at stake this way in 2017:

To refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain ‘the last best hope of earth’ for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as patriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.[2]

Nonetheless, in lieu of actually working to solve public problems, Trump and the pliant GOP Congress daily declare new scapegoats for their assaults on common sense and decency, the central aspirations of the Constitution and on democratic governance itself. In his eulogy remembering McCain, President Barack Obama described this form of politics and contrasted it with that of the late Arizona Senator’s this way:           

So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse can seem small and mean and petty. Trafficking in bombastic manufactured outrage, it's politics that pretends to be brave and tough, but in fact is born of fear. John called on us to be bigger than that. He called on us to be better than that.[3]

It is no longer obvious that the Republican Party’s officials and largest supporters care to be better than the truculent chief executive they support, despite his constant lies, conspiracy mongering and race baiting. They align with him apparently in the name of tribal power and ideology and without regard to the costs of his actions for self-governance. This is so despite the fact that many elected GOP leaders have suggested privately that they realize they are supporting an empty xenophobia, an equally vapid nationalism and a fearfulness that masquerades as bluster and is likewise without foundation. That is, many of these individuals realize what they are allowing to be undermined. They know full well that what is being lost are the values and institutions that McCain most revered. Obama described this situation in his eulogy for McCain:

John cared about the institutions of self-government, our Constitution, our Bill of Rights, rule of law. Separation of powers. Even the arcane rules and procedures of the Senate. He knew that in a nation as big and boisterous and diverse as ours, those institutions, those rules, those norms are what bind us together. Give shape and order to our common life. Even when we disagree. Especially when we disagree.[4]

Again, it is increasingly evident that these norms and institutions mean little to today’s Republican officials. Ultimately, all that appears to matter to this group are power and the realization of ideological aims that will be rewarded by super donors with full campaign coffers these elected leaders require to persuade voters to vote for them, or, to fear and loathe their opponents on frequently concocted grounds. In short, Republican officials are standing by as Trump attacks the regime they profess to love because that silence ensures their continued power and because it serves the aims of those who provide funds to their campaigns. They seem willing, in a Faustian bargain, to sacrifice their nation and their sworn duty to that nation to an individual they know is unfit for office if doing so continues to bewitch their party’s rank and file (at whatever cost) and delivers power and policies that their principal funders applaud.

As Obama, who spoke at the University of Illinois on September 7, reminded his audience, while Trump is surely a grave threat to our regime and nation, he is hardly alone today in proselytizing for the ugliness for which he campaigns. Citizens who care about their country and see Trump’s claims of conspiracy at every turn for the paranoiac nonsense they are, must, as the former president observed, realize:           

The threat to our democracy doesn’t just come from Donald Trump. … The biggest threat to our democracy is indifference. The biggest threat to our democracy is cynicism. Cynicism has led too many people to turn away from politics and stay home on Election Day. To all the young people that are here today, there are now more eligible voters in your generation than in any other, which means your generation now has more power than any other to change things.[5] 

Those Americans not willing to see their government sacrificed to the illiberalism of a narcissistic chief executive who promotes hatred and punishes the vulnerable at every turn must work to persuade their fellow citizens to vote to prevent this individual, and those GOP elected leaders conspiring in silence to buttress his actions, from deepening the crisis they have created in American governance and its institutions.

Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank President Neel Kashkari, who previously presided over the national bank bailout program in 2008 when the U.S. economy was in grave danger, has recently argued that Congress and President George W. Bush allowed that recession to occur and  the GOP in Congress worked hard thereafter to prevent the government from acting to address it, as a result of a “mass delusion event” born of ideology and quest for power.[6] That phrase and the argument underpinning are apt descriptors of the current situation now animating the Republican Party as it supports a demagogue who routinely undermines the nation’s institutions and values in his pursuit of personal power. One may hope those citizens not sharing in this delusion will soon unmask it. The hubris and cynicism driving these claims must be exposed for what they are and soon, if our present governance crisis is not simply to deepen.

Notes

[1] Stephens, Bret. ”Thoughts for very Wealthy Donors,” The New York Times, September 7, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/07/opinion/campaign-finance-political-donors.html?emc=edit_th_180908&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=400875340908 Accessed September 7, 2018.

[2] Phillips, Amber. ‘“Half-Baked Spurious Nationalism’: McCain’s most recent biting criticisms of Trump,” The Washington Post, October 17, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/10/17/half-baked-spurious-nationalism-mccains-most-biting-recent-criticisms-of-trump/?utm_term=.c9a16fc1a557 Accessed September 8, 2018.

[3] Obama, Barack. “Read Barack Obama’s Eulogy for John McCain,” The New York Times, September 1, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/01/us/politics/barack-obama-john-mccain-funeral-eulogy.html  Accessed September 5, 2018.

[4] Obama, Barack. “Obama’s Eulogy for John McCain”

[5] Murdock, Sebastian. “Barack Obama Rebukes Donald Trump Publicly for First Time,” The Huffington Post, September 7, 2018, https://verizon.yahoo.com/news/barack-obama-rebukes-donald-trump-165741372.html  Accessed September 7, 2018.

[6] Ryssdal, Kai. Interview with Neel Kashkari, “A Mass-Delusion Event,” Marketplace, National Public Media, August 28, 2018, https://www.marketplace.org/shows/marketplace/08/28/2018  Accessed August 28, 2018.