Republican Party’s Practical Nihilism

Ross DouthatEd Kilgore brought my attention to an article by Ross Douthat, Why the Right Fights. I try to avoid Douthat, just like all the supposed moderate conservative pundits. But there is something especially annoying about him. Almost all of his writing is simply conservative apologetics. Whenever I read him, I feel like I’m being sat down by one of these conservatives who think that if I just have their ideology explained slowly and softly, I will join the team. Well, I won’t. And a big problem with these people is that they haven’t thought their ideology through nearly as carefully as I have. Douthat, like most conservative writers, benefits from heaping helpings of conservative affirmative action.

With this in mind, I do find him insightful about the way that conservatives think. But it is always important to cut through the whitewash. And that’s most of what we get in this column, that I dare say Ed Kilgore mistakes for wisdom. Douthat tries to explain why it is that from the standpoint of liberals, conservatives are never satisfied:

This divide, I think, explains a lot of the mutual incomprehension surrounding size-of-government debates. To liberals and many moderates, it often seems like the right gets what it wants in these arguments and then just gets more extreme, demanding cuts atop cuts, concessions atop concessions, deregulation upon deregulation, tax cuts upon tax cuts. But to many conservatives, the right has never come remotely close to getting what it actually wants, whether in the Reagan era or the Gingrich years or now the age of the Tea Party—because what it wants is an actually smaller government, as opposed to one that just grows somewhat more slowly than liberals and the left would like.

This is an amazing pile of bullshit! Most conservatives do not want Medicare and Social Security cut—at least they don’t want it cut for themselves. The roughly 20% of the nation who are hardcore conservatives only want smaller government in a theoretical way. They want government cut when it comes to programs that benefit those kinds of people. But the truth of the matter is that those programs don’t cost that much. Who is responsible for the biggest increase in Medicare in the last 30 years? Conservatives![1] Who is responsible for the huge military buildup over the last 30 years? Conservatives! The Republican Party is every bit as much for big government as the Democratic Party. The only difference is what kind of big government they want.

So really, all Douthat has provided here is an excuse for why conservatives are never happy with their many successes. All that is really going on is that the elites of the conservative movement have become radicalized. What they want is not even what their base wants. Yes, they want to get rid of Social Security. And if it came down to a vote, they might get as much as 5%. An opposite example would be the liberals who would like to make all guns illegal. That too would get very little support (but likely more than 5%). The difference is that the people who want to make all guns illegal on the left are not in charge. The people who want to end Social Security on the right are in charge.

This all means that the Republican Party is screwed up. It doesn’t reflect its own membership. It has fallen off the ideological edge. I’ll admit, that doesn’t make them nihilists in an absolute sense. But from a practical perspective, it does. They have become so extreme that they no longer see politics as the art of the possible. They want it all. And that is the same as wanting nothing.


[1] I know some conservatives would complain that Medicare Part D was the idea of that non-conservative George Bush Jr. But it was enacted in 2003, during the Bush honeymoon period. Conservatives only decided that Bush wasn’t one of them at the end of his term after it was clear what a clusterfuck his administration had become. Conservatives are always for big spending programs when the Republicans are in charge.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

7 thoughts on “Republican Party’s Practical Nihilism

  1. You’re right, of course, that the elite are far more right-wing than the vast majority of Republican voters. What they dream of is a society where government only taxes the poor/middle classes, and only benefits the very rich. Which, I suspect, is what the older conservative columnists know and agree with (George Will would vote "aye" in a heartbeat.) Whether the younger ones know this, agree with it, or are just jumping on an ever-expanding media bandwagon, I neither know nor care.

    Just because the elites want what 95% of Americans don’t want doesn’t mean they won’t get it, however. They have succeeded for 35 years in an intentional strategy of pushing "centrism" ever further towards their end. Some countries ruined by right-wing deregulation are, as you know, in the process of dismantling their equivalents of Social Security and Medicare. To considerable resistance, and also to the strange resurgence of European fascism. (Let’s remember, fascism at least provided some token benefits/protections to workers, before murdering their neighbors and destroying their nations in crazed wars.)

    There’s at least some evidence that young Americans are increasingly fed up with corporate control of our politics (and bank manipulation of our economy.) Of course, the young are always further left than the middle-aged, but they are farther left than the young were when I numbered among their ranks. And the boomers aren’t going to give up Social Security/Medicare without a fight. So there’s some hope for an eventual return to sanity.

    Mind you, the battle to drive a wedge between those interest groups is coming. ("Get tax cuts for 30-year olds by reducing benefits to seniors! Protect benefits to seniors by eliminating benefits to future retirees!") So far, Americans ain’t buying it. We’ll see what the future brings.

    And whenever we see the right push too far and apologize, promising not to be so extreme in the future, keep your savings close and your loved ones closer. Because they are lying.

  2. @JMF – I think there are many narratives that explain the many parts that make up GOP dysfunction. So I’m always a little concerned when I write about it, because I know I am simplifying what is a very complex thing.

    The one thing I worry about the young is over Social Security. When I was young, I was [i]convinced[/i] that the program would not be around when I retired. That’s a good example of just how effectively conservatives have managed to manipulated the MSM. Of course then as now, the program is doing very well financially and at most needs some minor tweets. But it concerns me when I hear young people saying the same thing I did.

    The current Republicans won’t change. Ted Cruz will go to his death certain that America is on the verge of becoming a socialist hellscape. (This is assuming he really believes and is not just an opportunist.) What probably will happen is that the current Republicans will be traded in for slightly more reasonable Republicans. Or at least ones that are not so taken away by their own rhetoric.

    I’m glad you mentioned European fascism. I try to be careful when I talk about the Republicans’ fascistic tendencies. But if we are going to call these European parties fascist (and the MSM has no problem doing so), why not the Republicans? Are they jingoistic? Check. Do they vilify immigrants and minority groups? Check. Are they hierarchical and authoritarian? Check. Are they in favor of traditional Christian sexual mores? Check. Are they for corporate welfare? Check. I think the only reason we don’t call the Republicans fascists is that they are a major party. No one wants to admit that a major party in an advanced country is fascist. I’m curious what your take is on that.

  3. I’m trying to cut down on windy responses here, but you said you’re curious. So I wrote something much longer (especially on why we can’t call Republicans fascists, but they can to us) and can include it elsewhere if asked. This is long enough.

    I think there are definite totalitarian similarities, and more so in some sectors of the base than others. (Elites like the Kochs? 100%. Creepy power-mad preachers like Tim Lahaye and James Dobson? 100%. The plumber who saw an Orwell book in my bathroom and shared his collection of crazed right-wing conspiracy videotapes? Maybe 25%.) You might recall from Frank’s "The Wrecking Crew" that Grover Norquist et.al. highly admired and deliberately employed Stalinist tactics.

    I think if we want to get technical about terminology, "fascism" is imprecise. "Feudalism" might be closer. Neither really works, although the American far-right has aspects of both.

    I imagine totalitarian movements (which may be endemic to the dark side of human nature?) adapt to their era. In the feudal era, government had less powers than wealthy serflords (the game of thrones was a constant battle between wealthy serflords.) In the mid-20th century, militaristic governments could unite with plutocrat-owned big business to try and conquer other countries’ resources, exploitable in a way unimaginable to feudalists. Now the inherited wealth and the wealth made by serving faceless corporate power are united. It should have its’ own name. I’ve heard "plutocracy," "kleptocracy," and "inverted totalitarianism" used. None strike me as catchy.

    In your accurate list of comparisons between fascism and the right-wing, you left out "meaningless iconography." Which is another totalitarian symptom. The flag and the Christian car fish/cross emblems fit that category, I think. The flag isn’t "I’m a Unionist, you’re a Reb" or "I’m a patriot, you’re a British loyalist" sign; it’s "I’m a believer in a particular ideology, and you’re not." The car emblem isn’t "I love Jesus because he died gruesomely for me"/"Christ multiplied fishes and his disciples were fishermen," it’s "I’m an evangelical and you’re not." Granted, liberals do this too, but their bumper stickers have particular political statements. They don’t use meaningless iconography. A hemp leaf really IS a hemp leaf; peace signs mean peace. Fascism’s symbols had an emotional resonance that made their original meaning worthless. (Poor American Hindus, with swastikas that represent the circle of existence!)

    I don’t know much about the extreme right in Europe, but the Golden Dawn in Greece certainly embraces fascist iconography and methods, which can easily be seen on the net. The right in Scandinavia uses violent racism to push through "pro-market" reforms, the only movement I’ve actually talked to locals about. (It’s a shame that Steig Larsson became an international superstar for his scary stories, not his political stance against the extreme right.)

    Orwell complained a lot about how the word "fascism" was used to describe "something not desirable," reducing "it to the level of a swearword." (The same thing’s happened to "Orwellian" and "Big Brother" — as my plumber showed!) But he summarized by saying almost any "person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist.’" True enough of the modern right. He also called for writers to use it specifically as a description of "a political and economic system . . . with a certain amount of circumspection." As I’m confident any blogger who’s cautious with the label "nihilism" will be . . .

  4. @JMF – I don’t think feudal really works. It does seem to me that we have reached a point where we largely have feudalism in a practical sense. But it isn’t a dictated caste system. Also, the fact that we have huge amounts of unoccupied land makes such a system harder to enforce. Of course, regardless of the system, Americans will always see it as "free" because there are no laws on the books that say, "serfs cannot become lords"–even though it is still a fact that serfs never do become lords.

    I am very aware of the problems with the word "fascist" and I try to be accurate. But other than a definition that explicitly references Italian and German fascism, the word itself is ill defined. My point was that if we can call these small parties in Europe fascist, I don’t see why we can’t apply the term to the Republican Party.

    The Republicans are still proto-fascist, regardless, because their stated position is not to rid themselves of the foreigners but to co-opt them. The problem again is how much are we going to give Republicans credit for their rhetoric. Much of Nazi rhetoric [i]sounded[/i] very nice. And they were far more truthful than the Republicans. The conservative movement in the US is better at dog whistle politics than any group ever as far as I can tell. They are also great at the "Don’t you have a sense of humor?" gambit. If Ted Nugent were a liberal and said what he said about Obama directed at Bush, he [i]would[/i] be dead or in prison.

    The better word for the Republican Party is authoritarian. To most people "fascist" means rightist authoritarian just as communist means leftist authoritarian. By that definition, the Republicans are most certainly fascists while the Democrats are not.

  5. Our society has definite feudalistic and fascistic attributes. Think you’re not owned by your serflord? Try getting it to approve your doctor’s prescription. (A funny cartoon is here: http://wp.patheos.com.s3.amazonaws.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/files/2013/09/wpid-Photo-Sep-15-2013-1255-PM.jpg)

    The labels are not accurate now, as we both said. (Importantly, feudalism gave workers more High Holy Days off, courtesy of the Catholic Church keeping its political power intact, than the American worker has today; and fascists provided some worker protections. Our new totalitarians cream their shorts over offering nothing.)

    What we have deserves a new name. Feudalism enslaved millions. Colonialism (another part of our current mixture) enslaved and murdered millions. Facsism/Stalism enslaved and murdered millions and threatened the very basis of civilization. Our new system does all of the above, plus might eliminate just about all life on the planet for anything more advanced than jellyfish, fungi, and the craftier bug species.

    I’m rooting for arachnids; strangely, I hate insects but admire spiders. There should be a dating site called "Compatible Bug-Squishing." I shriek in terror at the sight of a roach and flee from yellowjackets. My SO doesn’t mind these things, but has a similar reaction to spiders, whom I usually try to pick up on a piece of paper and gently steer outside. (They eat insects; good for them.) This has proved a useful bug-squishing matchup for some years now . . . ;)

  6. @JMF – I hadn’t seen the cartoon before, but that joke has been floating around for a week or so.

    So what you’re saying is that we are understating the problem when we say "fascist"? That’s largely true. I do think that the path Republicans are on would lead to the end of civilization.

    I was surprised to find that a lady friend of mine who loves all kinds of insects and slimy things freaks out about even the smallest of spiders. I don’t get it. Beetles look like something out of [i]Alien[/i]. Of course, if spiders get big enough, they freak me out too.

  7. Hell, I never know what I’m typing. We need a new pejorative for the GOP. And the fundamentalist Christian right (the GOP’s demographic love slave.)

    I just simply can’t squash a bug bigger than a gnat or fruit fly because the goo makes me nauseous. (Mind you, I work with sick people for a living, so I’m inured to human blood, puke, and feces. That’s just the ooky stuff that’s in people, and I root for people. I don’t root for bugs.) Spiders are more legs than abdomen, so in the rare instance you have to squash one, there’s less goo than a beetle or roach. Plus they eat beetles and roaches. Yay, spiders.

    I remember a U of Minnesota biologist, a holistic all-earth-is-connected-by-a-delicate-thread guy, an opponent of every fuckup mankind’s done to the environment spokesperson (AKA, someone I agree with entirely) being asked about the usefulness of mosquitos. If mosquitos all dropped dead tomorrow, not from chemical poison but just some natural catastrophe, what would be the effect on life’s web?

    Well, he replied, I can’t say for certain, but my guess would be "not much." The species that eat them also eat other things and would adjust. Like if mankind died, probably.

    I hate mosquitos (until you’ve lived in the Midwest, you don’t know what mosquitos are. They come out in swarms at dusk and mangle your flesh like in "The African Queen.") I root for humans, though I have little hope for them. And my hedge bet is on spiders. Yay, spiders!

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