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Why the GOP Has Enthusiastically Embraced Cruelty
Either our country will continue down the road toward cruel oligarchy and violent fascism, or we’ll return to core American values of fairness, compassion, and a society that cares for all
In the latest example of cruelty-as-political-sport Lauren Boebert and JD Vance both tweeted genuinely deplorable things at the expense of the young woman who died on the set of Alec Baldwin’s movie. Meanwhile, Marjorie Taylor Greene is shouting slurs at Liz Cheney and Congressman Eric Swalwell shares the death threats he’s getting from Tucker Carlson viewers every day.
In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis has replaced his surgeon general with a crackpot who pushes phony cures and, just last week, refused to wear a mask while visiting state Senator Tina Polsky, who has breast cancer and is immune compromised. “He just smiles and doesn’t answer,” Senator Polsky said of her request that he put on a mask. “He’s very smug. And I told him several times, ‘I have this very serious medical condition.’ And he said, ‘That's OK,’ like it basically has nothing to do with what we are talking about."
Cruelty has become performance art for Trumpy Republicans like DeSantis.
Meanwhile, the whole crew of Republicans in the House and Senate, and two Democrats in the Senate, are trying to take away dental and hearing from old people, force more young people into student debt, and prevent cleaning up the environment but keep the taxes very, very low and the subsidies flowing to the fossil fuel billionaires.
People are hungry and homeless in America, literally over a million children go to bed hungry, but all the Republicans care about is their tax cuts and deregulation.
Where, media pundits wonder out loud as they wring their hands, does this cruelty come from, and why has the GOP so enthusiastically embraced it?
The necessary precondition to cruelty is dehumanization, the otherizing of people, reducing them from fellow-human status to an “other” and a “them.” The ability to do this is a survival skill buried deep in our evolution: we have to set aside empathy to kill an animal for food, for example, and can’t afford during war to see others as humans lest we fail to pull the trigger.
When Louise was growing up, her grandparents had a small farm in rural Michigan; the biggest sin she could commit when she visited was to name the cows. Similarly, when my dad joined the Army in 1945 to go fight “the Japs” and “the Krauts” he and his generation of young men had to view those they were trained to kill in battle as both monsters and less than human.
Otherizing is a reflex we all do in ways both big and small. When somebody cuts you off in traffic and you’re laying on your horn while offering the one-finger salute, you’re not thinking of that person as somebody’s spouse or child, not considering the tough times they may be going through financially or emotionally, not hoping life turns out well for them.
Instead, your fight-or-flight brain has taken over in that moment of perceived danger and you’re confronting a threat to your safety with anger that can even turn into deadly road rage.
On a massively larger scale, the way Hitler convinced his people to kill 6 million Jews and talk radio hosts in Rwanda convinced Hutus to slaughter 800,000 Tutsis was by characterizing the victims as less than human, an “other.”
This is often the end product of otherizing, and when political leaders begin characterizing any particular group as “scum,” “animals” or coming from “shithole countries” you know that politician has started down the road toward a very, very dark end.
Cruelty — deriving pleasure from causing or observing pain or fear in others — requires otherization. Strip the event of the otherization, and cruelty melts away and is replaced by compassion, the act of seeing the humanity in another person.
The Republican Party started down this otherization road in the 1950s in an effort to regain political power after being shattered by the Republican Great Depression. Republican rule during the 1920-1932 era led directly to the Great Crash and everybody knew it; the GOP didn’t regain serious control of Congress until the 1990s.
Republican Senator Joe McCarthy led the charge in the 1950s, warning America that “communists” had infiltrated the Army and the State Department and were preparing to take over our country on behalf of Khrushchev’s Soviet Union.
John Stormer wrote the national bestseller None Dare Call It Treason giving depth to McCarthy’s charges, and that book became the bible of the John Birch Society and the Goldwater campaign in 1964. It sure scared the hell out of me when I was 13 that year.
But it was Newt Gingrich, an unscrupulous politician willing to embrace otherization as a core political strategy, who really set the stage for Trump and today’s politics of cruelty. Newt came up with a word list he encouraged Republicans to memorize and use to describe their Democratic opponents, including labels like corrupt, insensitive, intolerant, failure, pathetic, radical, sick, they/them, and traitor.
Republican members of Congress and GOP candidates memorized Newt’s list and took classes learning how to best characterize their opponents, given that the only real policy positions the Party had by then were tax cuts for the rich (6 of Newt’s 10 Contract With America points) and deregulation of big business (the other four).
Trump, with Newt’s help and encouragement, took this “otherizing” to a whole new level, starting in 2008 by characterizing President Barack Obama as a communist Muslim from Kenya who wasn’t a “real American” but a full-fledged other. He doubled down in the 2015/16 Republican primary, this time otherizing people from south of the border.
The rightwing billionaires’ network first jumped into the act spending millions to rent buses, stage events, and fund PR agencies across the country to promote their anti-Obama “Tea Party” throughout his presidency, just like today they’re backing “grass roots” anti-mask and anti-racial-history attacks on teachers and school boards.
This time it got a lot more juice than during McCarthy’s or Gingrich’s eras because of social media, with its algorithms that prioritize and push out to unsuspecting victims articles that enrage people (it’s called “emotional engagement”).
Those relentless algorithms have put the entire process of tearing apart the fabric of American society on steroids, amplifying the voices of hate and otherizing their political opponents much the same way talk radio hosts did in Rwanda in 1994.
While Democrats struggle to understand their radicalized brethren, McCarthy’s, Gingrich’s and Trump’s otherizing strategy has completely taken over the GOP. They’re otherizing teachers and school board members, election volunteers, anti-fascists, Black people who think their lives should matter too, trans people, and women who must deal with the consequences of an unintended and unwanted pregnancy.
And, of course, they’re otherizing Democrats across the board, right on up to promoting antisemitic conspiracy theories about Tucker Carlson‘s “Great Replacement Theory“ and “Jews will not replace us,“ doing it all for political power.
And when they get that power, they use it to further isolate the “others” (passing laws making it difficult for them to vote and gerrymandering them into political obscurity), while rewarding the billionaires who funded their Tea Party and School Board Revolts with massive tax cuts and corporate deregulation.
This is, as I laid out in The Hidden History of American Oligarchy: Reclaiming Our Democracy from the Ruling Class, the exact same and totally predictable path to power used by every single demagogue, fascist and oligarch through history. In the modern era it’s brought strongmen like Viktor Orbán to power in Hungary, while in my father’s generation it was the launching pad for Mussolini, Franco and Hitler.
Once otherizing as a political strategy gains a solid foothold among enough people to get and hold power, it inevitably leads in only one direction: single party rule supported by a violent police state that kills, imprisons or effectively marginalizes all political opposition. Just ask Alexei Navalny.
Joe McCarthy’s path down this road was interrupted by a brave lawyer shaming him while on live TV in front of the American public. Gingrich’s path was interrupted by his own moral and political corruption. And Trump’s was interrupted by the populace rising up and rejecting him by over seven million votes in the landslide election of 2020.
But Newt’s still at it, pushing his otherization identity politics. Coincidentally, I got an email from him while writing the first draft of this rant yesterday afternoon; in it he identified Democrats and the media as “anti-American” and a “cancer” while tipping his hat to Trump’s white supremacist rhetoric:
“With all the anti-American propaganda coming from the Left and their friends in the mainstream media, this Country is hardly recognizable. One thing has become clear: “Wokeism” is a cancer to American society as we know it.
”President Trump fought day and night to preserve our AMERICAN identity and now it is YOUR turn to join him.”
Meanwhile, rightwing billionaires and big corporations are pushing even harder to put and keep Republicans in office, pouring millions into otherizing teachers and school boards in next week’s Virginia gubernatorial election, using the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision as their shield.
If they succeed, or even close the Virginia race to within a few points, it’s a safe bet they’ll take that otherizing campaign national in preparation for the 2022 and 2024 elections, just like they did with their Tea Party throughout Obama’s presidency.
Which is why it’s so critical that we expose this scheme to tear America apart, and that way mobilize political action on behalf of average Americans who just want a functioning government and to live in a society with basic concerns for the humanity of all.
Either our country will continue down the road toward cruel oligarchy and violent fascism, or we’ll return to core American values of fairness, compassion, and a society that cares for all. That choice, for the moment, is still in our hands.