When Thought Becomes Thoughtless
Today’s topic is difficult. Many of us have long had friends who hold opposing political beliefs. But we were always able to josh about our respective parties, quote Will Rogers, and spar in a gentle manner over a dinner roasting on the grill. We always parted as friends.
The entire country, in fact, had a long-standing cultural experience of watching the giants of political philosophy converse in our living rooms. William F. Buckley’s show Firing Line, for example. This was no cable news gab fest for the self-promoting. Titans of culture like James Baldwin, Buckley himself, William Friedman, Norman Mailer and Noam Chomsky spent a full hour in conversational debate. ABC news even ran a series of face-to-face debates between Buckley and Gore Vidal. Imagine! [Note: it was a damn slow process in the 50’s and 60’s getting women of similar intellectual stature included. Alas.]
In the wake of the January 6 attempted insurrection and coup, we find ourselves in far more inhospitable terrain. The national landscape is perilous and troubling everywhere we turn. An increasing number of countrymen and women believe fiercely in things that are without any underlying architecture of fact. They have come to believe these things wholeheartedly. It is a type of belief that often leads to immense anger, even violence. A chunk of our population appears to have disposed of the old American truism that “your freedoms end where my face begins” without giving it a second thought. A second thought is much-deserved.
In this season of politics, it pays to examine the thought leaders of the GOP. They are all of a piece, but for two noteworthy exceptions. In other words, the pool of conservative thinkers holding political office has evaporated. There are none. We are left with Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, two Republicans doing an admirable job upholding key constitutional principles that allowed our country to grow into its promise. But they are both out of an elected job, one by choice and one having lost to a Trump-backed opponent. There is ample proof the GOP has abandoned all thinking for the visceral, atavistic power focus of Donald J. Trump. High crimes and misdemeanors be damned.
What of our courts, then? Surely our careful judiciary, always buffered from the hurly-burly of politics, is churning out opinions to make us all proud to be American. Oh, wait. They are circling the drain as well. We had Justice Samuel Alito penning a positively medieval opinion that was leaked in the run-up to the overturning Roe v. Wade. He literally cited a 13th century judge, Henry DeBracton, who wrote the cited summary in 1250. So much for jurisprudence.
Back in the world of television, a dangerous fad has taken hold: The requirement to air “both sides” of every issue. Reasonable at first glance, it is dangerous in context. In a world where one side, if you will, of our political discourse has taken leave of its senses and accepts sedition and violent coups to retain power, there is no longer a working ‘both sides’ concept. There is a side for the constitution, letting all votes be counted and accepting the results, and there is a side that says ‘only we may win’. No one else may gain power through a legitimate vote.
This intransigent position is born of bad faith and extends to a willingness to commit electoral crimes. We cannot accept this as a viable ‘side’ in any debate on our politics. It is seditionist, and sedition is not just a crime in America. It is a capital crime.
So here we are. The term ‘conservative’ seems so quaint in today’s setting one almost manages a smile. Almost. But the fact that the party of conservatives has now abandoned the great bulwark of Western thought and all rhetorical standards to which they once held leaves the rest of us in grave peril.
Truly, the treason caucus has become a pack of neo-Stalinists, vigorously executing its precepts in every office they attain. I’m not wrong about this. It may be Stalinism-lite, if you will – palatable enough for those of their followers enamored of Q-Anon to tolerate; not so genocidal as to scare the horses in the streets. But they are enthusiastically centralizing power in GOP controlled state legislative politburos. These politburos have a common playbook. The huddle votes to underfund and undermine our public schools. Ban books. Alter and shape university curriculum by attacking “elites” and waging war on the development of thoughtfulness and critical thinking in our youth. Legislate the open carrying of guns on our streets – no need for permits or ‘gun safety’ classes. Support gangs of armed goons who “monitor” ballot drop-boxes against the lawlessness they say is absentee voting. Preen themselves as the Great Patriots of Our Nation even as they support ongoing insurrection attempts at every level of government and lobby our courts to do likewise.
Some may argue against the characterization of the GOP today as neo-Stalinist. But you cannot deny the party now follows key components of Stalinism – especially its later, most paranoid iteration. Take the excommunication of party members who fail to embrace every falsehood they hold as an article of faith, from Liz Cheney to Cindy McCain to state and even local party officials. (Here in Iowa, US Sen. Joni Ernst was censured in December by six county parties for her vote in favor of the Respect for Marriage Act.) Civil servants who did nothing ‘worse’ than carry out their statutory functions in good faith in the face of seditionist pressure to buckle and create elections chaos are being systematically culled.
The Stalin contingent is vigorously pursuing show trials of real and manufactured opponents. They do not spare appointed bureaucrats simply doing the best they can in complicated federal jobs. Case in point: Alejandro Mayorkas, who faces impeachment proceedings for his performance as the Secretary for Homeland Security. The GOP has stoutly refused to entertain any meaningful negotiations over immigration issues. It’s too fat a plum of grievance for them to relinquish. This stasis has created a burgeoning humanitarian issue at our border. Nonetheless, Republicans have made Mayorkas a scapegoat for the situation they’ve been key to creating. They cite the border crisis and epidemic of fentanyl overdoses and clamor for his removal by show trial. Thus a situation that took root and was exacerbated by GOP inertia has become yet another rallying point from which to enrage their followers and excite the grievance mentality that fills their coffers.
A dying orthodoxy is the most dangerous orthodoxy. And the GOP’s far right wing is a dying faction. They saw the writing on the wall in the midterm elections, when they failed to gain anything close to a typical mandate to govern, and had to take 15 rounds of voting to install Kevin McCarthy as Speaker of the House. Since the spastic theatre of the speaker vote, they have been scrambling madly, unethically, to save themselves.
One of the worst concessions from the speakership debacle was to allow the establishment of a House “select committee” empowered to investigate what they call the “weaponization of the government against our citizens.” The sheer gall of the foundational thesis is astounding. Their treason wing is now empowered to investigate the DOJ as it investigates Trump, for one hair raising example. They could investigate any FBI investigation of domestic terrorism, and more. Jim Jordan has authority over this body’s subpoena power. You remember Congressional subpoenas, right? Those quaint things McCarthy himself flouted with apparent impunity?
In the hands of people who believe and say our elections are fraudulent, and a seditionist uprising is a Constitutional right rather than a federal (and capital) crime, the backroom maneuvering to undermine federal law enforcement’s independence from legislative bodies is nothing short of vile. The treason caucus has no shame. It energetically distorts the truth, turning crimes into virtues. It accepts laws only when they are not enforced against the GOP. To them, convicted traitors are patriots and they are judge and jury in determining what America should be.
It was lost on no one that these votes for McCarthy, ushering in the centralized politburo form of government his party promotes, fell on the anniversary date of the January 6 insurrection and attack on our Capitol. Violence is nothing to them. It is merely a tool to achieve an end - the end of our republic. We must find ways electoral, procedural, and legal to stop them, or all bets are off for the American experiment in representative government.
An earlier version of this article was published in Prairie Progressive.
Kim Painter is a writer and elected official in Johnson County, Iowa. She writes for newspapers, online publications, and her own blogs.