After the Republican presidential candidates held one of their joint press conferences (also known, quite inaccurately, as debates) on the cable network CNBC in October, the candidates and their handlers engaged in a gratuitous round of press bashing by complaining vociferously about the questions that they were asked. Soon afterward, the campaigns jointly laid out a plan to prevent themselves from being embarrassed in future debates.
This thin-skinned response evoked a great deal of mockery. Indeed, even President Obama could not resist commenting sarcastically: “[T]hey can’t handle a bunch of CNBC moderators. If you can’t handle those guys, I don’t think the Chinese and the Russians are going to be too worried about you.”
Subsequently, the terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut, and San Bernardino have led to another wave of claims by the Republican candidates that the president is weak. After the president’s Oval Office speech this past Sunday night, there was a renewed round of criticism from Republicans, which the editors of The New York Times accurately described as “bizarre responses” that add up to “next to nothing.”
President Obama’s speech truly was a “plea for patience,” essentially saying that the United States is already doing the best that it can in the fight against the Islamic State and other terrorists, and that the president and the responsible agencies are adjusting to changing circumstances in the most appropriate way possible. But when a tragedy happens in a world that has become much more dangerous, it is all too easy for the Republicans who have always loathed Obama to scream, “See? We told you he was weak. This is all his fault!”
The national conversation has thus turned into a troubling exercise in the politics of fear. What we are now experiencing is thus a real-time test of how many people will give in to panic and despair, believing that the Republicans have some magic plan to save the day, even though none of them has provided anything of the kind.
I have long believed that Republicans (or at least the people at the top of the party, along with their savvy financial backers) are cynics, that they fully understand the con that they are trying to pull over on the American people. Now, however, I am starting to believe that these are in fact simply weak people who are too scared to do anything risky or unpleasant. They reject President Obama’s calm response not (or not only) for political gain. Their reflexively negative responses and failure to offer constructive ideas are a result of their panicky sense that the world is changing in ways that they cannot understand.
In short, the story that many commentators have offered to explain the motivations of Republican base voters might also apply to the Republican elites as well.
The Reality of Republicans’ Weakness
Last week, shortly before the terrible attack in San Bernardino, The Times ran a news analysis article in which it described the lack of response by Republican elites and backers to the unexpected strength of Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy. The story said that top Republicans were afraid of “the insult-spewing media figure,” and they were worried that confronting him could backfire, resulting in “a standoff of sorts: Almost everyone in the party’s upper echelons agrees something must be done, and almost no one is willing to do it.”
This paralysis is quite amazing, because “the party’s top operatives believe that there is no way even the strongest Senate candidates could overcome the tide if Mr. Trump were leading the ticket.” Even so, no one has the intestinal fortitude to confront this very real threat to the national party.
In some ways, this might simply another example of the tiger-by-the-tail phenomenon that is the modern Republican Party. Even after all these years, the party’s leaders are horrified by the willingness of their party’s anti-government base voters to support shutting down the government, threatening to default on government obligations, defying Supreme Court decisions, and on and on. As I asked several years ago, discussing the billionaires who have bankrolled the wave of angry Republican nihilists: “Is This Why They Bought Congress?” Surely, most of these wealthy backers were secretly hoping that the Tea Partiers would vote Republican and then let business-as-usual prevail within the party.
As far back as August, the leaders of the conservative movement were certain that Trump had gone too far when he insulted the Fox anchor Megyn Kelly—not some “mainstream media” demon, but a longtime talking head on every conservative’s favorite TV network. Trump’s tasteless and sexist attack was apparently brought on by nothing more than Kelly’s decision actually to confront Trump with his own words.
The attack on Kelly actually did lead to Trump’s being disinvited from an event that was sponsored by an important conservative power broker. Republicans were then flummoxed by Trump’s ability to emerge seemingly unscathed, with Trump simply shouting that anyone who disagreed with him was “weak” and being “politically correct.” One report described Republicans’ reaction like this: “[A]s his latest eruption rippled through Republican circles, the conversation turned to whether the party, and his rival presidential contenders, should continue to accommodate his candidacy, quietly hoping that this would be the moment he burned out—or whether they should try to run him out on a rail.”
One could, I suppose, describe all of this dithering as merely being strategic, trying to find the sweet spot between telling Trump to go to Hell and hoping that he will “self-deport,” as it were, from the primaries due to his own excesses. Yet what that really shows is weakness, with these supposedly tough men being so afraid of Trump’s insanity that they are simply unwilling to confront a bully. Even a supposedly serious candidate like Florida Senator Marco Rubio refused to respond to Trump’s attack on Kelly because “if I comment on everything he says, my whole campaign will be consumed by it.” Translation: I’m afraid to say anything about Trump, because I’m not strong enough to handle the blowback.
Similarly, in last week’s news analysis article in The Times from which I quoted above, the fear factor was almost comical. An unnamed “prominent Republican senator” was described as “pleading for an outside group to run ads” against Trump: “Until somebody with A, the money, and B, the incentive to step up comes along, I worry he kind of glides along unmolested.” But if this unknown senator will not even say this on the record, who is he to say that someone else should step up?
Still, this does raise the interesting question of why the Republicans’ billionaire backers have pulled such a disappearing act. The explanation? “To step up in that way would be to invite the wrath of Mr. Trump, who relishes belittling his critics.” Indeed, both Paul Singer and the Koch brothers—major backers of the most extreme right-wing Republican politicians—are apparently scared to confront Trump.
As the reporter put it: “Mr. Trump has already mocked Mr. Singer and the Kochs, and officials linked to them said they were reluctant to incur more ferocious counterattacks. ‘You have to deal with Trump berating you every day of the week,’ explained a strategist briefed on the thinking of both groups.” The groups, in other words, are afraid to say anything about Trump because he might say mean things about them.
Cynics often liken American politics to high school popularity contests, but this is a new low. These are adult men (and a few women, but mostly men). Some are seeking office, but others are billionaires who are accustomed to bullying other people and getting their way. Yet when the equivalent of the captain of the football team threatens to call them nerds, they melt and walk away from even a verbal confrontation.
What Do Scared People Do? Lash Out at People Who Are Calm
In early 1990, Czech president Vaclav Havel gave a speech to a joint session of Congress. Havel had led the “Velvet Revolution” that set in motion the breakup of the Soviet empire, and American politicians wanted to bask in the warm glow of his heroic deeds. Wags at the time, however, could not help but point out the bizarre mismatch between the man who stood up to a totalitarian regime at the risk of his own life, and members of Congress who would not dare make a decision without being sure that the latest poll and their financial backers would approve. Courage has never been in large supply in American politics.
Even so, the current atmosphere in the Republican Party is something to behold. Consider the degree of fear among Republican politicians simply to stand up and acknowledge facts. Evolution? “I’m not a scientist, man,” says Marco Rubio, and the other Republican candidates are so afraid of having to explain why they are reality-based that they would rather say foolish things than to have an angry mob turn against them. Climate change? Please.
The worst cowardice of all, of course, has to do with guns. In the immediate aftermath of the 2012 Newtown shootings, where six adults and twenty young children were gunned down, the nation wept. Rather than passing sweeping gun control legislation, however, the Republicans in Congress managed to prevent a vote on all but the most basic reforms. Yet even though more than ninety percent of Americans favored (and still favor) expanded background checks before guns can be purchased, Republicans (and, to be fair, some Democrats) in Congress were afraid that a lobbying organization with only a few million members could cause them to lose their reelection bids. This week’s vote against barring people on the terrorist watch list from buying guns is a similar profile in cowardice.
Even on more mundane issues like taxes, the Republicans’ insistence on not angering their audience is astonishing. For example, a journalist for a high-powered conservative magazine wrote a column a few years ago admitting that tax cuts do not pay for themselves, describing that particular bit of nonsense as “a bedtime fairy tale Republicans tell themselves.” Did Republicans listen? Some have subsequently admitted to him privately that he is right, but “it’s hard to get them to acknowledge it in public because it’s become such a piece of dogma.” And they are obviously too afraid of a negative response from their audience to challenge their cherished fairy tales.
Similarly, the famously conservative University of Chicago could not find even one top economist who believes that returning to the gold standard would be a good idea, yet Republican politicians are either actively in favor of putting the U.S. back on a gold standard, or they are at least unwilling to say that doing so would obviously be a terrible idea.
This is not, of course, to deny that the art of politics involves a large amount of pandering to one’s audience. Politicians of all stripes and all parties will inevitably trim their sails and adjust their positions strategically. Yet the current crop of Republicans has entered a self-reinforcing loop in which they lack the courage to tell the truth about even the most basic facts or to take a stand on fundamental issues of decency, and because no one will tell the truth, it becomes even harder for them to take a stand the next time.
In the end, such politicians inevitably try to talk tough, and to say that their opponents are the weak ones. What should President Obama do about terrorism? One of the only specific things that the Republicans have said is that Obama should use the word “Islamic” when describing terrorists, as if this is somehow the toughness that will suddenly allow us to defeat our mortal enemy.
Yes, there was Ted Cruz’s incredible call to “carpet bomb them into oblivion,” but that strategy is both doomed to fail and not at all evidence of Cruz’s bravery. Any politician can talk about killing millions of innocents, but that is a sign of weakness and a lack of serious ideas (to say nothing of a psychopathic personality), not leadership. In the end, the Republican candidates’ complaints about President Obama boil down to saying that something bad happened, and then trying to pin the blame on the president.
Finally, however, we might be seeing a moment when the Republicans have finally found their voices against their biggest nemesis—not the terrorists, but the fearsomely hurtful Donald Trump. Trump’s recent call to bar Muslims from entering the United States is merely the logical extension of what Republicans have been saying for months, but most of his opponents now seem to have found their voices in condemning this one insane idea. Looking warily around to see what others are doing, they might actually now be willing to risk the horrible fate of being mocked by a bombastic buffoon.
Does that mean that they might one day be brave enough to tell the truth, and to acknowledge that toughness does not involve flailing about and complaining that something must be done, even if there is nothing further to do? It seems doubtful, but hope springs eternal.