J. D. Vance and the Collapse of Dignity

American politics are now cruel burlesque.

The Ohio Republican Senate candidate J. D. Vance speaks to supporters at a "Save America" rally.
The Ohio Republican Senate candidate J. D. Vance speaks to supporters at a "Save America" rally. (Jeff Swensen / Getty)

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Every nation has fringe candidates and public spectacles in its political life, but today, the American right celebrates the abandonment of dignity and virtue.

First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.


Clowns and Charlatans

Ohio’s U.S. Senate candidates, Tim Ryan and J. D. Vance, held their first debate last night in Cleveland. I wrote last year about why I find Vance so execrable, but my friend Jim Swift, a native Ohioan, argued today that while “Ryan gave a serviceable performance,” he “didn’t beat Vance into the ground, and given how far Ohio has gone in a MAGA direction, that’s what he needed to do.”

One moment, however, struck me. At a rally in Ohio last month, Donald Trump declared, “J. D. is kissing my ass, he wants my support so bad”—while Vance was standing right by the stage. Last night, Ryan slammed Vance for selling his dignity:

I don’t know anybody I grew up with—I don’t know anybody I went to high school with—that would allow somebody to take their dignity like that and then get back up onstage. We need leaders who have courage to take on their own party. And I’ve proven that. And he was called an “ass kisser” by the former president.

I understood Ryan’s exasperation. I’m not from Ohio, but I was raised in a working-class neighborhood. Where I grew up, if you sneered that a man was kissing your ass—and said it to his face—that other fellow might react by knocking you on that particular part of your anatomy. But Vance’s reaction to Trump calling him out as a spineless loser at his own rally was to run up to Trump like a puppy that just got a treat, wagging his tail for another tasty biscuit.

It is possible, even likely, that Vance will gain a Senate seat. But he can never regain his dignity. He doesn’t seem to care—and neither, apparently, do voters.

Americans once expected politicians to carry themselves with a seriousness that indicated their ability and willingness to tackle problems, whether poverty or war, that were too difficult for the rest of us. We elected such people not because we wanted them to be like us but because we hoped that they were better than us: smarter, tougher, and capable of being leaders and role models.

We often failed, and sometimes we even enjoyed electing scoundrels, such as James Traficant and James Michael Curley. Democracies always welcome a certain amount of playacting and mischief as reassurance that our leaders are not too far removed from our own experiences as citizens. And yes, many politicians have used that as cover for their misdeeds. But even some of the most flawed people we elevated to high office at least pretended to be better people, and thus were capable of inspiring us to be a better nation.

Today, we no longer expect or even want our politicians to be better than we are. The new American right, however, has blown past the relatively innocuous populism of the past 40 years and added a fetid cynicism about almost everything related to public life. Not only are the MAGA Republicans seemingly repelled by the idea of voting for someone better than they are; they support candidates who are often manifestly worse people than the average citizen, so that they may slather their fears about their own shortcomings and prejudices under a sludgy and undifferentiated hatred about almost everyone in public office.

These populists not only look past the sins of their candidates but also defend and even celebrate them. Let us leave aside the cult around Trump, which has now reached such levels of weirdness that the specter of Jim Jones is probably pacing about the netherworld in awe. Instead, consider how many people cheer on unhinged cranks such as Marjorie Taylor Greene or allow themselves to be courted by smarmy opportunists such as Vance and Ted Cruz.

This new populism, centered in the modern Republican Party, has no recognizable policy content beyond the thrill of cruelty and a juvenile boorishness meant largely to enrage others. The GOP’s goals now boil down to power for its elected royalty and cheap Colosseum pleasures for its rank and file. Republicans, therefore, are forced to lower their—and our—standards for admission to public office, because the destruction of dignity is the only way they can find the candidates who will do what decent men and women will not, including abasing themselves to Donald Trump.

The same Republicans who claim to venerate the Founders and the Constitution have intentionally turned our politics into a scuzzy burlesque. Last night, Fox News—home to some of the loudest carny barkers on the freak-show midway—played a snippet of a 2018 phone call from Joe Biden to his son Hunter. The message revealed a father’s love and worry; the Fox host Sean Hannity tried to make it seem scandalous. Meanwhile, GOP leaders continue to defend the Georgia candidate Herschel Walker, whose callousness to his own children (and their mothers) is on full display. They ridicule Biden—a decent and good man who was worried that his son was going to die from addiction—and make excuses for Walker, who seemingly forgot about multiple children he’s fathered and has made incoherent responses to charges from the mother of one of those children that he financed an abortion for her. She has also said that he later asked her to undergo a second abortion; Walker continues to deny all of these claims.

I’m an adult. I get it. Our elected officials aren’t saints, and only rarely are they heroes. But must they now be a cavalcade of clowns and charlatans, joyously parading their embrace of vice and their rejection of virtue? The Republican Party seems to think so.

Related:


Today’s News
  1. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asked G7 leaders for new air-defense systems after Russia launched assaults on targets across the country yesterday.
  2. The 2020 presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard announced that she is leaving the Democratic Party.
  3. Los Angeles City Council President Nury Martinez resigned from her role after a leaked audio recording revealed racist comments she made last year.

Dispatches

Evening Read
An image of storm clouds with sun shining through onto a hyper-blue ocean
(Francois Lepage / Hans Lucas / Redux)

Scientists Can No Longer Ignore Ancient Flooding Tales

By Chris Baraniuk

It wasn’t long after Henry David Inglis arrived on the island of Jersey, just northwest of France, that he heard the old story. Locals eagerly told the 19th-century Scottish travel writer how, in a bygone age, their island had been much more substantial, and that folks used to walk to the French coast. The only hurdle to their journey was a river—one easily crossed using a short bridge.

“Pah!” Inglis presumably scoffed as he looked out across 22 kilometers of shimmering blue sea between Jersey and the French coast—because he went on to write, in his 1834 book about the region, that this was “an assertion too ridiculous to merit examination.” About 150 years earlier, another writer, Jean Poingdestre, had been similarly unmoved by the tale. No one could have trod from Jersey to Normandy, he withered, “vnlesse it were before the Flood,” referring to the Old Testament cataclysm.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic


Culture Break
Illustration of a film slate with a monster claw
(Paul Spella / The Atlantic; Getty)

Read. “Litany for Dictatorships,” a poem by Stephen Vincent Benét, published in The Atlantic in 1935.

Watch. One of these 10 “scary” movies for people who don’t like horror.

Listen. A new episode of our How to Build a Happy Life podcast, about what happens when virtues become vices.

Play our daily crossword.


P.S.

I often pester my Atlantic colleague Isabel Fattal about increasing her late-20th-century pop-culture literacy. (I do this to many of my younger friends and family; it’s probably not one of my more endearing habits.) Today, just before a meeting, a song jarred a memory of a movie. I mentioned the film to her and found that she has not seen it. Perhaps you haven’t either, but you should: The song was “Say You, Say Me,” by Lionel Richie, and the movie is White Nights, a 1985 film (widely available to rent online) whose plot was little more than an excuse to get Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines dancing together. But do you really need more than that to watch two great dancers?

The interesting wrinkle, and what makes the film a kind of Cold War timepiece, is that it is set in the Soviet Union. (This is why I went to see it at the time, to be honest.) Baryshnikov plays a ballet star who defects to the West, and he finds himself recaptured by the KGB after a plane crash in Siberia. He’s sent to go live with Hines, who defected to Moscow because of the Vietnam War and now lives in internal Soviet exile with his wife (played by Isabella Rossellini). The plot is paper-thin, but the dance scenes are great, Jerzy Skolimowski has a terrific turn as a nasty KGB colonel, and, in addition to Richie’s hit, the soundtrack features the lovely Stephen Bishop song “Separate Lives,” performed by Phil Collins and Marilyn Martin.

— Tom

Special announcement: We’re launching a culture-focused weekend edition of the Daily! Every Sunday morning, an Atlantic writer will share what they’re watching, reading, and listening to. Keep an eye out for the first installment this Sunday, October 16.

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Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.