The Dark Heart of the Republican Party
Embracing the politics of sadism, the GOP base hits a new low.
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January 6 was not an outlier. Laughing over a hammer attack on an old man, the GOP has completed its transition from a political party to a brutal mob.
But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.
A Spreading Cancer
It might seem late in the game to point to any one event as a final or conclusive moment in the decline of the Republican Party. And I have no doubt that if the GOP returns to power this winter, its worst members will find new ways to appall decent people while gamboling about in jester’s bells for its base. (As my Atlantic colleague Adam Serwer has put it so well, “The cruelty is the point.”) But the reaction among Republican elected officials and their conservative-media life-support system to the beating of Paul Pelosi—by a man named David DePape, who was charged with attempting to kidnap Speaker Nancy Pelosi and admitted to planning to torture her—feels different.
I am not alone; my friend Mona Charen, among others, also senses that this event marks a new level of depravity in the GOP. I have struggled for a few days to decide why, exactly, this moment seems like an inflection point. In terms of actual damage, January 6 was far worse than one violent crime in San Francisco. Republican leaders—and here I will leave aside Donald Trump, who is in a class of hideousness all by himself—have said far worse things over the past five years. But a parade of Republicans somehow think that an unhinged, hammer-wielding intruder putting an old man in the ICU is funny.
We might expect such inanity from pathetic attention hounds such as Donald Trump Jr. and the usual conservative troll-pundits. Some of them tried to get a rumor about Paul Pelosi trending and briefly succeeded, especially when Twitter’s new boss, Elon Musk, characteristically decided that he just had to get involved in something he knows nothing about and amplified a dodgy story about it on Twitter. (He later deleted the tweet.) GOP leaders, however, stayed silent.
But that didn’t stop people in both right-wing politics and media from laughing it up over the Pelosi attack, including the Arizona gubernatorial contender Kari Lake, Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin, and sitting Representative Clay Higgins. Others have joined in trying to obfuscate or deflect attention from the intent of the attack; Senator John Cornyn of Texas even lamely tried to raise immigration as an issue. (DePape is here on a long-expired visa from Canada.)
One might think that it would be easy for America, as one nation, to condemn an attempt to kidnap the woman second in line to the presidency that resulted in the beating of her husband with a hammer. As Ernest Hemingway would say: Pretty to think so. Instead, we have seen the dark heart of the Republican Party, with a reaction so callous, so flippantly sadistic, so hateful, that it all feels irredeemable.
Of course, Republicans have put on a master class in whataboutism over the past few days. What about the people who laughed at Rand Paul’s neighbor giving the Kentucky senator a beatdown? What about Kathy Griffin’s ugly photograph of her holding up a mask representing Trump’s severed head? And, most of all, what about James Hodgkinson, who shot at a group of GOP political officials and nearly killed Representative Steve Scalise? These are all said with triumph, as if the transformation of the GOP into a violent mob is rendered moot by these examples.
I disapproved of laughing off the attack on Rand Paul and the Griffin photo shoot. (I am allergic to even the implication of violence against any president.) But I also don’t think these are neatly comparable cases; Paul, a middle-aged man, was attacked by a neighbor angry over a pile of brush in Paul’s yard, and Griffin paid a significant career price for her tasteless stunt.
Hodgkinson and DePape, by contrast, do seem alike, a similarity exploited by Republicans. Both were troubled and unstable men who spent a lot of time on the internet and settled on political figures as their intended target. That’s fair as far as it goes.
The problem is that the GOP and their media footmen are flooding the zone with hate, and creating more potential DePapes every day. There is no equivalence here; it’s not liberals who are threatening election officials, stalking ballot boxes with guns, or barraging Congress’s phones and inboxes daily with threats. January 6 should have been our warning that these messages have real power, and yet that terrible day has already receded from our collective memory.
To see how the right wing is deranging more people every day, consider the case of Scott Haven, a Utah insurance salesman. In a new book, the journalist Robert Draper notes that Haven was convicted in 2019 of making threats in many of the almost 4,000 calls he made over two years to Democrats in Congress, singling out Maxine Waters, Dick Durbin, and Jerry Nadler:
He focused his attention on them because Limbaugh and Hannity had themselves done so—even going so far as to supply their Washington office numbers while on the air. Haven dutifully jotted them down. Then he began calling, sharing sentiments like the following:
“Tell the son of a bitch we are coming to hang the fucker!”
Later, as he pleaded guilty in court, Haven trembled with regret. So did many of the insurrectionists of January 6. Perhaps David DePape will do so as well one day. But the members and staff on the Hill who lived in fear of Haven’s threats will not get those years back; the people killed and injured in the Capitol breach cannot be made whole; Paul Pelosi’s body is no less shattered.
Sadistic glee in harming others is a sin (at least in my faith). But it is also a social cancer, a rot that can spread quickly and kill the spirit of democracy. If all attempts at reason and all offers of friendship fail, the rest of us should shun those whose dark hearts encourage them to revel in such poison. Unfortunately, millions of our fellow citizens seem poised to vote many such people into power. The darkness is spreading.
- Israel is holding its fifth national election in four years, which will determine whether former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returns to power. Early exit polls suggest that Netanyahu will succeed in winning a narrow majority.
- Chief Justice John Roberts extended a freeze barring the Treasury Department from giving Donald Trump’s tax returns to House investigators.
- The rapper Takeoff, of the trio Migos, died at age 28 in a shooting in Houston.
- Galaxy Brain: Welcome to geriatric social media, Charlie Warzel writes.
- Brooklyn, Everywhere: Elon Musk’s “personal brand is Frat Guy Planning Pledge Week,” Xochitl Gonzalez argues. Do Twitter users want to go along for the ride?
Why Does Chronic Pain Hurt So Much?
By Kieran Setiya
You never forget the first time a doctor gives up: when they tell you that they don’t know what to do—they have no further tests to run, no treatments to offer—and that you’re on your own. It happened to me at the age of 27, and it happens to many others with chronic pain.
I don’t remember what film I’d gone to see, but I know I was at The Oaks Theater, an old arts cinema on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, when pain stabbed me in the side.
More From The Atlantic
Read. The Carrying, a collection of poems by Ada Limón about the ubiquity of grief—and the possibilities of joy.
Or try something else from this list of seven books that understand grief.
Watch. Aftersun (in select theaters), an exquisite debut film about the journey to seeing a parent as their own person.
I’m sorry today’s Daily was so dark. So let me suggest a happy diversion now that we’re heading into the Thanksgiving season. There aren’t a lot of great Thanksgiving movies; Americans tend to revel in the gory fun of Halloween and then dive straight into Christmas movies and specials. (More about those next month.) But in my house, there is one movie that returns every November: Planes, Trains and Automobiles, the buddy-road-trip masterpiece starring John Candy and Steve Martin.
I first saw PTA, as we aficionados call it, when it came out in 1987. It has since provided me with 35 years of laughter and family catchphrases that have survived across three generations. When my father, who had a notorious temper, backed into my girlfriend’s car many years ago, he surprised me by pausing and then drawing on a line from one of the great scenes in the movie: “Oh, they’ll be able to buff this out, no problem.” We dissolved into laughter. Years later, my daughter came home, contrite that she had dinged up the bumper of my car. I said the same thing, and the same laughter saved the day. Make a viewing part of your Thanksgiving tradition.
Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.