Herschel Walker Is the New Normal
Too many of us have simply gotten used to the corrosion of our public life.
This is an edition of The Atlantic Daily, a newsletter that guides you through the biggest stories of the day, helps you discover new ideas, and recommends the best in culture. Sign up for it here.
Win or lose, all the criticisms of Herschel Walker obscure a larger point: The Republicans have acclimated the American public to ghastly behavior from elected officials and candidates for high office. The result is lasting damage to our political system no matter what happens in Georgia or in the 2024 races.
But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.
Once Vices, Now Habits
We have come to the end of the 2022 midterms with a final contest in Georgia. By the time you read this, we will likely know whether Herschel Walker will become a United States senator. (I suspect he will not, but terrible things that seem improbable can still happen.) Yards of columns have been written about Walker’s palpable, cinder-block denseness; yesterday, he seemed confused about whether he was running for the House or the Senate. And, as my friend Jill Lawrence pointed out today, supporting an allegedly abusive rake like Walker makes a mockery of Republicans who once extolled virtue and character as the most important qualities in a public servant.
The larger problem, however, is that Walker’s candidacy is a reminder of just how much we’ve acclimated ourselves to the presence of awful people in our public life. Although we can be heartened by the defeat of Christian nationalists and election deniers and other assorted weirdos, we should remember how, in a better time in our politics, these candidates would not have survived even a moment of public scrutiny or weathered their first scandal or stumble.
And yet, here we are: An entire political party shrugs off revelations that a man running on an anti-abortion platform may have paid for an abortion (possibly two), has unacknowledged children, and may also be a violent creep. Not long ago, Walker would have been washed out of political contention as a matter of first principles.
Think of how much our civic health has declined in general. Only 35 years ago, during the long-ago Camelot of the late 1980s, Gary Hart had to pull out of the Democratic primaries for getting caught with a pretty lady on a boat named “Monkey Business,” and the televangelist Jimmy Swaggart stood with tears streaming down his face because he’d been caught with a prostitute in a Louisiana motel. In 1995, Senator Bob Packwood (again, more tears) resigned in the aftermath of revelations of sexual misconduct just before being expelled from the Senate.
The Republicans were once an uptight and censorious party—something I rather liked about them, to be honest—and they are now a party where literally nothing is a disqualification for office. There is only one cardinal rule: Do not lose. The will to power, the urge to defeat the enemy, the insistence that the libs must be owned—this resentment and spite fuels everything. And worst of all, we’ve gotten used to it. I’m not sure who said it first, but the Doobie Brothers said it again in the title of their 1974 album: What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits.
There’s a lot of blame to go around, but no one did more to pioneer the politics of disgust than Donald Trump, who took the outrageous moments of his two presidential campaigns and turned them into virtues. Trump ran, and still runs, as something of a dare, a challenge to see if we’re just a bunch of delicate scolds who get the vapors over things like veterans or foreign influence or nepotism. Are you really going to let the commies and immigrants from the “shithole countries” take over? he seems to ask at every turn, just because of little nothing-burgers like whether I’m keeping highly classified documents in the magazine rack next to my gold toilet?
As usual, however, the real problem lies with the voters. The Republicans are getting the candidates they want. This is not about partisanship—it’s about an unhinged faux-egalitarianism that demands that candidates for office be no better than the rest of us, and perhaps even demonstrably worse. How dare anyone run on virtue or character; who do they think they are?
This is a tragedy of insecurity, because what it really means is that GOP voters don’t think very much of themselves. At some point, some of them may realize what they have done, but by then it’s too late. The only thing worse than making a mistake is admitting it was a mistake, and facing the humiliation of being a sucker.
Other voters can help raise the bar by inflicting serial defeats on such candidates in the general elections and giving oxygen to arguments on the right that it’s time to stop nominating—in the words of New Hampshire’s Republican governor, Chris Sununu—“crazy, unelectable candidates.” Perhaps from there, the GOP can start fusing electability back to character, but that process will take a while. In the meantime, we should all refuse to normalize terrible and often scummy candidates. If Walker is elected, it will be a tragic day in the history of the Senate. But the fact that he ran at all—and garnered millions of votes from perfectly normal American citizens—is the larger tragedy, and the damage will last a lot longer than Walker’s bizarre political career.
- The House committee investigating the January 6 attack announced that it will issue criminal referrals to the Justice Department.
- Morocco defeated Spain in a World Cup match, making it the last African team left in the tournament.
- The Trump Organization was convicted of tax fraud and other financial crimes.
Cocaine Bear: Why?
By Yasmin Tayag
Two questions immediately occur to anyone watching the trailer for Cocaine Bear: Is this real? and Why? The first is easy enough to answer. The film, about a black bear that gobbles bricks of cocaine and then butchers a series of humans in rapid succession, is loosely based on a real-life black bear that, in 1985, gobbled at least part of a single brick of cocaine and then died.
The true story had no murderous rampage. When investigators finally found the corpse of the 175-pound male, nicknamed Pablo Eskobear, all that was left were “bones and a big hide” and three to four grams of cocaine in his bloodstream—an unseemly end for an otherwise honorable creature that was merely trawling his neighborhood for a snack (as bears do!). Long immortalized in memes as a descendant of Tony Montana, and a popular “TIL” on Reddit, the announcement, in March 2021, that Universal Pictures was backing a movie about him made sense. Kind of.
But when the trailer finally dropped last week ahead of its release in February, the internet was not ready.
More From The Atlantic
Read. Trespasses, by Louise Kennedy, a novel about good sex in the time of war.
Watch. Violent Night (in theaters), a dark comedy about a murderous Santa that you may find delightful—if you can handle all the blood.
Over the weekend, a Twitter account that calls itself “The Sting”—an homage to the classic Oscar-winning movie—posted a thread of 50 great films from the 1980s. I was in my 20s and an avid moviegoer in those days, and so I checked out the list. (By the way, I turn 62 tomorrow, and I’ll be off for a few days while my colleagues handle the Daily until my return on Friday.) Yes, there are a few clinkers, but most of them are now underrated or forgotten classics. I’ll just highlight three that you’ve likely not seen, or not seen lately.
Start with Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, in which Robert De Niro plays a fame-obsessed nerd whose only goal is to be on a talk show. He ends up kidnapping a famous TV host, played straight and with utter disdain by—of all people—Jerry Lewis. (Years later, in Joker, De Niro would himself play a TV host who is stalked by a fame seeker, but The King of Comedy doesn’t need Joker’s gore to make us cringe.) Then try Outland, which is basically High Noon set in space. Sean Connery is a U.S. marshal who takes on the bad guys in a space station. That’s it, that’s the movie—and it’s great. And I was particularly glad to see the inclusion of Streets of Fire, a sort of live-action graphic novel from the director of The Warriors that billed itself as “a rock & roll fable” about a hero saving his girl from a gang of bikers. It has great music, a great cast, and a great fight scene, and it flopped. It later found a second life—deservedly—as a cult flick.
Looking for a gift for the inquisitive people in your life? Give an Atlantic subscription and they’ll receive unlimited access to bold ideas, inspired writing, and daily moments of delight.
Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.