How the GOP Slowly Went Insane

The current moment in politics came about slowly, not suddenly, but it doesn't make it any less of a national emergency.

Gary Cameron/Reuters

When I was a kid, all I knew about Michael Jackson was that he was crazy. He had a monkey named Bubbles and some kind of oxygen chamber and he used to be black but he made himself white and he was nuts. That was Michael Jackson in full. Wacko Jacko.

After all, as a kid, you know you are changing, but the world seems static. If Michael Jackson is crazy it is inconceivable that he was ever not crazy in the same way it’s hard to imagine your parents as children because they’ve always been so old. One of the hardest lessons of childhood is reckoning with the instability of the world. And the earlier it comes, through death or divorce or whatever upheaval that can be visited on children, the harder it is to take. Maybe that’s all it is to grow up in the end.

This is what I was thinking about, anyway, when Michael Jackson died: not what he meant to me but what he became to us. I realized that I had never stopped thinking about him the way he seemed to me in elementary school; that he wasn’t immutably crazy, but a sick man getting sicker: a weird, possibly demented and heinous man, falling apart over many years, wrecking his face and body, all the while a subject of fascination and ridicule.

We made it a joke because it became normal. The trials. The surgeries. The accusations. The scandals. Michael Jackson’s insanity stopped being insane to us and it turned us coarse and awful.

Yes, there are two types of public insanity. There are the breakdowns. Amanda Bynes. Charlie Sheen. Britney Spears. Eruptions of paranoia or mania or rage that spill into view and elicit a balance of concern, scorn, judgment, pity. We don’t handle these moments well, let’s not kid ourselves, but never do these events fade into the scenery. We see it and we point to it. That is broken. That person needs help. This can’t go on.

But then there is the more insidious crazy. The slow-boil crazy. The Michael Jackson crazy. The crazy that we accept as routine, that changes so slowly that we fail to recognize when we have accepted what should be appalling, when we have desensitized ourselves to something dark and horrible: when we have become insane ourselves.

The same happens in our politics. There are of course the psychotic breaks. Fits of idiocy, depravity, zeal. When a president takes advantage of an intern in the Oval Office or makes false claims about enriched uranium in the State of the Union. When a block of cash is found in the freezer of a congressman or the Supreme Court stops a vote count and says, “Our consideration is limited to the present circumstances.”

These are events that stop us in our tracks. But the stopping matters. The stopping saves us from ourselves. Then there is the other crazy, the crazy that creeps up on you, like a messy house that fills with junk until one day you’re a hoarder.

The proliferation of horserace political coverage is of this brand of lunacy, where the presumption is that a political act will be described on the basis of how it will be perceived, and this in turn determines how it is perceived because it’s the only way it can be perceived. “Will the president’s statement hurt him?” Yes, if the coverage asks that question, as the question about the hurt is the hurt, which is how we know it hurts.

There are more serious examples we can argue about. The way campaigns are financed. The expansion of presidential power. The size of our prison system. Yes, there are those who get angry about all this. “Hello? This is crazy, right? Anyone?” But eventually we all just go back to looking at our phones.

And then the government shuts down.

It happened slowly, didn’t it? The change in the Republican Party? I don’t know. Maybe it’s nostalgia. There have always been the wild, vicious voices of the right. The devil on the shoulder of the conservative movement that whispers in its ear, “burn it down, burn it down.” But those voices were to be ignored, humored, tolerated, placated, or just deceived. That was the way of things, and we were protected by the obvious: people who believe foolish things tend to be easy to fool.

Then it all changed. The Republican elite caught a ride on the tiger. But the tiger got sick of waiting for the gazelles it was promised, the gazelles that were always one election away. The tiger was hungry and angry and tired of being used and the longer it waited the more appetizing the elite on its back became. So the tiger got a radio station and a news channel. The tiger got organized and mobilized. And finally the tiger realized it didn’t need someone kicking its sides telling it which way to run and who to eat and when to eat and why it wasn’t time to eat and the time to eat would come, don’t worry, you’ll eat soon enough.

So the tiger ate its master and now here we are.

America needs a strong, rational, positive, practical conservative movement. It needs that bulwark against liberal delusion and hubris. It needs a voice that says we are imperfect, that life is complex, that government can create need even as it meets need, that you can’t fix everything and freedom is worth some danger and sorrow. And there are smart, honest conservatives at the ready to be that voice, to help govern practically and sincerely with that voice, but they are drowned out by the guttural scream of craven utopians raging against reality.

This moment in American political life is insane. That a group of narrow-minded zealots could push us to the brink of economic ruin, that they maintain a base of support in their frenzied, quixotic, incompetent gambit, that there is an apparatus that exists to defend this kind of nonsense—it came on us slowly but it is no less an emergency. This is broken. This cannot go on.

And if you can’t see that then it’s not just the world that’s gone mad. You're crazy too.