This is but one illustration of a pervasive dissonance in Republican politics. On the one hand, all manner of pejoratives are applied to party leaders Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell; on the other hand, Republicans who defect from voting with them are traitors. The coalition’s insult of choice remains RINO, or Republican in Name Only. Yet they rally around a president who repeatedly changed parties in recent decades, and Stephen Bannon, a self-described Leninist eager to “bitch-slap the Republican Party.”
Tea-party senators recently elected in an anti-establishment wave are now RINO cucks. Populists purport to dislike nothing more than disloyal politicians, yet their champion is arguably the most disloyal man in the United States.
Donald Trump was disloyal to two wives. He invited Bill and Hillary Clinton to his third wedding; repeatedly went on TV to lavish praise on Hillary Clinton; and then, when she got in the way of his ambitions, he began standing in crowds of thousands of people encouraging chants of,“Lock her up.”
He withheld health care from his ailing infant nephew during a family dispute over an inheritance. He fleeced Trump fans credulous enough to patronize Trump University. He stiffed subcontractors and strategically used bankruptcies to screw creditors. For ratings, he gave a shock jock permission to call his daughter “a piece of ass.” He has betrayed almost everything to which normal people feel sacred loyalty. Most recently, he even opposed Roy Moore’s Senate candidacy before supporting it!
The Republican National Committee has now endorsed Roy Moore, too. Flake is therefore being attacked as the personification of the corrupt “Republican establishment” even as he rejects the stance of the RNC, believing its choice to be corrupt.
The populist right has found a way to justify constant aggrievement. It is angered when politicians are too loyal to the GOP and when politicians are disloyal to the GOP; it most hates being lied to, yet seems to rally hardest behind serial liars. It ostensibly detests politicians who don’t speak their minds, but wishes guys like Jeff Flake would shut the hell up rather than “self-righteously” speak their minds.
These dissonances hint that something besides traditional partisanship is at work—that citing old formulations is helping the populist right evade the true nature of its evolution. Forget its supposed aggrievement over partisan disloyalty. Ressentiment fits their behavior much better. Almost a decade ago, Julian Sanchez worried that the political identity of the populist right was getting “too thick.” As he explained his concern:
We long ago grew accustomed to this sloppy use of “community,” where we’ll talk about the “medical community” or the “gay community”—even though this is clearly a kind of nonsense above the level of a smallish town. But national-level political communities really are communities now, in a fairly robust sense. Between dedicated cable and radio channels and the Internet, you really can live in them in a pretty literal and immersive way. But simultaneously—and maybe this sounds a bit paradoxical—political communities are therefore also more culturally autonomous. That is, they need no longer refer to something outside politics. When I enter politics as a small businessman or a Catholic or a philosophical conservative, I’m bringing information from outside the political process into it. What’s really pernicious about a politics of ressentiment is that it cuts that tether—it enables a political identity that’s generated and defined by political conflict itself.
I suspect that many Alabama evangelicals are inclined to support Roy Moore, despite flaws that would have seemed unthinkable and all but guaranteed defeat a decade ago, because they no longer see elevating a senator with the best character or the best governing prospects as the object of their civic lives.