Embracing Depravity

Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, and Roy Moore are making it increasingly difficult for a moral person to be a loyal Republican.

Jonathan Bachman / Reuters

On Tuesday, Republican Senator Jeff Flake wrote a $100 check to the campaign of Doug Jones, the Democrat contesting the Alabama Senate race against Republican Roy Moore. The latter stands accused by several women of predatory sexual behavior committed while they were teens.

“Country over party,” Flake tweeted.

His critics reject that formulation. They insist that Flake is motivated by a desire to seem virtuous, or to win support from the mainstream media, not by patriotism. But I am less interested in whether Flake is acting for country, or some other motive, than in what he is acting against and why that angers his detractors.

If his critics were staunch partisan loyalists the matter would be simple.

But I suspect that, in many cases, they follow the logic of an article entitled, “BREAKING: Traitor Jeff Flake Just BRAGGED About Donating to Doug Jones,” on the website Truth Feed News:

The Establishment GOP traitor and anti-Trump shill, Jeff Flake, has drawn the ire of Americans everywhere yet again, with a new and inflammatory tweet. The disgraceful “Republican” Senator tweeted a photo of a donation he made to Democratic candidate Doug Jones, the opponent of Judge Roy Moore, merely due to the fact that Moore is favored by the Trump administration. “Country over party,” said Flake’s odious tweet, but real conservatives know that the RINO Senator is anything but a Republican, and has more in common with the Democrats.

Flake is at once an embodiment of the “establishment GOP” and so dubious in his claim to being a “Republican” as to justify scare quotes around the descriptor.

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.

Culture-war conflict now dominates their political identity.

And to watch them embrace the label “deplorable” even as they elevate a man like Moore is to suspect Sanchez was right in seeing ressentiment as “a resignation to impotence on the cultural front where the real conflict lies. It effectively says: We cede to the bogeyman cultural elites the power of stereotypical definition, so becoming the stereotype more fully and grotesquely is our only means of empowerment.”

Hillary Clinton called them deplorable; they are fighting back by embodying that stereotype. Now, traitors aren’t those who fail to ally with or actively break from the Republican Party; traitors are those unwilling to embrace depravity with them. It’s a test of loyalty. Republicans must join Bannon in championing Roy Moore and savaging Mitt Romney, knowing the latter is the better man, for the same reason gang initiates might be ordered to slug an old lady as she leaves church.

Such is the fate of all who join in enterprises with Trump or Bannon at the top: A moment comes when one must either become complicit in depravity or exhibit disloyalty. The Republican Party chose depravity—and now, so must all non-traitorous members.