The Day of the Jackasses

When all is equally agitated, nothing appears to be agitated, as in a ship. When all tend to debauchery, none appears to do so. He who stops draws attention to the excess of others, like a fixed point.

— Pascal, Pensées, §382

A small event this past weekend crystallized the full ugliness of what America has become in the age of Donald Trump — and become not due to “the socialists,” but due to the sheer unbridled, suicidal, reckless, soulless stupidity of those millions of people who used to call themselves conservatives, but who now march under one and only one banner: Trump.

Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the influential establishmentarian sham that calls itself the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), responded to Mitt Romney’s lone Republican vote to remove Trump from office by officially uninviting him from CPAC. Then, in an interview explaining his position, he crossed a line that could only seem unimportant in an era that has already crossed this same line so many times, and in so many ways, that no one is even surprised anymore.

“We won’t credential him as a conservative,” Schlapp told Greta Van Susteren on “Full Court Press.” “I suppose if he wants to come as a nonconservative and debate an issue with us, maybe in the future we would have him come.”

He added: “This year, I would actually be afraid for his physical safety, people are so mad at him.”

This is a high-ranking spokesman for something that calls itself the conservative movement, making explicit what has been all-but-explicit for the past three and a half years: The Trump cult is both motivated and unified (according to the design of its clever handlers) entirely by devotion to Donald Trump and violent anger toward anyone who is perceived as in any way opposed to Trump. 

This anger and hatred — which I slightly famously identified as the essence and danger of the growing Trump cult four years ago — has nothing in common with the revolutionary spirit of America’s founding. It has nothing in common with the tone and principles of the Declaration and the Constitution. It has nothing in common with the rational self-interest and dedication to “God, family, and country” that used to be the hallmarks of American conservatism. And, strikingly, it also has nothing in common with the best elements of the Bush-Obama era Tea Party movement, to which many of today’s cultists used to belong.

The Tea Party used to take pride in the fact that, unlike progressive activists, when they held a rally of ten thousand people in a public park, they would leave the park cleaner than it had been when they arrived. Today, the remnants of that stirred but civilized movement are proud to attend rallies in which they laugh as their dear leader invokes violent imagery, cheer as he promises to reward them for committing violence on his behalf, and applaud wildly as he knowingly riles them up to simplistic, irrational love for his ego, along with a corresponding blind hatred of all “their” (i.e., Trump’s) opponents. Each day, they shout their approval, verbally shaking their fists in enthusiastic conformity, as their idol and his approved spokesmen childishly brand their critics “losers,” “traitors,” “hacks,” and far worse things. 

Today, in brief, the old Tea Party constitutionalists, along with the alt-right nationalist-populist cult of personality they have joined, are proud and eager to be publicly represented by their spokesmen as willing to commit violence on Trump’s behalf — and not against anything truly threatening or treasonous, but against a mainstream politician of their own party who happens to disagree with them about the legitimacy of some of their party leader’s official behavior.

Since the 2016 election, the newer converts to the cult, as a balm for their own mangled consciences, are always anxious to spout the standard mantra of the Trump convert, namely, “He has turned out to be more conservative than I expected.”

Yes, well, Trump’s being more conservative than you expected is not so surprising once you accept the Trump GOP establishment’s ingenious redefinition of “conservative” to mean anything Trump does, and “conservatism” to mean anything Trump says. Mitch McConnell and the rest of the old boys club has you millions of dupes so twisted in knots that you cannot even hear the implication of your own statements anymore.

Matt Schlapp was not overtly threatening a United States senator with physical violence, of course — oh no, not that. But he was implying that, well, if something were to happen to him, it would be sort of understandable, since “people are so mad at him.”

This is what the “conservative movement” in America has become today, under the leadership of Mitch McConnell and his half-conscious lackeys in the conservative media. An angry mob of wrathful sheep, rebels without a principle, a collectivist tinderbox of weak-willed non-individuals, devoted to a man — an empty shell of a man — who flatters them with celebrity condescension and ersatz fellow-feeling. On its face, this is exactly the sort of mob or cult that would, and did, serve men like Hitler and Mussolini so well.

And no, I did not just compare Trump to Hitler, although I have no problem, on the other hand, with the Mussolini comparison, as I think it is actually a fairly close fit — an opinion I share with Trump’s most thoughtful defenders, by the way. I am speaking here about the mentality and fervor of Trump’s followers, who have earned the comparison with Hitler’s. These cultists — and yes, I believe we are talking about millions of people, at varying degrees of intensity — have directly and obviously conflated Trump with conservatism, Trump with America, Trump with hope, Trump with strength, Trump with freedom, Trump with the future, Trump with their own souls.

It is doubtful whether the most deeply infected of these people will ever fully recover from this level of spiritual self-immolation. Like people who go through an extended period of addiction to hard drugs, they are draining reality’s colors from their minds, life’s subtle shadings from their feelings. If they ever climb out of the immediate peril of this wanton self-abuse and self-rejection, it will likely be into a low-functioning state of grey, exhausted resignation, with spectator sports, pop songs, and action movies on a continual loop to palliate their (and their nation’s) slow descent into the void.

The other day, in a typical sign of the current state of things, Right Scoop, one of the final conservative media outlets to succumb to the cultish and commercial charms of Trump idolatry, displayed a perfectly anti-conservative and Trumpian approach to modern politics in a brief post about some verbal jousting between candidates in the Democratic primaries.

Specifically, the campaign of Joe Biden released a sarcastic ad comparing their man’s record as a (supposedly) major force during his years as U.S. vice president and senator with rival Pete Buttigieg’s “important achievements” (snicker, snicker) as a small-town mayor in South Bend, Indiana — “colored lights under bridges,” “new sidewalks,” and the like.

In response, the Buttigieg camp released a statement that, to my mind, was as close to a perfect pitch answer to Washington elitist condescension as you could ever expect to hear in today’s political climate:

While Washington politics trivializes what goes on in communities like South Bend, South Bend residents who now have better jobs, rising income, and new life in the city don’t think their lives are a Washington politician’s punchline. Pete’s on the ground experience as mayor, turning around a Midwestern industrial city, is exactly why he is running for president. The Vice President’s decision to run this ad speaks more to where he currently stands in this race than it does about Pete’s perspective as a mayor and veteran.

Buttigieg’s campaign cleverly turns Biden’s ad around as a clear example of elitist disdain for the real lives and concerns of Middle America. 

Right Scoop, however, assessed the junior high school snarkiness of the Biden ad as “pretty devastating and very effective,” while mocking Buttigieg’s restrained but blunt takedown as “meek” and “milquetoast,” finally commenting smugly, “Dang. Are you people even trying to win?”

Buttigieg’s answer — in effect, “Here in the Midwest we don’t much care what lifetime Washington politicians think of our lives” — was just the sort of thing that American conservatives, when there still were such people, would have appreciated. Today, however, those same people, having sold their souls to the personality cult of a sub-literate moron and vulgarian, find such articulate and dignified responses “milquetoast” and “meek.” Their sensibilities and tastes having been overrun with years of talk radio screaming, paranoid conspiracy theories, and grab-’em-by-the-brain-stems emotional slum-dwelling, they no longer even have the capacity to hear, let alone understand, the intonation of well-spoken, Reaganesque popular statesmanship. Buttigieg’s response would only have reached their ears if it had been more along the lines of, “Burisma Biden, a Big Time LOSER with fake teeth, doesn’t care about SOUTH Bend because he prefers AROUND the Bend these days.. Right, Dementia Joe?”

Anger, hatred, and uncivilized vitriol are the only sounds that make sense to these cultists anymore. Talk as they will about their hero being “the best president since Reagan,” the truth is that they themselves would despise and ridicule Reagan today, for all the things they used to praise him for but have since rejected out of hand: Principle, sincerity, mild-mannered civility, and his refusal to allow himself or his country to be dragged into the anti-American mud of angry chanting and vicious invective.

Paradoxically, it is Mitt Romney, of all people, who has struck the only, and one presumes last, note of Reaganism in the Republican Party during the Trump era (and beyond), by refusing to elevate hollow “winning” above substantial principle and integrity. Today, there is only tribal noise and religious enthusiasm for a man utterly without substance. As a result, the virtuous alternative is lost — lost in practice and lost in the public discussion. The only political faction within America that might have kept it alive has sacrificed its adult soul for a childish sense of belonging.

When all is equally agitated, nothing appears to be agitated, as in a ship. When all tend to debauchery, none appears to do so. He who stops draws attention to the excess of others, like a fixed point.

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