The GOP Wants to Destroy Politics as We Know It. Violence and Lies Will Fill the Vacuum
"It is a sad day in which a member who leads a political party in the United States of America cannot bring themselves to say that issuing a depiction of murdering a member of Congress is wrong...What is so hard about saying that this is wrong? This is not about me, this is not about Representative Gosar, but what we are willing to accept."
So did Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) begin an impassioned speech to her colleagues in the House on Nov 17. A week earlier, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) had released an anime-style video in which he kills her and attacks President Joe Biden with swords. Ocasio-Cortez spoke before the House voted to censure Gosar and strip him of his committee assignments.
The violent video was symptomatic of the misogyny and lawlessness today's Republican Party has embraced. A conquest-without-consequences masculinity tracks with authoritarianism’s rise, paralleling the discarding of the rule of law and accountability in politics. True to form, Gosar defiantly circulated the video again after being censured, and GOP leader Kevin McCarthy backed up Gosar's story that the video focused only on the threat that immigration poses to America.
Yet Ocasio-Cortez's speech has a broader meaning. It denounces the ways that authoritarians don't just hollow out democratic institutions, but debase the meaning and the practice of politics, reducing it to lies, leader worship, and violence against enemies. The "nihilism" Ocasio-Cortez diagnoses in today's Republican Party is part of the autocratic mentality.
Today's "electoral autocracies" retain the trappings of democracy, such as multi-party systems and elections, but void them of their functionality. The opposition often has no real power, and elections usually come out the way the leader and his allies need them to. The state machinery is emptied of non-loyalists and restaffed with compliant and corrupt individuals, as is the leader's political party. Viktor Orbán may claim that Hungary is an "illiberal democracy," but "democracy" has lost its meaning when the head of state rules by decree.
Donald Trump, who is a profoundly nihilistic person, had initiated this hollowing out of politics in America, starting with his domestication of the Republican Party. He turned it into his personal tool, to the point where the GOP did not issue a new platform --other than support of Trump-- in advance of the 2020 elections.
It's notable that Trump worked overtime to destroy the notion of truth and thus to void language, including political discourse, of any meaning -- another way an authoritarian political culture based on the rejection of accountability comes into being. He advanced a political culture in which the legal and the illegal, fact and fiction, blend together until nothing means anything anymore and nihilism can prevail.
When Ocasio-Cortez denounced Gosar and other Republicans for claiming that the video was just a joke, she exposed their real agenda: to destroy politics, understood as action informed by principles, by respect for the truth and the rule of law, and by a sense of public responsibility. As she told Congress:
“Now, this nihilism runs deep, and it conveys and betrays a certain contempt for the meaning and importance of our work here. That what we do, so long as we claim that it is a joke, doesn't matter, that what we say here doesn't matter, that our action every day as elected officials in the United States of America doesn't matter, that this chamber and what happens in it doesn't matter. And I am here to rise and say that it does. Our work here matters. Our example matters. There is meaning in our service.”
Violence fills the vacuum created by this nullification of democratic politics. Here, too, Trump showed the way, giving permission to use force to solve political problems -- up through his creation of a bespoke army of thugs on Jan. 6 to bring about a new reality through physical violence. The assault on the Capitol, which sent Trump's own vice-president running to escape mobs that wanted to hang him, broke so many taboos.
This is why Ocasio-Cortez, who ran for her own life on Jan. 6, speaks of the "core recognition of human dignity, value and worth" as a line that cannot be crossed. It's why she returns at the end of her speech to the question of how reprehensible things can become acceptable and even rewarded when the culture shifts.
"We have to hold Members accountable who incite or glorify violence," tweeted Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), who voted with the Democrats to censure Gosar. But Kinzinger is not running for re-election, and he knows that this is an old-school Republican view.
Today's Republican Party not only has no space for accountability, but flaunting lawlessness, as Gosar does, is part of its political practice. The GOP and its allies seek to drain the country of hope, ideals, and vigor, the better to establish forms of oligarchic and minority rule. As in all autocracies, only one thing matters: the acquisition and maintenance of power by any means necessary, regardless of the cost to the country.