Coarsening the culture: Republicans need to do some housecleaning

Last Friday, my brother-in-law woke up early despite having gorged on our Thanksgiving meal. He was determined to get out early, to imbibe the full Black Friday experience. So despite my better judgment, we found ourselves at a suburban Ohio Target, loading up. Vincent snared various trinkets and a fancy Nintendo pouch. When it was time to go, we held a frank conversation near the checkout about whether he could grab more items, whether he would buy another diet Pepsi before returning to the hotel, and similar weighty concerns.

It’s embarrassing to argue with an intellectually disabled man in public 9:30 in the morning. It’s wearing, too. I couldn’t help worrying that the next twelve hours would be spent arguing about such stuff.

An older couple sized up the situation, gave us a warm smile, and asked if we wanted to jump ahead of them in line. We declined their offer, but their much-appreciated gesture lightened my mood.

Everywhere we go, we are quietly helped by gentle strangers: TSA personnel who joke with Vincent as they help him through the line, the selectively deaf business people who pretend not to hear Vincent’s running commentary on their cellphone calls, macho truckers with American flag caps who chat with Vinnie at highway rest-stops, the restaurant and hotel staff who waive off Vincent’s accidental pay-per-view movie bill.

Judging by their small talk, the elderly couple at Target were socially conservative church folk, as are a conspicuous proportion of the kind and helpful people we meet along the way. For millions of people, compassionate conservatism is more than empty rhetoric. It’s a vibrant way of life. That was my in-laws’ way of life. I didn’t agree with any of their politics. I’m awed that they walked-the-walk caring for Vincent in their home for 38 years. One religious friend put things this way: God isn’t finished with you when you’re dealt your genetic hand.

What, then, should we make of the crudely malicious tenor of conservative politics, exemplified by Donald Trump’s trail of inflammatory remarks regarding President Obama’s birth certificate, Latino immigrants, Muslim Americans. FOX journalist Megyn Kelly, and Trump’s GOP rival Carly Fiorina. Trump has tweeted false statistics that dramatically overstate the role of African-Americans in murders involving white victims. When some of Trump’s followers pushed and kicked a Black Lives Matter protester, Trump’s reaction was to say: “Maybe he should have been roughed up.”

Most recently, New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski critiqued Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that thousands of Muslims in Jersey City were seen celebrating the 9/11 attacks. Trump responded…. Well I’ll let John Kasich tell the story.

How could this bigot and bully become the leading Republican candidate for the presidency? And what can be done about it?

I can’t really answer these questions. These are for Republicans themselves to answer.

I do know one thing. This goes deeper than Trump himself. The problem is not that Trump is a lying buffoon, either. It’s that he attracts broad support for an open message of malicious intolerance. Expunging Trump from the primaries, if this is still possible, would address the symptoms but not the underlying causes.

Simply put, Trump prospers because Republicans’ rhetoric and political strategies have gradually coarsened their own party base, which looks less and less like the rest of a changing America. As of 2012, 89% of self-identified Republicans were non-Hispanic white. That may even understate the blinding whiteness of the Republican primary electorate. These demographics, combined with Republicans’ problematic track record on social inclusion, are fundamental.

For years, Republicans have pandered to their non-Hispanic white Christian core supporters by emphasizing the other-ness of various Democratic constituencies. When strategically advantageous, GOP politicians at the state level dishonorably sought (and seek) to hinder minorities’ voting efforts. Mr. Trump is hardly the first practitioner of white identity politics on issues ranging from urban crime to Latino or Muslim immigration.

There’s the coarseness of conservative talk radio, which is venomous to President Obama on everything from his birth certificate to his middle name. FOX News, today’s Pravda of conservative politics, every night promotes sneering bullies such as Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. FOX’s casual objectification of its female newscasters matches Trump’s appeal, too.

It’s ironic. Conservatives have argued forever that liberals have done this very thing. Here, for example, is Dennis Prager at the National Review:

The cultural Left has created and celebrated an unbelievable coarsening of the culture, especially injurious to the young. Examples of Hollywood’s degradation of culture in film and on television are too numerous to mention. It will suffice to mention only MTV, one of the most damaging cultural forces in the lives of American young people…

Cultural conservatives pushed these arguments to ridiculous extremes. And it was never obvious why liberals bear exclusive blame for the crude practices of Fortune 500 firms. Yet however exaggerated or misdirected, the critique was never entirely ridiculous, either. Tipper Gore wasn’t the only liberal to see the harm in misogynist song lyrics, or to believe that popular culture just contains too much dreck. As parents, we have a responsibility to maintain certain standards, to push our culture to do better. This matters in politics, too.

Conservative are better than this. They need to clean house.

One show-don’t-tell moment would be for leading GOP presidential contenders to tell GOP primary voters: If you’re still supporting Trump next week, I don’t want your vote.

Do Bush, Rubio, Cruz, and the other leading Republican contenders have it in them to do this? So far, the evidence is thin.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

18 thoughts on “Coarsening the culture: Republicans need to do some housecleaning”

  1. "I don't want your vote."

    Serious question: Where's the successful political candidate who's ever used an equivalent line?

  2. Well, let's not forget that the Democratic Party, led by all those DLC types … many of whom are still around, has abandoned regular people to the global economy. It washed its hands of those people too, it wasn't just the other way around.

    Those people are angry because they realize no pols care about them, and they are largely right. (Far right! ba dump bump)

    Of course race is a huge part of this, but it's not the only part by a long shot.

  3. I don't know if it's kosher here to mention other more-or-less liberal blogs, but Amanda Marcotte has a piece up today at Salon that echoes these points: videlicet, gays and blacks and Latinos and women and the poor are not plying "identity politics", nor are the occasional Democrat politicians who support their ambitions toward equal treatment. Identity politics is almost exclusively a TeaParty/Libertarian gambit, in which the identity is that anyone who doesn't look, talk, and think like me is a sub-human OTHER. Trump and Carson and Fiorina and Santorum do almost nothing except engage in a remarkably corrosive identity politics. If you aren't a straight white Christian male, you suck. And yet the media treats BlackLivesMatter as identity politics, when in fact it's just a cry in the wilderness to stop being killed because of melanin. This whole notion that the Democratic party fails because it focuses on identity politics versus broader economic issues is straight out bullshit. The sadder truth is that identity politics has yielded nearly three generations of oligarchic Republican rule, because hating blacks, gays, Latinos, sluts (the Libertarian word for women who sleep with someone besides them), and poor people is really popular in a lot of districts,.

  4. Do Bush, Rubio, Cruz, and the other leading Republican contenders have it in them to do this?

    Obviously not. Bush might, or Kasich, but are you seriously expecting decency from Ted Cruz, or a courageous stance on anything from Rubio or Fiorina?

  5. Are "the base" the same ones who are killing themselves in increasing numbers? Despair and nihilistic anger often go together. (And conversely, fueling nihilistic anger also fuels despair.)

  6. I wish this was news. But I remember Nancy Reagan's appreciation for white faces… and how little that surprised anyone who had to deal with GOP insiders (as opposed to general members) in the 1980s, most of whom had obtained their positions of power within the party as a corollary of the overtly racist Southern Strategy.

    I know a number of ardently nonracist Republicans, including some extremely socially conservative ones. They are NOT Party insiders (whether "traditional" or "Tea," with no apologies to the Mad Hatter). And, perhaps more than anything else, this confirms "Emmanuel Goldstein"'s assertion that "The object of power is power." Not of exercising power in pursuit of particular policy goals; of obtaining/maintaining power for its own sake. The irony that most interpretations of 1984 by people who haven't thoroughly read it assert that the Party in that book is a purely-communist entity — and how that compares to the purported positions of the GOP — is… well, I can't say intentional, but I can say delicious.

  7. Back to the usual Democratic tactic of attempting to win the debate by dictating what the other guy in the debate is allowed to say.

    Sometimes you'll actually have a point. More often you're just transparently attempting to rule out arguments you have difficulty countering. Either way, it's incredibly irritating to anybody who isn't you.

    Trump is a bore, obviously. It's a deliberately adopted persona, like Rush's pomposity. Half of his appeal is that he ignores Democrats when they try to tell him what he can't say, instead of knuckling under. Much of the nation is bored to tears with politicians who crumble when they're told they've been insensitive, or whatever.

    You play to that, and help him, by demanding the right to control what he says.

    If he's saying outrageous things, let him outrage people. Counter him with reason, assuming you think you've got arguments that are persuasive. Not with doomed attempts to bully him into self-censorship.

    There's an excellent chance that he'd respond to a tactic like that by just dialing up the outrage until it really is too much.

    I mean, trying to bully people who disagree with you into silence is a conscious tactic, right? Not just a mindless reflex? You CAN shut it off when it's not working.

    1. That you don't think Trump has already dialed up the outrage until it is too much is telling. Also noted is that, when and only when it is convenient for you, you think that telling people that they need to condemn and dissociate themselves from someone who says something deemed offensive is the same thing as censorship.

      You really aren't much for intellectual consistency, are you?

      1. Yes, that I don't think he's yet dialed up the outrage until it's too much is telling. It should tell you that I can read polls. As byomtov11 says, this is the leading Republican contender. He's obviously not doing it "too" much yet, as an empirical matter. I'm certain there are things that he could potentially say, that would genuinely outrage too many people. But, will he say them? Because "deeming" the things he actually does say outrageous doesn't seem to be working, does it?

        And, yes, have you not yet noticed that the masses have figured out that "deeming" things offensive is just a censorship tactic the left deploys whenever it doesn't want something said? People started picking up on at least a couple of decades ago, by now the realization is darned near universal. Blame those idiots on the college campuses, running the tactic into the ground, if you wish. It might make you feel better to displace the guilt. But it has been run into the ground. "Racist!" has lost it's sting. "How dare you say that!" and people mutter, "Eh, whatever", and go on with what they were doing. It's not working anymore, people have stopped assuming that, if you're outraged, something outrageous must be involved.

        That's the key to Trump's seeming immunity to the media. You've cried "Wolf!" so many times that people aren't listening. And now maybe the wolf is upon you for real, and all yelling "Wolf!" gets you is eye rolling. Did you really think faux outrage wouldn't eventually have that effect? "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" was a warning, not a manual of tactics.

        Again, I'm being generous here, assuming that screaming, frothing at the mouth outrage any time somebody says something you don't want said, is a consciously chosen tactic, not some kind of mental pathology.

        So, again, is it? Can you shut it off when it clearly isn't working?

        1. I'll file away the fact that, so long as something is popular, you don't think it can go too far in terms of being offensive. Again, this would come as a great shock to your alter ego who often complains that liberals are being offensive even though what they are saying is popular.

          Your lack of any consistency or intellectual honesty is duly noted.

          1. File away that I don't think your claiming to be offended is the definition of something "being offensive".

          2. Again, noted that you don't think that baseless attacks on the basic loyalties of Americans is not offensive.

          3. Note that the President of your party just called for everybody who's been put on a list with no transparency, no particular procedural safeguards, and no clear way to get off off, to be stripped of a fundamental civil right.

            Not so long ago the very existence of the "no-fly" list was an outrage. Now it's an excellent excuse to take people's guns away. And all it took was your guy being the one with the unreviewable power to put people on it.

          4. You guys all know that Brett was banned permanently from Crooked Timber for being a white supremacist and/or defending same, right? And that he recently tried to start commenting there again uninvited, was disemvowelled then re-banned? He's simply a bad human being.

          5. Yes, that was the pretext. I'm not particularly offended by being considered a bad person by folks who spend that much time making excuses for why communism wasn't *really* responsible for the totalitarian and murderous nature of every single communist country.

    2. No one is trying to tell Trump what he can't say. What Harold is asking is whether conservative leaders, including the other candidates, have the will to criticize Trump for his statements. If not then either,

      1. They agree with Trump, or
      2. They are cowards unwilling to make a statement that might offend the base. I suppose we could consider this the Republican version of political correctness.

      Notice, by the way, that we are not talking about statements made by an obscure back-bench state legislator. This is the currently leading contender for the GOP Presidential nomination.

  8. One of the bloggers – possibly Martin Longman? – had a pretty convincing analysis of the behaviour of the Republican primary field. IIRC it goes like this. After 2012, establishment Republicans tried to work out a path back to a Presidential majority. The key step was to appeal to Latinos through immigration reform, and this was championed by Rubio. This failed miserably. So Republicans have no plan left to cut into the Democratic rainbow coalition – minorities plus women – which has a growing demographic edge. Blacks and Latinos especially, listening to the current crop of Republican presidential hopefuls, would vote for Vlad the Impaler on the Democratic ticket, let alone the three actual candidates. Young women are also a lost cause. The only plan left is a Poujadist one of appealing to the shrinking core Republican electorate of defensive, angry whites and pray for high turnout. Enraging them further is the only game left. It's doomed by demography, but can do a lot of damage on the way out.

    The one thing I don't really get about this analysis is the role of women. There are still plenty of non-feminist women Republican voters. Is the crude sexism of Trump in particular enough to turn them off? If he is the candidate, I can see this turning into a wipeout for HRC.

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