'The end of Enlightenment': Historian explains why Republican discourse is 'the very antithesis of Reason'

'The end of Enlightenment': Historian explains why Republican discourse is 'the very antithesis of Reason'
Image via Gage Skidmore.

The Enlightenment was a time of intellectual ferment in the Western world following the Middle Ages. Its ideas gave birth to the modern world.

We know the Enlightenment from the names of its most brilliant expositors: Francis Bacon, John Locke, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Adam Smith, and others. We know its ideas as the foundation of our social world: the social contract, the rule of reason, the rule of law, consent of the governed, natural rights, constitutionalism, separation of powers, checks and balances, and others.

The Republican agenda is a direct assault on all of that. It literally aims to return America to the pre-modern, pre-Enlightened darkness of the Middle Ages. If it succeeds, it will reverse more than three hundred years of human progress.

The most egregious of Republican assaults on the modern world is its rejection of Reason. Reason is the way we know what we know. It is not through revelations from God, or the pronouncements of priests or monarchs as had been the case before the Enlightenment.

Reason as a process for discovering Truth started in the Scientific Revolution around 1550. It was so powerful a way of knowing the physical world, the philosophers of the Enlightenment adopted it for knowing—and improving—the social world. It became the foundation of all subsequent Enlightenment thought, and all modern institutions.

The Republican broadside against Reason was on display in the first days of the Trump administration when Trump asserted that his inauguration crowd size was the largest in history. Presented with facts to the contrary, in photographic evidence, his assistant, Kellyanne Conway, proclaimed the existence of "alternative facts." It's been downhill since.

Republican discourse is a never-ending torrent of lies, idiocies, and absurdities—the very antithesis of Reason. The Muslim invasion. The caravan bringing murderers, rapists, drugs, and disease. Democrats eating babies. A satanic cult of pedophiles running the "Deep State." A pandemic that would "disappear, like a miracle." The greatest economy in the history of the world. Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head being canceled. Biden's hamburger ban. A rigged election. Massive voter fraud. Terrorists who were really just tourists handing out hugs and kisses. It never ends.

The Republican assault on Reason is an attack not just on truth itself, but on our very capacity to think at all. With their base, Republicans address not the neo-cortex—the thinking part of the brain—but the amygdala—the lizard-brain seat of fight-or-flight. The amygdala subordinates logic, facts, reason, and deliberation to deceit, conspiracy, hysteria, and fear.

It's easier to trigger hatred and fear than thinking and logic. That's why Republicans do it. That's why their base—and increasingly, their "leaders"—sound like zombies, like robots, like members of a cult when they're interviewed for the evening news. They are. They've been programmed to fear and hate and blame, and the reinforcement is unending, because, to work, it has to be. Otherwise, they become unprogrammed.

It doesn't matter that none of the endless effusion of lies ever turn out to be true or that they are routinely, repeatedly abandoned in favor of newer lies for the next news cycle. What matters is that the lies incite indignation, and that the dopamine high that follows gets its constant, programmed, ever-increasing reinforcement.

Trump's 35,000 documented lies are the embodiment of it all. It is a leprous, insidious disease, an inability to deal with reality, but literally the one by which Republicans define themselves. Glandular excretions are the Republican formula for generating voter turnout: inciting Pavlovian rage based on a torrential fantasmia of lurid lies. It works, but it is the living, suppurating antithesis of Reason.

Another Republican assault on the legacy of the Enlightenment is the attack on Democracy. It was John Locke who, in 1689, wrote that people who were able to think could not be bullied like ignorant people could. If government wanted thinking people's cooperation it could no longer rely on the medieval divine right of kings. It needed to obtain "the consent of the governed." This, of course, became a sacrament of the American political order.

The opening words of the Constitution are, "We the people of the United States…" That is not a paean to monarchy, or to dictatorship. It is a statement that the consent of the people—and only that consent—provides a government its legitimacy. But Republicans are working feverishly to overturn the consent of the governed, to destroy Democracy.

Their assault on the Capitol on January 6th was the most conspicuous effort to overthrow the legitimately elected government of the United States but it was not the first and will certainly not be the last. Republicans insist that their reason-denying mobs, their goons, their Brownshirts will tell the rest of us how we will be governed. No consent involved, only submission: ours. You can see this in their fevered efforts at voter suppression, explicitly preventing majority rule and the consent of the governed.

Republicans cannot win power on the strength of their ideas and policies. They lost the presidency, the Senate, and the House. Large majorities favor policies backed by Democrats. So, they need to destroy Democracy itself to gain power. To do that, they need to destroy Reason as the way we know what we know. That is the core, the essence, the modus operandi of the Republican enterprise.

Constitutionalism is a third Enlightenment ideal that Republicans are intent on destroying. A constitution defines how a country is to be governed. Before constitutions, it was autocracy that called the shots. Think of Louis XIV's notorious declaration: "I am the state." Decisions were made by caprice, by the rich and powerful, in their own interests, everyone else be damned. Constitutionalism embeds the Rule of Law—another Enlightenment ideal—into a society, making "equal treatment under the law" a modern treasure, however badly it may be realized.

Besides losing all of the branches of the federal government, Republicans failed over and over and over to persuade the judicial branch to sanction their usurpation of the Constitution. So, they resort to performative charades like the farcical ballot laundering farrago in Arizona to try to undo the Constitutionally-ordained process for the peaceful transfer of power. Now, they're taking it to other states. It will not end.

We could go on. Republicans want to destroy the social contract—another Enlightenment ideal—that says you get ahead on the basis of hard work. They insist, instead, that privilege should be based on race, with the best spots reserved for whites. This violates the Enlightenment ideal of equality for all.

Remember the opening words of the Declaration of Independence? "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." Pure Enlightenment. In the Republican world, however, like in Orwell's Animal Farm which was an allegory of the degradation of Soviet totalitarianism, all men are created equal, but some—whites—are more equal than others.

We should be clear. This is not about peripheral protests over policy preferences. It is a broadside against the foundation, the institutional undergirding of our civilization. It is an attempt to destroy the conceptual milieu that has survived for centuries and that, however flawed it may be, has delivered the greatest freedom, expansion of rights, material progress, and human opportunity the world has ever known.

The measure of our alarm should be that Republicans, with the help of a complicit media, have managed to normalize rampant public lying, the unrestrained desecration of Reason, are carrying out an open, unabashed attack on our democracy, are carrying out notorious, savage assaults on Constitutionalism, the Rule of Law, Equality, and more. Our nation is literally under attack by anti-Enlightenment zealots determined to tear it down and it's not at all clear that they will not succeed.

It is indicative that the Republican party's highest priest is a thrice-married pathological liar, an admitted sexual assaulter, a draft dodger, a six-time filer for bankruptcy, a man who inflicted hundreds of thousands of excess deaths on the country, was twice impeached, who lost two successive popular vote counts, and who then attempted to overthrow the government. Read that sentence again and think about its implication.

The Republican hero, the man they model themselves on, the one they want us to bow down to, is a failed business man, a failed reality TV star, a failed president, a career con man who is the most corrupt, certainly the most craven and creepy individual ever known to American politics. This is the best Republicans have to offer. That is who they are, and what they insist on inflicting on all the rest of us, our consent be damned.

The Enlightenment helped the world replace monarchy with republicanism, a world ruled by theology with a world of science, autocracy with the rule of law, aristocratic privilege with the equality of all men, and feudalism with capitalism. No matter how imperfectly it may have been realized, it was as noble a vision as human beings have ever devised. The two worlds are the difference between the "Dark Ages" that went before and the modern world. That is the Republicans' promise to America.

More regression. More destruction of beautiful ideals and noble institutions. More degradation of deserving people. More humiliation of undignified people, themselves being the examples. More carnage. More chaos. More slime spewed on everyone.

There's not a syllable of inspiring vision in anything they have to say, not a word of uplifting ideals in any of it. It is all pathetic self-victimization and a lust for vengeance against those who refuse to respect them. We must all be dragged into the sewer that spawned, that is, and that sustains Donald Trump. That is his and Republicans' retaliation against a people who once had the temerity to believe in majestic ideals, the audacity to strive for them, and who once imagined that they might even be worthy of them.

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