The hell with 'compassionate conservatism': In 2023, expect all MAGA sadism, all the time

The hell with 'compassionate conservatism': In 2023, expect all MAGA sadism, all the time
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaking at an August 2022 rally in Phoenix, Arizona (Gage Skidmore)
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Here are some snapshots of what the luminaries of the GOP, the cream of the Republican crop, have been up to since the predicted "red wave" of the 2022 midterms failed to materialize:

On Tuesday, Fox News host Tucker Carlson interviewed Chaya Raichik, who runs the vicious anti-LGBTQ Twitter acccount Libs of TikTok. Despite Raichik's routine online pronouncements that she doesn't hate anyone, she revealed herself to be an unreconstructed bigot in the Anita Bryant vein. "The LGTBQ community has become this cult," she said, claiming that queer people are "just evil people, and they want to groom kids," and that the only reason people are gay or trans is because they've been brainwashed. Carlson's response to all this was simple: "Yeah."

The Republican-controlled Supreme Court, which struck down nearly every emergency measure to slow the spread of COVID, finally found a pandemic rule they like: One that kills people, rather than saving lives. This week, the court forced the Biden adminstration to keep enforcing Title 42, which uses the pandemic as a pretext to expel refugees seeking political asylum, even though health experts say it's not necessary to prevent viral transmission. This decision was in such obvious bad faith that even Justice Neil Gorsuch, a Trump appointee, took issue with it. Migrants who are turned away based on Title 42 are in danger of kidnapping, sex trafficking and murder.

On Christmas Eve, the Republican governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, shipped a busload of migrants to Washington, D.C., dumping them outside Vice President Kamala Harris' official residence without winter clothes or shelter in subfreezing weather. Indeed, Abbott routinely uses the word "dumping" to describe his tactic of transporting migrants elsewhere, making it clear that he sees them as human trash. That was only the latest of these "dumping" stunts conducted by Republican governors, usually accompanied with rhetoric that sounds distressingly like that used on neo-Nazi websites.

Earlier this month, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced he would ask the state Supreme Court to investigate "any and all wrongdoing" related to the COVID vaccination campaign. During his press conference, DeSantis and his anti-vaccine quack surgeon general, Joseph Ladapo, repeatedly suggested that drug manufacturers had lied about the safety of vaccines. Recent studies have demonstrated that anti-vaccine conspiracy theories have led to Republican voters dying at higher rates of than Democrats. "The Republican Party is unquestionably complicit in the premature deaths of many of its own supporters," as Yasmin Tayag of the Atlantic concluded.

None of the central figures in these stories are obscure fringe characters. Carlson routinely has the most popular show on cable news, frequently drawing more 3 million viewers a night. Obviously, the justices on the Supreme Court and the governors of two of the biggest states in the country count as mainstream Republicans. DeSantis is enjoying a robust whisper campaign as a 2024 presidential candidate, and even leads Donald Trump in some polls of GOP voters.

Joe Biden and other Democrats were able to beat back a number of more colorful Republican candidates in the midterms by drawing a distinction between "MAGA Republicans" and the party's supposed mainstream. But, as these examples show, the bug-eyed malice that characterizes the MAGA movement has suffused the GOP from top to bottom, so much so that Republicans will gladly let their own voters die of a preventable virus to own the liberals.

There was a brief moment of hope that the GOP's poor results in the midterm elections might cause Republicans as a whole to "moderate," or at least pull away from noxious MAGA extremism. After all, data demonstrates that entirely accurate perceptions of the party's radicalism led independents — and even a small but crucial number of normally Republican voters — to break for the Democrats. But examples like these and countless others have made clear that the opposite is happening. Republicans aren't backing away from MAGA. They're doubling down. The cruelty that has come to define the party is only likely to intensify in the next year, resulting in more vicious attacks on LGBTQ people, more dehumanizing treatment of migrants, more deranged conspiracy theories, more pregnant people denied medical care with specious "pro-life" arguments, and more winking approval of political violence.

There are many possible explanations for why the GOP is going so dark, most of which revolve around the fact that the party's authoritarian base voters and its big-money donors have a lot more influence than potentially winnable independent voters do. But the unnecessary, gratuitous viciousness of so much of this stuff — seriously, no one asked Ron DeSantis to relitigate the pandemic! — makes that kind of bloodless explanation seem unsatisfying. It's time to ask a different question: Is it possible that GOP leadership is composed of the same unhinged sadists as their voting base?

In rational terms, it doesn't make a ton of sense for Republican leaders to lean even harder into MAGA nonsense. Both Abbott and DeSantis won re-election easily, but the overall trend-lines suggest that most voters are grossed out by overt cruelty. As David Graham at the Atlantic wrote last month, cumulative polling data suggests "the emergence of a big anti-MAGA coalition that started in the 2018 midterm."

That's exactly what is driving much of this GOP ugliness, I would argue. It's an angry reaction to the growing realization that most Americans think they're nuts. It's not rational at all — it's just vengeful. Since at least the days Ronald Reagan, Republicans have embraced the idea that they're the rightful rulers of the U.S., and that any Democratic win is a fluke or the result of some kind of cheating. (As Heather Digby Parton has repeatedly pointed out in Salon, Trump's Big Lie is just an expansion of the long Republican history of seeing any and all electoral defeats as proof of "voter fraud" conspiracy theories.) That sense of entitlement, however, is running headlong into a mountain of evidence that most Americans flat-out don't like Republicans and don't agree with their views.

America is a diverse nation, and also an increasingly liberal one in most important ways. Most Americans don't relate to the sexual conservatism, mandatory Christianity, white identity politics or regressive taxation fantasies that define the Republican Party in the 2020s. Rather than strategically adjusting to this changing reality, Republicans — meaning not just the base but also the leadership — just feel outraged. How dare the rest of Americans say "no thank you" to the policy preferences of the resentful, prudish white minority who think of themselves as the only "real" Americans?

I think often of the sputtering rage of Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing. Even though he lied through his teeth while denying that he tried to rape a girl at a high school party, I never doubted that Kavanaugh sincerely believed that a Supreme Court seat was his rightful due. His screaming, paranoid performance came straight out of the larger GOP mentality that the right kind of people deserve to be in charge, no matter what, and that any challenge to their domination is an insult not to be borne.

So it is across most of the GOP leadership. The ever-nastier behavior we saw after the 2022 midterms wasn't a show performed for the benefit of the Fox News-drunk base, or at least not entirely. That's just who these people are: privileged bullies who can't stand the idea of treating people different than themselves as equals. The more they come face to face with clear evidence that they're losing the battle for hearts and minds, the more they'll use the authority they still possess — which is a lot — to enforce ever more baroque punishments on the most vulnerable people in our society, out of their misbegotten desire for revenge.

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