Who cares if NFL-star-turned-Donald-Trump-darling Herschel Walker, who is currently running for the U.S. Senate in Georgia, paid for a girlfriend to have an abortion? Or even that he lied about it? I’ll tell you who doesn’t care: Republican leaders and, especially, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose only animating belief in life is that he should be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell until the day he dies.
But to read the mainstream media’s coverage of Walker’s gaffes and transgressions—his previously unidentified children from different partners, his spaced-out climate change commentary about “China’s bad air” taking over America’s “good air space,” a seemingly never-ending litany of resume-inflating lies—you’d think that everyone reporting these incidents imagines that the hypocrisy police are sure to arrive on the scene to make an arrest. What they’re missing is that the law of gravity is no longer in effect; the point of view that Senate candidates need to possess plainly evident core values or sturdy credentials to hold high office has been beaten into obsolescence by McConnell, who is the sole arbiter of who gets to run for Senate as a Republican.
For McConnell, the ideal Senate Republican possesses one quality: They are a warm body with enough cognitive acuity and physical dexterity needed to cast votes according to his demands. No further values or credentials are required. And for the most part, the votes those senators will cast only really reify an agenda he has already successfully enacted. For the past decade, as Beltway journalists have touted him as a “master tactician” by the way he’s leveraged arcane Senate rules to his own advantage or praised him, inexplicably, as a civil rights hero because he ultimately voted for an eminently qualified Black woman to serve as attorney general after months of delaying her confirmation, they’ve largely ignored his masterwork: a federal judiciary transformed by his blowtorch and pickax.
So sure, we can all note how it should not compute that McConnell, the leader of the so-called “Party of Family Values,” has been a steadfast supporter of Donald Trump in spite of the fact that Trump has had mistresses, had previously supported abortion, and refuses to say whether any of his past partners had received abortions. We can point out these hypocrisies until we are blue in the face. McConnell has given Trump no end of passes, because Trump was the warm body he needed to build the 6-3 majority in the Supreme Court he needed to reverse every hard-won civil right of the past two centuries—from the federal right to an abortion to the fundamental right to vote.
It’s increasingly clear that the morality-neutral media coverage of a political environment that’s been dominated by an amoral political party has wrought substantial collateral damage, engulfing our democracy and its key institutions in an existential crisis. As The Daily Beast’s Matt Fuller noted, about the dual attacks on the U.S. Capitol and democracy on January 6, 2021, “The Real Tragedy of January 6 is That It’s Still Not Over.” The national discourse on how that assault on democracy is still ongoing is, in general, not being pursued with the urgency it demands. To the extent that it does receive coverage, it mostly centers on the various insurgents who are currently being prosecuted by the Department of Justice.
That’s all to the good, but there’s a more critical matter that’s going uncovered. The rise of unqualified-to-serve politicians in Congress, such as Tommy Tuberville—who couldn’t beat Vanderbilt as head football coach at Auburn or name the three branches of government—or potentially Walker, if elected, is also a serious attack on democracy.
People who don’t believe in government are stacking that government with politicians, who at best, boast about not even having the slightest clue about the basics of their job or public policy, and who, at worst, think of public service as the most effective tool for grifting and trolling. Furthermore, this phenomenon has arrived at a moment in which the ability of the political press to provide a check on this slide into illiberalism has atrophied. For too many reporters clustered inside the Beltway, the emergence of comically unqualified candidates—or outright QAnon-pilled seditionists—is just one more interesting moment in American politics; the fuel for bemusement, rather than a clanging alarm.
Which brings us back to Herschel Walker. There is no imminently arriving “gotcha” moment, no matter how more lurid the news gets. Walker isn’t a “hypocrite” by any conventional definition—and neither are his fellow Republicans. Hypocrisy, you see, is entirely dependent on the existence of a preexisting core belief that one might violate. But Republicans have engineered a universe in which they receive qualified immunity from crimes of hypocrisy: They have inculcated their base with the belief that they are amid an ongoing culture war filled with spectral threats, up to and including anyone in the media who might arrive on the scene to offer, “Hey, perhaps Herschel Walker isn’t going to serve the public interest, based on what we know to be true about him.” Reporting that reflects what any objective observer could identify independently as “hypocrisy” is merely a bump in the road, a Twitter rage cycle to nowhere.
Earlier this week, inside-the-Beltway publication Politico
granted anonymity to a Republican operative to share his thoughts on how Republicans feel about Walker’s candidacy. What he said was as revealing as it was grotesque: “It’s not that we knew about this specific case, but he’s a wealthy, famous football player who is obviously spreading his seed.”
That one sentence gives away so many games at once, it could make Tuberville look like Knute Rockne: Republicans do not respect Walker, they hold racist views on who Black people are in this country, and they do not care about family values or abortion. “Seed” is a pretty dismissive way to characterize the “unborn” which Republicans pretend to prioritize over all else.
It may be the case that all of his attendant controversies will ultimately keep Herschel Walker from becoming Senator Herschel Walker. But that outcome won’t undo the fact that Republicans put him on the ballot in the first place. And it certainly does not guarantee that the party’s leaders will emerge from the experience chastened, with the understanding that they pushed things too far in their effort to anoint Walker. In two years’ time, there’s a good chance that the candidates who earn McConnell’s approval to run for Senate will make Walker look positively statesmanlike by comparison.
If we cannot have an honest national conversation about what qualifies a person for elected office and what doesn’t, we will continually return to this point, staring into space with pure wonderment as to how it came to pass that an entire political party became the haven of half-wit goons gloriously reveling in their transgressions. Herschel Walker paying for a girlfriend’s abortion and then lying about it matters so much less than everything else that brought us to this moment, when hypocrisy is dead and democracy is dying alongside it.