Recently, in the wake of a
devastating disaster, came a sight for sore eyes: President Joe Biden and Ron
DeSantis—the governor of my home state—set aside some obvious differences to praise
one another and renew their commitments to working together to assist the victims
of Hurricane Ian. It was a spectacular relief to see, precisely because such
moments are so rare these days. But it underscored something that really
shouldn’t need to be: Working together—or not—is a choice.
It’s also a choice to credit DeSantis for shelving the juvenile “Let’s Go, Brandon!” silliness that’s been his stock-in-trade. If only he’d take such credit to heart: At the risk of my cynicism winning out, I suspect DeSantis will soon resume the politically traumatizing rhetorical performances with which he and his fellow Republicans have become associated, comically centered upon spectral threats such as mass-looting migrants, Marxist teachers manufacturing gay kindergartners, and wild rewrites of history—did you know that James Madison secretly wished that America would become a Christian theocracy? If this display of harmony with Biden isn’t a temporary one after all, DeSantis will fail his purity test; the latter-day Confederacy sympathizers who watch his every move might mistake him for a quisling “Republican in Name Only.”
I don’t use the word “traumatizing” lightly. I’ve come to believe that the Republican Party’s chief political expression—perhaps its only political expression—is doling out trauma toward its base, to keep them angry and partisan and to encourage the dehumanization of its political enemies. I am an ex–DeSantis and Trump voter myself; a onetime champion of their ideas. It was watching DeSantis up close that finally allowed the scales to fall from my eyes. There was a time I truly believed that he was an earnest, purple-state Republican with a nose for policy and politesse. His performance during the pandemic shook me of that notion and helped me realize just how much the Republican Party’s regular dose of trauma had affected me.
I’m no longer registered with any party, but I intend to vote Democrats straight down the line—not because I want to become a convert but because I believe it is in the national interest to submit this current form of the GOP to a political mercy-killing. I believe that in this state, and across the country, there are many like me, and I believe that Biden and his Democratic colleagues can, in their closing argument, effectively summon us to their side.
These voters won’t likely be reached with talk of policy, any discussion of which is going to get filtered through the media’s interrogations, as well as the million-paper-cut process to which all legislative ideas are subjected. These are the long stories of politics; here, shorter ones are preferred. What about the maintenance and advancement of democracy, the expansions of rights and freedoms? Here, we’re getting warmer.
But let’s think back to Biden’s speech in Philadelphia, in which he painted a swath of the GOP as enemies of democracy. There, he also built an off-ramp for the Republicans he recalls from the early days of his political career—the ones he’s known as colleagues and friends. Biden’s open hand and open heart, in that instance, was a moment of kindness and consideration, a balm for trauma. This is what I saw when he arrived in Florida to tend to those who’d been affected by Ian’s ravages. Charity and goodwill, it turns out, are attractive ideas. It suggests a possible leitmotif of the Democratic Party message between now and November and beyond: malice toward none.
There are, perhaps, some Republican elites capable of exhibiting sincere care for others; most on the right, however, understand that displays of empathy will more often than not incur the ire of Fox News, Breitbart, and the Alex Jones set (though Jones may have bigger problems now). The right-wing media’s function is to keep pumping the trauma, and they’ll gleefully turn on their idols and transform them into outcasts if they stray too far from being reliable demonizers.
An honest, effective leader will always care about others, even at the risk of losing money, relationships, and votes. But showing care for others, in the Republican Party’s political trauma era, is a perfidious weakness. “Freedom,” after all, requires stepping over the corpses of those who perished from a pandemic, en route to bacchanalian Capitol Hill Club cocktail splurges, in which the Covid dead are slagged for their moral failings and their just deserts. Why couldn’t they have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, after all?
No, this is not a political party that “cares”—about you, your family, or your livelihood. It’s not a party that cares enough about our history to treat it with candor. The revisionist histories of the GOP enforce the inaccurate assertion that America is not a democracy but a republic; we are both, and the Framers instituted a complex form of majority rule to potentially safeguard against a tyranny of the majority. It’s also a political party that understands that it’s not actually in the mass appeal business anymore: To the GOP, you are either a traumatized convert or an outsider to be treated with malice.
There can be little doubt that the Founders would admonish this Republican Party and demand that they read those yellowing and never-opened pocket U.S. Constitutions they carry everywhere on their persons. Nowhere in our Constitution—or any of our founding documents, or the Founders’ writings—will one find a singular syllable championing the alleged features and benefits of what the GOP actually wants: permanent minority rule.
This is why the traumatization of its own base is so critical: It conditions them to accept these illiberal arrangements as just, by making them susceptible to the belief that the revocation of democracy is the beginning of liberty. Unhealed political traumatization blurs that line between fact and fantasy; democracy and tyranny.
We already know what a GOP congressional majority will do, given the chance: At best, it will accomplish a whole lot of nothing; at worst, it’ll continue to dismantle democracy root and branch. We already know what GOP majorities in governors’ mansions and state legislatures will do: They’ll tell 10-year-old girls, impregnated by their rapists, “Good luck, let us know how you make out, and go to church on Sunday.” They’ll keep giving teachers compelling reasons to exit their field. They’ll offer continued advocacy of Molochian bargains, cheerleading AR15-toting 18-year-olds who aspire to enter the infamous pantheon of mass shooters. Yes, this is a party that’s thrown in its lot with these dealers of schoolyard mayhem, the best-equipped and best-armed serial killers on earth, the better to keep the chaos and its attendant trauma churning.
Donald Trump—that most insatiable head on the GOP’s hydra—is the most politically injurious figure to emerge in recent memory. It’s only in this aspect that he is extraordinary. The Stockholm syndrome he’s wrought in the GOP is indefinite. In a way, he’s the political version of a car accident on the highway. Everyone slows to look at the wreckage; there’s some ancient instinct in us that beckons us to take a long and lingering look at the damage. The modern GOP wants its base to keep staring at the damage in a voyeuristic trance, soaking up the trauma.
Here’s a plain truth: The vast majority of the adults left in the room are Democrats, and there are millions of Republicans who know this. I recognize this because I was, once, such a Republican. The Democratic Party may not always get policies right, but it works to better the lives of all Americans and not just its own voters. Most Republicans, by contrast, now make mockeries of the oaths they swear to uphold. Deep down, if you’re a sensible Republican, you know you’ve been lied to, and exploited, by your party; voting Democrat will mean you elevated your nation, and your democracy, above your party affiliation.
I don’t want to mercy-kill the Republican Party because I want one-party rule. I hate to be a party-pooper, but I think we are structurally suited to—or perhaps simply stuck with—a two-party system. But we need a healthier two-party system, and so the GOP, in its current, destructive form, has to go. But getting there will take a cooperative effort: There must now be an alliance between Americans who may disagree on policies or have ideological differences but who agree that in order to preserve a nation where we might hash out these important political debates with one another, we need to band together in defense of a stable government and a stable nation, where freedom might be expanded for all to enjoy. The GOP only wants to constrict freedoms, bring about one-party rule, and bring the whole nation under its traumatizing vision. That’s not very kind and caring of them, is it?