Man’s manna is mythology. The Republican Party understands this, and the Democrats—at least at the institutional levels—seemingly do not. Closing this gap, and learning to tell a great story about the country, is critical in outcompeting the GOP and, possibly, keeping our democracy alive.
The political right has a familiar story that it repeats over and over again: America was already perfect and great in the 1950s and ’60s. On the surface, it sounds like pleasant nostalgia, but these gauzy memories are weaponized in the service of a poisonous and traumatizing myth that the Republican Party continues to sell to the predominantly male, Caucasian, heterosexual, Christian demographic: namely, that America has been steadily and rapidly declining since our apogee of perfection and greatness, in which Caucasian, heterosexual, Christian men were the dominant American class. Once enough Caucasian, heterosexual Christians are consumed by the imaginary existential threats that ooze from Republican rhetoric, they will support anyone—and anything—that might conserve their myth.
Has the GOP given up on competing in the marketplace of ideas, and democracy? This is absolutely the case. Republicans, for all their bluster about the Framers and our Constitution, have abandoned the great blueprint of our nation’s Founders and no longer aspire to the great ideals of our founding: that all are created equal and that “We the People” have a great mission—to form a more perfect union. The GOP has badly strayed from this path; in its present form, it could not be more antithetical to the intent and vision of our Founders.
Conservatism has always been marketed as “mind your business, let me live”; however, it’s always been about thwarting progress, the advancement of democracy, and the expansions of rights and freedoms. Political conservatism is singularly the biggest fraud—I repeat: fraud—ever perpetrated upon the American people because it is the most unnatural ideology of all, one that presumes that time should be made to stand still, a barren way to live that can only be made bearable if it’s shrouded in the soothing emollience of mythology. But we must give Republicans some credit: They seem to better understand the compulsions of our Homo sapiens species than the Democrats, who tend to try to accommodate the conservative myth in their rhetoric instead of forging a compelling alternative. But Republicans know the world is going to change, whether one wants it to or not, and no amount of legislation or Fox and Breitbart traumatization can stop those changes.
GOP mythology, in the immediate decades following our victory in World War II,
the perfection of our union had been eschatologically finished and realized;
the flowers nourished by the blood of patriots in the American Revolution,
Gettysburg, and Normandy had blossomed; these fruit-bearing plants provided succulent
bushels of teleological, saccharine sweetness—precisely as Jefferson,
Hamilton, Madison, and Adams had intended.
When America was great and perfect, public schools prayed in almighty gratitude to Jesus, women knew their place of inferiority, and mass shootings were rare—mind not the violence along the way: the assassination of Emmett Till; the fire-hosings of John Lewis and other Black Americans nonviolently demanding the franchise; and discrimination against gays, immigrants, and religious minorities.
The “good ol’ days” is arguably the most traumatizing mythology in American history, and it has been almost exclusively propagated by the right. (But not solely by the right: Bill Clinton, after all, also wanted to make America great again; that he embraced the myth on the way to his own electoral success goes a long way in explaining why Democrats remain beguiled by it.)
When I began the journey to my own political epiphany, I came to understand—by looking backward, historically—that the GOP’s most revered politicians, post-Eisenhower, were purveyors of some version of this traumatizing myth; all took a turn adding their own signatures and flourishes, pruning it like a poisonous garden. Slowly, the roots of what had been planted before decayed: Lincoln, whom some Republicans still invoke, was a progressive who began the oversight of the advancement of stability and rights in antebellum America.
For all the romanticization of Reagan as a change agent, he was still a pro–abortion rights, pro–reasonable gun background checks, pro-amnesty, pro–targeted tax increases, former Hollywood Democrat from “Commie-fornia.” It is probably a credit to Reagan that he would not win a singular Republican primary today; in fairness to 1960s-era Republicans, a higher percentage of them in the U.S. House and Senate sided with LBJ on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 than did their Democrat counterparts. These are all examples of conservatives who, in significant ways, considered the needs of the future even as they revered the past. All would be scorned in today’s GOP.
It’s also the case that the right even mythologizes its opposition with absurd stories that turn ordinary people with differences of opinion into absurd demons. Most of the Republican mythology concocted about former President Obama is ghoulish balderdash—in their telling, he is a mortal enemy of the great and perfect America. But these despicable tales almost seem sedate compared to other inventions: Bill Gates’s and George Soros’s plan for world domination, according to the right, is to kill off the human race with the Covid vaccine. (Would murdering your would-be serfs be the best way to effect a global takeover? Make this make sense!) Suffice it to say, reports about my death due to the vaccine—and about Obama as a Kenyan-born Islamic Communist—have been grossly exaggerated.
Myths play a big role in our lives; there’s nothing wrong with some of the stories we tell, even apocryphal ones such as that Babe Ruth is the greatest baseball player ever, even though he played a century ago, or that George Washington is our greatest president. These may be, empirically, wrongheaded beliefs, but they aren’t harmful.
But to nefariously prey upon the insecurities of others by feeding them with hysteria and paranoia over an increasingly browner and blacker, less male, less Christian, and gayer America, is a cruel form of exploitation. This rhetoric traumatizes its victims in two ways: It forecloses any possibility of a joyous future, but it also strips the joy from nostalgic memories. None of it makes sense as a political project—to strand your adherents in a dire present, surrounded by imaginary enemies that can never be defeated, is a pure form of nihilism. Ahh, but it has proven to be very lucrative in modern American politics. And it will remain lucrative until it is no longer rewarded.
I can’t defend the adoption of a toxic identity politics by politically traumatized Republicans, but we should not discount that they have been lied to, mocked, and had their intelligence insulted by the self-appointed political messiahs and saviors they worship. Politically traumatized Republicans are both dangers and victims, but they are mistaken about who the culprits are: The victimizers are not religious, ethnic, racial, and gender minorities but those who look exactly like them, often well-heeled and Ivy League–educated.
The power of mythology can be
difficult to contend with, or even wield. Many of the stories we keep close in
our collective imagination illuminate our nation’s virtues and ideals. But
mythmaking can also deeply imprint false—even nefarious—notions. The
Republican Party of today is plainly intoxicated with its false idols.
Reducing the nation’s adherence to the story the GOP is telling is critical. But
the Democrats too have their own blind spots: Perhaps the most dangerous myth
to which they’ve lately subscribed—the idea that demographics and the
country’s changing complexion will naturally fortify their electoral chances—has
proven to be a false dawn. As a nation, we’ve never been more diverse, but we’re biting our fingernails now, wondering if the
party that nearly ended the American experiment with the January 6 insurrection
will regain a congressional majority and make inroads in statehouses and governorships.
As it turns out, the Democrats’ belief that “demographics are destiny” was also a destructive myth that permitted many in the party to believe that America would simply forge a more perfect union on autopilot. Democrats’ political muscles have atrophied as a result, and it’s time to move on from these beliefs. They should consider reinvesting in some of the historically Democratic voting blocs that they’ve somewhat taken for granted, such as religious minorities, LGBTQ citizens, Blacks, and Hispanics. But it’s also time to expand horizons and restore roots with rural and small-town America, where there are problems to be solved. Reasonable Republicans deserve consideration and engagement: to form necessary nonpartisan alliances and challenge previously held beliefs, to increase metacognition about some of our deeply rooted biases. It’s never a bad thing to take occasional slings and arrows from the people we hold close. Battle the liars, but don’t forsake those who have been lied to—these, treat with forbearance, and remember that the more perfect union will require reconciliation.
In the most accurate definition of the word, the U.S. is exceptional, in that we are the only exception in world history: a multiracial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious (including freedom from religion), increasingly diverse, tolerant republic-democracy hybrid, in which the people directly participate in government representation and commerce, which also happens to be the most powerful military and largest economy, by gross domestic product, in world history. This country can and should be a great place to live, worship, raise a family, and enjoy the trappings of the good life.
So why is America experiencing attacks on, and the undermining of, electoral outcomes and the rule of law? This is, sadly, the other side to the belief in our own exceptionalism: a seductive myth that can be curdled and spoiled.
Not all male, heterosexual, Caucasian Christians have swallowed this bitter pill; for those who have, the sight of other people gaining equality can feel like repression, conjuring in them an intense anxiety that if others are “winning,” then they must be “losing.” The feeling of being left behind is a valid concern, but our exceptionalist mythology gets them riled up against those (such as immigrants) whom they’ve been duped into blaming. The right is living in a make-believe country, in which equality can’t ever be shared and the battle to hang onto the shreds warrants retaliation against companies that exercise their protected speech; impugning teachers who are, allegedly, “making” kids gay; and discrediting “uppity” Blacks who want America to swallow the truth serum of knowledge of our racial history.
The GOP sells power as a means to cause harm and to keep its adherents constantly frothing about encroaching enemies within. Whether it’s a skewed and poisoned memory of “the good ol’ days,” the wrong-headed insistence that the least inclusive eras of our history were our finest hours, or the toxic notion that the marriage of two lesbians must somehow be adulterating our values, these myths must be countered for our democracy to endure. It’s going to be a Herculean effort, but as the GOP retreats from policy and governing and cocoons itself into its culthood, there’s a chance for Democrats to fill this vacuum with a new story: one about power as a means of doing good, of solving problems, of ideas and substance, and a more dignified way of leading the nation into a future instead of into a trap.
As I’ve written before, there are Republicans out there who know well that they cannot allow the GOP, in its current form, to deepen its hooks in the destiny of this nation. I feel they have an easy choice to make in the days to come: Vote Democrat—not to become a convert but to proclaim yourself as a dedicated citizen.
You’ll be playing a part in breaking what’s become a cycle of trauma. By aiding in the demythologizing of the story this Republican Party wants to spread, you will help stymie the malignancy of nationalism and the ongoing Christian theocratization; you’ll be one hand among many pulling our country back from the brink of a dictatorial vision that perverts our faith and our freedom into a murderous mockery of humanity and every person’s worth. If you need a story to guide you, heed the advice of the good book that all too many conservatives and Republicans heretically co-opt in their photo-ops: Ecclesiastes 7:10—“Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.”