In many ways, I blame Ronald Reagan. Oh, not wholly—there are too many actors and too many roiling forces percolating through every modern society to lay anything at the feet of one person. But for all his professed “morning in America” optimism, President Reagan did profound damage to the America he loved by setting its people in opposition to their own government and its entire professional class.
What came to be known as “Reaganism” sowed such mistrust of his own country’s most basic institution that “government bureaucrats” became a cliche and synonym for out-of-touch, unfeeling automatons dedicated only to self-preservation and making life harder for their people.
“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help,'” Reagan quipped in a 1986 news conference, making a mockery of the very government he had been elected to lead.
A kind of nativist know-nothingism has taken root across the land, its people burrowed into their gadgets, holding forth on issues they know next to nothing about, every person with Internet access suddenly turned epidemiologist or climate scientist.
The line has drawn laughter and knowing nods ever since, most pointedly among anti-regulatory, small-government Republicans but also to anyone, Democrats included, facing, for just one example, the host of permits and inspections they must endure to merely add a deck to their property.
We’ve all experienced versions of that partial truth, “partial” because it neglects the far more dominant and pervasive good that government does in virtually every sphere of American life, from ensuring the safety of the food you eat every day, the toys you buy your kids, the roads built to transport them, the cars you use to do so, the planes you fly on, and so on.
And, not to put too fine a point on it: the police who formed a heroic line to try to repel a mob from storming the nation’s Capitol three years ago at the behest of a would-be despot dead-set on neutering the Constitution he had taken an oath to uphold.
The left had its own version of this mistrust a half-century ago in “the man”—a metaphorical punching bag representing ominous forces of big business colluding with a compliant government to dominate the world. (That, too, was a partial truth, government indeed being an unabashed booster of business but also a bulwark in restraining a good deal—though not all—of the excesses and outright criminal activity business is prone to if left unchecked.)
But it was Reagan’s derision of government that eventually percolated out across much of the country to engulf virtually every institution of American life.
So much so that “government” has now become a stand-in for an even wider and more ominous cabal of federal employees, academics, media, scientists, law enforcement, non-profits, and other citadels of what was formerly regarded as expertise but has since been rebranded in the populist imagination as the “deep state,” whose primary goal is to deceive and control its citizens.
The damage this has caused to our civic life and basic trust in one another is incalculable. Institutions that have been centuries in the making and helped us achieve a society unparalleled in its prosperity and power to shape a world based on human freedom have become objects of scorn.
Expertise and intelligence have come to be equated with egg-headism, science as just another opinion.
A kind of nativist know-nothingism has taken root across the land, its people burrowed into their gadgets, holding forth on issues they know next to nothing about, every person with Internet access suddenly turned epidemiologist or climate scientist. Others simply turn away to admire cat videos and minor celebrity “influencers.”
Or even worse, they become intoxicated by bizarre conspiracy theories spewed by talk radio shills so divorced from reality as to make one question exactly how far we have come as a species since early humankind cowered in caves, shaken to their core by thunder they feared was signaling the end of the world.
An example, from the June, 2023 issue of “Frontiers in Sociology”:
“A recent survey of 5,625 Americans by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 8% of Democrats and 14% of independents surveyed believed the statement that ‘the government, media, and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan worshiping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation’ (PRRI, 2021). Together, independents and Democrats make up nearly the same amount as Republicans who also believed in the statement, at 23%.”
Let us consider the math in that citation. More than one in five Republicans (23 of every 100!), nearly one in 10 Democrats and nearly one and a half in 10 independents buy into an utterly lunatic belief that belongs, if anywhere, on the far fringes of a paranoid, dystopian science fiction fantasy.
All of which poses the question: We are trusting such people to vote on the fate of our nation?
In his groundbreaking 1964 book, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” historian Richard Hofstadter put forth with chilling prescience the kind of irrational mindset that has long undergirded the fringes of American politics but now—with a big push from Donald Trump—has stomped onto center stage, breathing fire.
The paranoid, he writes,
“…does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated–if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention.”
If there is a better harbinger of Trump’s quest to overturn the 2020 election against the counsel of most all his attorneys and staff, his own party’s state officials, and legal rulings against him from across the justice system, I have yet to see it.
Once someone countenances such delusions, it is a small step indeed to adopt the proposition that Ohio Senator J.D. Vance, widely seen as auditioning for a role as Trump’s vice-president, did in an interview last week with ABC commentator George Stephanopoulos:
“Do I think there were problems in 2020? Yes, I do. If had been vice president, I would have told the states, like Pennsylvania, Georgia and so many others, that we needed to have multiple slates of electors, and I think the U.S. Congress should have fought over it from there.”
This, as we know, would have sent the election to the House of Representatives, with each state’s delegation getting one vote. Given Republicans control the majority of state delegations, they would surely have awarded the election to Trump, despite him losing the popular vote by more than 7 million votes and the electoral college by 306-232.
Vance further followed Hofstadter’s “will to fight things out to the finish” formulation in a separate media appearance cited by Stephanopoulos.
In anticipation of Trump winning the 2024 election, he said:
“If I was giving him one piece of advice: fire every single mid-level bureaucrat, every civil servant in the administrative state. Replace them with our people. And when the courts— because you will get taken to court—and when the courts stop you, stand before the country like Andrew Jackson did, and say ‘The chief justice has made his ruling. Now let him enforce it.'”
Brief history context: The Andrew Jackson quote, “probably apocryphal” according to historians, refers to an 1832 dispute between President Jackson and Supreme Court Justice John Marshall over state vs. federal rights in the matter of slavery. The argument appeared in various forms throughout early American history, reaching a tentative conclusion that played out in the Civil War but wasn’t definitively established until the 1950s, when federal supremacy to uphold civil rights laws and a host of other constitutional matters was finally confirmed by the Supreme Court.
Vance, who is neither a fulminating cable news commentator nor QAnon nihilist but a United States senator with a Harvard law degree, knows this, but chose to advance his dangerous “advice” to candidate Trump as further evidence of his willingness, in contrast to Mike Pence’s actions on January 6, to abrogate the Constitution on the ex-president’s behalf.
This, I would submit, is the true “Trump derangement syndrome” I had somehow talked myself into thinking I was suffering from in the past.
Yes, the rewriting of January 6 as a “tourist visit,” undertaken by what Trump has recently come to call “hostages” who were actually criminals on that terrible day, makes me crazy. As does the MAGA world’s continuing idolatry of an obviously corrupt, pathological liar, narcissist and rapist, currently under the shadow of 91 felony charges in federal and state courts.
All of that makes me and countless others crazy. But please note, because this is important:
We are not the deranged ones!
What’s deranged—and cowardly—is for J.D. Vance to further enable a would-be dictator whom he was proud not to have voted for in 2016 and called “noxious” and “reprehensible,” “America’s Hitler,” “a total fraud” and “a moral disaster.” “My God, what an idiot,” Vance tweeted then.
Now he lavishly praises Trump at every turn and advises him to defy the Supreme Court’s legal rulings. That’s deranged.
What’s deranged is the supposed “party of Reagan,” firmly anti-communist and committed to upholding freedom around the world, now withholding support from Ukraine in its struggle to repel the largest invasion of a European country since World War II.
What’s deranged is for today’s leader of that party to foist relentless praise on a murderer’s row of despots from around the world—Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un—calling them “brilliant,” beaming at the “love letters” Kim Jong Un sent him. All while threatening to abandon NATO, the most successful and long-running security pact in the history of the world.
What’s deranged is to think that letting Putin gobble up Ukraine will not lead to his further aggression in the Baltic states and eastern Europe, while also emboldening China to seize Taiwan, thus threatening a much wider war for the very freedom of the planet.
What’s deranged is to ignore the vast consensus of scientists worldwide and the extreme climate events they have long been predicting, and which are occurring nearly weekly now around the globe. Instead, we hear promises to “Drill, Baby Drill!” on “Day 1,” in direct defiance of all the evidence for climate change piling up before our very eyes.
What’s deranged is to ascribe an FBI conspiracy to the romance of the world’s most successful pop star and her football player boyfriend.
What’s deranged is to affix a “treason” label on the nation’s top military officer, your hand-picked Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a decorated 4-Star general, then suggest he be “executed” because he was alarmed by the January 6 attack and was working to put safeguards in place to prevent you from employing the military in a coup.
What’s deranged is to undercut a deeply conservative Oklahoma senator and Baptist minister from your own party who leads a bi-partisan effort to fix the untenable situation at the southern border. After he works tirelessly for months and emerges with a deal that gives your party a lopsidedly good result, you reject the agreement only because it might actually be good for the country and thus possibly remove an issue you want to pound the opposing party on in the forthcoming election.
What’s deranged is to then subject that senator, dumbfounded now after spending every ounce of political capital he had and begging his fellow Republicans to take the gift in front of them, to the vilification we see here…
What’s deranged is for Trump—whom Lankford had loyally served, helping to rescue him from two impeachment attempts, voting initially against certifying Joe Biden’s election, and toeing the Trump voting line 88% of the time—to say this about him after scuttling the proposed legislation :
“I think this is a very bad bill for his career, especially in Oklahoma. I won in Oklahoma, I know those people. They’re great people….these are serious MAGA, these are serious people. They are not going to be happy about this…when they see this. This is crazy. This is lunacy, this bill.”
Trump went on to claim he had not endorsed Lankford in 2022 (he had), and that he’s inclined to endorse his challenger when Lankford’s seat is up again in 2028.
So many other derangements, so many reasons not to further belabor the point.
In the end, it has become abundantly clear that we currently have only one serious political party in the United States. The Democrats, flawed and with their own problems, to be sure—but at least serious.
For evidence, we need only look at the abundance of former, traditionally conservative Republicans across the land (Liz Cheney, Mitt Romney, the Bush family, et al) whose party has abandoned them in clearly the most idolatrous, personality-centered political movement in American history.
Where does that legion of traditional Republicans go now?
Will the party recover anything of its former bearings, its desire to actually legislate on behalf of its citizens instead of spending its precious time ginning up fake or at least overblown culture wars as its sole reason for being?
Certainly not if Trump is returned to office in nine months.
If he fails in that quest, there is only one certainty—of this I have no doubt—he will once again do everything possible to upend the result. This will include, mark my words, at least implicitly sanctioning his most fervent supporters to go into the streets to foment more intense, protracted and organized violence than they did in 2020.
Will his party once again excuse his behavior, or even worse, support it?
We are talking about the entire American experiment hanging in the balance come November. If he wins, Trump will set about dismantling, as he and his staff were not organized and cunning enough to do in 2020, all the levers of good government that restrained him then.
If he loses, he will no doubt unleash the hounds of hell in far worse fashion than the last time he refused to lose. Because in Donald Trump’s mind, only losers lose, and he can never, ever be a loser.
What will J.D. Vance and Mitch McConnell and Mike Johnson and the Supreme Court do then?
Going bonkers into an entirely other dimension…
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