Two British Liberal Party leaders in the 19th century, John Bright in mid-century and David Lloyd George at its end, labelled the Conservative Party “an organized hypocrisy.” As an historian, I think their charge largely misses the mark. But it fits better to describe what the current Republican Party has become in the United States.
Party politics, of course, has always involved considerable hypocrisy—particularly in a social-media drenched world, and particularly in a high-stakes election year like this one. The political game itself consists in large part of show business, pretense, and play-acting. As George Burns told aspiring actors in his 1980 memoir, “You’ve got to be honest. And if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”
Nevertheless, at first blush, one might object to applying this label to Republicans for any number of reasons. For starters, “organized hypocrisy” seems tame compared to the charges hurled daily against the party and its presidential standard-bearer Donald Trump. Perhaps an even bigger problem is that the label seems too moralistic, too subjective. And finally, as a description of a process, it seems vague. So I need to establish some definitions before we can see why this term is a fitting one for today’s GOP.
The word “hypocrisy” comes directly from a word in Greek meaning “stage actor.” In Greek theater, the actors wore masks; we all put on different masks for various roles, following rules and conventions we may not believe in but accept and conform to for the sake of various rewards—money, love, friendship, power, and so on. Hypocrisy can be a useful part of the social order.
But there’s a big difference between ordinary hypocrisy and organized hypocrisy. Ordinary hypocrisy doesn’t keep a person from recognizing one’s masks and casting them off, if need be. Authenticity can still survive beneath the surface. Organized hypocrisy, however, is designed precisely to keep the mask on regardless of the wearer’s efforts to shed it.
Organized hypocrisy arises in many ways—in institutionalized religion, business, and commerce, the law, government, the academy—but everywhere it has certain recognizable features. The group may start out legitimately hewing to the principles it claims to stand for. The people who control the enterprise, however, need the rank and file to believe in the mask, to wear it constantly, to maintain and defend it, and to convince the outside world that it is the group’s true image—and they act accordingly. But eventually and often, if not always, these doctrinal enforcement functions increasingly make the mask the point, displacing or distorting the group’s original purposes.
Organized hypocrisy varies in degree and kind. Some collective enterprises are less prone to it than others. Some are well protected by internal norms, rules, and safeguards. Political parties and movements, however, are highly vulnerable. Democratic government is no proof against it; indeed, it often provides fertile soil for it.
One more complication: organized hypocrisy varies not only in degree and kind, but also in intensity and internal awareness of the phenomenon. (Similarly, an individual hypocrite need not be a Uriah Heep, consciously bent on deceiving others about his real character and purposes while acting solely for his own advantage. He can and often does believe in his mask, like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, grateful to God that he was not a sinner like the Publican.) The most effective hypocrisy, individual or organized, includes sincere belief. It is hard to be a perfect cynic. Consider Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, or, for an historical example, Talleyrand’s career from the Old Regime through the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Empire to the restored Bourbons and the Orleans monarchy. For current examples, read Jane Mayer’s Dark Money, on the current role of the super-rich in American politics.
The essential criterion dividing organized hypocrisy from its ordinary counterpart isn’t the dominant motive of the actors, but the distance between the organization’s stated purposes and its actions behind the mask. Measuring that distance can sometimes be difficult, but in the case of political parties and regimes it is frequently clear-cut. There are ample historical examples on this score. When a one-party regime puts the maxim “Arbeit Macht Frei” over the gates of one of its most notorious death camps; when the slogan “Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom” leads to millions of human heads rolling; when “democratic centralism” means Stalinist dictatorship complete with purges, extinction of classes, show trials, and ethnic cleansing, we see organized hypocrisy at its worst.
These extreme examples aren’t the most instructive for our purposes, but many more litter the halls of history. Most revolutions, liberation movements, populist risings, and democratic regimes in modern history have failed; most of these failures resulted in the degradation of the original ideals and goals into a hardened, compulsory mask of organized hypocrisy. Witness the post-Risorgimento Kingdom of Italy; revolutionary France from 1792 on; virtually all the regimes in central and east-central Europe after 1918; the efforts at a union of South Slavs into a single Yugoslavia; the history of most regimes in post-Bolivar Latin America; and other recent and current examples in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Political movements set out with vast goals necessary to mobilize political consent if not active support; when some of these goals prove impossible even to pursue, let alone achieve, the regime invariably invents reasons for delay even as it entrenches itself in power. George Orwell understood this syndrome and depicted it well in Animal Farm.
Nor does this sort of thing happen only in countries with little experience of constitutional regimes and democratic institutions and practices. In the United States, the oldest and most solid liberal, constitutional, representative democracy in the world, democracy has already broken down twice.
The first failure occurred almost at the very beginning, after 1776, when the new American confederated government proved unable either to support the war adequately or, once independence had been gained largely through foreign arms and incredibly good luck in international politics, to govern its territory and meet its international obligations. This pre-Constitutional Convention breakdown was not due to organized hypocrisy, but it does point to a recurring problem with populist democratic regimes.
The original American government had to be replaced by a stronger federal union with a constitution that was liberal and republican but democratic only to a limited degree. This arrangement in turn broke down in 1860–65, for reasons that did involve organized hypocrisy. The Southern states and the Southern wing of the Democratic Party, having joined the Union and having accepted the Constitution on the basis of the toleration and accommodation of the institution of slavery in some states on the assumption that national problems arising from it would be handled by compromise, came to insist that chattel slavery be recognized as a permanent, untouchable basis for society in much of America, sanctioned and legitimated by the laws of God, nature, science, and the Constitution. They demanded the right to leave the Union whenever, in their view, their inherent right to preserve, develop, and expand this political and social order was threatened. Meanwhile, the interwoven racial, religious, class, economic, and social attitudes, interests, and motives actually driving these Southern political demands—which were understood privately to one degree or another by the slaveholding elite—were hidden or denied.
So with these examples before us, in what specific sense has the Republican Party become an organized hypocrisy? The drastic change that has overtaken the GOP, and that has plunged the American party system into a crisis of dysfunction, can be traced to the overall outcome of the Reagan revolution of the 1980s. Its mantras are familiar: “Morning in America,” “a rising tide lifts all boats,” government as the problem and not the solution to national problems. That revolution, which seized the GOP, championed less regulation of business, the selective devolution of power from Washington to the states and localities, lower taxes especially on corporations and the wealthy, freer trade and globalization, reliance on rational business decisions and the self-regulating market for growth and stability, increased defense spending and a more unilateralist foreign policy. All these have been tried—and not only by Republicans, of course—and the public perception of the results over the long run has grown increasingly skeptical.
Some explanations of these results, especially in the critical economic sector, involve technical terms experts quarrel over, most of them centering on the financialization of capitalism. The main outcomes, however, are easily seen and sensed: the decline of American industry, a flight of jobs, plants, and industries abroad, bubbles in crucial sectors (savings and loan, housing, banking, the stock market), a Great Recession narrowly kept from turning into a Great Depression by massive government intervention and bailouts mainly of Wall Street banks, major costly wars and foreign interventions now seen as largely unnecessary and counterproductive (though these cannot be tagged a Reagan-era legacy, for the two Reagan Administrations were not particularly interventionist)—and, above all, a growth in inequality unprecedented since the 1870s. All this has produced an economy, society, and government increasingly rigged in favor of the rich and powerful against the middle and lower classes. The so-called populist revolts in both main parties, though different in character and purpose, both stem mainly from this widespread discontent.
This is the kind of situation that in the past led leaders and forces in both parties to re-examine their party’s mask, the image and principles it showed to the world, and to attempt repairs, reform, or at least some renovation and adjustment. Both parties have gone through this sort of process in the past, including the GOP—in its formation in the 1850s after the division between Northern and Southern Whigs over slavery, under Teddy Roosevelt before World War I, under Willkie, Dewey, and Eisenhower against isolationism and McCarthyism in the 1940s and 1950s. Were it not for Nixon’s personal character problems and their consequences, the historical judgment on the Nixon-Ford presidency now might be that it was one of useful changes and moderate reforms in economic and foreign policy. So why is this not happening now? Why have the GOP elites not re-examined their mask and attempted to change it?
Again the general answer is fairly plain and widely recognized. The same trends and policies that, pollsters tell us, have led a majority of citizens to believe the country is headed in the wrong direction have also proved highly profitable for powerful groups and associations promoting them, with connections to the GOP vital to the party financially and for electoral purposes. At the same time and partly as a consequence, the party itself has moved ideologically sharply to the Right; it is no longer comprised of moderate and conservative camps, but is split even more sharply between older establishment conservatives and newer radicals at odds over major issues of national policy. As a result the Party has fallen into a defensive-aggressive stance that unites it only in opposing whatever the Democrats try to do, while continuing to insist that the GOP’s principles and policies have actually worked to set the country on the right course and would succeed again once the rival party and other evil forces are defeated. Dissenters and nonconformists are held in line, disciplined, or purged by various organizational, electoral, and financial means. This has succeeded after a fashion until now, never yielding the GOP full power or control over the national agenda, but keeping it sufficiently in command of enough strategic heights in Congress, the states, and the Supreme Court to obstruct Democratic programs and maintain outward party unity under the mask.
This broadly describes the growth and development of organized hypocrisy. One sees more specific evidence of it in the GOP’s responses to the particular national problems and challenges confronted since Reagan. (Not that the Republicans have alone been responsible for the neoliberal globalization story; the Rubin-Summers wing of the Democratic Party played a major role in shaping the disaster that has followed.) These challenges can be divided into two main categories; the first is centered on economics, and the other on a range of issues less directly related to economics and business (foreign policy, guns, violence, and crime, health care, labor unions and right-to-work laws, social welfare programs, race, women’s and gender issues, immigration, terrorism and anti-terrorism, education, child care, climate change and environmental issues, the Federal government’s reach and power versus state and local control, and various constitutional questions among them). The two categories are obviously linked, most of the latter involving powerful economic factors and interests, but still the lists taken together are long and diverse.
What is striking, however, is not only how the GOP’s basic policies and proposed solutions have stayed much the same, but also how its responses to attacks and complaints about its policies and actions in most cases of both sets of national problems and issues has also shown a similar unchanged pattern. It consists of a mixture of studied ignorance and indifference toward the alleged problems, direct denial, dismissal of difficulties as minor and temporary or signs of growing pains, denunciation of the complaints as purely partisan and the plaintiffs as unpatriotic, shifting the blame, blaming the victim, scapegoating, distracting public attention with other dangers and threats, and, while professing genuine concern and sympathy for those affected by the problems, proposing the same policies and measures as solutions. Here is organized hypocrisy in action.
Two examples serve to illustrate this. The first is the Republican response to the central socioeconomic issue and primary source of the present discontent: growing inequality, the steep rise in the economic and political power of the 1 percent and the decline of the middle class, promoting the growing influence of unelected wealthy, powerful associations and corporations on national and state government—government of, by, and for the rich and powerful. Though economists date the surge in economic inequality from the late 1970s, the issue did not emerge as a serious public one until after the turn of the century. Reagan’s optimism and supply-side economic promises—“a rising tide lifts all boats”—plus the recovery from the stagflation of the Ford-Carter years, the relatively good times under George H.W. Bush, and the spurt in GDP, rise in employment, and budget surpluses achieved during the Clinton years served to veil it. All this changed in George W. Bush’s Administration with its tax cuts, business slump, rise in unemployment, deficits, costly wars and occupations fought on credit, and with it the emerging consciousness of a widening gap between the very wealthy and the rest, of Wall Street versus Main Street.
The initial Republican response was to ignore this as a serious political issue, deny that it was happening or significant, and denounce even raising the question as un-American, socialist or Communist-inspired. Bush repeatedly gave the party’s answer in his flat, didactic way: “That’s preaching class warfare!”
It soon became impossible even for Republican hardliners to maintain that line. The financial crisis shook even Alan Greenspan’s belief in the self-correcting, self-regulating market, and forced Bush’s Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, a staunch neoliberal, to seek and gain Democratic support for a massive, unprecedented government intervention and bailouts, mainly of Wall Street banks, to save the global banking system and avert another Great Depression. Neither this, however, nor the relative success of the Federal government’s intervention initiated under Bush and continued and expanded under Obama in preventing a national and global descent into another Great Depression made the GOP abandon or alter its belief in the magic of the free, unregulated market and the dangers to prosperity and freedom of government interference in it.
Nor did it matter that under Obama the economy steadily if slowly recovered from the Bush Great Recession. Whatever its private analysis of what had happened, the GOP’s public response was to ignore what caused the crisis and its own role in creating it, treat George Bush as an un-person and his Administration’s policies as non-factors. It laid all the blame for problems of slow recovery and unemployment on Obama and the Democrats, and issued predictions of impending failure and doom, all while carrying on a consistent, organized campaign to obstruct the Obama programs at every stage, even by serious efforts to shut down the Federal government. All this was done in order to force through a program of austerity, limited government, tax reduction, and various incentives for businesses. This approach divided the country more deeply and helped reduce the public’s regard for Congress to the lowest levels ever, especially for Republicans. That result eventually stimulated a more conciliatory approach, epitomized by Paul Ryan’s rise within the GOP establishment, but it left the party’s image mixed and the party itself deeply divided.
Every Republican candidate for President during the 2016 campaign season has felt pressure to meet the present discontent with ideas for curing the nation’s economic problems and healing its growing inequality and divisions. Yet every such proposal during the primary campaign, even from so-called moderates, included most of the neoliberal nostrums that had promoted inequality in the first place—more tax cuts for everyone, including the extremely wealthy, smaller government, less government spending and regulation of business, abolition of some programs (especially Obamacare), and cutbacks in others as wasteful fiscally and harmful in their effects—all based on the premise that the real solution for America’s economic and social malaise lies in vaguely defined efforts to encourage entrepreneurship and risk-taking.
And the vaguest plan of all has been Donald Trump’s. What is his view on tax reform, notably corporate tax reform and inheritance taxes? It’s not clear. What’s his view on collective bargaining? The girth of minimum wage rises? On bilateral as opposed to multilateral trade negotiations? What would having specifics on these kinds of questions matter anyway with a candidate who pulls a stunt like visiting the Mexican President only to return with a speech that casts doubt over one of the main planks of his campaign, that on immigration?
A second example is more striking still: the GOP’s response to the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and the need to fill the vacancy created. This question, for all its major consequences and implications, is very different from the issue of how to deal with economic inequality and middle-class insecurity. That problem has multiple causes and aspects, affects almost everyone, and is bound to be contentious. Filling the vacancy is nothing like this; it should be uncomplicated. The procedure for filling a vacancy is settled clearly and concisely in the Constitution, which allows the President to nominate Supreme Court Justices, with the advice and consent of the Senate. It fits in perfectly with the Constitution’s general principles regarding the separation of powers, an independent judiciary, and checks and balances between the branches of government.
The GOP, however, faced the possibility that replacing the former leading conservative justice might switch the Court from the 5-4 conservative majority it had enjoyed since George W. Bush to a 5-4 liberal one, changing the probable outcome of several major cases now pending and threatening in the future to overthrow earlier decisions vital to Republican interests. The Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell therefore announced, without any vote or debate by the Senate or even the Republicans in it, that the Senate would not hold hearings on President Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland. He gave as his reason, “Let the people’s voice be heard.” The “people’s voice”, he implied, would be silenced were a President in his last year in office permitted to influence the future composition of the Court before the next President and Congress were elected.
This was not even remotely true. McConnell acted for obvious political reasons, having nothing at all to do with “the people’s voice.” Perhaps he chose this tack because the nominee himself was professionally and ideologically untouchable to any reasonable person. But it amounted to unvarnished hypocrisy. The Founders made the Supreme Court, the ultimate arbiter of the American constitutional order, the least democratically accountable of the three branches of government. Indeed, everyone knows, especially members of Congress, that in a liberal representative constitutional system, democracy means reaching governmental decisions on legislation through open discussion and debate by elected representatives, and the execution of the laws by an administration with a democratically elected chief executive. It does not mean direct expression of the putative people’s will by acclamation via a town meeting, mass assembly, plebiscite, mob action, polls, revolutionary seizure of power, or any other similar method. Clearly, the question of how a vacant seat on the Supreme Court should be filled during an election year will not even appear on any ballot on any government level in November, nor will any reference or information relevant to it be forthcoming either in voting booths or outside them. Even Mitch McConnell knows this. His appeal to let the “people’s voice” be heard is an echo of the old demagogic principle of vox populi vox dei—one that helped undermine the Roman Republic and other republics over the centuries.
In this instance, moreover, McConnell did not even try very hard to preserve his mask. Shortly after President Obama nominated Garland, Wayne LaPierre, the leader of the National Rifle Association, announced that he had looked at Garland’s record and had concluded that he would not meet the NRA’s standards for interpreting the Second Amendment. McConnell’s response was that he could not imagine a Republican-led Senate confirming a nominee unacceptable to the NRA. The Republican watchword became in effect: vox NRA vox dei.
This was not surprising coming from McConnell, who had announced in 2008 that his prime goal was to make Obama a one-term President, and after failing in this effort in 2012 devoted himself to obstructing everything Obama and the Democrats were attempting to accomplish. He is the nearest thing possible in a democracy to a Soviet apparatchik, concerned solely with maintaining the party’s power and his own—an Andrei Gromyko with a similar amount of charm.
What is more significant is that his strategy met so little Republican opposition in the Senate or elsewhere, despite the widespread public outcry and petitions against it. Only one Republican Senator actually broke ranks, Susan Collins of Maine, while another alleged moderate, Mark Kirk of Illinois, hoping to save his seat in a blue state, supported holding hearings but carefully indicated that he would stick with the party on the question of confirmation. The Republicans could of course have opted to hold hearings and then reject Garland, but this would have been embarrassing, forcing Republican Senators to explain why a moderate, highly qualified jurist whom they had previously approved for a high judicial post was unacceptable to them now.
If McConnell’s stunt represents the most flagrant example of GOP organized hypocrisy, it is far from unique. There are many more examples, on taxation, climate change, environmental degradation, and more. The House of Representatives under GOP control has been as bad or worse: seven House investigations of the Benghazi attack costing taxpayers millions of dollars and countless wasted hours of Congressional and governmental time and yielding nothing beyond denunciations of Hillary Clinton and media attention; sixty-odd House votes to repeal or defund the Affordable Care Act without even indicating what would replace it, knowing these were doomed to failure in advance; Paul Ryan’s refusal as House Speaker to permit the House even to discuss gun control measures following a terrorist attack in Orlando, his labelling a joint Congressional-Democratic sit-down demonstration trying to force a discussion as a political stunt, and his threat of disciplinary action over it. Ryan may not enjoy orchestrating organized hypocrisy as much as McConnell does. He knows, however, what happens to Republican leaders, however conservative, who fail to fulfill the insatiable demands of Tea Party radicals, and he does the job efficiently.
If the argument thus far makes a case for labelling the current GOP an organized hypocrisy, it still leaves questions and objections unanswered. I merely mention certain of these to indicate that I recognize them and have some notions about replies, in order to concentrate finally on a bigger question to come. First: “If what you say is correct, would it not suggest that Donald Trump’s populist challenge to the GOP establishment is useful in shaking the party up, forcing it to lift the mask on some traditional issues and to pay more attention to the alienated lower and middle classes?”
Perhaps, but we will know the answer to that question only if he wins, and some many months after the election. For now, all that can be said is that Trump has pulled off a hostile takeover of the GOP, but from inside. He deviates from the mainstream GOP line on many issues, notably culture war ones, but instead of directly challenging or overthrowing the party’s organized hypocrisy, he is outdoing it. He is, in effect, selling essential elements of it to the GOP base in the way an unscrupulous salesman defeats more traditional competitors—through emotional manipulation laid on a certain vulgar charisma, and no shortage of untruths.
Second: “Perhaps so, but is that not the political game both parties play in this era? Isn’t the Democratic party likewise an organized hypocrisy, making the only question which one is likely to do more good and less harm?”
Certainly the Democrats have their flaws and their problems. But whereas the Republicans proved too weak from division to resist an insurgency within their midst, the Democrats managed to accommodate an insurgency without being bowled over by it. So rises a certain irony. Will Rogers’ famous quip, “I do not belong to any organized political party—I’m a Democrat,” still holds true in a sense. The party is not organized enough, has too little party discipline and unified doctrine, is too inclined to compromise and triangulation, and embraces too many diverse interests, causes, and groups to rise or sink into organized hypocrisy. Until the Trump hostile takeover, the GOP’s capacity for organization and discipline—and hence the capacity to don masks—rested on the leadership’s need to control significant division within its own ranks. The Democratic leadership was able to adapt its views to maintain its position; the Republican leadership resisted change, and failed to maintain its position.
Ordinary hypocrisy, of course, does show up in the usual ways among the Democrats. Democrats are also a part of pay-to-play Washington, and have been known to say things publicly that do not reflect their private understanding. Politics show up, too. Had positions been reversed, could one have imagined a Democratic Senate leader delaying consideration of a Supreme Court nominee in an election year for similar political reasons? The Democrats, after all, have not been above engaging in partisan shenanigans without clear precedent: Take Harry Reid’s “nuclear option” as a case in point. That said, I doubt that a Democratic Senate would have acted in a similar way toward a Republican President because GOP obstructionism is rooted in an internal paralysis that leaves a “just say no” approach the only way to keep the party from melting away. The Democrats do not have that kind of problem nearly to the same degree. Their typical failing is that of Stephen Leacock’s medieval knight who leaped on his horse and rode madly off in all directions.
This still leaves the decisive question unanswered, however: What is to be done? Rather than present voters with this complex argument, would it not be better to target and fight the main individuals and forces behind the problem—party leaders, dark money, Wall Street, great corporations, various right-wing ideologies, organizations and associations, or some combination of these? I cannot claim that seeing the GOP as an organized hypocrisy somehow offers any quick fix or cure. I do think, however, that it can help define and clarify the goal, strategy, and tactics needed now.
First, the notion of the GOP as an organized hypocrisy underlines what is at stake in the coming election—not just who will win what offices, or where the country will go in the future (to the Right, Left, or middle of the road), but the long-term stability of the two-party system. The government cannot function and meet the problems of a rapidly changing country and world with one party working according to the normal rules of democratic politics (albeit imperfectly) and the other operating as an organized hypocrisy. It thereby clarifies the issue over which the election ought to be fought. It is not simply a contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump for the presidency, or Democrats and Republicans for the control of the houses of Congress and of statehouses and legislatures. More important than these outcomes, more important even than all the issues and concerns in domestic and foreign policy connected with them, the elections are about whether the Republican Party as presently constituted is fit for a constitutional, liberal democratic, representative, federal republic such as the United States.
This in turn defines how the Democratic Party should contest this election. It should have three main goals in mind. The first is to defeat Trump, which seems easy at first blush but may not prove to be so. The second, more difficult, is to wrest control of the Senate and if possible the House from the GOP. The third goal, however, is to help the GOP by means of these defeats to return to its senses and restore it as a normal, sane, reform-minded conservative party.
One can imagine the hoots of derisive scorn and laughter, and the charges of hypocrisy too, that would greet a Democratic announcement that this was one of the party’s goals in the campaign. Yet this goal needs to be considered seriously and explained and defended in the campaign. The Democratic Party should not seek to destroy the Republican Party, or even, as some shriller Republicans want to do to the Democratic Party, to reduce it to such size that it could be drowned in the bathtub. Democrats ought to be sensible enough to know that they need a serious Republican Party as a rival if the American political system is to work over the longer term.
The worst mistake Democrats could make in this presidential race is to allow it to become a popularity contest. Of course attacks on Hillary Clinton have to be countered and can be. Yet this defense and counterattack has not only to be conducted with dignity and based on evidence but also integrated into the main Democratic theme: that the Republican Party that offers America Donald Trump as its candidate is as unfit to govern as he is, and needs to be brought to its senses by a massive defeat at all national and state levels of government.
The same holds for the many individual issues and causes each side advocates. These are important; the differences are usually real and significant. But the central question remains the choice of which party should govern—one that is reliable, serious, and that can be counted on at least to try to do what it promises, even if what it promises amounts to small ball in a time of crisis, or one so mired in organized hypocrisy it can only offer fear-mongering, bombastic rhetoric, and empty promises.
The charge of organized hypocrisy may also have some tactical value. A police state can maintain a system based on it indefinitely by controlling communications, information, and the means of coercion (witness North Korea). A working democracy with reasonable civil liberties and regular elections cannot, however—not simply because ultimately the voters decide and because the condition is much harder to conceal, but also because awareness of it can have a powerful effect on the positions of those in power. Hypocrisy uncovered is a particularly repellent trait, even or especially for politicians, evoking an array of reactions that can weaken and chip away at the mask.
There are signs that this may be happening now in Republican ranks—that the mask is crumbling from within. The most obvious evidence lies in the long list of notable Republicans leaders and pundits who have left the camp, or intend to sit this campaign out. Whether this rejection will show up among the rank-and-file remains to be seen, but polls increasingly show a widening gap between Republican voters on the whole and the party on many issues. This is something Democrats should highlight, exploit, and tie to the general charge of organized hypocrisy.
Even if somehow this did help, and the 2016 elections did produce a Democratic sweep, the problem of deadlock and dysfunction would not thereby have been solved. The sources of the problem go deeper than party politics, into the fabric of the country and its people, and will be harder to cure. One of the disturbing aspects of the current campaign is the boundless depths of superficiality and trivia it has revealed, and the apparently insatiable public appetite for them.
This, of course, is what Trump feeds on. To call him a demagogue is too mild, even flattering. Demagogues are often people of a certain stature and depth—Hitler, Mussolini, Alcibiades, Shakespeare’s Marc Antony, even Silvio Berlusconi; Trump completely lacks these qualities. He is a rabble-rouser, a fear monger conjuring up or exaggerating threats from which he alone can save people, and one cannot account for his success to this point without recognizing that in America there is a considerable rabble to rouse, with a yearning for a savior.
Meanwhile most of the gravest and most difficult issues America faces—the financialization of capitalism, the decline in corporate investment in research and development, climate change and environmental degradation, the lag in education and child care, and many more—go unnoticed or are denied by his supporters. The Democrats may not have impressive solutions to these problems to propose, but at least they do not dismiss their existence.
Party reform and even broader electoral reform will not solve these kinds of problems. But they represent a first essential step toward addressing them. That could at least give the country a fighting chance.