- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
Be afraid. Be very afraid. Mainstream, rock-ribbed, you-can’t-make-me-flinch Republicans are. One former leader of the party I spoke with the other night said, "We’ve never seen anything like them. The Gingrich ‘Contract with America’ revolution was mild by comparison." Representative Bob Inglis, attacking the play to the lowest-common I.Q. of the base, said, "We’re getting what we deserve."
America’s first know-nothings were a mid-19th century collection of nativists who dreaded "foreign" influences on the American way of life. Reactionary as they were, we may someday see them as a collection of Rhodes Scholars and Nobel Prize Winners compared to their lineal political descendents who make up the current crew of Republican extremists now flexing their recently pumped up muscles in the Congress. Knowing nothing would be an improvement for this group which defiantly embraces the wrong, the indefensible, the illogical and the absurd with their only apparent criteria for taking a position being that it feels good for their adrenaline-stoked base. Facts, science, knowledge, and reality are all seen as the tools of elites, weapons against common folks who have gotten along just fine believing in foolish ideas for all these years.
The roots for the current movement could be found in the arguments of creationists against teaching the science of evolution in the schools. But today we have a new generation of fundamentalists … climate creationists, foreign policy creationists, deficit creationists … for whom arithmetic and history are simply the tools of the devil. They invoke the founders but sound more like their contemporaries in England who argued that the reason that British hikers were finding fish fossils in the mountains of England had nothing to do with where seas once might have been millions of years before and instead was a consequence of God putting the fossils there to trick people into doubting the literal word of the Bible.
In just the past couple of weeks since the election we have seen half a dozen examples of this next generation know-nothingism, this translation of a dumbed-down zeitgeist into a new movement that might be called Snookiism.
- On the foreign policy front we have Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona blocking prompt consideration of the new START deal with Russia — despite the fact that without it we have no way of regaining on-the-ground inspection of Russian nuclear facilities, despite the fact that if it fails it will strengthen anti-American elements in the Russian government, despite the fact that there is broad bi-partisan support among the leadership of the policy community for the deal-because the Sarah Palin wing of his party sees foot dragging as a way to win political points and a few concessions on nuclear modernization here in the U.S. Palin has counseled against "hasty consideration" of the treaty. Sarah Palin is offering foreign policy advice? And people are taking it? Shouldn’t it matter that she has no experience in this area? No credentials? No credibility?
- The battle for the House Energy and Commerce chairmanship has illustrated well how truly demented this debate has become. In order to promote his own candidacy to be chairman, Texas Representative Joe Barton has circulated a Rush Limbaugh authored commentary on the front runner for the position, Rep. Fred Upton, in which an attempt is made to discredit Upton due to the fact that he actually appears to believe in (at least some of) the science surrounding climate change. The implication: you can’t be a true Republican and believe in science. This impression is only amplified in light of the argument from another contender, Rep. John Shimkus who has offered his belief in the literal interpretation of the Bible as his reason for not believing in climate change. (After the flood, God said it wouldn’t happen again.) I’ve got nothing against the Bible, believe me. But do we really want to use it to predict the weather?
- On the economic front, we have a couple of recent examples where representatives of the political party that gave the United States the biggest budget deficits in its history are now arguing for policies that turn on a balanced blend of bad arithmetic and bad faith. For example, as Steven Pearlstein notes in yesterday’s Washington Post, the argument that tax cuts ought to be preserved for those making over $250,000 because they are primarily small business owners who are busy creating jobs is "largely bogus." The fact is only a tiny percentage of small business owners make over $250,000 a year and of those most are big hedge funds and law firms. In the same vein, while Mitch McConnell undergoes a battlefield conversion to the cause of banning earmarks, few who pushed him there want to focus on the fact that earmarks account for only a fraction of one percent of the federal budget and are in fact, as issues go, not largely but totally bogus, essentially irrelevant. (The fact that Tea Party favorites from Rand Paul to Michele Bachmann can’t quite give them up is indicative of how these leaders are counting on their constituents disregard of the facts to give them a free pass when it comes to bald-faced hypocrisy.)
- And back to Representative Inglis, as part of blowing off steam after his defeat he has confided in several folks that as the extremists were beating up on him, he was offered absolution of sorts by one particularly prominent champion of the religious right who told him he could regain support if only he would support the view that President Obama was actually born in another country. Inglis, to his credit, has denounced the birther nonsense and gone on to call other completely fabricated, fact-free positions like the "death panels" promoted by Half-Term Governor Palin and her flock, "just the lowest form of political leadership. It’s not leadership. It’s demagoguery."
Some Republicans take comfort in the fact that the Tea Party isn’t really a party and had no real hierarchic organization or unified platform in the last election. They see it more as an emotional spasm, the Perot Party Version 2010, and that it will pass. But the 110 newly elected representatives on Capitol Hill who were elected with some Tea Party affiliation are now starting to coalesce into a driving force. If they can effectively form and maintain the discipline of a caucus then they have a chance at further institutionalizing and preserving their movement.
In some respects this might be seen as democracy at work. The problem is we are taking an affliction of democracy — ignorance — and turning it into a political movement. This may be disturbing to all those who have a passing interest in the facts, but it creates a special burden for those who must oppose the movement, because those on the other side are actually immune to rational argument, by definition allergic to it.
It now falls to the mainstream Republican leadership, especially to presumptive Speaker John Boehner, to control this group and limit its worst traits. And all spirited Americans who can read and write ought to be pulling for him. Because if he fails, America will face the threat of the spread of a strain of reckless demagoguery unprecedented in our history, a Snookidemic that threatens to effectively lobotomize the body politic.