This Is The Face Of The GOP Now

The descent from conservatism to nihilism is now complete.


For anyone with eyes not blinded by tribalism or ears deafened by denial, what happened in Washington this week was always going to happen. 

Trump’s character and profound psychological deformation always, always meant he would not relinquish power without an almighty struggle. We elected an instinctual tyrant, preternaturally incapable of understanding the give and take of democratic politics, for whom losing in any contest threatens the core of his very being, and who has no effective control over the roiling emotions that course through his thickened arteries.

Some of us were ridiculed for saying from the very beginning that there would have to be some kind of violence to remove him, if he were to lose the next election. We still are. We’re called victims of TDS, or Trump Derangement Syndrome, as if this were not the only sane position when a delusional, malignant, tyrant-wannabe has an entire political party in his grip, aided and abetted by tribal media tools. For myself, from the very beginning, having examined Trump’s past and observed his plain-as-day pathology, I just couldn’t envision how this figure could psychologically, voluntarily ever leave the Oval Office. Every single day of his presidency has confirmed this. He has blown through every guardrail against presidential abuse that exists.

Trump is now and always has been delusional. He lives in an imaginary world. His insistence that he won the last election in a “landslide” is psychologically indistinguishable from his declaration on his first day that his Inaugural crowd was larger than his predecessor’s. For four years, the actual evidence did not matter. It still doesn’t. Any rumor that helps him, however ludicrous, is true; every cold fact that hurts him, however trivial or banal, doesn’t exist. For four years as president, any advisor who told him the truth, rather than perpetuating his delusions, had an immediate expiration date. For four years, an army of volunteer propagandists knowingly disseminated his insane, cascading torrent of lies.

And Trump really believes these fantasies. He is not a calculating man. He is a creature of total impulse. As I wrote almost five years ago now, quoting Plato, a tyrant is a man “not having control of himself [who] attempts to rule others”; a man flooded with fear and love and passion, while having little or no ability to restrain or moderate them; a “real slave to the greatest fawning,” a man who “throughout his entire life ... is full of fear, overflowing with convulsions and pains.” For the ancients, a tyrant represented the human whose appetites and fantasies had no form of rational control.

This is dangerous in normal times. In an emergency like Covid19, it turned catastrophic. For Trump, the virus could not exist or would disappear all of a sudden because it might threaten his re-election. Anything in the press that did not reflect his own reality was, in his mind, invented. Dozens of lawsuits that failed to prove any fraud in the election were simply proof that the conspiracy against him was even bigger. His own propaganda channel, Fox News, broadcast Trump’s delusions as if they were true for five long years. But as soon as their off-camera nerds reported actual election results, Fox too had to be anathematized as fake. His vice-president, the most shameless lackey of them all, eventually could not force himself to do something that was feasible only in Trump’s imagination — and so, he too became a traitor in the bitter, bunker end. 

The storming of the Capitol this week to stymie, prevent or postpone the certification of the election results, was therefore, in some ways, a metaphor for the entire four years. It was both absurd and terrifying. It was a violent insurrection against democracy, but it was also a scene from a bad dream about Burning Man. Wild-eyed men wandered around carrying the Confederate flag; crazed fanatics talked of how to execute Mike Pence for treason; a Q-Anon crazy, dressed in furs and Viking horns, with a painted face, commanded the floor of the House. It was sedition as some form of cosplay. It was deadly, but also performative. It was as if the storming of the Bastille ended with selfies.

The pièce de resistance was captured, as so often, by Olivia Nuzzi, who reported that Trump, after cheering the mob on, telling them he would join them, refusing to tell them to call it off, and trying to hold off the National Guard, eventually soured on the rioters as “low class.” He didn’t mind the insurrection; he just objected to the aesthetics!

He is out of his mind. There has been no change in five years, except a faster version of the decline of sanity in anyone wielding that amount of power for that long. The hostage video he put out last night — which some of his followers, of course, believed was a deep fake — was obviously an insincere attempt to prevent legal liability for the insurrection he had just incited. Today, however, he is back to normal, repeating his claims of fraud and acknowledging he will not attend the Inauguration of Biden, his last act of contempt for democratic processes that help heal the divides from fiercely contested elections.

This is who he is. He will doubtless launch a never-ending campaign to delegitimize the next administration, to polarize us even more deeply, to render what’s left of liberal democracy a smoldering ruin. The people finally acknowledging that they have been enabling a madman for years deserve our gratitude for their late recognition, but can never be free of the shame they will carry for the rest of their lives. 

There is a temptation to believe that this is finally over. But for as long as this man exercises the powers of the presidency, it isn’t. He has used the power of the pardon these past few years to obstruct justice, to prevent vital testimony in a legitimate investigation, and to reward friends and relatives. In recent weeks, we’ve been told, he has also discussed the possibility of a proactive pardon for himself and his own family that will only cement his legacy of a presidency beyond the reach of any checks and balances. The next ten days, as he is cornered, are among the most dangerous. He could do anything. I favor a second impeachment, swiftly executed. The goal at this point is to get him out of there before he does even more damage, to keep him on the defensive, and to bar him from running for office ever again. This is where we are. 

It pains me to say it, but this week was, in many ways, the essence of American “conservatism” in 2021. It has morphed from a politics to a theological movement to a personality cult. It is a threat to the very foundations of liberal democracy. It is nihilist, performative, incoherent and bristling with the certainty of fundamentalists and the corruption of grifters. It has destroyed this country’s fiscal standing, wrecked this country’s international reputation, trashed the norms and practices of liberal democracy, perverted the rule of law, accelerated climate change, and now physically vandalized the most sacred civil place in America. 

And for what? Ratings? Soaring and destabilizing inequality? A national debt previously unthinkable in peacetime? Thousands and thousands of viral deaths that might have been prevented by the simple act of a president wearing a mask in public and urging others to do the same? The eradication of a shared concept of truth? The embrace of Kim Jong Un? The delegitimization of the entire press? The rehabilitation of Putin? The wet dreams of Netanyahu? Or the acceleration of Iran’s nuclear bomb? Pick one or all of them. The last two Republican presidents have ended their terms with the country in ruins. We cannot afford another one until the GOP is razed and rebuilt as a viable, democratic party.

“Remember this day!” Trump declared even after the disgrace had happened. And we will, we will. It exposed the GOP for what it is. These were not fringe loonies. Even after the sacking of the Capitol, a majority of House Republicans voted to endorse the insane conspiracy theories of the seditionists and not to certify a legitimate and fair election. In a snap YouGov poll, a plurality of Republicans backed a violent assault to reverse an election result. A party that does this is not fit to exist in a liberal democracy.

My first desperate hope with this administration was that it would plummet so far in popularity so quickly it would cause a revolt within the GOP. Trump’s demagogic genius, the left’s radicalization, and the pull of tribalism soon put an end to that delusional hope. My second was a thorough repudiation of the GOP as well as Trump this past political cycle in what I hoped would be a landslide Democratic victory. The rhetoric of the far left and the burning of American cities last summer scotched that one, as the Congressional tally shows. So my third is simply that we will soon begin to treat these past four years as the quintessential cautionary tale in the narrative of America. In the future, if a president refuses to be accountable to Congress in any way, or obstructs justice or tells massive lies, or refuses to concede an election, he or she will be instantly stigmatized as being a version of Trump. 

My hope is that those who knowingly enabled mass delusion, insurrection and Constitutional chaos — like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley and Lindsey Graham — have no serious careers ahead of them; that those who served and enabled this president retreat from public life in the ignominy they so thoroughly deserve. My hope is that a Republican party emerges that is built on the anathematization of the last four years, a party that can address the deeper issues that Trump viciously exploited, and build a multi-racial coalition around actual conservative principles to address the clear needs of all Americans.

I can’t see this happening without a split, or an open internecine struggle. If the result is a deeper commitment to an ideology of stab-in-the-back neo-fascism inspired by a seditionist president-in-exile, then the GOP needs to be burned to the ground. But if someone can emerge who can marshal the ideas that helped the GOP make gains in the House last year, and excommunicate the seditionists and bigots and fanatics, then we have something to build on.

Joe Biden has a massive task ahead of him, but this week may help him find common ground with those Republican Senators who have begun to understand that the forces they have unleashed and enabled are deeply dangerous to the entire project of self-government in America. Since his election victory, Biden has struck the right note every time the country has needed him to. Steer us back toward a sane center, Mr President-elect. Save the soul of this teetering, torn remnant of a republic, before we lose it for good.

(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. If you’re not subscribed and want to read the whole thing, and keep independent media thriving on Substack, subscribe now! This week’s issue includes all the usual reader Dissents and my responses, a cascade of quotes on the madness at the Capitol, the Face of the Week — so difficult to choose among the many from Wednesday, a bunch of recommended reads, more window views, a Cool Ad Watch featuring a beagle, and a Mental Health Break video to leave 2020 behind. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)


New On The Dishcast: Shadi Hamid On The Capitol Crisis

A senior fellow at Brookings and a contributing writer at The Atlantic, Shadi runs a podcast and pens articles with Damir Marusic at the Wisdom of Crowds. He’s been a strong advocate of the argument that American democracy is resilient, and that Trump never represented an existential threat to American democracy. We debated this before, so I asked Shadi to come back and defend his case in the wake of the insurrection in Washington this week.

I also began the podcast with an extemporaneous rant about Wednesday. I needed to get it off my chest. Listen to the whole episode here. (That link also includes several reader dissents over my Black Christmas conversation with Caitlin Flanagan — our most popular episode yet.) To listen to two excerpts from my conversation with Shadi — on the silver linings of the Capitol crisis, and on the hypocrisy of much of the left right now — head over to our YouTube page.


The View From Your Window Contest

Where do you think it is? Email your entry to contest@andrewsullivan.com. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. Proximity counts. The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two annual Dish subscriptions. If you are not a subscriber, please indicate that status in your entry and we will give you a three-month sub if we select your entry for the contest results (example here if you are new to the contest). Happy sleuthing!

A sleuther wrote this week:

I am HORRIBLE at this window contest, but I love it. And I just subscribed to the Dish because I really enjoy reading the responses and seeing what folks have to say about their travel experiences. Like many readers, I travel vicariously through their stories.

Happy New Year to the entire Dish team. I’m glad I finally subscribed. I’m looking forward to reading Andrew’s take on things and seeing where y’all take us in 2021. Also, that photo from Burning Man sealed the deal; if y’all are willing to risk sending your readers a photo of naked folks jumping around — including an intact man front and center — I want to be here for the discussion. HA!! I really do appreciate that Andrew keeps pushing his ‘murican readership on MGM.

Looking forward to all the stories that will come from this week’s window.

The results for that window contest are coming in a separate email to subscribers later today. (You can always view prior contests on our archive page.) Also, speaking of Male Genital Mutilation, a bunch of tough reader dissents are coming in an issue soon. And speaking of those naked Burners, one of them immediately emailed the Dish:

This photo is myself, my husband, and our friends at Burning Man 1997. It was a project he thought of, called the Painted People Project, where we covered ourselves with fluorescent powdered pigment and ran around. It was very fun.

Let’s hope the Burn returns this year — the ultimate Mental Health Break. Until then, keep the dissents coming, along with anything else you want to add to the Dish mix, such as a view from your own window: dish@andrewsullivan.com. Please try to be concise with dissents. The newsletter format of The Weekly Dish is much more constrained than the old Daily Dish, so it’s more difficult to include your smart criticism when it stretches into many paragraphs.

See you next Friday.