The Republican National Convention may be built around the cult of personality of Donald Trump, who is stronger, faster, smarter, richer, more magnanimous, truthful and handsome than any human in history, but even the unparalleled glories of Trumpism are, in the end, mere reflections of the party’s true obsessions: persecution and aggression.
Those themes shape the rhetoric that conveys conservative values and inform the fantasies that occupy the party’s large and growing cohort of conspiracy theorists. They also reveal how thoroughly American conservatives view themselves as the unwilling subjects of liberal judgment, forever squirming beneath a hostile other’s gaze.
No healthy political party would elevate, and celebrate, the St. Louis couple whose great public contribution was pulling an AR-15 and a pistol on protesters who marched past the couple’s house on their way elsewhere. But Mark and Patricia McCloskey, who face low-level felony charges for “unlawful use of a weapon” and seem to have short-changed their palazzo taxes, are the quintessence of the GOP. First they felt persecuted by the presence of Black and brown strangers in their “quiet neighborhood.” Then they pulled out the home arsenal to wreak some vengeance.
In a long article in Politico this week, Tim Alberta spoke with Republicans about the wreckage of their party. The most concise accounting of moral and intellectual bankruptcy came from a longtime GOP congressional aide. “Owning the libs and pissing off the media,” Brendan Buck said to Alberta. “That’s what we believe in now. There’s really not much more to it.”
There’s a long, tragic backstory to all that, of course. But owning the libs and angering the media provide catharsis from the incessant moral demands and fact shaming that torment conservatives. Why do liberals and the news media always put the abductions and caging of migrant children in the harshest possible light? Why can’t Republicans be allowed to believe that Trump acted competently and vanquished the “Chinese virus”? Why all the censorious fact-checking?
Conservative victimization is the chaser that follows each shot of disaster -- Iraq, Katrina, financial meltdown, Trump, COVID-19. The drinking ritual is so ingrained, and the inevitable liberal condemnation of the drunk drive home so dizzying, that large numbers of white Christian Republicans readily convince themselves that they are an oppressed minority, subject to greater discrimination than Blacks or LGBTQ Americans or even Muslims.
Writing more than a century ago, W.E.B. DuBois wrote of the “double consciousness” that American Blacks acquired as a survival mechanism. A Black American, DuBois wrote, is a dual being, who is “always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
White conservatives are not a brutalized minority in an authoritarian system enforced by racial terrorism, as the subjects of DuBois book, “The Souls of Black Folk,” from which the passage above is taken, emphatically were. But as liberal facts, however self-serving, continue to shame (“own”) conservative fantasy, conservatives are acquiring their own version of double consciousness, viewing themselves through the real or imagined condescension -- “amused contempt and pity” -- of liberal enforcers. That the hated liberal cities, powered by mistrusted high-education elites, have been the economic engine of the nation only heightens resentment and justifies further backlash.
Metaphorically outgunned, conservatives stockpile genuine arms. Perceiving themselves caricatured by sneering elites, they watch nightly Fox News caricatures of liberalism. Culture war and racial Armageddon, with the prospect of various shades of Obamanauts ruling the land in perpetuity, threaten the conservative homeland like nothing before. These threats sanctify the most reckless counterattacks, including potentially fatal assaults on democracy and rule of law.
Persecution, or the perception of it, has hardened the conservative soul, which wasn’t all that pliable to begin with. As Dallas Rev. Robert Jeffress famously said in 2016, a thuggish president isn’t a moral and political calamity; it’s the answer to White evangelical prayers. “I want the meanest, toughest, son-of-a-you-know-what I can find in that role, and I think that’s where many evangelicals are,” he explained. Better to wreck everything than let liberals run it.
This week’s convention marks another milestone in hazy double consciousness and the interplay of persecution and aggression. Conservatives rightly assume that liberals expect an embarrassing carnival of grifters, racists and demagogues. To own the libs, Republicans will exceed their expectations.
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist. -- Ed.