Projection, Preemptive Accusation, and Strategic Hypocrisy

by Neil H. Buchanan

There has been a surge of commentary recently about the Republicans' embrace of conspiracy-laden accusations against the Democrats, including the bizarre claim that the people who confronted Republican senators prior to Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation vote were yet another group of "crisis actors" who had been paid by (who else?) George Soros.  As familiar as all of this has become, fantasies like this still have the capacity to surprise because of their complete disconnect from facts and logic.

In my most recent Dorf on Law column, I discussed the paranoid underpinnings of these conspiracy theories, once again drawing from Richard Hofstadter's timeless 1964 essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics."  To the extent that Republicans actually believe their own craziness, they are under the spell of extreme paranoid delusions, especially now that they are railing against their "powerful" opponents whom the Republicans in Congress have already made powerless.  It is one thing to accuse someone of abusing her power; but it is another thing entirely to imbue her with imaginary powers that no one can see but that supposedly put all Republicans at risk.

As important as that discussion is, however, it is only one of several partially overlapping explanations of Republicans' current mindset and political strategy.  Here, I am interested in the various ways in which one can explain Republicans' repeated attacks on Democrats for doing things that Republicans themselves are in fact doing (or will soon do). Most importantly, some of the explanations imply a quite conscious decision by Republican strategists to lay the groundwork for future abuses of power.

Importantly, Republicans sometimes accuse Democrats of doing things that the Democrats are not doing at all.  That, of course, includes the crisis actors hoax that Republicans started pushing after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida and that they are now rolling out in the Kavanaugh post mortem.

It is quite common for Republicans simply to invent things that Democrats are supposedly doing and then to blame them for it.  Another example is Republicans' claims that they now feel physically threatened, when it is their side that talks about "Second Amendment people" and real, deadly violence against their opponents.

At the same time, the Republicans will often decry things that Democrats actually are doing, but Republicans' outrage nevertheless makes no sense.  Complaining about ultra-wealthy liberal donors operating behind the scenes -- often with that extra super-bigoty dollop of anti-Jewish paranoia (see esp. attacks on Soros) -- is simply strange coming from a party that runs its entire operation on the dime of a huge network of shadowy right-wing donors, including not just the Koch brothers but even some Jewish billionaires like Sheldon Adelson.

Is that hypocrisy, plain and simple?  Sure, but it is a lot more, and not just because the Republicans are doing what they accuse Democrats of doing but are obviously doing it to a much greater degree.  (Outside spending related to the Kavanaugh fight, for example, ran two-to-one in favor of conservatives.)  The careful use of such accusations provides cover for Republicans' longer-term interests.

At, the definition of "projection" includes this:
  1. Psychology.
    1. the tendency to ascribe to another person feelings, thoughts, or attitudes present in oneself, or to regard external reality as embodying such feelings, thoughts, etc., in some way.
    2. Psychoanalysis. such an ascription relieving the ego of a sense of guilt or other intolerable feeling.
Thus, when Donald Trump says that his opponents are making up facts or that they are stupid, he is merely projecting his own intolerable feeling that the world regards him as a liar and a fool.

In an unrelated context, a critic once accused Professors Colb and Dorf (in their book Beating Hearts: Abortion and Animal Rights) of being under the sway of "abortion rights dogma."  In response, Professor Dorf aptly described that attack as "an instance of the psychological phenomenon of projection: She inaccurately accuses us of being blinded by 'abortion rights dogma,' which is the mirror image of her own too-real affliction."

Where else are Republicans projecting?  Recall that Kavanaugh's tear-stained rant to the Senate Judiciary Committee included the accusation that Democrats were afflicting him because they were still angry about Trump's surprise win in 2016.  This was not only blatant partisanship (and an unsubtle call to Trump and his base) but merely the latest example of Republicans parroting that line.  The Republicans' second-ranking senator, John Cornyn, similarly said of Democrats: "They can't get over 2016."  Yet it is Trump and the Republicans who keep bringing up 2016, nervously defiant about their narrowest of wins.

Similarly, Antonin Scalia would tell liberals to "get over" Bush v. Gore, even as he and his tribe could never let go of Roe v. Wade.  And his party never got over Barack Obama's victories in 2008 and 2012.

How well have Republicans gotten over Robert Bork's rejection (after a full hearing and a bipartisan “no” vote) from the Supreme Court?  Again, Kavanaugh tellingly included his sides' failure to get over Bork as part of his disqualifying, face-contorting testimony.  And it is already clear that Republicans will never get over the Kavanaugh controversy.

So plain old hypocrisy as well as projection can explain much of what we are seeing from Republicans.  Still, there is more.  The cagiest move that Republicans make is to accuse Democrats of doing things that Republicans might be planning to do, in order to blunt the force of Democrats' responses.  It is a particularly nasty version of muddying the water.

The most extreme example of this strategy is Republicans' claims (which one hears often in the Fox-led echo chamber) that Democrats are engaging in a "coup" against Trump.  The nature of that coup is never clear, but it variously involves claims about the "deep state" and other assertions that Democrats are trying to bring Trump down, most obviously including Trump's attacks on Robert Mueller's investigators as "angry Democrats."  If inquiries that could lead to the constitutionally provided process of impeachment of a president constitute a coup, then we are in strange territory indeed.

What purpose is this claim of an attempted coup serving, other than attacking Democrats' immediate actions?  It can lay the groundwork for an actual coup by Republicans down the line.  I have noted on multiple occasions that Trump might simply refuse to leave office if he loses the 2020 election.  He will claim voter fraud, nefarious plots by Democratic operatives, and so forth.  He might -- indeed, I believe that he probably will -- say that he did not lose and that he will not leave the White House.

That would be an actual coup.  The advantage of using the word coup first, and using it to describe something that is not actually a coup, is thus to allow Republicans to say later, "We said all along that it's the Democrats who were trying to illegally overthrow Trump, and now these guys accuse us of plotting a coup?"

This preemptive accusation strategy is thus a twist on the playground taunt, "I know you are, but what am I?"  That retort is uttered in response to accusations, whereas Republicans do not wait to have something to which they need to respond.  They know that they can confuse the public by draining the meaning out of words, and then they can do what they want while saying that Democrats are guilty of doing the same thing.

This is, therefore, yet another variation on the idea that mud-slinging gets everyone dirty or that it is too easy to forget who started a fight.  If Republicans want to make it impossible for Democrats to take the high ground, they have discovered that they only have to repeat endlessly baseless accusations that will then make the public think that "they're all lying and embarrassing themselves."

Fittingly, Newt Gingrich emerged from under his rock after the Kavanaugh mess to offer this advice to Republicans: "Keep them on defense. Remind people of how rabid these people are."  This is not merely hypocrisy (from the man who taught Republicans how to be rabid); it is strategic hypocrisy, setting the stage for even more rabid behavior by Republicans later.

Republicans of course succeed when the public believes them and disbelieves the Democrats, but they also succeed in undermining government by undermining trust in the political system itself, because a neutered government does not stop the powerful from abusing their power.

Getting out front is actually the most effective form of this strategic hypocrisy.  Saying, for example, that "they're going to steal the election" allows Republicans then to steal elections and to defend themselves by saying that Democrats are well known as the election-stealers.  Confusion and chaos, as we have now seen all too well, are essential to the Republican brand.