The Connection Between Indecency and Political Nihilism
by Neil H. Buchanan
Something very different has taken hold on the American right in recent years. That change began to emerge long before Donald Trump's 2015 announcement of his presidential run, but it obviously intensified immediately thereafter and has only become worse nearly every day over the last six-plus years. I have recently been describing that change as an outbreak of indecency, the borders of which are not bright lines but which is nonetheless much worse than garden-variety jerkishness (of which there is also no shortage these days).
In a Dorf on Law column on Monday of this week, I took a run at describing what makes indecency a categorically different problem for the country. I spent some time describing why some truly bad behavior -- the most prominent example of which is verbal abuse of restaurant servers and other retail workers -- does not (usually) cross over the line into being indecent.
To this point, however, I had not invoked one of the most famous and effective uses of the decency/indecency concept, which happened at the lowest point of the McCarthy red scare in the 1950's. Here, I want to bring that historical moment into the story and use it to further discuss why this metastatic indecency is distinct and dangerous.
In Monday's column, I referenced my discussion of Professor Dorf's recent decision to close comments on this blog, a decision that he made in response not only to an increase in the volume of trolling on the comment pages but also because of a notable turn toward ugliness in those comments. Along the way, I promised that I would offer a followup on an ongoing off-blog story in which one of the offending trolls had sent me an email asking: "Does it occur to you that you have such a problem with 'trolls' because no serious person would bother to read your column?"
In my column, I then wrote: "I will report back to our readers which way this person goes in the impossible dilemma that he has set up for himself: either swallow his anger or once again admit that he reads the blog after repeatedly claiming not to." We have our answer: Yup, he is still reading and still unable to contain his anger. Even so, there is an important difference -- and understanding that difference will advance the larger point about what puts indecency in a category of its own.
Specifically, the most recent angry email was not anywhere near indecent. It was merely incoherent, the kind of trolling that I long ignored precisely because it induces eye-rolling rather than gasps. Especially because I argued in Monday's column that "punching down" is bad form, it is important not to pile on, even when someone all but says: "Thank you, sir, may I have another?" What I had called out was an actual example of indecency, whereas this email represented a return to form, not indecent and not worthy of engagement.
In short, there is a difference between being hapless and soulless. And although I could quote directly from the most recent email and spend time here picking it apart, there is no need, because there are so many examples of this type of thing in on-record comments by Republican officeholders. For example, after President Biden's fiery speech in Georgia this week, where he at long last described Republicans' neo-Confederate actions for what they are, many Republicans reached for the smelling salts to stop themselves from swooning at the impoliteness of Biden's comments.
A particularly interesting case in point came from the senior U.S. Senator from my state, who gave a snarky floor speech and then tweeted: "The Democrats don't care about riots or voting rights. This is all about power." To which the only answer is: "Ya got the last part right -- but not in the way that you think." Yes, it is all about power, and Democrats care very much about riots and voting rights because Republicans are amassing power in a way that threatens the future of democracy.
When Republicans say that Democrats are trying to make it so that Republicans can never win elections again (as the good senator also claimed), it is not only projection -- because that is exactly what Republicans are doing -- but another version of a self-own: "Democrats are trying to allow more people to vote, and if they do that, Republicans' views are so unpopular that we'll never win again." It is the difference between "can't win because the other side cheats" and "can't win because we'd lose a fair fight every time."
But again, this is merely hapless nonsense. It has high stakes, and it is deeply indecent to support the kind of race-motivated voter suppression that this senator and all of his Republican colleagues (along with Republicans in nearly every state government) enthusiastically support, but like the Dorf on Law troll, this kind of non-arguing is not a fundamental break with previous norms. It is merely silly.
Moving from words to actions, there is still a difference between "indecent" and the much larger category of "things that shouldn't happen." For example, old-fashioned dirty political tricks like running a candidate with the same name as one's opponent are bad. A future Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court intimidating minority voters is much worse. But they still fall short of the kind of norm-busting ugliness at issue here.
In the Army-McCarthy hearings, the most searing moment came in 1954, after Joe McCarthy had spent years destroying people's lives in his hunt for Communists working in the government, Hollywood, and so on. On one fateful day, when McCarthy began an attack on one of the younger lawyers who opposed those efforts, Army chief counsel Joseph N. Welch had finally seen enough: "I beg your pardon. Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"
I assure readers that Mr. Welch was not saying that McCarthy was being rude. This is not in the same ballpark as berating a waiter or a cashier.
Again, being a jerk -- even a HUGE jerk -- is not what is at issue here. It is sadly the case that some abuse of retail workers does fall squarely on the other side of the line, with shocking reports of monstrous insults about workers' intelligence, race, gender, and so on. "I hope you get hit by a truck and that your children die on the street" is more than merely a few gradations from, "Hey, maybe you could stop sitting on your ass and get us our food," or even, "What do you mean, we have to wait? There are empty tables. Are you an idiot?"
The latter is bad, but I doubt that anyone who has worked in retail would view that as much worse than a bad day with the occasional memorably nasty customer. The former, however, is simply cruel and dehumanizing. The legal term "shocks the conscience" is notoriously difficult to define or cleanly distinguish from what falls short of it, but it has been used in courts for years. It is a recognition of the difference between degree and kind.
In Monday's column, shortly after I called former (but maybe current) New York Times columnist Frank Bruni an "intellectual lightweight," I offered this: "Am I being harsh in describing Bruni? Absolutely, as he so richly deserves. Is this anywhere near the line of indecency? Be serious." One can argue about whether this is a moment in which one catches more flies with honey than vinegar, but that is a question of tactics. A gloves-off public argument, whether it comes from people with whom I disagree or from my allies (and me), is blunt but nothing more.
A recent example of being on the wrong side of the line came after the tragedy late last year in which the actor Alec Baldwin fired what was supposed to be a prop gun on the set of a movie, but the gun fired a live round and killed a person standing nearby. A tragedy. But because Baldwin is a well-known liberal, he was of course attacked by Trumpist conservatives. Ohio's U.S. Senate candidate J.D. Vance decided to taunt Baldwin by tweeting that Twitter should allow Donald Trump back on the platform. Why? "We need Alec Baldwin tweets."
That is, Vance knew that Trump would exploit tragedy for political gain, and Vance begged Twitter to provide a megaphone for the inevitably indecent comments that Trump could provide. The best responses to Vance's taunt included Michael McKean's: "Um...you’re coming across as a piece of shit. Is that what you were going for?" and Democratic congressman Tim Ryan's: "Someone died, you asshole."
McKean turned the harshness up to 11, but was he indecent? Of course not. Ryan was indelicate, but was he indecent? No, this was an emphatic response to indecency.
Vance, however, was surely right that Trump would have delivered the goods. The man who mocks sexual assault victims for not being attractive enough to rape, who insults the looks of a female presidential candidate and the wife of a (now utterly servile) male presidential candidate, who cannot even contain his disdain for the parents of dead U.S. soldiers or Republican war heroes? That man is your go-to source for exploiting tragedy in the most indecent way possible. And his supporters love it.
As I wrote in Monday's column, however, indecency can come at us not only sporting a snarl on its uncaring face. It can be quite genteel, ridiculing people who are needy and desperate for being needy and desperate, treating sick people as morally deficient and thus deserving of whatever happens to them.
When Dick Cheney decided to lie us into a war that would kill hundreds of thousands of non-Americans and many thousands of Americans, that lie was indecent. When Mitch McConnell quietly but relentlessly stole a Supreme Court seat and rigged the courts, the results have been indecent. Putting Republicans' longstanding and shameless pursuit of power together with the personal ugliness of Donald Trump's "personal style" has led to the political nihilism that we see from today's American right. Dehumanizing one's opponents makes it easier to, at long last, have no sense of decency.