Mocking a Stammerer: Their Nonstop Ugliness Makes It Difficult Even to Keep Track of Republicans' Sneering Cruelty
A new article in The New Yorker by Susan B. Glasser appears under this headline: "The Rage of the Toddler Caucus on Capitol Hill." Focusing on the dysfunction among House Republicans in the immediate moment -- an incomprehensible mess that threatens the rather weighty consequence of another Republican-led government shutdown -- Glasser adds to the plentiful political literature likening Republican politicians to children at various stages prior to full and healthy adulthood.
We (and here I do include myself, without question) regularly describe Republicans as mean girls, high school bullies, infants, kindergartners, and so on. Often, as with Glasser's piece, the idea is to call out Republicans with the simple truth, which is that they are not acting like adults. Along those lines, yesterday's event staged by the House Judiciary Committee's Republicans, where they strutted their vacuous stuff by loudly and repeatedly insulting Attorney General Merrick Garland to his face, was less of a hearing and more of an extended attempt by Republicans on the committee to go viral in the right-wing echo chamber.
Those performances, however, were in some sense harmless. To be clear, the consequences of their overall dysfunction will be quite harmful, and if they were able to somehow fulfill their wish list regarding how the Justice Department is run (drop all investigations of Republicans, especially Donald Trump, while following every insane conspiracy theory about anyone named Biden), the death of the United States as an even semi-functioning democratic republic under the rule of law would happen even more quickly than I think is all but certain (2025, for the record).
What I mean by harmless, however, is that even though the clueless antics of the reality-avoidant majority in the House might involve yelling, lying, puffing out their chests, and so on, they are not necessarily doing things that are personally nasty, mean, or cruel — although they certainly could achieve the bad results that they want to achieve without acting like immature brats. Baiting Garland into an angry exchange, knowing full well that their favorite media outlets will mock him for "losing it" (even though his anger was fully understandable, as he reminded the people who accused him of religious discrimination of his own family's tragic losses due to the Holocaust), is a sad sight, to say the least, but to their very minimal credit, this is not a matter of attacking one person or a group of people who cannot defend themselves.
All of which is to point out that in fact much of what we think of as Republicans’ less-than-adult behavior is specifically about targeting the weak. In K-12, it is unfortunately the case that even the kids who are bullied for being different or perceived as weak are willing to turn around and victimize other kids when the spotlight of cruelty turns in a different direction. The trend in recent years of schools adopting anti-bullying policies was centuries overdue, and the policies are not merely there as a matter of "being nice" but of preventing depression, educational harm, and youth suicide.
When we label Republicans' behavior with child-centered terms like "playground taunts," therefore, a key distinction is often blurred. Are we saying that they are merely being immature or that they are being true bullies? Are they regressing to pre-adult methods in their political comments and actions, or are they doing what kids too often do at their worst moments: victimizing the weak and vulnerable?
One of the ways that Florida's current chief executive endeared himself to what he clearly views as a voting base that thrills to acts of cruelty is to kick down, repeatedly and harshly. Most infamously, he berated actual kids for the mortal sin of showing up to be props at one of his events while wearing masks -- an event that had nothing to do with Covid, by the way (it was about cybersecurity) -- but he also goes out of his way to bully reporters when they try to ask followup questions (sometimes even erupting at the first question).
Similarly, Ted Cruz at one point early in the pandemic refused to wear a mask and told a reporter who politely asked Cruz to mask up that he (the reporter) was "welcome to step away if you like." As I wrote in a series of columns a few months ago (the most recent of which can be found here), there is an unmistakable "come at me, bro" fake masculinity involved in all of this, which is itself deeply immature: "Oh yeah? You want me to do something I don't want to do? Make me!" The reason that this falls into the category of victimizing the weak is not that reporters are inherently weak but that the power dynamic of their job -- reinforced by their own professional standards of behavior -- forces them to ignore the provocations and not respond to being insulted or even threatened. What do we call it when a person lashes out at a person who everyone knows will not and cannot respond? One thing we do not call it is being a grownup.
One of the worst aspects of the right's culture wars is the insistence on finding the most vulnerable people to put into the Other category and then attack them. That this is coupled with the insistence that conservatives are the true victims (especially their incessant claims that Christianity is somehow disfavored in the United States) is especially galling, but even without that, it is important to remember where the grievance machine has taken the Republican Party. Who are they currently attacking most viciously? Trans people, especially trans kids, and especially especially trans kids who want to compete in athletics.
Republicans are truly being high school bullies, not merely in the sense of making eye-rollingly nonsensical "arguments" but in picking on the little guy. Similarly, although I fully expect the attack on Florida's universities to escalate, that they began with a test run against tiny New College and its proudly pluralist community was a matter of isolating the weakling and laughing while administering "discipline."
Politics does tend to bring out adolescent behaviors in the sense of relying on team cohesion, which can result in the occasional moment where losing candidates interrupt their concession speeches to scold their own supporters for booing the winning candidate. But it is different on the American right in recent years, and it is not isolated to strictly partisan events. More importantly, it was never inevitably cruel before now. "Nah nah nah nah, hey hey-ey, good bye" is silly and base, but it is not hateful or aimed to isolate and harm.
We must not forget that Donald Trump paid no apparent price with his base -- and might have even endeared himself to them -- when he mocked a disabled reporter, or that right-wing icon Rush Limbaugh similarly debased himself (as if he would even be able to process that idea) years before that by mocking the actor Michael J. Fox's Parkinson's disease, suggesting that Fox was faking his symptoms.
All of which brings me to the point that I am making in the headline to this column. Joe Biden has a stammer. He stutters. Everyone knows it. Famously, Biden comforted a young boy with a stammer in 2020, and the boy later spoke at the Democratic National Convention. In the exchange with that boy, Biden mimicked his own stutter, saying that he "use to t-t-t-talk like -- like -- th-this," saying that he (Biden) has had to practice how to suppress his stammer for this entire life.
Biden also knew, without being told, that that boy had been teased and taunted by, as Biden put it, "the kids who make fun." Although this behavior unfortunately happens throughout childhood, it seems to me to be the worst in pre-adolescence, with 9-year-olds saying things like, "Can't you t-t-t-t-talk, d-d-duh-dummy?!" I am certain that everyone reading this column can picture such a scene, and some of us even recall to our shame having at best not intervened. Kids see weakness and pounce.
And now, Trump and the Foxiverse are using Biden's stammers and stutters to mock him, feeding it into their incessant narrative that Biden is senile or has dementia. They might as well be standing in a circle around Biden on a playground, with Nelson Muntz in a MAGA cap leading chants of "Ha ha!!" Their "evidence" of his supposed mental incapacity involves easily explained matters like looking around after a speech to see where he should go next, or tripping over a sandbag (he was literally sandbagged) that was behind him. But it is all anchored by clips of Biden being less than crisp in his speaking.
Trump, of course, is hardly immune to verbal flubs. And people on the left do indeed make fun of him when he messes up. The difference is that Trump all but invites being called out on his hypocrisy (Biden is the one in mental decline?!), whereas Biden's lifelong speech challenges are used on the right to present him as a drooling moron. They did the same thing with now-Senator John Fetterman -- who was recovering from a stroke, for chrissakes! -- with one former Fox house referring to Fetterman as a "walking vegetable."
This is sickening. Even though politics ain't beanbag, it does not have to be yet another forum in which those who think themselves stronger go after people's weaknesses for sport. Joe Biden can defend himself, but the ugly coarsening of society affects everyone.