Of watching bad people overreach.
Boethius was a high ranking Roman political hot shot before his wheel of fortune turned. In 523 A.D., rivals had him imprisoned and later executed. While he was awaiting his death he wrote The Consolation of Philosophy, a dialogue in which he contrasts the corruption and wickedness of the world with the higher philosophical values of beauty and wisdom and whatnot. (I admit I have never read the entire work, and that I was first introduced to it, like most people, as a plot point in A Confederacy of Dunces. Still, you get the gist). When Boethius was being tortured until his eyes bulged out before his death, one hopes that he was soothed by the knowledge that there were purer things floating around out there in the ether, somewhere.
It’s a sweet concept, being consoled by knowledge. Reading history can have this effect also. The simple realization that we are not living in the worst of times can be a sort of balm. It is true, for example, that our tax system is insufficiently progressive, but then again, in 12th Century Cyprus, they used to set packs of hungry dogs on the peasants who couldn’t come up with their tax payments. There is a certain amount of progress there. Think Covid was bad? You should have seen the Black Death? Upset that your local officials made an unwise zoning decision at the latest planning board meeting? Hey, at least you’re not being gunned down by a German machine gun at The Battle of the Somme! You know? For those of us who are not religious, this sort of intellectual comfort is the closest thing we can get to the invincible feeling that salvation awaits. It is the consolation of a thin sheet on a freezing night. Not the best, necessarily, but something.
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It is this sort of consolation that I have been thinking about as I watch Christian fundamentalist zealots and their allies of convenience slam shut a long-cultivated political bear trap in every red state legislature. After decades of vows and rhetoric, all the abortion bans are finally here. A twelve-week ban just passed in North Carolina, joining the new six-week ban in Florida as steps to cut off some of the last islands of availability for women in the South. It’s easy to remember that when the Dobbs decision was released, the idea of these sort of bans still seemed surreal. Now, we are well on our way to the effective eradication of legal abortion access for a large swath of America.
But Republicans are the dog that finally caught the car. Only a third of Americans actually have any appetite for these kinds of restrictions. Having known many Republicans in my life, I would estimate that that’s about the same portion of elected Republicans who actually believe in this sort of medieval shit in their hearts. The rest are just opportunists who have now been placed in the uncomfortable position of having to back up their own sloganeering. The zealots are functionally insane and cannot be reasoned with; the opportunists are just contemptible slimeballs willing to cause any amount of suffering and embody any amount of hypocrisy in exchange for power. The Republican Party, which exists primarily to protect the rich, married itself by necessity to the Christian right, and now all the business people are being forced to make good on a lot of IOUs they never really wanted to pay. Their insincerity can be measured by adding up how many of them will, in coming years, quietly seek abortions for themselves or their children or their friends or their family members. You can be certain the number will be high.
The Republicans have overstepped. They have pursued the siren call of the culture war down some very dark alleys, and they have welcomed in an enormous contingent of lunatics and freaks, who have gained far more power in the party than the establishment people ever intended. It’s not just abortion where this is showing. Bizarre legislative pogroms against trans people; pathetic, mealy-mouthed inaction on gun control that becomes more obviously grotesque with each passing mass shooting; threats to default on debt and tank the global economy as a bargaining chip to achieve… more pollution? This isn’t what Mitch McConnell is interested in. He and his fellow establishmentarians are interested in securing the lowest possible tax rate for the donor class. The rest of the stuff is just in service of that. All this cultural shit is the cult wing of the party. These people were only supposed to exist instrumentally in the Republican Party, as a pool of voters who could be tossed little bones in exchange for voting on the correct side of the class war. Now they are functionally in charge, the business Republicans don’t have the political chops to find their way out of this trap they have laid for themselves. Their rhetorical ability has atrophied from decades of polite Chamber of Commerce luncheons. They don’t have the fire. So they continue to duct tape themselves to the freaks and sail into oblivion, as the median voter recedes in the distance.
The only reason the party itself hasn’t faded into permanent minority status is that it is insulated by the inherently anti-democratic structures and practices in our political system—the Senate, the Electoral College, the Supreme Court, gerrymandering, etc.—and on top of that the more and more blatant attempts by Republican state legislatures to cement single-party rule while they can. All of these things are well documented elsewhere. Suffice it to say it is not a mystery why a party that represents the interests of the economic top 20% and the politically extreme bottom 20% can manage to keep tapping 50% of the vote: because that is the system that we have. I’m not going to let this descend into a ponderous “we need systemic change” post but I WILL note that the drip-drip of evidence of laughable financial corruption of Supreme Court justices and the knee-jerk dismissal of that evidence by Republicans is just one more place where their hypocrisy may start embarrassing them in the eyes of the average viewer. People are willing to ignore a lot of corruption when it’s on their own team, but not an infinite amount.
When I talk to non-bad people who live in red states, they often seem overwhelmed by despair—convinced that they are a tiny minority in a state irrevocably controlled by crazies. In Mississippi, perhaps, this is true, but in most places, it’s not. The Republicans are right now sowing the seeds of the backlash that will either yank them out of power or force them to execute one of their trademark “I never believed all the stuff I very recently professed to believe” heel turns in order to remain viable. They are testing the limits of pushing our political system past its limits. I can be pessimistic, but I actually believe that a party representing a dead-end fifth of zealots and bigots and amoral scheming grifters will find itself shaken to bits by public anger before it succeeds in its project of dragging the United States of America back to the 1850s, socially speaking. The true believers in the Republican Party don’t have the juice, and they are outnumbered by allies of convenience who will, sooner or later, find the situation to be not very convenient any more.
All of this will be cold comfort to the women whose lives are destroyed by a lack of access to abortion care, and the trans people who are beaten in the streets by Fox News-encouraged mobs, and the kids who are shot in schools by the same sort of AR-15 that their Congressman posed with in a family Christmas card photo. This is not the consolation of a fairy tale, where the bad people are vanquished as soon as they step over the line. It’s more like the meager consolation that Boethius probably felt as they were dragging him off to die: The knowledge that the wheel would turn, even if he wouldn’t be around to see it. “It is because you don't know the end and purpose of things,” he wrote, “that you think the wicked and the criminal have power and happiness.”
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