Commentary

Daniel Lustgarten: The Republican approach is power for power’s sake

This commentary is by Daniel L. Lustgarten, M.D., a professor of medicine at the University of Vermont School of Medicine.

Recently, in an attempt at self-preservation, I have withdrawn almost entirely from any current events. Despite my efforts to withdraw, news of another terrible shooting — at the time of this writing, one in Buffalo, New York — inspired by something referred to as “replacement theory” has percolated through and got me thinking about a couple of things worth sharing. 

These “thing worth sharing” concern current political movements in the U.S. and their sources and foundations, consideration of which might be helpful in realigning how some people are internalizing and responding to the profoundly troubling realities of our time, individual responses en masse to which will determine a constructive future human history vs. a dystopian one, the latter increasingly looking like the more probable outcome. 

The U.S., though it has fallen from its heights of power and influence, remains enormously powerful and influential, and it is divided cleanly into two political spheres — one, embodied by the Democratic Party, which for its copious fecklessness, foibles and impotence does have a platform with clear foundations. The other, the modern “GOP,” has no platform but does have clearly defining characteristics, represents a proportional minority of the U.S. population, but is more effective in its messaging and its use of power, and in fact and in process is the dominant political party in the country. 

The Democratic platform acknowledges that there are major problems that require the scale of government to address. The most daunting challenge acknowledged is global warming, the party having long ago accepted the truth of the causative role fossil fuels play in rapidly accelerating global warming, not too huge a leap since the underlying science was demonstrated in the 1800s.  

The Democratic Party acknowledges that immigration policy must be fixed in a way that is humane, beneficial to the U.S. economy, and is willing to use as one of its centerpieces the bipartisan Bush43-era DREAM act. 

It acknowledges that economic policy for the past four decades has created an unsustainable and destabilizing concentration of wealth. 

It acknowledges that the Constitution of the United States has a hypocritical fault at its core regarding the essential equality of humans unrelated to their race or religious beliefs. 

It acknowledges that there is a problem of gun violence in this country related to unfettered access to increasingly powerful firearms and that, in large part, this problem is related to an arbitrary, selective interpretation of the Second Amendment (pedantically justified by “originalism”) as guaranteeing the individual’s right to own any form of firearm, that the phrase “well-regulated militia” can be ignored, that “originalism” can erase that first phrase but somehow cannot pertain to the technological evolution since the amendment was written between a musket and an AR-15 or a handgun. 

Foundational sources of these beliefs can be seen in the speeches and writings of people like Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, in terms of coming to grips with the basic equality of humans irrespective of the happenstances of their birth, and subsequently the civil rights legislative agenda of Kennedy, then Johnson. 

The concern about unrestricted wealth concentration has its roots in Theodore Roosevelt’s response to the Gilded Age and early American socialist movements; the acknowledgement of science as a guidepost in deciding public policy having its roots in the Age of Enlightenment in the thoughts of people like Rousseau, Hume and Hobbs, who were central to the constitutional philosophies of people like Jefferson, Franklin, Adams and Hamilton. 

The Democratic Party foundations can also be seen in understanding when the scale of government is required/necessary to address huge existential threats evident in the four FDR administrations. 

Let’s turn now to the modern Republican movement. To begin with, there is no official platform, but there are very clear perspectives in evidence every day in the news and on the lips of party leaders and spokespeople. The overarching one is to “own the libs”: that is, that anything the other side stands for must be wrong, anti-American, glib, elitist, and somehow just gross and offensive. “Liberal,” where the word is abstracted away from its roots where it contributes essential defining characteristics of the U.S. Constitution and the rule of law and twisted to mean something closer to “limp-wristed moron.”

The intellectual underpinnings of this perspective are writ large in the reportage on Fox news, the Laura Ingrahams and Tucker Carlsons who are paraded as reporters but are in truth celebrities of the Republican opinion-as-fact information base, which they are allowed to do after the Reagen-era gutting of the Fairness Doctrine. Under the umbrella of “owning the libs” are phrases and constructs such as “political correctness,” “do-gooder,” “cancel culture,” “defund the police,” “1619 Project,” “critical race theory,” “Black lives matter,” “baby killer” and, most ironically, “identity politics.”

While some of these phrases and constructs can in individual circumstances embody real issues, such issues can be sensibly discussed and addressed in their complex particularities. Instead, typically they are used as substance-free “I just won the argument simply by using this phrase” juggernauts for Republican debating points. 

Lying about the results of a free and fair election won by the other side and attempting a coup fits under this part of the platform, since it must be the case the election was stolen since the other side has no validity. The underpinnings of this kind of political strategy owes a great deal to the emerging political movement of the Third Reich with the advent of the Nazi movement in Germany in the late 1920s, as well as to Stalinist tactics distilling fear to maintain control, and as reflected in both of those movements the effective use of conspiracy, propaganda and misinformation.

Deftly using social and identity wedge issues to control its base, the Republican Party has concentrated wealth into fewer and fewer hands (disgracefully unopposed by neoliberalism). The signature conservative achievements of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision and the Trump corporate tax cut derive straight from what anyone who grew up in NYC and its surrounds in the 1970s will well remember has its perfect embodiment in the character of Donald Trump, who back then we knew to be a spoiled narcissistic racist child of an extremely racist slumlord, the latter who exploited the Title 1 programs of Robert Moses to amass wealth from the poorest, most dejected members of NYC society whose lives and neighborhoods were disrupted and destroyed to make way for highways and luxury properties for the rich while exacerbating poverty and urban blight and racial conflict. 

While there are many roots to the notion of “replacement theory” — now a major right-wing talking point — there is one source, a Founding Father of Replacement Theory as it were, who was appropriately widely reviled for his lunacy and psychopathy — namely one Charles Manson, whose “world view” was the inevitability of the “boogaloo,” the rising up of “white” Americans to once again take up their God-given role as masters of the U.S. 

For our fellow citizens who are somehow susceptible to this form of fearmongering by Tucker Carlson with nods and winks from Trump, realize you are trading in the likes of Thomas Jefferson for Charlie Manson. 

To summarize, most of today’s Republican leadership is a purely reactive species who worships power for power’s sake, who deftly uses social wedge issues to further concentrate that power, who needs no fact-based argument to address any issue of any substance. 

The modern GOP has mastered the rules of federal government to arrest any attempts to address any real problems, and in fact to determine the agenda to further concentrating power, they must ignore or dismiss or deny any reality. 

Their view on abortion is the perfect place to explore this aspect of the 21st-century Republican movement which begins with the false claim to be “pro-life” when in truth they are vehemently anti-abortion. In the real fact-based world, there is nothing pro-life about making abortion illegal, a central objective of the anti-abortion movement: 

1. Making abortion illegal does not lessen abortion incidence, as can be seen in a country like Brazil, where abortion is illegal, and rates steadily increased while in the U.S. they steadily decreased since the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.

2. Making abortion illegal will increase both fetal and maternal mortality, also demonstrated in comparison with Brazil and the States since 1973. 

3. Population and demographic data demonstrate consistent correlations between restriction of abortion access and increases in poverty and crime rates. 

So when a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece glibly asks the question: “So, Democrats, when do you think life starts?” they make front and center an issue that has nothing to do the realities surrounding the question of abortion. The answer to this question of course will vary irrespective of your political stripe, but it has zero bearing on the issue of a woman’s decision on whether to go forward with a pregnancy, or the associated support structures that effectively decrease the incidence of unwanted pregnancy and improve maternal and fetal well-being. 

The op-ed title is a quintessential own-the-lib “gotcha” moment: You can’t say when life starts, so how can you say you are not murdering someone when you abort them? etc. 

Personally, I long for a world where there is general agreement on its pressing challenges, which are very clear, simple and accessible to anyone with a basic education to understand. 

Fact: More guns mean more gun deaths. We in this country have now clearly proven that hypothesis. To fix this problem, we have to limit access to guns, and rethink our bizarre obsession with them. 

Fact: Population explosion, unsustainable resource utilization, destabilizing wealth concentration are now coming home to roost for humanity and all our cohabitating species on this amazing planet. There is plenty of room for reasonable debate regarding the private sector and government addressing those issues with the best of human ingenuity and capability, and I would love to see this nation be truly great in leading that charge, as it pointedly, heartbreakingly is in the position to do. 

All it would require as a starting point is defining and confronting verifiable facts, instead of twisting them to gain a pyrrhic upper hand. And then have the courage to implement the changes needed to fix them. 


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