Defining Crazy

On Monday night, before the first of the Republican presidential debates on Thursday night, CNN listed what you need to know about this debate – which is on Fox News. CNN will host one later – but what you need to know is that this debate is fifteen months before the presidential election and a full year before the Republicans choose their actual candidate. It may not matter much, except that Fox News decided to limit the participants to the ten candidates who ranked highest in the usual national polls, and one national polling firm, Marist, decided to stop polling on Republicans for now, because they didn’t want to have anything to do with this nonsense, and the seven candidates who know they’re not going to make the cut are hopping mad. Roger Ailes, who runs Fox News for Rupert Murdoch, just told them they’re not worthy – they’re simply losers. They all say that’s not right. Who made him king? But they may be secretly relieved. Donald Trump now leads in all the polls – he’s way ahead – and at one time or another he has called every other Republican candidate a total fool.

It may be best to not make the cut. Let the others face Trump on Thursday night. He’ll say something outrageous, dare anyone to say he’s wrong, then, if anyone says he’s wrong, he’ll say he’s rich, really rich – and they’re not. This debate won’t be about issues. It won’t be about policy. It will be about who is willing to be bold – who’s willing to say crazy things that top the crazy thing that Donald Trump just said, rather than look like a meek coward. This promises to be extremely uncomfortable for the others on stage and highly entertaining for the millions who will now tune in, just to see the craziness.

Andy Borowitz provided his typical satiric take on this:

As preparations get under way for the first Republican Presidential debate, on Thursday night, a new poll shows that Americans are deeply concerned that the rest of the world might see it.

According to the poll, there is widespread fear that, if the debate were to be viewed in foreign countries, the cost to the United States’ prestige around the world would be incalculable. …

Those surveyed strongly agreed that the U.S. government should block the foreign transmission of the debate, or that Fox News should air an explanation of the contest beforehand, but they were at a loss as to what that explanation could possibly be.

It may be too late for explanations:

Lindsey Graham put his cell phone in a blender. Rand Paul stuffed the tax code into a wood chipper. And on Monday, Ted Cruz became the latest Republican presidential contender to resort to a viral video to distinguish himself from his rivals.

The new video produced, by IJReview, the conservative media outlet that brought you such hits as “How to Destroy Your Cell Phone with Lindsey Graham,” features Cruz demonstrating how to cook bacon the way he claims they do it in Texas. In the video, Cruz wraps a strip of bacon around the barrel of a machine gun, covering it in tin foil, then shooting at a target until the grease starts to drip onto the cement. Cruz then unwraps the tin foil and takes a fork to the sizzling meat. “Mmm, machine-gun bacon,” he says. Then he tilts his head back slightly and laughs.

One thinks of Homer Simpson and donuts – “Mmm, donuts!” And anyone in Europe or Asia seeing this Cruz video would be puzzled. Are the Americans this crazy? They’d elect this guy as president? But of course this is Cruz trying to out-Trump Trump.

There’s a lot of that going around, but back in April, Joel Connelly caught Ted Cruz making an actual argument:

The right to gun ownership in America is not just about hunting, or protecting property and person, but “the ultimate check against government tyranny,” argues a fund appeal from Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

The Cruz fundraising letter echoes arguments made by militia groups, and a far-right demonstration last winter that followed voter passage of an initiative requiring criminal background checks for gun purchasers.

“The Second Amendment to the Constitution isn’t just for protecting hunting rights, and it’s not only to safeguard your right to target practice,” said Cruz, a former Texas solicitor general.

“It is a Constitutional right to protect your children, your family, your home, our lives and to serve as the ultimate check against government tyranny – for the protection of liberty.”

Lindsey Graham, the senator from South Carolina who also wants to be our next president, responded with this:

“Well, we tried that once in South Carolina. I wouldn’t go down that road again,” Graham told reporters in Washington, D.C. Graham was referring to South Carolina as the first state to secede from the Union after Abraham Lincoln was elected president, and site of the first shots fired in the Civil War.

“I think an informed electorate is probably a better check than, you know, guns in the street,” Graham added.

It’s probably not wise to implicitly call for the violent overthrow of the government of the people, by the people, and for the people, because the majority of the people agreed to implement a policy that you think restricts your freedom – to buy guns, to drive as fast as you want on any highway, to own slaves – whatever. But it is bold to claim majority rule is tyranny, that democracy is the enemy of liberty.

This is also not new. In 2010, when Sharron Angle was running against Harry Reid out in Nevada she said this:

You know, our Founding Fathers, they put that Second Amendment in there for a good reason and that was for the people to protect themselves against a tyrannical government. And in fact Thomas Jefferson said it’s good for a country to have a revolution every twenty years.

I hope that’s not where we’re going, but, you know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying my goodness what can we do to turn this country around? I’ll tell you the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out.

It sounded like she was calling for the assassination of Harry Reid. She denied she was saying, if he was reelected, Reid should be taken out back and shot, by true patriots. She was actually just calling for armed insurrection if Congress keeps doing stupid stuff – she seems to have had Obamacare in mind. It was pretty simple. In a representative democracy, if a majority of the duly elected representatives of the people vote for what those who put them in office pretty much told them to vote for, and what the majority passes into law is, in your opinion, wrong, then you have those Second Amendment remedies – get your gun and change the government. You do that if you believe in freedom – or maybe if you believe that what you see as freedom is far more important than majority-rule democracy. That had been a pretty consistent theme in all the Tea Party talk. They wanted to take their country back from the wrong-headed majority, who were foolish enough to elect Obama in the first place. That’s what Ted Cruz is still saying – Now With Bacon! Who doesn’t like bacon?

Bacon or not, that’s treason – that’s advocating the violent overthrow of the government. Lindsey Graham knew better. He had been a military lawyer. It’s better to vote, but this is the summer everyone is being bold, as bold as Trump, and that raises a question. Are all these candidates crazy? The New York Times has been hosting a forum on that question, and Paul Glastris, a special assistant and senior speechwriter to President Clinton from 1998 to 2001, is cautious about using that word:

Obviously, none of the candidates currently running for president is crazy in the common, dictionary sense of being insane or deranged, and journalists shouldn’t dismiss them by throwing that word around lightly. In general, this is a pretty impressive and accomplished bunch of candidates. But there are two ways in which all of us use the term “crazy” that I think can be helpful in deciding whom to trust with the most powerful office in the land.

The first is to ask whether an otherwise sane and capable candidate might make crazy, reckless decisions once on the job. Richard Nixon’s own staff worried about him in this regard, especially when he drank. Ted Cruz put himself in this category when he bucked his own party’s leadership and forced a government shutdown over Obamacare in 2013.

The second is to question the extent to which a candidate plays to what the blogosphere calls “The Crazy” – the tendency of some voters to believe, or to want to believe, or at least to want to be told, things that are plainly false and politically toxic. Donald Trump’s questioning of the legitimacy of Barack Obama’s birth certificate in 2011 and his more recent (and untrue) statements about Mexican immigrants and crimes are especially stark examples.

The problem is that this became the rule, not the exception:

House Speaker John Boehner refused to repudiate birtherism in 2011 and said only that he takes Obama “at his word” that he’s a Christian. Indeed, on issue after issue, plenty of “sane” candidates and elected officials routinely feed The Crazy with over-the-top rhetoric about how Obamacare is like slavery, Obama is a psychopath, the Iran nuclear deal is worse than Munich, and we’re at a tipping point where government dependency wipes out America’s capacity for self-government. All that apocalyptic rhetoric encourages an apocalyptic politics in which it becomes acceptable to believe that desperate measures must be taken.

It’s not crazy to worry about that.

In the same forum, Dan Carter, a historian and author of The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics – a rather depressing book – offers this:

In 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower contemptuously dismissed ultra-conservative businessmen who sought to “abolish Social Security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs.” There numbers were few, he told his brother, Edgar, “and they are stupid.” When George Wallace entered the 1964 Wisconsin presidential Democratic primary to oppose Lyndon Johnson, prominent civic, religious and political leaders across the state dismissed Wallace as a Southern bigot; the state’s Democratic governor, John Reynolds, confidently predicted the Alabama governor would receive only marginal support. Racism, he seemed to assume, was a Southern problem. But on Election Day, 36 percent of Wisconsin’s white voters in the Democratic primary cast their ballots for Wallace. By the time he made his third run for the presidency in 1972, subtle appeals to white backlash had become a central element in Republican Party strategy and the anti-government, anti-labor views dismissed by Eisenhower are major talking points for today’s GOP candidates.

All this is to simply say: the extremist, or “crazy,” politics of one generation can become the mainstream of the next.

Vilification and character assassination have always existed in American politics. What is different today is the willingness of major candidates – mostly Republican – to engage in the kind of personal attacks on opponents that even a George Wallace avoided. And much of the credit for this change goes to Newt Gingrich whose famous 1990 memo to Republican candidates urged them to use a glossary of invective words to attack Democratic candidates: “traitors,” “radicals,” “sick,” “bizarre”, etc.

Blame it on Newt, or as Josh Marshall does, on a basic strategic decision:

Several days ago, perennial presidential candidate Mike Huckabee charged that President Obama was ready to lead Israeli Jews “to the ovens.” A few days later, he said he might use not only the FBI but even the US military to prevent abortions. And around the same time, Ted Cruz called Obama the world’s biggest funder of Islamic terrorism. There was a day when cracks like these would have stopped the political world in its tracks, spurring transgressive glee from supporters and outrage from liberals and normal people. But this summer, they’ve struggled to break through. And the reason is obvious: Donald Trump has flooded the market with a new, purer brand of Crazy that has left the other candidates scrambling and basically unable to compete.

Trump is now in the lead in virtually every national poll of the Republican primary race. It’s easy to overstate what that means since, in such a populous field, he can do that handily with something like a mere 20% support. But it is worth stepping back to see how we got here. Because Trump is in many ways the logical end result of seven years – really two-plus decades – of Republican cultivation of anger and grievance as a method of conducting politics. This is what brought us the 2010 and 2014 election triumphs on the one hand, but also government shut-downs, debt crises based on nothing, and more.

When anger and grievance are all you’ve got, some things are inevitable:

In a crowded field, for almost everyone but Bush, it’s critical to grab hold of the mantle of anger and grievance. But the Huckabees and Cruzes simply cannot compete with Trump, who is not only willing to say truly anything but also has – whatever else you can say about his nonsense – a talent for drama and garnering press attention honed over decades. With a mix of aggression, boffo self-assertion and nonsense, Trump has managed to boil modern Republicanism down to a hard precipitate form, shorn of the final vestiges of interest in actual governing.

Yeah, these guys don’t talk about actual governing, the boring stuff, at least boring to their constituents. There are no votes there, and then there’s Donald Trump:

In the economics of Crazy, there is purity and volume. Trump has brought to market a purer and more widely deployable product. He has also radically increased volume. Like a high-flying tech start-up or new drug syndicate, he has radically devalued the product, while dominating the transformed market in a way that allows him to make a killing even against reduced prices and margins. Many of us thought that the string of collapsed business deals and partnerships would hurt Trump. And they may have damaged his bottom line. But in the political realm they have only served to confirm his image as a no-nonsense (all nonsense?) truth-teller who is indifferent to how controversy may affect his personal fortunes. In both purity and volume, his competitors simply cannot compete.

Bush’s aides appear to think that Trump may actually be helping them in their fight with Scott Walker, drawing away lots of voters who would never have supported Bush and clustering them around a candidate who will never go all the way. That may be true. But the biggest loser is Ted Cruz. Cruz’s angle has been to be the one mainstream presidential contender who will take things just a little further than anyone else in the game. You’re for the 2nd Amendment? That’s great. But Ted is out there saying you need your guns ready in case you need to kill some federal officials who are endangering liberty. While the argument is well-know, few candidates for high office will quite go there. But Trumps do-anything, say-anything mode of militant nonsense has frozen Cruz out almost entirely. And his dipping poll numbers show it.

Now add this:

It’s not just Trump’s willingness to say anything, or his flair for the dramatic. All of his Republican rivals are residents of the CPAC circuit, the annual archipelago of Republican confabs and conventions where top Republicans go to rail about and outdo each other on what is a fairly narrow range of top concerns: Obamacare, immigration, radical Islam and whatever else. Trump is clearly playing on that terrain, too. His entry into presidential quasi-politics in 2012 after all was with a massive embrace of birtherism. In 2016, Trump has focused his ire on illegal immigration. But in some very significant way he comes from outside the professional right-wing presidential, rubber-chicken circuit, bubble.

That novelty and lack of normal political constraints is what is allowing him to run circles around his competitors who had hoped to play in the Crazy space. Showmanship, lack of touch with reality, and a palpable handle on the grievance and unrestrained self-assertion that is at the center of modern Republican base politics have made Trump, for now, almost impossible to outdo in a crowded field.

In short, Donald Trump has occupied the Crazy space, created by the careful cultivation of anger and grievance as a method of conducting politics, and supported by the infrastructure of talk radio and Fox News. He’s squatting there. There’s no room for anyone else – except there’s always room for more crazy, and Salon’s Joan Walsh found what that is:

I had a hard time taking this seriously, but the disgusting term “cuckservative” really is taking hold on the right. I’ll be honest: I learned about it a couple of weeks ago from the mild-mannered, clean-cut conservative writer Matt Lewis, but I thought he was making too much of it. It seemed like trying to shame one’s critics based on the behavior of the worst asshole in a comments thread. I didn’t bite.

Then “cuckservative” started showing up in my Twitter mentions last week, after I suggested Donald Trump supporters might not be the brightest bulbs. As I clicked around, I came to a shocking conclusion: I’ve been uncharacteristically downplaying the amount of racism and misogyny powering the right today. The spread of the epithet “cuckservative” is a sign that the crudest psycho-sexual insecurity animates the far right.

This makes a sort of sense:

“Cuckservative,” you see, is short for a cuckolded conservative. It’s not about a Republican whose wife is cheating on him, but one whose country is being taken away from him, and who’s too cowardly to do anything about it.

OK, that’s gross and sexist enough already, but there’s more. It apparently comes from a kind of pornography known as “cuck,” in which a white husband, either in shame or lust, watches his wife be taken by a black man. Lewis explains it this way: “A cuckservative is, therefore, a race traitor.”

This is not merely a new way to shout “RINO.” It’s a call to make the GOP an explicitly racist party, devoted to the defense of whites. It’s no accident it’s taken off in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign launch/performance art, where he attacked illegal Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “criminals.”

White nationalist Richard Spencer of the National Policy Institute explained Trump’s appeal to Dave Weigel: “a) he is a tougher, superior man than ‘conservatives’ (which isn’t saying much), and b) he seems to grasp the demographic displacement of European-Americans on a visceral level. We see some hope there.”

There’s much more, and Walsh sees this:

It seems like a natural if revolting development in a party that can’t wean itself from its reliance on overt and coded racial appeals to turn out its 90-percent-white voter base. The swaggering “common-sense” racism of Donald Trump is touching something deep in the conservative psyche.

Jeb Bush apparently thinks he can use Trump to beat Scott Walker and the 15 [16 now] other uninspiring Republican contenders and win the GOP nomination. But the Trump faction is determined to tear apart the party to make its racism explicit rather than coded. All the money in the world isn’t going to let Bush chase this conflict away.

There is a lot of “crazy” out there and this is part of it, along with the Ted Cruz machine-gun bacon, for those who feel it’s high time for a violent overthrow of the government – Timothy McVeigh was so misunderstood. Dylann Roof was so misunderstood.

No, none of them have gone that far – but it’s only a matter of time. Now nothing is crazy. Not anymore.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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