GOP Descent into Mindless Meanness

Since the days of Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy”  a crass appeal to angry pro-segregationist whites the Republican Party has descended into a political nastiness that has corroded the foundations of American democracy, a problem that Lawrence Davidson examines.

By Lawrence Davidson

There is something disturbing about the hostile Republican response to just about everything that President Barack Obama does. It has a knee-jerk yet patterned nature, displaying a meanness that is expressed with a certain gloating quality as well.

Take for instance Republican Congressman Joe Wilson shouting “You Lie!” during Obama’s speech to Congress on health care. Wilson’s anger was displayed with the malicious satisfaction of a nasty child.

President Richard Nixon.

President Richard Nixon.

Subsequently, Republican politicians have called President Obama a “tar baby,” a socialist, lazy, Hitler, and perhaps most tellingly, un-American. None of these epithets is accurate, yet apparently they are believed to be true not only by the persons who said them, but many others among the Republican base. What is the reason for this?

The New York Times editors think Republican attitudes towards Obama are politically motivated. As they put it in an editorial on June 5, referencing Republican reaction to the negotiated release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from captivity in Afghanistan: “The last few days have made clearer than ever that there is no action the Obama administration can take, not even the release of a possibly troubled American soldier from captivity, that cannot be used for political purposes by his opponents.”

Of course the Democrats are political opportunists as well, but usually they do not operate in such a persistently mean-spirited manner.

According to liberal commentator M.J. Rosenberg, the source of Republican animosity is racial. “The right knows that nothing they can do will remove what they see as the the indelible stain of an African American president having been elected. Twice.”

However, seeing racism as a primary motivation is probably inadequate. The Republicans reacted in a similarly bloodthirsty way toward Bill Clinton when he was caught fooling around with Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office. At that time, Republican congressmen gleefully rushed to impeach Clinton even though a number of them had pursued extramarital affairs of their own.

Fear and Loathing

No doubt there are Republicans who are both racist and politically unprincipled in their attitudes toward President Obama. But it seems to me that there is something else going on – something repugnantly familiar – a suffocatingly narrow defining of the nation, an intolerance and disdain of everything outside of that definition, and belligerency toward those who disagree.

What some Republicans are doing is declaring President Obama not only politically wrong but downright un-American, someone who is, in essence, a traitor. Against this backdrop the Republican moderates are very few and very quiet.

The last time we got a glimpse of this attitude was during the 2011 televised Republican presidential primary debates. In December 2011, I wrote an analysis entitled “So What Shall We Ruin in November 2012?” that noted this outlook. Here, in summary, is some of that piece:

Most of the Republican nominees are reflections of the so-called Republican base, representatives of which constitute the audience for the presidential primary debates. There is something at once humorous and horrifying about this audience. Their cheers and jeers reflect attitudes that used to be seen only at drunken fraternity parties and out-of-control soccer games.

Who are these people with whom the Republican hopefuls now identify? They appear to be highly partisan Republicans who largely define themselves by what they don’t like: minorities, abortion, big government and the lack of religion in politics, among other things.

When we say these are aspects of society they don’t like we really mean that they feel personally threatened by them and see them undermining their way of life. Therefore, they approach those who appear to represent these aspects of public life with fear and loathing. People who meet this description make up about 20 percent of eligible voters in the U.S.


What is important to understand is that these are not just people addicted to a set of traditions. They are folks who possess a nebulous anger, which is the other side of the coin of their fear. This anger can potentially lead them to act in dangerous ways. And, of course in the U.S., most of these people are armed.

The Republican Party leadership, from Nixon onward, has catered to this 20 percent – not just because these leaders are political opportunists, but also because they have an unhealthy affinity for this population and its outlook. That today’s Republican leadership has this affinity constitutes one of the major differences between the Republican and Democratic parties.

On the Democratic Side

President Obama’s response to the consistent nastiness of his opponents is usually mild and ineffectual. For instance, referring to the stubborn Republican opposition to his health care reform, he complained, “This does frustrate me, [Republican-controlled] states that have chosen not to expand Medicaid for no other reason than political spite. You got 5 million people who could be having health insurance right now, at no cost to these states – zero cost to these states – [yet] other than ideological reasons, they have chosen not to provide health insurance for their citizens.” The President’s observation is quite true, but truth rarely breaks down the barriers put up by ideology.

Obama’s response reflects the liberal take on politics and social decorum.  Reason and compromise are supposed to be the guiding lights of domestic public life. While this might have been possible in the days before Richard Nixon led the Republican Party it is not so today.

As Obama realized, reason has nothing to do with Republican actions. Those actions are now directed by a nebulous ideology that partakes of anarchism, laissez-faire economics and neoconservative aggressiveness all at once. Underlying it all is a fear and anger that breeds meanness and the behavior of the bully.

Of course the Democrats are also capable of saying and doing stupid things. However, their foibles and hypocrisies tend to be based on misplaced principles (as against no principle at all). Take Secretary of State Kerry’s recent “Man Up” proclamation reported on May 29, referring to Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency (NSA) contractor who revealed that the agency was pursuing wholesale spying on just about the entire U.S. population. Kerry said the following: “The bottom line is this is a man who has betrayed his country, who is sitting in Russia, an authoritarian country where he has taken refuge. He should man up and come back to the United States.”

This was a stupid and misleading statement. It is actually U.S. leaders, starting with George W. Bush and continuing on with President Obama, who “betrayed their country” by allowing the NSA to run wild. Snowden just caught them at it and made their betrayal public. However, as distasteful and downright silly as is Kerry’s “man up” pronouncement, it lacks the hateful quality of the typical Republican attack stance.

There is a qualitative difference between today’s Democrats and Republicans. That difference does not lie in the potential to pursue policies that negatively impact the world. Both parties do that. The difference is in their attitude toward policy and action as such.

When it comes to the Democrats, particularly their supporting base, many of them seem to retain the ability to think critically about their positions and sometimes even change course. But with the Republicans, one gets the sense that they are really true believers. They see their positions and actions as absolutely right and good, and if you disagree with them, you are absolutely wrong and bad.

In other words, while both parties are often dangerously wrong, the Republicans are wrong in a demented ideological fashion. As such they really are more repugnant than the Democrats.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.

7 comments for “GOP Descent into Mindless Meanness

  1. Amanda Matthews
    June 15, 2014 at 12:57

    There is no justification for the racist things said about the President. These Hitler comparisons just make people look ridiculous. BUT here is something that should be tossed into the discussion as to why there’s little respect for the office of the presidency/senate/house. It is because from Nixon on , except for Jimmy Carter, the gentlemen who have occupied the White House, Senate, and House been blatantly lying to us, talking to us like we are idiots, ignoring what the people want and what would in the best interests of the country (i.e. the environment, jobs, out-of-control government intrusions into our lives, net neutrality, starting wars, etc.) and basically helping to stack the economy against the majority of us for the benefit of a few privileged families. And they do it with insults and condescension. And they treat each other the same way they treat the public.

    This ‘respect’ thing goes for everyone. Or else it does not work.

  2. nospringchicken
    June 13, 2014 at 19:13

    Perhaps Professor Davidson should read some articles on this website where he appears. The correct phrase for the Obama administration is not “misplaced principles” but “perpetual mendacity.” I could cite a hundred examples but that would be “impolite” and therefore like the Republicans that you condemn. Nevertheless I think Obama is a complete fraud and I’m a lifelong liberal. You, I’m not so sure about.

    So please stop getting the vapors over slanders and extreme rhetoric. It’s as old as the republic and yet somehow we survived. The Republican attacks may be hairbrained (socialist!…as if)and even racial but there is a more than a grain of truth in their belief that Obama is completely inauthentic. They just haven’t been able to quite put their finger on it.

  3. Daniel
    June 13, 2014 at 11:23

    Nice column on the differences between the attitudes of the two major parties, but I can’t see how it adds up to much at the end of the day. Sure, Repubs stoke their hungry-for-more-anger base and Dems court their intellectually lazy friends at election time, but in between, they both spend their time propping up the failure and rot that has permeated Washington for my entire lifetime, never changing a thing, doing the bidding of whatever rich group promises to keep them in ofice. There is no incentive for elected persons to provide for the general welfare of the people in an environment that sees only money and power as having any value.

    We should be focused far less on stylistic differences between the two parties (not that the result of their cynical voter manipulation isn’t dangerous) and more on the similarities in plight of the voters, which poll after poll tells us is a real, tangible thing, waiting to be addressed. A quality of life platform could become a rallying cry for the world’s working poor, which more and more of us are becoming.

  4. Eddie
    June 12, 2014 at 23:00

    I would second everything that FGS says above. Also, I would offer a couple of random observations/opinions:
    1.) I think conservative Republicans are just doing all this stupid crap
    MAINLY because, often-as-not, it WORKS for them politically. They
    can’t really believe most of it because there’s such obvious internal
    conflicts/hypocrisy and outright lies in what they say. Its just that
    it appeals to enough ‘low information’ voters to get them elected,
    its all they’ve got, so voila.. here we are.
    2.) I’m skeptical whether these conservative Republicans really care
    about Obama’s race other than as a political tactic. As LW mentions,
    they savaged Bill Clinton through his whole term, so — along with
    their virtual takeover of the MSM political attitudes — why not go
    to the well again with Obama. Guys like Karl Rove & friends are
    too much amoral sociopaths to be racists. And it sure rings hollow
    with me when Obama feigns surprise that the Republicans try to
    block him at every juncture… what the hell was he doing when the
    same sort of thing was happening to Clinton?

    • hidflect
      June 13, 2014 at 22:59

      Both FGS and Eddie nailed it pretty much. Better than the article writer…

  5. F. G. Sanford
    June 12, 2014 at 16:15

    It’s true, Republicans do have a repugnant tendency to engage in rigid, inflexible ideological thinking and fact-free political rhetoric. But if we’re going to start pointing out the personality flaws endemic to the lumps that float to the top in the cesspool of American politics, we really ought to be fair.

    The Bergdahl episode plainly illustrates another victory for the “terrorists”. It’s not that they managed to get a “good deal”, either. It’s that once again, they have succeeded in goading Americans to put their own hypocrisy and flimsy loyalty to American “values” on public display. The cowardly vindictiveness of schoolyard bullies combines with the false patriotism of finger-pointing chicken-hawks in a political strategy that actually does, somehow, get to the very nature of what is wrong with Democrats. THEY LACK MORAL COURAGE.

    Democrats are willing to, “look forward, not backward”. War crimes and torture don’t matter. Massive war profits garnered by the Cheneys and Bushes through institutions like Haliburton and The Carlysle Group don’t matter. Insider trading by Congressional friends and relatives were codified into law by the likes of Eric Cantor, and Democrats went along. Jobs off-shoring, union busting and deregulation began under Clinton. The Republicans thanked him by scandalizing behavior they routinely engage in, including the Congressional Page scandal, which the Republicans couldn’t have survived without Democrat willingness to “look forward, not backward”. Banking scandals which destroyed the savings and pensions of ordinary Americans were ignored until they began to threaten the wealthiest members of both parties. Democrats helped bail them out. “Standing between you and the pitchforks”, as Obama told the bankers, was his tacit admission that he regards his constituents as no more than an unruly mob to be placated by propaganda and rhetoric which serves the interests of the oligarchical ruling class.

    But the ultimate slap in the face is the installation of a neo-Nazi regime in Ukraine to further the interests of banking and corporate oligarchs. Republicans are despicable partisan ideologues, but by the same token, Democrats are spineless moral imbeciles. If they had any courage, Bush and Cheney would be at The Hague.

    • jack
      June 25, 2014 at 23:01

      well said

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