How Do Republicans Get Away With It?
Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste” sheds light on the GOP’s head-spinning double standards
How do they get away with it?
We asked that question in 2016 when Republicans took the unprecedented step of refusing to consider President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, and chose instead to leave a vacant seat on the nation’s highest court for nearly a year.
We asked that question in 2017 when Republicans, who spent the entire Obama presidency hyperventilating that the federal deficit would drive America toward socialist collapse, took power and immediately passed a $1.5 trillion tax cut for corporations and the wealthy without giving a second thought to how they’d pay for it.
We’ve been asking that question for years, trying to understand how Republican politicians manage to keep a straight face as they righteously proclaim themselves warriors for limited government and individual liberty while lecturing women about what they can and cannot do with their bodies and allowing agents of the state to kill American citizens with impunity.
How do they get away with it? We’re asking that question yet again, as Republicans tie themselves in torturous rhetorical knots attempting to justify filling Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat before November 3rd.
The “we” here isn’t just Democrats. The “we” is anyone who believes that democracy depends on individuals and institutions operating in good faith. And when not just a politician but an entire political party abandons even the pretense of acting in good faith, we have to wonder: How do they get away with it?
We could ask Republican politicians, but it doesn’t really matter what they say. They don’t actually believe the craven excuses they make to explain away their blatant hypocrisy and double standards. Their behavior is predicated entirely on consolidating and maintaining political power. The only thing they truly believe is that they can get away with it.
One of the lessons of modern American politics seems to be that they can. Many Americans, and not just Republican voters, have come to expect more decency, more productivity, more decorum, more common sense, more responsibility, more willingness to compromise — just more, period — from Democrats than Republicans.
Nearly four years into the Trump presidency, it’s long past cliché to ask, Can you imagine what Republicans would have done if Barack Obama did that? (To be anyone but a #MAGA Republican these days is to constantly live the head-exploding emoji: 🤯.) But this thought exercise, as overused and depressing as it is, is a vivid reminder of the gaping discrepancy between what’s expected of Democrats, and what we’ve come to expect of the vessel for the Trump personality cult that used to be called the Grand Old Party.
How do Republicans get away with it?
In part, it’s their pure, unrestrained shamelessness. As it turns out, our system of norms, traditions, and precedents is largely self-regulating, leaving us vulnerable to demagogues and nihilists who are immune to the feelings that most human beings call “shame” or “guilt.” As demonstrated by the career trajectory of cynic-in-chief Mitch McConnell, an inability to feel shame can get you really far in American politics. (The tradition of white men using shamelessness to fail upward isn’t limited to the United States — just look at the UK government.)
Other factors help explain how Republican politicians get away with it. Many tech platforms and news outlets have a dangerously deep-seated (and often profit-driven) fear of appearing biased against conservative views. Republicans have manipulated this fear masterfully. They also have a built-in advantage, in that it’s a lot easier to succeed as an anti-government party making government dysfunctional and distrusted than as a pro-government party trying to make government work.
But there’s a much more fundamental issue at play. In Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson provides a crucial and clarifying piece of the puzzle. Caste describes the history and shape-shifting evolution of America’s race-based hierarchy. As she discusses how the outcome of the 2016 presidential election “was the culmination of forces that had been building for decades,” Wilkerson writes:
In a caste context, the two main political parties bear the advantages and burdens of the castes they most attract and with which they are associated. At times, the stigma and double standard attached to disfavored minorities have accrued to the Democrats, while the privilege and latitude accorded the dominant caste has accrued to the Republicans, who have come to be seen as proxies for white America.
In many ways, it’s that simple. Over the past half-century, “as white support has intensified for Republicans,” Wilkerson writes, the GOP has come to be “seen as the party of an anxious but powerful dominant-caste electorate.” In America’s collective consciousness, Republicans are now associated with the dominant caste. This status gives them enormous leeway to say and do things that would never be tolerated of society’s subordinate groups.
That helps explain some of the behavior of Republican politicians and power-brokers, such as “the unforgiving scrutiny and obstructions faced by Democrats like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and before them John Kerry and Al Gore,” as Wilkerson writes. But it also helps explain why so many other American entities and institutions, and the people within them, expect more, and tolerate less, from Democrats. Reporters. Media executives. Democratic politicians. Judges. CEOs. Political analysts. Lobbyists. Pundits. Voters. Nonvoters. It’s just not Republicans who have internalized the biases and double standards of America’s racial caste structure.
Republicans, in turn, have taken all the latitude and unearned credibility that comes with their dominant-caste affiliation and exploited it to the fullest to entrench their power. They’ve rewritten laws and packed courts. They’ve rewarded their supporters and disenfranchised their opponents. And now they’ve dragged the United States — the country whose values and story they love much more in theory than in practice — to the brink of illiberalism. All to preserve white minority rule. All to preserve the dominance of the dominant caste.
What should we make of this? As the GOP’s infuriating and entirely predictable response to Justice Ginsburg’s passing makes clear, the fight over when to fill her seat on the Supreme Court is not actually a fight about legal authority or precedent. It’s not even a fight about double standards. It’s a fight about power. It’s a fight about dominance.
In this case, it’s not just that Republicans don’t believe their own arguments. It’s that they know you don’t believe them either. That’s the point. “Make no mistake: It is degrading when people lie to you openly and obviously,” Lili Loofbourow writes in Slate. These lies are “calculated insults to your intelligence and to your citizenship and to your country.” Sure, Republicans are saying, we’re stealing another Supreme Court seat. What are you going to do about it?
Today, the party of the dominant caste holds power but senses that power slipping away. The party’s members and supporters will do anything to avoid that outcome, so of course they won’t hesitate to steal another Supreme Court seat if that’s what it takes.
Nor will they try to do so subtly, or with any pretense of legitimacy. No, they’ll steal it brazenly and openly. This brazenness, this flaunting of dominance, this refusal to play by the same rules they impose on others, this rejection of the very norms and standards that their own predecessors constructed (often as a means of preserving this same dominance), is part of the act. Taunting and demeaning those who would dare question their power and authority is itself a way of asserting that power and authority.
And we know this because these are the same tactics that have been honed and deployed for centuries to maintain white supremacy.
Republicans, as Loofbourow puts it, have “turned good faith into a sucker’s failing in a sucker’s game.” This White House, this Republican Senate majority, these Republican enablers in Congress and in boardrooms and in positions of power across the country are determined — no, they are desperate — to preserve the dominance of the dominant caste.
They will do whatever it takes.