The Trash Talk of the Righteous

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October 12, 2021 12:34 p.m.

Last week in a risible fit of pearl-clutching Senate Republicans expressed that they were aghast that Majority Leader Chuck Schumer took a swipe at them just as they were extending the hand of bipartisan fellowship to bring the nation together. Washington’s worthies seemed to agree. It was that worst of offenses. It was uncalled for. Welcome to the DC black hole, where titanic gravity bends people’s minds, even the good people.

As Matt Cooper points out here, the real outrage – echoed by all the press worthies – is that Schumer told the truth: Senate Republicans again took the nation’s “full faith and credit” hostage in a reckless and dishonest effort to sow chaos at the expense of the safety of the Republic. For once they were outmaneuvered and had to beat a retreat. They blinked. Indeed, their caucus is so addicted to anti-constitutional hi-jinx and legislative junkie behavior that it required a herculean effort to execute the cave – Republicans struggling to break their own filibuster to head off reform of the filibuster. Good times, as they say. Schumer said McConnell blinked, that Republicans should be ashamed of themselves and that it’s a good thing Democrats held tough to force them to cave. This is all accurate.

Yet Republicans were busy at work telling the story that the agreement was a rare moment of the warring sides of American politics coming together to do the right thing for the country. And this was Chuck Schumer’s response to Republican goodwill, the story went. McConnell insisted that Schumer’s insults made him much less likely to help out again in the future. Don’t say what we did or we will be more mean next time! This of course is congenial to the DC insider press’s desire for “both sides” narratives. There are scarcely better examples than this one from CNN’s Dana Bash …

As so many have explained over recent years, the issue is not in most cases that the prestige DC journalists are Republicans, let alone Trumpers. It is that the default assumption is that Republicans will light fires and Democrats will put them out. That is a great boon to Republican arson and legislative terrorism because as the default assumptions they cease to be news. (Journalists have the cliche: dog bites man isn’t news; man bites dog is.) Democrats not putting out the fires is big news and something akin to the violation of a hallowed social contract. It also puts stress on the ‘both sides’ framework which is the heart of the business and editorial models of most news publications.

What is particularly damaging is that not only do custodians of the DC both sides consensus like Bash believe this. Too many Democrats do as well. You can see this in the mild Sunday show tut-tutting Schumer got from Sen. Chris Coons (D-Delaware), a kindly and well-meaning man with good values who has consistently failed to absorb any of the lessons of the last decade.

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But there’s a related but distinct dimension to this story.

Almost two decades ago I wrote about what I then called “bitch slap politics” and later started calling “dominance politics.” The idea is simple enough. Beyond the particulars of policies, slogans and electoral math, much of politics is a battle of symbols meant to demonstrate power, dominance and effectiveness. As I wrote then, “one way — perhaps the best way — to demonstrate someone’s lack of toughness or strength is to attack them and show they are either unwilling or unable to defend themselves.”

“Bitch slap politics” is a language of politics, one many Republicans had spoken in for decades. But it’s Donald Trump’s native language: a fact uncannily tied to his geography, insecurity and his freebooting style of business. That, more than anything else, was the secret of his improbable and rapid rise to the pinnacle of American politics in 2015 and 2016: the threats, the denigrating nicknames, the predation and transgression, the sexual violence. As has been clear for years, Trump isn’t successful in spite of his uncouth and ugly behavior. For his supporters it’s the taproot of his popularity. Nothing better tells the story of the divergent evolution of American politics over the last two decades than the fact that one whole party now speaks dominance politics as its native language and in the other, the coarse but descriptive phrase I originally used to describe it is now itself unacceptable language.

Of course, Democrats are trying to defeat the electoral warlordism of Trumpism, not copy it. Trump’s hyper-masculinist politics of aggression is inseparable from his movement’s authoritarianism. But look back at what I said about dominance politics. Its central mechanism is the ability to hit you and have you not hit back – a symbolism designed to demoralize the target of the aggression and make that person an object of contempt in the eyes of others. You find this everywhere. Over the weekend Times star Maggie Haberman commented that Democrats might be having more luck getting cooperation with their Jan 6th investigation if they had acted earlier and not let the better part of a year go by before issuing key subpoenas. Not a bad point and I saw many frustrated Democrats agree with her. But note that it was precisely custodians of DC civility and conventional wisdom like Haberman that Democrats were catering to when they bent over backwards to get Republican buy-in for an investigation of what amounted to their party leader’s attempted coup. They both demand reasonableness and civility from Democrats and also hold them in contempt for it.

Defending yourself, your values, the people or things that matter most to you is fundamentally an act of self-respect. As the cliche goes, don’t expect others to respect you if you don’t respect yourself. Another good lesson: don’t cower. Don’t make a mockery of yourself. Go back to the first time we had debt ceiling hostage taking and remember how it started: Republicans announced they were demanding concessions on the threat of driving the country into default (i.e., bankruptcy). President Obama calmly said that they would sit down and settle the matter through good faith negotiation. What a generation of Democrats – albeit only partly represented on Capitol Hill – learned from that ugly experience is that there is no such thing as good faith negotiations with hostage takers.

This whole drama was yet another hyper-aggressive, most likely unconstitutional effort to light the house on fire – the typical behavior of degenerates and delinquents. Contrary to what a lot of normally rational people got themselves to think, McConnell wasn’t being nice or trying to resolve anything. The particular dynamics of this confrontation had him backing himself into a corner. He could see three or four moves ahead he was going land in a situation where the only two possible outcomes – beside actual debt default – was an abject GOP surrender or cleaving open the filibuster. When someone comes after you in the dark and they blink, you should make them feel it. You certainly shouldn’t try to make them feel better about it. You should be honest about what happened. That’s what Schumer was doing and it’s not only understandable. It’s the right way to act. It’s the moral way to act.

Again, this doesn’t mean out-Trumping Trump. That’s not possible or remotely desirable. It also doesn’t mean making threats or saying insane things on Twitter. But it certainly means denouncing shameful or degenerate behavior. It means saying what actually happened. It means when someone tries to play you with phony outrage you don’t cower but just say: deal with it.

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