After the Republican Party submitted to Donald Trump and ushered him into the White House, it was widely noted that an unintended consequence of their complicity was to completely denude the conservative movement of its professed pieties. For decades, the GOP had aligned social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, and military hawks by pantomiming their purported values. Trump—a profligate and unchurched, draft-dodging hedonist, who is also quite racist—revealed, through his popularity among Republicans, that the animating forces of American conservatism are grievance and revanche, not whatever Paul Ryan put in his annual budget resolutions.
Trump might have won the election, but at least nobody would have to take (or pretend to take) Republican sanctimony seriously anymore.
This would have been a happy development—one of the only silver linings around the Trump presidency—but it has not materialized yet, and won’t unless people in public life grow comfortable with a new and somewhat unnatural kind of political discourse.
False equivalencies abound in U.S. politics, but it is deeply counterintuitive, and requires a great deal of effort, to filter one’s understanding of politics through an assumption that one party’s espoused principles are essentially fake. And yet, without that insight, it is impossible to understand why many of the most important stories in politics are playing out the way they are.
Vice President Mike Pence threw the GOP’s performed, unprincipled moralism into stark relief, when he stormed out of the Indianapolis Colts football game on Sunday, in the highest possible dudgeon, after players on the opposing San Francisco 49ers took a knee during the national anthem to protest structural racism in policing.
It quickly dawned on reporters that this was a premeditated publicity stunt—one taken at the taxpayers’ considerable expense—intended to stoke further racial division as a base-mobilizing strategy. Pence flew on Air Force Two from Las Vegas, NV to Indiana on Saturday night, knowing some players would engage in the now-iconic protest, for the sole purpose of attending a football game for a few minutes and issuing some propaganda, before flying back west, to California.
But the staged and divisive nature of Pence’s gesture wasn’t the only obnoxious thing about it. Perhaps the most insulting part was that the entire premise of Pence’s counterprotest was plainly, obviously insincere.
I left today’s Colts game because @POTUS and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem.
— Vice President Pence (@VP) October 8, 2017
As a reminder, Trump kicked off his campaign for the presidency by calling Senator John McCain a bad troop for getting captured, and several months later Pence eagerly joined his ticket. Shortly after accepting the VP nomination, Trump spent several days attacking the parents of a Muslim-American soldier who was killed in Iraq, and Pence nodded silently. In between, the Daily Beast resurfaced a Howard Stern interview in which Trump claimed that avoiding venereal disease while sleeping around was his “personal Vietnam.”
Pence will very clearly dignify many things that “disrespect our soldiers.” But while many will rightly note that Pence has falsely impugned the motives of protesting football players, it is not within the habits of most reporters or pundits or Democrats to point out that Pence is playacting the whole scene.
The propulsive force of controversy after controversy in modern politics is Republicans feigning virtues—patriotism, godliness, chivalry—that they demonstrably do not embody.
This is precisely how Republicans spun some reporters into treating the outrageous sexual misconduct of film producer Harvey Weinstein as “a big problem for Democrats.” This perspective took hold, notwithstanding the fact that Democrats immediately began returning or donating Weinstein’s campaign contributions, or that the very same Republicans pretending to be outraged on behalf of Weinstein’s victims, made it their life’s work to protect Donald Trump from the recriminations of his well-documented sexual abuse, as they propelled him into the presidency.
Whose side is Hillary Clinton on: Harvey Weinstein’s or his victims?
— Ronna McDaniel (@GOPChairwoman) October 7, 2017
— Sean Spicer (@seanspicer) October 7, 2017
There is no shortage of hypocrisy and bad faith and fallacious argumentation along every increment of the ideological spectrum. But it is rather novel for an entire political party to be credited with commitments to principles that members of the party are so nakedly disinterested in or contemptuous of.
There are critically important issues underlying the GOP’s false aggrievement over athlete protests, and the culture of impunity that allows powerful men like Harvey Weinstein to abuse women serially and without reprisal. We have allowed incendiary liars to transform those issues into partisan political cudgels—to cheapen them—by taking false piety at face value.