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Friday, June 17, 2016

"How did we get here?" An essay on the state of Republican politics, Pt. 1

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Prologue
-On Capitol Hill, [Senator and 2008 Republican presidential nominee John] McCain has shown almost uncharacteristic restraint as reporters have peppered him with endless questions about the day-to-day roller coaster of the presidential race. In the end of February, McCain seemed tired of being asked what had happened to the party he once led. How did it happen that he was staring down two options: a billionaire who could alienate Latino voters from the party for decades to come and a junior senator McCain once called a "wacko bird."

"I don't know. I don't know," McCain said.


"Are you stumped?" he was asked.


"I'm stumped," he said.

Lauren Fox, “Has the GOP’s Maverick Lost His Way? John McCain’s Struggle to Survive in 2016,” Politico, May 2, 2016

-Earlier this year, as that unmistakable bass line of the Pretenders’ “My City Was Gone” faded into the background, Rush Limbaugh opened his daily three-hour broadcast with characteristic bombast. “[According to the] latest research data,” he intoned, “the audience is expanding at near geometric proportions, as people seek guidance, answers, explanations, information, and an answer to the basic question, ‘What the hell is happening out there?’"
Ethan Epstein, “Is Rush Limbaugh in Trouble?”, Politico Magazine, May 24, 2016

-As one of the world's most renowned scientists, Stephen Hawking is regularly called on to help explain the universe's more mysterious phenomena.

But asked to account for Donald Trump's political rise Tuesday, the British theoretical physicist was stumped.


"I can't," Hawking told CNN affiliate ITV's "Good Morning Britain" program.

CNN report, May 30, 2016

-We moralize among ruins.
Benjamin Disraeli, Tancred (1847), Book V, Ch. 5.
I
On February 23, 2016, I got a message on Facebook from a friend:
My dear and old friend, can you help me make ANY sense of this election year?  I used to understand politics, but my knowledge and experience now seem to prevent any comprehension of current events.  Help.
This essay is my attempt to respond. In it, I devote my attention to the Republican Party. Virtually all the things in American politics that challenge my friend’s comprehension of current events lie there, and they are the toxic fruit of decades of perverse Mendelian poll testing and cultivation.
I make no room at all for the social media vogue in which what passes for debate is saying whatever one’s side did is OK because the other side did something worse. Comparative fault may be beloved of trial lawyers, but sterner measures are required for those who trifle with the fate of nations.
The conservative writer Richard Weaver famously wrote, “Ideas have consequences.” The GOP has preened as “the party of ideas” for decades, after even longer as the party with none except “No!” (a North Carolina native, Weaver is an exemplar of paleoconservative thought: he insisted that the ancestral kitchen garden in Weaverville be plowed by a mule, defended the social and political structures of the Middle Ages as his heaven on earth, dismissed Henry Grady’s “new South” vision as a conjurance of Southern liberals, and called 1950s America a nation of “moral idiots”). The party’s pursuit of its blinkered set of ideas- ruling out all others-, and subsequent abandonment of those ideas’ substance in favor of mimesis, is what has gotten them to where they are today.
Nor do I have any truck for arguments that my analysis and commentary is fair or balanced. Ask me my opinion? I give it, with no varnish. This is it. No trigger warnings. Don’t like it? Write your own.
I quote lots of people in this essay. I make that choice deliberately. As I will elaborate later, since 2004- when presidential assistant Karl Rove (who will appear again, below) declared,
We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do”- the Republican Party has embraced life in a fantasy world where they can outlaw science and declare facts to be inventions.
It is something they picked up from decades of crossbreeding with evangelicals. It proof-texting, and it makes it possible to prove anything in the Bible, and in life.
II
My friend’s request surprised me. He has never struck me as one who needed my advice. It was clear, when we met forty years ago, he was smarter than me, and nothing can persuade me the gap hasn’t been steadily widening ever since.
We met at a weekend campaign school in Washington, D.C. It was run by a young, thin Karl Rove. After that, my friend and I spent several years in the trenches of North Carolina Republican politics. I was trying to plant a College Republicans chapter at my tiny, left-wing liberal arts college; he was at UNC- a giant university where even student politics was practiced at a professional level.
Our paths- never that parallel, as I look back on it, diverged. I moved to England for graduate school in 1978, then out west to law school. I spent a decade in Oregon Republican campaigns, waiting for a summons home: after years of campaign work, and an internship in his office the summer of The Bicentennial, my congressman told me “Go to law school and then we’ll get you back to DC.”
My friend went to law school, too, in North Carolina and, next thing I knew, was chief assistant to a member of Congress. He went on to join a big DC law firm before moving back to North Carolina and becoming an eminence grise in the party.
My call never came. The seat in my home district fell into new, increasingly conservative hands. There was no future to move home to claim any more. I settled into life in the Northwest. I was beginning, in any event, to realize there was no way a closeted gay Republican from Shelby, North Carolina could ever get elected to Congress, except at a personal cost I thought too high to pay.
That I was right in my assessment came when I finally came out in 1995, and was promptly dropped from the Christmas card lists of most of my old North Carolina College Republican friends.
In 1999-2001,  I served on the national board of Log Cabin Republicans, a novelty that effectively killed off my last fantasies of a career in public life. Having turned down two opportunities to seek judgeships while still in the closet, I now found- living in Seattle- all doors were closed. Republicans didn’t tolerate openly gay candidates above the level of precinct officer (there were a number of us there, nobody but gay Republicans and process-junkie evangelicals wanted those posts; we were like Republican postmasters in the South after the Civil War). In a largely uniparty metro area, where there were way more ambitious office seekers than offices, there was no place for a convert to the Democrats.
When President Bush called for a federal constitutional amendment banning marriage equality in 2003, I left the Republican Party. I spent three more years working on pro-equality issues in Washington; after we lost our case in the Washington Supreme Court, I pretty much lost my grip for a number of years from that and other personal and professional crises. I was fighting serious, seemingly unshakable depression and the slow disintegration of my old life. It became increasingly untenable to make my living on an oath to uphold the law, and fight for liberty and justice and the American Way while those institutions held me, as an individual at arm’s length.
I ended up back in the Carolinas, both- one might say, down, and out- and have been fortunate to have the support and encouragement of a handful of people figuring out who to be when I finished growing up. Having just turned 60, I figure it’s about time.
Even twenty years later, I have mixed feeling about coming out. The costs have been extraordinary, and the loss of friends immense and wounding.
I used to tell people the four corners of my world view were my family, the Presbyterian Church, the Boy Scouts of America, and the Republican Party. Between 1992 and 2003, all four rejected me for coming out as a gay man. Those experiences have also formed- and altered- my views over time.
Martin Duberman’s 1973 book, Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community, is a classic work of history, personal and public. Writing the largely-forgotten story of the radical liberal arts college of the North Carolina mountains challenged Duberman’s own sense of himself as a gay historian inspired by both the scholarly rigors of a profession that, when he came out, tried to run him out, and his sense of the college’s unappreciated role in the then-nascent gay rights movement in America.
His 1991 memoir, Cures: A Gay Man’s Odyssey, ends, in one of those random events humans call either destiny or ironic (usually misapplying the latter term), ends with his visit to my alma mater, now St. Andrews University, as a speaker in the college’s 1973 Black Mountain College Festival. His last chapter described St. Andrews as a harbinger of a bright, tolerant future, glimpsed as he danced with his male partner at a dorm party.
Of course, Duberman’s account was a celebrity selfie, the recollection of the glamor of fame and the giddiness of St Androids seeing themselves as Black Mountain’s spiritual heirs. When I arrived a year later, St Andrews was nothing of the sort, nor is it yet (forty-two years later, I found myself pushing the school to take a stand on HB2; happily, they did: against it; if a bit half-heartedly and in the manner of one whispering a family secret out the kitchen door at midnight, in a high wind).
In these forty years, the GOP has gone from a sort of benign indifference to gays to bloody shirt-waving animus expressing itself in new, base-baiting legislation every  election year. Scores of antigay bills are being filed in state legislatures to gut the parlous and gossamer net of existing antidiscrimination laws (nearly 200 this year alone), using LGBT Americans as the thin edge of a wedge of panic and spite from which temporary relief can only be obtained- by them- in the polling booths.
This year, three Republican candidates for the presidency of the United States accepted invitations to speak at a pre-Iowa caucus religious freedom conference whose sponsor, a minister, made repeated calls- in speeches and interviews- for gay Americans to be rounded up and put to death. No one in the party lifted an eyebrow.
That’s why only 15% of LGBT Americans identify as Republicans.

But that’s part of the answer to my friend’s question.

Tomorrow: Where to Begin?

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