Friday, August 28, 2020


In a New York Times Magazine profile of Rudy Giuliani published in January, Jonathan Mahler wrote:
Watching his invariably viral TV performances, it often felt as if the closest thing to a unifying explanation for his behavior was his pronounced inability to experience shame. Shamelessness is not an art or even a skill. It’s simply a way of operating in the world that informs all of your actions and interactions, for good or ill....

Giuliani seemed to exist at the intersection of shame and shamelessness, inflicting shame on his perceived enemies and yet invulnerable to it himself. Today, this divide — between the shamed and the shameless — is at the center of our politics. Some political actors are constantly reacting to shame, or the fear of it; others seem incapable of experiencing it. This creates a kind of asymmetrical warfare in which one side can do whatever it wants to achieve victory and the other can’t. In such a dynamic, the outcome of every battle seems almost predetermined.
I agree with Mahler that our politics is asymmetrical warfare, with Democrats and liberals choosing to be constrained by forces that Republicans simply ignore. But I'm not sure that the difference is shamelessness.

I've believed for years that most Republican officials and officeholders were cynics -- they repeated Fox News nonense to their voter base and swing voters without actually believing it themselves. Then a new breed of Republican politicians began to emerge who didn't just sell the Fox snake oil to their voters -- they actually believed it. Sarah Palin was the first one on a presidential ticket. Others emerged in the Tea Party years. And then there was Donald Trump.

For years, most prominent Republicans were still cynics. They said that voter fraud was rampant, or that Obamacare was a complete government takeover of the healthcare system, or that Democrats wanted to take everyone's guns, but they knew better. They said these things because saying them kept their voters voting for them.

But as the lies in the Trump years have become more outrageous, I've begun to believe that increasing numbers of prominent Republicans actually believe at least some of them. They genuinely came to believe that Hillary Clinton is history's greatest monster. They believe a Joe Biden presidency will usher in an age of Venezuela-style socialism and crack-era levels of crime, as he hands the keys of the White House over to Xi Jinping. Some of them don't believe the president is a Hatch Act violator or a serial lawbreaker, and they're persuaded that he really did save us singlehandedly from the worst of the pandemic.

Maybe only a few of them believe the most outrageous falsehoods uttered repeatedly about the president over the past four days. I've started to think, though, that Giuliani is a believer -- he's not shameless.

If Giuliani and the others don't believe their delusional boasts about Trump, they also don't believe that the truth about him matters. They sincerely believe Democrats are evil -- all of them seem to be completely genuine in their assertion of this premise. So if Democrats are the planet's greatest menace, the equivalent of the communist threat during the Cold War, then Donald Trump really is a giant among men, because -- except in "failed Democrat cities" -- he's holding them at bay.

This is why they can lie the way they do: The propaganda has eaten their brains. They're not being cynical when they say Democratic rule would lead to the apocalypse. They've been telling that lie for so long, they don't know it;s a lie anymore.

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