January 30, 2012

On Saturday night, at precisely 9:19 and 30 seconds, my iPhone, my iPad, my computer and, for all I know, my toaster were informed that Herman Cain had endorsed Newt Gingrich. The ping-ping of the devices suggested that something momentous had happened — alerts from both The Post and the New York Times — but in fact it was just additional evidence that the Republican Party has become a circus: One clown endorsed another.

It’s hard to know who is the more ridiculous figure — the grandiloquent, bombastic and compulsively dishonest Gingrich, or the beguilingly ignorant Cain, a man who has never held elective office and who was reduced to speechlessness when asked a question about Libya. Nonetheless, Gingrich, his Alfred E. Neuman grin on his face, accepted the endorsement and then went on with his nihilistic campaign for the White House. This has been an exceedingly silly political season.

Richard Cohen writes a weekly political column for The Washington Post. View Archive

But it has also been a sad one. The Republican establishment acts as if this season’s goon squad of presidential candidates has come out of nowhere, an act of God — a tsunami that hit the party and receded, leaving nothing but nitwits standing. In column after column, conservative commentators lament the present condition, but not their past acquiescence as their party turned hostile to thought, reason and the two most important words in the English language: It depends.

If you ask me what I think of abortion, I’d say, “It depends.” It depends on whether you’re talking about the ninth month of pregnancy, the first, the health of the mother, the fetus — or, even, the morning-after pill. But in the Republican contest, the answer to the question is always the same: no, no and no again. Thanks for giving the matter such careful thought.

It is the same with taxes. Should they be raised? It depends. It depends on economic and fiscal conditions — and on whose taxes will be raised and by how much. The answer cannot be “No, never.” That’s not an economic position; it is an ideological one and exhibits a closed mind.

Similarly with global warming, GOP candidates are not certain it is exacerbated by industry, auto emissions and such. They take this position not because they have studied the science but because they are opposed to government regulations. They fear the solution more than they do the problem. Some also take a skeptical position regarding the theory of evolution — proof right there that there is something wrong with this theory.

This rampant anti-intellectualism is worrisome. The world is a complex place, but to deal with it, the GOP presented a parade of hopefuls who proposed nostrums or, in the case of Michele Bachmann, peddled false rumors about vaccinations. When this started I cannot say — the late Richard Hofstadter won the Pulitzer Prize for his “Anti-intellectualism in American Life” in 1964 — but the embrace of Sarah Palin by the GOP establishment has got to be noted. The lady has the gift of demagoguery and the required anti-elitism, but she knows next to nothing about almost anything — and revels in her ignorance.

Should the United States bomb Iran’s nuclear installations? It depends. Should America enable Israel to do it? It depends. How should China be handled? What about Russia and Turkey, not to mention Pakistan — our ally and a mosh pit of madmen? From the GOP candidates, the answers are simple: Bomb Iran if it goes nuclear, confront China, stare down Russia and — from the unfathomably shallow Rick Perry — kiss off Pakistan. Subtlety is banished. Yahoos stride the stage.

It is entirely appropriate that last week’s GOP debates fell between “Pawn Stars” and “American Pickers” in the 10 most-watched cable television shows. They are sheer entertainment having little to do with us and our problems. The Republican Party has veered so far from reality that Gingrich is lambasting Romney as a “Massachusetts moderate” — moderation being, as it was with the clueless Barry Goldwater, an epithet. Romney, who has all but collapsed his rib cage to conform to conservative dogma, must be perplexed. Others have prudently stayed out of the race.

The Republican establishment that has now risen up to smite the bratty Gingrich has only itself to blame. For too long it has been mute in the face of a belligerent anti-intellectualism, pretending that knowledge and experience do not matter and that Washington is a condition and not a mere city. The endorsement of Gingrich by Cain was not a bulletin. It was a feeble blip on a scope. The GOP is brain-dead.

cohenr@washpost.com