On Saturday — the day before he departed for Uvalde, Tex. — President Biden told University of Delaware graduates: “In the face of such destructive forces, we have to stand stronger. We cannot outlaw tragedy, I know, but we can make America safer.” He also warned of the “oldest and darkest forces in America” preaching hate and “preying on hopelessness and despair.”
Biden is renowned for his expressions of empathy. But such language feels increasingly inadequate and, frankly, counterproductive in the face of nonstop political outrage.
Now is the time for precise language. “Forces” are not the problem; one political movement encased within the Republican Party is. “Ultra-MAGA” ideas are not the problem; Republicans spouting anti-American ideas that threaten functional democracy are.
It’s not the plague of “polarization” or “distrust,” some sort of floating miasma, that has darkened our society. Bluntly put, we are in deep trouble because a major party rationalizes both intense selfishness — the refusal to undertake even minor inconveniences such as mask-wearing or gun background checks for others’ protection — and deprivation of others’ rights (to vote, to make intimate decisions about reproduction, to be treated with respect).
There is a through line between celebration of a defeated president who demeans women, excuses neo-Nazi marchers and refuses to accept election results and the GOP’s appeals to White grievance, contempt for political compromise and displays of toxic masculinity — which celebrate unbridled access to guns, excessive use of police force and authoritarian strongmen.
The White-grievance industry (right-wing media, politicians, pundits, think tanks) keeps its voters in a constant state of rage over the loss of a society in which far fewer women competed with men in the workplace, White power was largely unchallenged, and diversity was less pronounced. And it has persuaded millions of White Americans that they are victims of “elites” or the media or globalism or attacks on masculinity or … something.
It’s not hard to understand how we got here. Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, wrote recently in Time about the MAGA formula, ascendant after the United States’ election of its first Black president: “the stoking of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and anti-Black sentiment while making nativist appeals to the Christian right.”
“The nostalgic appeal of ‘again,’” Jones observes, “harkens back to a 1950s America, when white Christian churches were full and white Christians comprised a supermajority of the U.S. population; a period when we added ‘under God’ to the pledge of allegiance and ‘In God We Trust’ to our currency.”
Our future as a tolerant, decent society ultimately may depend on White Christian communities’ recovering their moral equilibrium and support for American democracy, and rejecting the movement to turn churches into platforms for QAnon and white nationalism. But we cannot wait for an evangelical reformation.
MAGA voters think everyone else is the problem. As perpetual victims, they feel entitled to ignore the demands of civilized society — e.g., self-restraint, care for actually vulnerable people, pluralism, acceptance of political defeat. Their irritation with mask-wearing gets elevated over the lives of those most susceptible to a deadly pandemic. Their demands to display an armory of weapons mean schoolchildren become targets for acts of mass gun violence. Their religious zealotry, fed by the myth that Christianity is under attack, means poor women cannot have access to safe, legal abortions.
Under such conditions, Democrats would do well to eschew avuncular bipartisanship and abandon the fantasy that they can reason with the unreasonable or shame the shameless into dropping their conspiracies and lies. “Lowering the temperature” or seeking unity with those intent on dividing Americans is counterproductive.
Like other toxic political movements, the MAGA crusade flourishes thanks to the collaboration of cynics, true believers and cult followers. In turn, our democracy’s salvation depends on a broad-based coalition that rejects the MAGA crowd’s reactionary aims and myths of White victimhood.
Democracy’s survival demands that mainstream media prioritize candor about the nature of today’s GOP over fake balance in political coverage. And it needs pro-democracy politicians to rise to the occasion with exacting, truth-based language — not to fuzz up the stark reality of a democracy imperiled by one political party.