The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Mehmet Oz shows Republicans are caught in a trap of their own making

Mehmet Oz, the Republican nominee for Pennsylvania's Senate seat, visits Tools 4 Success in Allentown, Pa., on Friday. (Matt Rourke/AP)

By now, hearing Republicans say their opponents have a secret plan to destroy America has become so common, it’s background noise. Donald Trump has turned his Truth Social account into a vehicle for full-blown QAnon lunacy, and even supposedly sane Republicans say President Biden is intentionally laying waste to our nation.

But this might have become a trap that Republicans can’t break out of.

Let’s take a case study in Pennsylvania, where GOP Senate nominee Mehmet Oz spoke in a recent interview about his Democratic opponent, John Fetterman. Oz, who is simultaneously a smart guy and a bad candidate, clearly feels it’s important to take any criticism of his rival and shoehorn it into this narrative of a Democratic plot to take down the country.

You probably know Fetterman doesn’t look like a politician: He’s huge (6-foot-8), he has a goatee and tattoos, and he usually dresses in a hoodie and shorts. Oz argues that this is just an act, but here’s what he said about what he called Fetterman’s “costume” and its “deeper message”:

It turns out that if you’re a far-left radical, with the belief that this country is irredeemably stained, you just want to break it apart. Just bust America, crack it to its base, break it asunder, and rebuild it with your toxic ideology. That’s what he stands for. When he dresses like that, it’s not an accident. He’s kicking authority in the balls.

Oz probably regrets the “kicking authority in the balls” line, because that only makes Fetterman sound rebellious and cool, which reinforces Fetterman’s image. But on one level, Oz is right right: Fetterman’s clothing is a conscious choice meant to reinforce the persona he has built, which does in some sense make it a “costume.” It might be smart to try to undermine the power of that persona.

Now, Oz wears a costume, too. In nearly every picture of him these days, Oz is wearing slacks and a blazer, with no tie. The message his clothes are supposed to send is “I’m authoritative — but approachable.” Depending on the context, he might dress up or down a bit, but that’s his basic uniform, one no less intentional than Fetterman’s.

But that doesn’t mean attacking Fetterman’s authenticity won’t work. Because politicians are inherently performers, the phoniness argument can often be persuasive, if what you claim they’re covering up is plausible. If you said, “My opponent pretends to be a regular guy, but he’s actually an ambitious operator who only wants power,” it would make some sense. After all, he is running for a powerful office.

But Oz doesn’t think that’s enough for the Republican base. The thing Fetterman is supposedly covering up can’t be as mundane as ambition. It has to be cataclysmic — such as threatening that the country itself will not survive if Oz does not win this election.

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That’s what makes this a trap. There’s not much reason to believe this attack actually works. It is, however, what the Republican base has been taught to expect — and to apply to every Democrat, no matter who they are.

Not only have Republican candidates come to rely on conspiracy theories in every context, but they’ve lost all creativity about them. Rather than fitting the conspiracy theory to the candidate they’re opposing, they now fit the candidate to the conspiracy theory.

Some history illustrates the point. Though there’s a long tradition of right-wing conspiracy theorizing, it really took hold of the GOP during Bill Clinton’s presidency. Because he was a smooth-talking Lothario from a state with a rather freewheeling political culture, the story they built up around him was about personal corruption and criminality — that he and his wife were essentially Arkansas mob bosses who murdered political opponents and managed an international drug-running operation. It was a bespoke conspiracy theory.

Then Barack Obama emerged, and a new conspiracy theory was fashioned — again, fit to the candidate. He had supposedly lied about his birthplace and his religion to fool Americans into accepting him so he could carry out his nefarious scheme to bring America to its knees and ensure the triumph of its enemies.

This was the key turning point when Republicans realized the power this story had over their party. The idea that Obama was secretly trying to destroy America turned out to be so compelling to the base that Republican politicians kept repeating it even at the end of his presidency, when America was still standing and it was obvious Obama had merely been a center-left Democrat who made policy choices Republicans disagreed with.

Then post-Obama, Republicans ran out of ideas. What do they say about Joe Biden, who has been a political figure for 50 years and is about as mainstream a character as you could imagine? The same thing they said about Obama: He has a secret plan to destroy America! (See here or here or here or here or here.) And so, supposedly, does every other Democrat.

When you’ve been reduced to saying that Fetterman’s diabolical plot against the country is revealed by his hoodie, you might have lost the ability to persuade any voters who are not already floating in a bubble of right-wing madness. But if Republicans have any better ideas, we haven’t heard them.