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When should political language be taken seriously?

Some cognitive dissonance on interpreting political rhetoric

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) speaks during the Republican Jewish Coalition Annual Leadership Meeting in Las Vegas on Friday. (Bridget Bennett/Bloomberg News)
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There have been a lot of postmortems about election results in New Jersey and Virginia. Many of them center on the successful GOP effort to frame Democrats as more concerned with “woke bulls---” and critical race theory than the education of children. Some progressives have protested that these terms have been stripped of all meaning. In response, centrists and conservatives suggest that the point is to take these attacks seriously but not literally. Even when liberals are correct on the facts, the argument runs, they are wrong on the politics.

In his post-election column, for example, Ross Douthat of the New York Times acknowledged that critical race theory “is an imperfect term” to describe the “ideological revolution in elite spaces in American culture, in which concepts heretofore associated with academic progressivism have permeated the language of many important institutions.” The point, according to Douthat, is that terms like “woke” or “CRT” somehow capture these deeper changes within vital institutions. And fair enough — as a college professor, I kinda sorta get what Douthat is saying even if we disagree about the extent of the problem.

Here is my question, however: If it is fine to take these terms seriously and not literally, what are we supposed to do when Republicans speak in a treasonous and traitorous manner? When should their words be taken seriously?

Consider three recent examples. First, Sen. Ted Cruz suggesting that secession has to be on the table as a political option at a recent event at Texas A&M University:

Am I supposed to take Cruz’s secessionist sentiments seriously? Literally? Both? On the one hand, Cruz is a clown who escaped his state for Cancún when the going got rough. On the other hand, what does one do with a GOP senator who suggests that if Republicans lose some policy fights at the federal level, the GOP should respond with “we take NASA, we take the military, we take the oil”?

Then there is J.D. Vance. This Yale Law School graduate is desperately trying to burn through enough of Peter Thiel’s cash to get noticed in an Ohio Senate campaign. Last week, he tried to do this in a speech at the National Conservatism Conference, stating, “in this movement of national conservatism, what we need more than inspiration is wisdom. And there is a wisdom in what Richard Nixon said approximately 40, 50 years ago. He said, and I quote: ‘The professors are the enemy.’ ”

Again, on the one hand, there are many levels of hypocrisy to Vance’s statement. An absentee scholar-in-residence at Ohio State University is trying to rally conservatives by quoting the only president who resigned in disgrace as an inspiration? Good luck with that. On the other hand, I have read my Carl Schmitt, and Vance is aping that language. Anyone aspiring for political office in the United States on a platform suggesting that professors should be the target of real physical killing does not have the republic’s best interests at heart.

Finally, there is Donald Trump, the unofficial head of the GOP and the front-runner for the 2024 nomination. For months now, Trump’s line on the 2020 election and the Jan. 6 insurrection has been “that the real insurrection happened on November 3rd, the Presidential Election, not on January 6th—which was a day of protesting the Fake Election results.” According to Trump, the lawful election was somehow an act of violence and Jan. 6 was a peaceful protest. This is about as Orwellian as one can get with political rhetoric.

Republicans could counter that Cruz was half-joking and playing to the crowd, that Vance will go nowhere in his Senate campaign, and that Trump is just being Trump. But these are also signs that the Republican Party, as an institution, is becoming more violent, more authoritarian and less willing to adhere to the rule of law. Unless and until the GOP disciplines itself, I will take that concern very seriously for the rest of my days.