The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The ‘Hoarders’ theory of Republican politics

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California, speaks during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 21. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Bloomberg News)
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Somewhere in your house, there’s something that doesn’t work quite right. Maybe it’s a drawer pull that’s loose, meaning you have to apply pressure in a particular way for it to open. Or the floor squeaks loudly in a spot, so you know better than to walk precisely there. Back when people came to visit, we had little spiels intended to help them navigate these flickers that we consider unremarkable.

In a lot of situations, we do something similar: eventually accepting as normal things that aren’t. We get acclimated to these hiccups to the point that even as the problem escalates, even as the bathtub drain somehow gets even slower, we just go about our lives, working around it, barely thinking about it.

At other times, we’re keenly aware of the problems, even frustrated by them. Maybe it’s something we can’t fix and having others point it out is annoying, like a dog that howls at squirrels. What can you do about it? No reason to give you a hard time about something you can’t control. I mean, really, it’s the complaining neighbor who’s behaving badly here, not you, just a person who loves their pet.

And then your least favorite relative shows up — say, a great uncle — and demands to know why the drawer’s hard to open and why the drain is so slow. He has a surefire tricks for fixing the squeaky floor and for training your dog to be quiet. It’s all a gigantic hassle, and they’re making a huge deal out of it, and you watch the clock and make pointed references to old Ben Franklin quotes. It’s not that they’re wrong, exactly; it’s just that dealing with the thing is a pain or expensive, and you just aren’t that worried about it.

Now imagine the thing that needs to be fixed is rampant misinformation and debunked accusations that are exacerbating political tensions in the United States — which led to violence at the U.S. Capitol and threatens to spur more violence elsewhere.

The Republican Party has gotten used to the misinformation and baseless claims going on six years after Donald Trump first announced his bid for the presidency. It knew that QAnon had been infecting its political base for years and, last year, understood that the rise of QAnon-embracing Marjorie Taylor Greene (R) in Georgia’s 14th Congressional District was a problem. Axios has new reporting to that end, with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) even calling her primary opponent and acknowledging the risk her election posed.

But Greene won the House seat anyway. Everyone knew that her public views were politically problematic, even if the scale of that problem has only been revealed recently. She was a squeaky floorboard that became a splintering one, but which the Republican Party is largely hoping to present as simply another part of the floor. This is a tactic for offsetting those complaints from your great uncle: pretend that the thing he’s rightfully whining about isn’t actually a problem at all. It’s just a floorboard, you say, plucking bits of wood out of your foot.

It's so much easier to do this when the complaints are coming from people you don't like or don't care much about. If the neighbor who's mad at your barking dog is the same guy who left a passive-aggressive note about your garbage can being in the street, you're going to be less likely to worry about his frustration with the pup. For Republicans, too, it's easy to paint concern about the spread of falsehoods and misinformation as being simply an attempt from Democrats or Big Tech to stir up trouble.

It’s harder when the complaints are from your friends. Your mom stops by and gets a sliver under her toenail and that floorboard’s suddenly a bigger issue. Or if, say, the former leader of your House caucus were to write an essay for the country’s premier newspaper, in which he laments the failure of current party leaders to be honest with the base out of concern about the response. This is your old best friend telling you gently that you really need to get that thing fixed, even as he carefully points out that he’s well aware that other people’s floorboards can be similarly fluky.

The problem is that it’s easy to reach a point where you lose a sense of scale. Maybe you’ve seen the show “Hoarders,” on which people with compulsive disorders who fill their houses with storage containers or collectibles or garbage are confronted about their problems. It is rare that their response to the house being cleaned is celebratory; there’s a reason that they live the way that they do. Cleaning house isn’t fun in a house that’s already clean and it’s far less fun in a house that isn’t.

So there’s lashing out. Some people just like to live in a mess and insisting that they change is an unnecessary affront. Efforts to haul things to the dumpster, like efforts to root out misinformation and mute voices spreading false claims, are forcing a reckoning with something that’s become familiar. With something that’s only seen as problematic or even abnormal by those on the outside. Disrupting the problem is seen as a bigger threat than the problem itself.

Notice that we've gone from a loose drawer handle to a house filled with garbage. This is a worst-case escalation, but such escalations exist. Every house that ends up filled to the ceiling with trash is a house that started with one piece of garbage being thrown on the floor in one room. And each time the homeowner comes into that room, he makes the decision not to change direction. Or he tries to, but it doesn't hold. And then it becomes normal. And then the TV crew is there and his frustration boils over.

This is how things sometimes work.