Ernest Hemingway supplied two of his characters in The Sun Also Rises with a pair of memorably terse lines.
‘How did you go bankrupt?’ Bill asked.
‘Two ways,’ Mike said. ‘Gradually and then suddenly.’
Mike’s answer has been quoted endlessly since then, probably because it seems to perfectly encapsulate a recurring modern sensation of having things firmly under control, then seeing them start to slip slowly from our grasp, and then the next minute realizing we’ve lost hold completely.
And now, in 2021, the modern Republican Party seems to be taking its turn in Mike’s spot, sliding slowly — and soon suddenly — downwards along this sort of trajectory.
Let’s examine some of the indicators.
Just today I saw reported a Fox News interview in which host Chris Wallace challenged Senator Roy Blunt over his attacks on the Biden infrastructure plan, suggesting that the Republicans had lost all credibility when it comes to concerns about our national debt, since it had increased by more than $3 trillion during the Trump presidency, even before the pandemic hit.
And then there are the increasing volumes of data indicating that the “trickle-down” theory of economics touted by so many Republicans has been a consistent and abject failure in terms of providing prosperity for anyone other than the very rich.
And then there’s the repeated Republican insistence they they are pro-life, even though their willingness to provide societal support for the young seems to end as soon as they are born, based on their unwillingness to ensure adequate food, water, housing or education for the children of our nation.
I could go on, but the bottom line here is that the Republicans seem to have abandoned any worthwhile ideas or principles they might have once had, and settled instead for a grab bag of resentments that they can use to try to motivate their fragmented base.
This worked in the 2016 elections, but it failed in 2020, and it will be hard to motivate more than half of our nation’s voters with this sort of strategy, unless the Democrats blunder horribly.
Dependence on Misinformation
Republicans have grown totally dependent on right-wing news media willing to feed their followers a steady stream of misinformation.
However it was noted back in 1684 that “One can fool some men, or fool all men in some places and times, but one cannot fool all men in all places and ages.” (Often misquoted, and misattributed, as “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”)
This is arguably even more true today, in the age of the Internet, when up-to-date reliable information (as well as utter nonsense) is so readily available.
The Republicans have been relying on this steady stream of manufactured “news” for so long that I think they have lost touch with reality as reported to, and apprehended by, most Americans. But this carefully contrived bubble of misinformation cannot have significant influence forever, and its acceptance seems to be on the wane.
Disconnection from Modern Business
Republicans were apparently caught by surprise when Major League Baseball announced their decision to move the 2021 All-Star Game out of Atlanta, in response to Georgia’s passing of a new piece of legislation very obviously and specifically designed to disenfranchise people of color — people who came out in record numbers recently in order to send two Democratic Senators to the US Congress.
It is enlightening to view Mitch McConnell’s response to this sort of corporate decision-making. Here are a couple of widely-quoted summarizing sentences from his press release on the subject:
From election law to environmentalism to radical social agendas to the Second Amendment, parts of the private sector keep dabbling in behaving like a woke parallel government. Corporations will invite serious consequences if they become a vehicle for far-left mobs to hijack our country from outside the constitutional order.
This is utterly amazing language to use to describe a company’s decision to disassociate itself from a state in which a Republican-controlled legislature is using its power to make it harder for people to vote: amazing, at least, to anyone not fully plugged in to the latest talking points being promoted by the right-wing propaganda machines. Of course, when large companies and wealthy capitalists pour money into the coffers of conservative PACs and Republican election campaigns — situations in which this sort of language might actually make some sense — concerned voices from Republicans such as McConnell are notably absent.
But threats from Republicans will not be enough to convince large organization such as Major League Baseball to get back into line. We can debate whether corporate outrage has any basis in deep-seated principles or not, but the answer to that question is largely irrelevant. What the Republicans are missing is the fact that what companies need these days, more than tax breaks and favorable regulation, is the trust and good will of their customers, as well as current and prospective employees. And so, when confronted, they cannot afford to be on the wrong side of diversity, inclusion and equity issues. Because — let’s face it — if their pools of employees and customers were drawn solely from those watching Fox News twelve hours a day, they would not stay in business for very long.
As the last shreds of ideological rationale are torn away, and as the right-wing media machine continues to generate talking points more and more divorced from reality, and as business leaders begin to distance themselves from increasingly brazen attempts by Republicans to subvert our democracy, what is increasingly revealed to voters is simply naked avarice. Witness the news that the Trump campaign tricked supporters into changing their one-time donations into silently recurring ones. Or the news about Ted Cruz and his family vacationing in Cancun while many of his supporters were trying to stay safe in freezing weather in Texas. Or the news that Matt Gaetz had boasted repeatedly about his “access to women” provided by a county tax collector now charged with sex trafficking of a minor.
A Leadership Vacuum
Where are the Republican leaders who might steer the ship back into safer waters?
Trump won the Republican nomination in 2016 because of a lack of credible competitors, and when we survey the field now, all we find is Trump himself, as well as a host of Trump Mini-Me’s.
The basic problem here is that voters ultimately want a candidate able to demonstrate some degree of character and integrity, but Republicans have painted themselves into a corner — an outdated corner, full of misinformation but absent any useful ideas — from which such qualities are unlikely to emerge.
First Gradually, and then Suddenly
When I survey the state of Republican leadership, I am reminded of a quote from a Ross MacDonald novel I read recently, The Zebra-Striped Hearse:
Blackwell was a sad and troubled man, hardly competent to play God with anybody’s life. But the sadder and more troubled they were, the more they yearned for omnipotence. The really troubled ones believed they had it.
The Republicans have held a degree of omnipotence for some time now, controlling most state governments, and at least one branch of our federal government — enough to block any form of progress. And their response to corporations pulling investments away from Georgia indicates that they still think they have absolute power. But a belief in their own omnipotence is one notable reason why the Mikes of our world first see their fortunes slipping away gradually, and then suddenly — by the time they realize they are no longer all-powerful, it is too late to retreat from the abyss.