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Intellectual license

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Yesterday was the sixth anniversary of Donald Trump descending a gilded escalator and announcing he was running for president of the United States: an announcement that both at the time and for many months afterwards was treated as simply a joke by all savvy observers and sensible pundits.

Since then some things have happened. One of the latest of these things is that the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol that Trump had called for publicly for weeks before he incited it in person that day has been jammed down a genuinely Orwellian memory hole, both by the Republican cult and its many I don’t support Trump but crypto-fascist agents in the media.

Events that were completely unambiguous when they happened, and remained so for several weeks afterwards, have now been recast by Republicans in various flagrantly contradictory ways, all at the same time:

The result is a strange mishmash of claims and beliefs among the right: that the tragedy of January 6 may have been the work of left-wing provocateurs and that it shouldn’t be investigated further by Congress, that the ongoing criminal investigations mean a bipartisan commission is unnecessary and that those criminal investigations reflect a purported anti-Trump zeal by the Biden Justice Department, that what happened on January 6 should be condemned and that those responsible for it shouldn’t be held accountable. . .

What makes this shift in conservative views on January 6 so troubling is that the underlying grievance that drove January 6 remains intact. More than six in 10 Republicans still wrongly believe that the election was stolen from Trump, a belief he is more than willing to inflame during his postpresidential retreat to Florida. Arizona Republicans’ pseudo-audit of the 2020 results over the last few months, and the widespread interest it evoked among other GOP state lawmakers, shows that the party itself hasn’t moved on, either. Even congressional Republicans are drifting toward Trump on the Big Lie: The House GOP ousted Liz Cheney from her number three leadership slot for not lying about the election last month, installing Trump devotee Elise Stefanik in her place.

It’s worth noting that Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election before January 6 mainly failed because a sufficient number of elected officials in key positions refused to go along with them. Democrats held key governorships and secretary of state positions in many of the states Biden won. But GOP state officials in Arizona and Georgia also resisted pressure to interfere with the official count or declare it fraudulent. Republican lawmakers in Michigan and Pennsylvania ultimately declined a Hail Mary bid to change the electoral votes through legislative action. The Supreme Court’s conservative majority rejected out of hand a stupendously anti-constitutional lawsuit by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to overturn Biden’s victory in six states.

Trump, for his part, will continue to insist that the 2020 election was stolen. He will likely spend the next few years doing what he can to punish Republicans like Georgia’s Brian Kemp and Brad Raffensperger for not helping him undermine the outcome. If he runs again in 2024, he will almost certainly be the party’s nominee. If the past is prologue, he will once again try to delegitimize the election in advance and fight the outcome if he loses again.

This time out, however, he would enjoy even deeper support among the GOP for these thuggish and authoritarian tactics—and possibly even an open embrace of the type of violence that nearly made January 6 a greater tragedy than it already was. The GOP’s shift from vilifying the riots to revising their history suggests that it might now be susceptible to a deeper and more incurable illiberalism. If so, the only question that remains is whether the GOP will succumb to this disease alone or take the rest of the Republic down with it.

One of the key attractions of cult-like ideologies and social movements is that they not only permit but positively revel in what could be called intellectual license. Intellectual license means you’ve been granted the privilege of not having to even pretend that your beliefs and your assertions about them are even minimally coherent with each other. Thus the insurrection was a violent left wing plot to overthrow America and an innocuous protest by largely peaceful patriotic tourists, that’s now being blown all out of proportion by the Democrats and the Liberal Media. A strong plurality or possibly even an actual majority of Republican voters believe both things at the same time, because they belong to a political cult that doesn’t require them to maintain even superficially consistent beliefs, as long as they pledge allegiance to Confederate Jesus and his earthly representative, Donald Trump.

Thus in the same way that Good Party Men were perfectly capable of believing that Hitler was the ultimate menace to the Revolution on one day, and then sincerely embracing him as a worthy ally in the fight against the international capitalist (((cabal))) on literally the very next day, the good Republican in the United States in 2021 is someone who will embrace whatever contradictory nonsense the party and its leader is advocating at any particular moment, even if it completely contradicts what these people were professing last winter, or last month, or for that matter yesterday.

Of course in this regard fundamentalist Christianity is an invaluable training ground for the base of the contemporary Republican party, although we must not say so, since that wouldn’t be very diverse and inclusive of the wonderful collage of absolutely wacky beliefs professed by so many of our fellow citizens.

A.E. Housman once summarized the conclusions of a fellow classicist in regard to some hermeneutic puzzle with remark along the lines of “It would have taken three minutes of thought to reach Prof. X’s solution to this conundrum, but thinking is hard and three minutes is a long time.” It certainly is, and it certainly can be, which is why it’s so delightful to be told by Daddy that you don’t even have to try.

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