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Life, liberty, and the pursuit of influence

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Scott has pointed out many times that we would be better off if contemporary Republicans were merely venal, as opposed to genuinely committed to a reactionary, authoritarian, and theocratic political program.

That is very true, but it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that the contemporary Republican party has been trending toward a kind of grand synthesis of its ideological commitments and its will to steal everything that isn’t nailed down and a lot that is. (There is a not-coincidental parallel here with contemporary evangelical Christianity, which is both a sincere political movement and machine for ripping its followers off).

Tim Murphy has a good essay on this, which works as a kind of extension and updating of Rick Perlstein’s classic now nearly decade-old analysis. Murphy emphasizes the extent to which, in the age of Internet “influencers,” Donald Trump has, by inspirational example, removed what restraints remained on the forces that were turning the Republican party into a non-stop griftathon:

Trump’s presidency blew past the old frontiers: The performance of politics became the purpose of it, and the grind of governance became secondary to the responsibilities of posting. It was as if, after years of awkward but largely profitable power-sharing between conservative politicians and conservative media, the Republican Party at last stumbled upon the ultimate efficiency: What if both roles could be played by the same person? Trump once dreamed of spinning a losing presidential bid into his own media entity. During the pandemic, in lieu of crisis management, he turned briefings into a variety show, assembling a rotating cast of characters, and plugging an array of sponsors—MyPillow, Carnival, Pernod Ricard. You would not necessarily get good medical advice, but you would learn that Hanes is a “great consumer cotton products company” that’s being recognized more and more.

There was no issue grave enough to take seriously and no controversy too petty to weigh in on. Anything could be resolved via tweet, precisely because nothing really can; the ephemerality was the point. And a rising generation of politicians learned an important lesson about what conservative voters wanted. If Limbaugh taught them all how to talk, Trump taught them how to govern. His enduring gift was a caucus of content creators.

Just consider the Republican congressional class of 2021—the new arrivals to Washington who modeled themselves most directly after Trump. They seem almost blissfully detached from the work of Congress. There is 25-year-old Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina, who was elected on the strength of a largely invented personal story amplified with loads of influencer-style Instagram posts. He recently posted a 19-second video of himself punching the bark off a tree. Cawthorn boasted to his colleagues that he had built his staff “around comms rather than legislation.” He was in Washington, in other words, mostly just to post.

When Marjorie Taylor Greene, the QAnon representative from Georgia, was stripped of her committee assignments in February by colleagues upset that she had harassed fellow members of Congress and blamed forest fires on the Rothschilds, she greeted the news with relief. “If I was on a committee, I would be wasting my time,” she said. Now she was more free to share videos of her CrossFit workouts with the hashtag #FireFauci. Not that showing up for committee hearings necessarily means you’re there to work. Colorado’s Lauren Boebert, who like Cawthorn and Greene spent her first weeks on the job scaring the shit out of her co-workers, recently hijacked a virtual committee hearing by posing like John Wick in front of a shrine of firearms in her living room. (“Who says this is storage?” she responded to critics. “These are ready for use.”) 

Cawthorn, Greene, and Boebert were all members of the National Republican Campaign Committee’s “Young Guns” program, which takes its name from an earlier trio of House Republicans—one of whom, Paul Ryan, went on to become a vice presidential nominee and speaker of the House and unite the party behind a vision of budget austerity. There is surely some sort of ideology at work here, too, but it’s more Jake Paul than Paul Ryan; they are treating the Capitol like their own hype house, using the stature of their office for clout.

These younger, gunnier guns are taking cues from their elders. Texas Rep. Dan Crenshaw, a content farm of a congressman who has filmed not one but two Avengers-style videos in which the ex–Navy SEAL parachutes out of airplanes to fight Democrats, also hosts a podcast. So does Devin Nunes. Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz has a podcast called Hot Takes. Before he became publicly embroiled in a federal sex-trafficking investigation (“If you aren’t making news, you aren’t governing,” Gaetz once said), he was considering retiring to take a job at the conservative cable channel Newsmax. In February, more than a dozen House Republicans—including Gaetz and Nunes—skipped work to speak at CPAC with Cruz. They took advantage of a covid-era policy that let members vote by proxy in medical emergencies; to them, promoting their brands is the job.

After watching Cruz’s speech I took his advice and checked out Verdict, which he co-hosts with Michael Knowles, who rose to prominence after publishing an entirely blank book called Reasons to Vote for Democrats. Cruz recorded the first episode at 2:40 a.m. after the opening day of Trump’s Ukraine impeachment trial—hence the name of the show—and returned to the studio every night of the proceedings. Within days of its debut, Verdict had passed Joe Rogan on the iTunes charts. At CPAC, Cruz announced it had been downloaded 25 million times. It is almost certainly the most popular thing he has ever done.

All this is related to a broader set of trends, that I’ve been thinking about a lot over the last few years, as they have seeped into every crevice of society during what we can only hope is the height of our New Gilded Age.

Nearly forty years ago, just as what styled itself the Decade of Greed was getting off the ground (in retrospect the 1980s now look a Buddhist monastery compared to our own House of the Rising Sun), Forbes published its first list of the 400 richest people in the USA at the time. Topping the list was a guy named Daniel Ludwig, a shipping magnate, from the quaint little town of South Haven, Michigan. I’ve spent many summers as a child and adult in South Haven, so I feel the most tenuous of personal connections to Ludwig, who I bet 99.73% of you have never heard of, which is the point. The richest person in the United States 40 years ago was almost completely anonymous — an inconceivable situation today. (Revealingly, in his still amusing but now-dated contemporaneous study Class, Paul Fussell refers to the American overclass as “Top Out of Sight.”)

Ludwig’s two billion dollar fortune, would, even after adjusting for inflation, not even crack the top 125 of today’s Fortune 400.

The broader point is that there’s an almost unimaginable amount of money just sloshing around the upper reaches of the American economy now. This is the culmination of a very long-term trend: as I’ve noted before, real per capita GDP in the USA has tripled over the last 60 years, after tripling over the previous 60 years, and tripling in the 60 years before that. If we place the height of the first Gilded Age at the turn of the previous century, there’s literally ten times more wealth per person floating around, and since there’s three times as many Americans now — well you do the math.

What I’m saying is the contemporary Republican party is in many ways both a cause and an effect of a society in which incomprehensible amounts of loot are there for the taking, legally, semi-legally, and illegally, and that that party has valorized the pursuit and accumulation of wealth as the highest and to a significant extent the only real social good. Again, as in so many other ways, the rise of Donald Trump — a man who has spent his entire life doing nothing but trying to churn his money into fame and his fame into money — is here both a symptom of a much more profoundly pervasive disease, and an exacerbation of it.

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