Characterizing entire groups of people is the basis of prejudice. Sweeping generalizations are the foundation of racism, sexism, antisemitism, and every form of discriminatory ideology. Offensive stereotypes appear often in crudely written op-eds, where selected evidence about individuals is applied to whole categories of people.
I have worked hard to avoid the easy tendency to overgeneralize. But this question persists in my mind: are today’s Republicans nasty?
Certainly there are nasty Republicans, as there are nasty people of every political persuasion. Perhaps it is too easy to make a long list of nasty Republicans. I think it’s enough to refer to the collective televised behavior of Republican Senators and Representatives during the impeachment hearings, where argument and nastiness were blended into a toxic brew designed to distract attention from what Trump had actually done.
What provokes my bigger question is the possibility that nastiness has become the essence of Republicanism.
What provokes my bigger question is the possibility that nastiness has become the essence of Republicanism. This process did not begin with Trump. Rush Limbaugh has personified the meanness of conservatism since 1988, calling feminists whores and Nazis, stereotyping gays, and repeating racist comments. His success spawned an industry of right-wing talk radio hosts, copying his nastiness, sometimes being rewarded with political office. Inspired by Limbaugh’s success as a Republican spokesman, nine radio hosts ran for Congress in 1994, all Republicans. A local article about Minnesota’s two radio-hosts-turned-Congressmen, Jason Lewis and Tom Emmer, says that on the air they “gladly played roles as bomb-throwers and provocateurs.”
Alex Jones began as a talk radio personality, then created InfoWars in 1999. His utter disregard for people in the deepest grief has now landed him in court, sued by the families of young victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. But before that, Jones’ willful nastiness earned him Trump White House press credentials. When Trump gave Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom during his State of the Union address in February, he placed public nastiness in front of his Party for their instruction.
Trump has changed the rules of public political behavior. When he was still a candidate vying for the Republican nomination, viciously attacking Hillary Clinton in ways unprecedented for a presidential campaign, Limbaugh said, “Trump can say this stuff as an outsider. He can say this stuff as a nonmember of the elite or the establishment”. That distinction is now gone. The Republican establishment, headed by Trump, says things like that every day.
Talk radio hosts helped eliminate moderation from Republican politics, says Brian Anderson, author of “Talk Radio’s America”. “Any Republican who sought out compromise or who rejected political warfare found him or herself a target of conservative media.” Turning politics into a blood sport, and kicking moderates off the team, made for good, passionate radio and meshed with listeners’ frustrations. Now many elected Republicans sound like radio commentators instead of statesmen.
How nasty can a Republican candidate be and still win the party’s official approval? Roy Moore ran for the Senate in 2017 with full approval of the Republican National Committee, despite having publicly disparaged Islam and homosexuality, being removed from the Alabama Supreme Court for refusing to comply with federal court rulings, and having said that America was great during slavery, because people “cared for one another”. He only lost RNC support when it turned out he was a child molester. But Trump endorsed him and the RNC reversed itself and got behind him again.
I think it’s also reasonable to argue that common Republican political maneuvers are nasty. Voter suppression, gerrymandering, and taking away powers from newly elected Democratic governors are dirty political tools that have become the hallmark of 21st-century Republicanism. The official policies of the Republicans in Washington are beastly: caging immigrant children and the treatment of Puerto Ricans after Hurricane Maria.
What about your neighbor who votes Republican, but seems like a nice guy? Is he responsible for the nastiness of other Republicans? I believe that supporting a politician, approving publicly of a politician, means accepting responsibility for that politician’s actions.
The approval of 90% of Republican voters for Trump is the basis for his complete lack of restraint of his nastiest impulses. In the month of May, he topped himself. He retweeted a video in which a Republican New Mexico county commissioner said that “the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat”. He repeatedly accused the MSNBC host Joe Scarborough of murdering a staffer, provoking that woman’s widowed husband to plead with Twitter’s CEO to take down Trump’s tweets.
That’s about as nasty as it gets. It may be too great a leap of generalization to say that Republicans are nasty people. But in their full-throated support for Trump, no matter how nasty he gets, America’s Republicans promote nastiness.
Taking Back Our Lives