Coarsening the Culture: Republicans Need To Do Some Housecleaning

Last Friday, my brother-in-law woke up early despite having gorged on our Thanksgiving meal. He was determined to get out early, to imbibe the full Black Friday experience. So despite my better judgment, we found ourselves at a suburban Ohio Target, loading up. Vincent snared various trinkets and a fancy Nintendo pouch. When it was time to go, we held a frank conversation near the checkout about whether he could grab more items, whether he would buy another diet Pepsi before returning to the hotel, and similar weighty concerns.

It’s embarrassing to argue with an intellectually disabled man in public 9:30 in the morning. It’s wearing, too. I couldn’t help worrying that the next twelve hours would be spent arguing about such stuff.

An older couple sized up the situation, gave us a warm smile, and asked if we wanted to jump ahead of them in line. We declined their offer, but their much-appreciated gesture lightened my mood.

Everywhere we go, we are quietly helped by gentle strangers: TSA personnel who joke with Vincent as they help him through the line, the selectively deaf business people who pretend not to hear Vincent’s running commentary on their cellphone calls, macho truckers with American flag caps who chat with Vinnie at highway rest-stops, the restaurant and hotel staff who waive off Vincent’s accidental pay-per-view movie bill.

Judging by their small talk, the elderly couple at Target were socially conservative church folk, as are a conspicuous proportion of the kind and helpful people we meet along the way. For millions of people, compassionate conservatism is more than empty rhetoric. It’s a vibrant way of life. That was my in-laws’ way of life. I didn’t agree with any of their politics. I’m awed that they walked-the-walk caring for Vincent in their home for 38 years. One religious friend put things this way: God isn’t finished with you when you’re dealt your genetic hand.

What, then, should we make of the crudely malicious tenor of conservative politics, exemplified by Donald Trump’s trail of inflammatory remarks regarding President Obama’s birth certificate, Latino immigrants, Muslim Americans. FOX journalist Megyn Kelly, and Trump’s GOP rival Carly Fiorina. Trump has tweeted false statistics that dramatically overstate the role of African-Americans in murders involving white victims. When some of Trump’s followers pushed and kicked a Black Lives Matter protester, Trump’s reaction was to say: “Maybe he should have been roughed up.”

Most recently, New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski critiqued Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that thousands of Muslims in Jersey City were seen celebrating the 9/11 attacks. Trump responded…. Well I’ll let John Kasich tell the story.

How could this bigot and bully become the leading Republican candidate for the presidency? And what can be done about it?

I can’t really answer these questions. These are for Republicans themselves to answer.

I do know one thing. This goes deeper than Trump himself. The problem is not that Trump is a lying buffoon, either. It’s that he attracts broad support for an open message of malicious intolerance. Expunging Trump from the primaries, if this is still possible, would address the symptoms but not the underlying causes.

Simply put, Trump prospers because Republicans’ rhetoric and political strategies have gradually coarsened their own party base, which looks less and less like the rest of a changing America. As of 2012, 89% of self-identified Republicans were non-Hispanic white. That may even understate the blinding whiteness of the Republican primary electorate. These demographics, combined with Republicans’ problematic track record on social inclusion, are fundamental.

For years, Republicans have pandered to their non-Hispanic white Christian core supporters by emphasizing the other-ness of various Democratic constituencies. When strategically advantageous, GOP politicians at the state level dishonorably sought (and seek) to hinder minorities’ voting efforts. Mr. Trump is hardly the first practitioner of white identity politics on issues ranging from urban crime to Latino or Muslim immigration.

There’s the coarseness of conservative talk radio, which is venomous to President Obama on everything from his birth certificate to his middle name. FOX News, today’s Pravda of conservative politics, every night promotes sneering bullies such as Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. FOX’s casual objectification of its female newscasters matches Trump’s appeal, too.

It’s ironic. Conservatives have argued forever that liberals have done this very thing. Here, for example, is Dennis Prager at the National Review:

The cultural Left has created and celebrated an unbelievable coarsening of the culture, especially injurious to the young. Examples of Hollywood’s degradation of culture in film and on television are too numerous to mention. It will suffice to mention only MTV, one of the most damaging cultural forces in the lives of American young people…

Cultural conservatives pushed these arguments to ridiculous extremes. And it was never obvious why liberals bear exclusive blame for the crude practices of Fortune 500 firms. Yet however exaggerated or misdirected, the critique was never entirely ridiculous, either. Tipper Gore wasn’t the only liberal to see the harm in misogynist song lyrics, or to believe that popular culture just contains too much dreck. As parents, we have a responsibility to maintain certain standards, to push our culture to do better. This matters in politics, too.

Conservative are better than this. They need to clean house.

One show-don’t-tell moment would be for leading GOP presidential contenders to tell GOP primary voters: If you’re still supporting Trump next week, I don’t want your vote.

Do Bush, Rubio, Cruz, and the other leading Republican contenders have it in them to do this? So far, the evidence is thin.

[Cross-posted at at the Reality-Based Community]

Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.