The Party of Crazy

Washington, DC -- Paul Krugman last week argued that commentators who are suddenly lamenting the "insanity" of the Republican Party are culpable, because they didn't call the craziness out when it began to surface. He's right, in the sense that the American Right began to unmoor itself from reality long before the Tea Party, or even Barack Obama's nomination. One of the lamentably ignored alarm bells came with an "undisclosed" Bush administration official who dismissed his opponents in 2002 on the grounds they were "reality based."

By that he meant "people who believe solutions emerge from study of discernible reality." The aide went on that "that's not the way the world works anymore. We're an empire, and when we act, we create our own reality."

While these comments generated a certain amount of mockery in the blogosphere, most political, economic, and media leaders shrugged it off. The obvious resonance with Fascist theories -- that "will" creates truth, rather than truth being an external reality to be determined -- alarmed far too few.

While GOP confidence in the ability of imperial "will" to reshape the politics and cultures of Iraq and Afghanistan has dimmed over the past nine years, the scope of their ambition has merely grown. Most recently the Right appears to believe that its desires can reshape the global bond markets, so that a U.S. default would become simply "short term volatility."

This thread runs throughout today's rightwing, Tea Party politics. Some of its expressions are trivial: Representative Michael Burgess, for example, claims he wants to repeal the new energy-efficiency standard for light bulbs originally authored (pre-Tea Party) by Fred Upton, the Republican chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, because the bill will regulate "the wave length" of the light allowed to be sold. He need only ask Upton (formerly dubbed by the Right "Red Fred" for his sensible, reality-based approach to these problems) what his bill actually did. (Hint -- it doesn't even ban incandescent bulbs -- it merely says you can't sell a consumer a light bulb that mainly generates heat, not light.) But it's unlikely that America's carbon pollution or politics will be measurably impaired by Burgess's cluelessness.

But the overall ideological commitment to the principle that wishful thinking can serve as the foundation of governance is profoundly scary. The most extreme version of this Triumph of the Will politics is the assertion that, regardless of how many glaciers melt, forests burn, cities swelter or rivers flood, carbon pollution is not destabilizing global climate -- even the laws of physics must bend to Tea Party ideology. As Oklahomans go through weeks of temperatures over 100, and their roads begin to buckle, it's clear that physics won't bend to Michele Bachmann.

But there is no evidence that Oklahoma's senators are having second thoughts.

What form of craziness are we dealing with here? I'm less certain than Krugman that this craziness is psychosis -- the inability to distinguish reality from fantasy. Too often it seems to me that the leadership of the American Right has an extremely solid, private grounding in reality -- they simply don't believe that the public can be entrusted to make the "right" decisions given this information. On several occasions, I have debated or engaged prominent advocates of climate inaction. None of them has actually claimed that the climate is not being destabilized, nor that this is not the result of carbon pollution. They simply say that the consequences of taking action are unacceptable.

At one small cross-cutting gathering a group of conservatives stated as their core premise that "the planet is robust and economic freedom is fragile" so that action to save the planet that might interfere with markets was, a priori, a bad idea. In another debate, a prominent libertarian conceded that "if climate change is real, and warrants serious response, that response must be global, governmental, and majoritarian -- and modern conservatism exists to prevent the emergence of governance that is global and majoritarian. Thus the Republican Party's dogged determination to pretend that man-made greenhouse pollutants cannot destabilize the climate -- to admit that possibility would be to concede the need for government!

What seems consistent about the Right's distortions of reality is that they are framed to lead the public to take risks that otherwise it would reject -- whether the risk is a global economic meltdown or a climactic one. Did Donald Rumsfeld truly believe that Iraq would offer a flower-showering welcome to American troops -- or did he think that the public would never agree to an invasion unless soothed by that narcotic?

Many in the oil and gas industry may have thought that a Macondo-scale gusher in the Gulf was an unlikely outcome of their drilling program -- but there is little evidence that, confronted with the reality, they changed their views on whether we should permit extreme drilling. The drilling is worth the risk. They fear the public may not agree.

After the Fukushima catastrophe, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission did begin demanding higher safety standards -- but nuclear operators keep fighting back. Americans, in their view, are "irrationally" afraid of nuclear power. And Wall Street, spectacularly, is trying to ensure that government regulation does not prevent banks from continuing to offer predatory financial instruments to poorly informed customers.

This suggests that we are dealing here not with psychotics on the Right, but with psychopaths.

Broadly speaking, they are people who use manipulation, violence and intimidation to control others and satisfy selfish needs. They can be intelligent and highly charismatic, but display a chronic inability to feel guilt, remorse or anxiety about any of their actions.

Ring a bell? Too many of the current leaders on the Right display these symptoms. Obviously, their supporters have a very different set of motivations. Most Americans, regardless of their politics, do not really have enough information to evaluate either the impacts of failing to raise the debt ceiling or failing to take action on carbon pollution. Almost all of us end up being primed by leaders whom we have decided to trust. It is a weakness of the populist Right that science (party for religious reasons) is in disrepute as a reliable guidepost. But that doesn't mean that the average member of the Tea Party is in love with Exxon-Mobil -- they're not.

But the Grover Norquists and the Newt Gingrichs and the Charlie Kochs and the Eric Cantors -- they all probably have a pretty good sense of what economics and science tell us will happen if we take their advice. They think it is good for the world, even though they understand that the world will become a less safe place. Those who will suffer are, quite simply, not worth worrying about. Risk is good. Failure and suffering are appropriate. Only the tough deserve to thrive.