With the handing down of the decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization last week the U.S. Supreme Court effectively overruled their long-standing decision in Roe v. Wade (1973) making abortion a Constitutional right.
I don’t know what the fallout from Dobbs is likely to be, aside from making Margaret Atwood a prohibitive favourite to win this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. Nor am I up to making any kind of legal critique of the majority opinion in Dobbs. What the decision does force me to do, however, is consider how I got things so wrong.
I’m referring to an earlier post, from 2015, where I had this to say:
[The] problem with the Republicans may be that a particular historical strand of American conservatism has played itself out. In terms of cultural conservatism it seems as though the “culture wars” are, if not over, at least moving into a new, yet-to-be-determined phase. The right to an abortion is now settled, and the fight over gay marriage mostly is too. Human-driven climate change is a fact accepted by everyone who is not a complete idiot. The idea that the U.S. can build a wall separating itself from Mexico (or Canada), and somehow round up all its illegal immigrants and send them back to their countries of origin is laughable. And yet all of this can be found in the platforms of leading Republican candidates.
I returned to this point in a lengthier post a year later, where I talked a lot about “the end of the conservative road.” I didn’t think the Republican Party was dead in the U.S., or that Right-wing politics had passed its expiration date, but it did seem to me that a particular style of politics had had its day. I was wrong. The “new, yet-to-be-determined phase” of the culture wars was going to lead into a time warp.
Obviously I misjudged badly. What did I not anticipate? The victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 election and his stacking of the Supreme Court with radical ideologues, just for starters. But the Trump years were symptomatic of a deeper malaise that I seem to have missed. In particular, there are two points that I didn’t pick up on at the time.
The first is the importance of anger as a political driver, and the way parties of the Right so successfully branded themselves as the standard bearers for so much resentment and hate. I’ve already written about this here, and won’t add anything more aside from asking if there are any angrier or more bitter people in the U.S. than the likes of Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Brett Kavanaugh. The rage just seems to radiate off these guys, which puts the lie to the idea that anger is solely the province of men without a college education, or of the powerless “left behind.”
The second point has to do with how successful the Right, and in particular the Republicans in the U.S., have been at their demonization of their political opponents. This has become so extreme that I don’t think I would have credited it in 2015. But what has happened, and this may be the biggest transformation in American politics in its history, is that one of the main political parties now sees the other as being entirely illegitimate.
This is no longer the province of looney outliers and people who believe in conspiracy memes like Frazzledrip. On the basis of no evidence whatsoever a majority of Republicans continue to believe that the 2020 election was stolen. They simply do not believe it is any longer possible for another party to be fairly elected.
But it’s even worse than that. Demonization is now taken literally.
In the world view adopted by Republicans, Democrats/progressives/liberals are not just seen as the lesser of two evils but as evil incarnate. They are terrorists, or lizard-headed aliens, out to destroy the country, enslave the population, and looking to kill and eat everyone’s babies (after they have sex with them and tear their faces off). And again, this is not a fringe belief. At the highest level, a second Trump presidency is endorsed not because of any love for Trump but because the alternative is seen as Satanic. Trump’s attorney-general, Bill Barr, was one such Christian apocalypticist, and his chief of staff Mark Meadows another. Meadows even tweeted to Ginni Thomas (wife of a Supreme Court justice) during the January 6 coup attempt that “This is a fight of good versus evil. Evil always looks like the victor until the King of Kings triumphs.”
One may ask how much of this is sincere and how much is just trying to justify or rationalize the GOP’s own slide into darkness. As Peter Wehner put it, writing in The Atlantic:
The sheer scale of Donald Trump’s depravity is unmatched in the history of the American presidency, and the Republican Party—the self-described party of law and order and “constitutional conservatives,” of morality and traditional values, of patriotism and Lee Greenwood songs—made it possible. It gave Trump cover when he needed it. It attacked his critics when he demanded it. It embraced his nihilistic ethic. It amplified his lies.
The only way to make this somehow come out right is to paint the Democrats in ever darker shades of black. What has resulted goes beyond polarization, and helps explain not just the radicalization of the Supreme Court but also why even the revelations of the January 6 commission aren’t doing much to move the needle. In 2015 I had no idea this level of extremism could have become so entrenched. I’m sad to say I was wrong.