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Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) speaks during the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit held at the Tampa Convention Center on July 23, 2022 in Tampa, Florida. The event features student activism, leadership training, and a chance to participate in networking events with political leaders. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Performative Cruelty Is Republicans' Only Remaining Policy

Being mean and nasty to perceived enemies is all the GOP has to offer.

Mike Lofgren

Do you remember the incident during the 2016 campaign when Donald Trump mocked a reporter with a physical disability? The crowd of his supporters thought it was screamingly funny. Or the following year when he told an audience of police "please don't be too nice" to suspects, suggesting they could bang the arrestee's head against the patrol car when putting him in the seat?

We should disabuse ourselves of illusions that Republicans want power for any purpose other than to exercise power, and to exercise it arbitrarily, unfairly, and with vindictiveness.

This is known as "performative cruelty:" putting on a show of belittling or humiliating people to make oneself or one's group appear stronger. "Performative" means it is generally in a public setting. Over the course of Trump's administration, it became evident that his supporters voted for him not out economic anxiety or any other of the New York Times' comforting myths, but to have a champion who would be mean and nasty towards the groups that they hated, feared, or resented.

Trump came and went, but performative cruelty embedded itself deeply in the Republican Party. There are now hordes of politicians like Matt Gaetz, Margery Taylor Greene, Ted Cruz, and others who are apparently devoid of an actual sense of humor (which requires enough sense of irony to suggest an awareness of the human condition) other than the sadistic and crudely sarcastic humor of eighth graders bullying someone in the lunchroom.

The term performative cruelty is usually defined as a verbal performance, but I believe its meaning should be expanded to embrace the policy arena. Republicans are engineering legislative acts, court rulings, and executive actions primarily to punish their opponents and satisfy their own supporters' vindictiveness towards their perceived enemies.

This accounts for the unseemly rush throughout the red states to pass the most draconian anti-abortion law possible, including disregard for rape, even child rape, and disdain for the life of the mother. They also want to criminalize the actions of any doctors involved (they are practitioners, after all, of hated science). Some legislatures are seeking to restrict travel to another state for purposes of abortion – a clear violation of the commerce clause and the 14th Amendment, but with a rogue and illegitimate Supreme Court, practically anything could now be ruled constitutional.

Should anyone think this is a consequence of Christian fundamentalists' frequent and nauseating declarations of their reverence for babies, they would have difficulty explaining the Texas legislature's cutting back of postpartum Medicaid. The Catholic Church, for its part, has been a fulltime anti-abortion lobbying organization (one that is somehow tax-exempt). But for some Catholic clergy, the untouchable sanctity of young, innocent human life apparently does not extend to altar boys.

People not directly impacted by the abortion statues should not conclude they won't eventually be targeted for some transgression or other. Moreover, one has to conclude that this frenzy of legislating isn't even about abortion per se. It's gone beyond that to punishing female Jezebels for their alleged licentiousness. It won't just be abortion doctors who are persecuted, but ultimately scientists in every field Republicans find heretical, like evolutionary biology, climate science, or microbiology. The friendly nurse who dispenses COVID vaccine at your pharmacy could become an accused felon charged with secretly injecting patients with mind-control chips. 

With respect to firearms violence, this calculated cruelty has been increasingly evident since the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre. The expressions of GOP officials have gradually evolved from a perfunctorily mumbled "thought and prayers" to the announcement by the chief law enforcement official of Texas, Ken Paxton, after the Uvalde atrocity: "Life is short" and "God has a plan." These folks always drag their deity into the muck to rationalize their indifference to human suffering. In a few years we can look forward to some GOP official exclaiming "massacres are awesome!"

That would at least dispense with the lies and evasions. A few seasons ago, Republicans justified separating migrant mothers from their very young children at the border as a necessary deterrent to illegal immigration. Since it had no measureable effect of the policy on migration flows, it became evident that the Trump administration did it for the same reason candidate Trump wanted cops to slam suspects' heads into squad car roofs: the cruelty is the policy.

A decade before that, the debate was about the torture of suspected international terrorists. Republicans' first tactic was to deny that torture was torture, when the techniques used met every domestic and international legal definition of it. Then, it was admitted that the CIA tortured maybe a little bit, but it was necessary to extract vital information in a highly-implausible ticking time bomb scenario (a genuine example of which no one could produce). It descended into bathos when Bush administration officials obliquely justified torture by reference to the fictional drama series 24. Apparently they also thought that Jack Bauer was a real guy. 

We should disabuse ourselves of illusions that Republicans want power for any purpose other than to exercise power, and to exercise it arbitrarily, unfairly, and with vindictiveness. Neither do they care about human life by banning abortion: it is about subordinating women. Torture is not an unfortunate byproduct of the need to extract information in an acutely dangerous world: torture is the whole point.

What Republicans have become is best summed up in a kind of eerie prophecy by George Orwell's 1984, when the brutal interrogator O'Brien sets poor Winston Smith straight that the Party is not aiming to build utopia, but rather a permanent regime of institutionalized hatred and cruelty:

"The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?  . . . How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?  . . . By making him suffer . . . Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation"

Little did we know when we read 1984 in high school that we were getting a preview of the GOP's governance blueprint.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Mike Lofgren

Mike Lofgren

Mike Lofgren is a former Republican congressional staff member who served on both the House and Senate budget committees. His books include: "The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government" (2016) and "The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted(2013).

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