Recently, a common claim (what scholars of rhetoric would call a topos) has emerged among Trump and GOP media, and it goes like this: if Democrats gain the House and Senate, they will force their political agenda on the country, block the President at every point, and be vindictive toward Republicans. And because Dems will be so awful to toward Republicans, the GOP is justified in getting much more aggressive in its rhetoric, policies, and even actions.
In other words, because Democrats will treat Republicans as Republicans have treated Democrats, Republicans are justified in a kind of pre-emptive self-defense.
As a scholar of train wrecks in public deliberation, I know this argument will work. It generally does. It worked when Democrats used it (and Democrats have used it several times). It also worked when Athenians, proslavery rhetors in the Old South, and Germans used it.
To people good at logic, it seems like an incoherent argument, because it’s admitting that the way Republicans treated Obama is not something Republicans will tolerate from Democrats in their treatment of Trump. The very argument is an admission of having behaved intolerably. A logical person would conclude that Republicans should — now that the tables might be turned — regret how they treated Obama.
But to people who don’t think about politics in terms of fairness, universal rights, or a rule of law that applies equally, and instead think entirely in terms of in-group/out-group domination, this argument looks good. It’s also appealing to abusers, but that’s a different point.
It works because it’s a way of resolving cognitive dissonance. Until now, the in-group has made the wobbly case that God wants us to triumph over our enemies, and anyone not fanatically committed to the political agenda understood as the current in-group desiderata is an enemy. Because we are engaged in God’s will, normal ethical conditions don’t apply. We can do to others things we would be outraged were they done to us. That’s the argument all these groups made before. When Democrats were the party of segregation, they argued that segregation was God’s will and completely justified it as the only thing keeping the U.S. from disaster. That whites dominated was, they claimed, God’s will. And in this frame, God rewards those who destroy their enemies.
The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls this a “state of exception” in which we are excepted from normal rules about behavior — we honor the law by not obeying the specifics of the law. We are open that the powers of government will be used to favor one political party. But, while doing that, we’ll claim that our party is really the only legitimate one. All real Athenians, Germans, and Americans vote this one way.
Members of that one party believe themselves entirely entitled to something, such as enslaving other people, exterminating various groups, or dominating politics within a state or country. So, while that one party is in power, it is shameless in its harnessing as much governmental power as it can to further its interests and crush any other parties. And — this is the important part — it is a party that believes there are no restrictions on what it is entitled to do in order to get its way. That’s why it has no shame: it thinks of the world in zero-sum terms. We either eliminate or are eliminated.
When that party’s power begins to wobble, it begins to reckon with how the groups it has oppressed might feel about their oppression. And it projects onto other groups how it thinks of the world: you either eliminate or are eliminated. Because the party can’t imagine a world in which disparate groups coexist, it assumes everyone else behaves the same way. Because it is a group that makes everything zero-sum — “if something benefits the other group, it must hurt us” — it assumes that the “other” group will pursue the same eliminationist policies if they gain power.
If you have a propaganda machine that has been cranking up in-group fanaticism, reducing all issues to in-group/out-group, and presenting politics as zero-sum, and you claim God has exempted you from normal rules of ethics, then you are rhetorically boxed in. You can’t just say “We were wrong about this policy” without enraging your own base—the base that you have persuaded to either exterminate its enemies or be exterminated.
To admit error would be to admit flaws not just in your claims about policies, but also about how politics and thinking about politics works. And if your audience thinks about how politics works, you lose them, since how you’ve argued is so obviously wrong and antithetical to democratic rule.
Instead, what you do is persuade them that the Other is just as awful as you are and will behave just as badly as you have. That’s the argument Cleon used to persuade people to endorse genocide during the Mytilenian debate in 427 B.C. (He lost on the second vote). That’s how proslavery rhetors convinced slaveholders in the 19thcentury to accept the violation of their property rights by prohibiting the manumission of slave contracts. And that’s how 20thcentury Nazis argued for continuing the war when it had obviously been lost.
It should, therefore, be troubling that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is now using this argument, and that it has become a right-wing talking point. It has not ended well for people who have used this argument before.
The argument does not end well, in part, because it concedes its own unethicality. The only way that the audience can be fearful or outraged at the possibility of Democrats forcing their political agenda on the country, blocking the sitting President at every point, and being vindictive toward Republicans is if they don’t object to that kind of behavior in principle. They think it’s fine to do that to the other party, but they would never stand for being treated that way. They are thereby admitting it’s bad behavior.
But, they say, it isn’t bad because their group is good and the other is bad. Or, in other words, they think they should treat others as they would not want to be treated. They are, quite explicitly, rejecting any ethics (or anyone who would promote an ethics) that says you should do unto others as you would have done unto you.
The people who argue that democracy is based in Judeo-Christian ethics are, as any history of the Enlightenment makes clear, correct in that the notion of universal human rights and fairness across groups was grounded in the notion (not particular to Christians or Jews, but supposedly a foundational value of both) that a deeply religious ethical system treats all groups the same, regardless of their religious (or political) affiliation.
They’re wrong about most other things, but they’re right about that. So, it’s interesting that that is the rule some of them are so unwilling to follow.
The current “support Trump” talking point is that the Democrats will behave as badly as the GOP has. This point is presented as a reason to vote for the GOP. It is actually a reason not to vote for the GOP — at least until the leadership explicitly rebukes the continued rejection of fairness as a political principle. It should be a reason to reform the GOP, rather than one for doubling-down on factionalism.