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When the Stupid Futility Is the Point
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When the Stupid Futility Is the Point

Republican hardliners can’t seem to quell their almost Freudian compulsion to lose.

Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida questions Attorney General Merrick Garland during a committee meeting in Washington, D.C, September 20, 2023. (Photo by Mandel Ngan/ AFP/Getty Images)

This week yet another government shutdown appears inevitable, because a sizable chunk of the House Freedom Caucus believes, in the words of Tim Mattheson in Animal House, “this situation absolutely requires a very stupid and futile gesture on somebody’s part.”

What situation? 

Before we get to that, it’s important to understand that any situation will do, when you’re determined to deliver a stupid and futile gesture.  

In America, the term “counterculture” is so associated with hippies, beatniks, Bohemians and the like, it might seem odd to think of self-described conservatives as counterculture types. But the evidence is all over the place—from the loopy conspiratorialism and secession talk to the bizarre, albeit selective, defenses of lawlessness and even violence—that a lot of right-wingers have shed the pretense of actual conservatism in favor of a permanent pose of performative radicalism from the right. 

On the fringes of the House Republican conference, you can find this kind of nuttery aplenty. But, collectively, this countercultural impulse manifests itself most relevantly in an almost Freudian compulsion to lose.  

Which brings us to the situation. Earlier this year, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy managed to work out a modestly successful deal with Democrats that extended the debt ceiling until 2025. Given his incredibly narrow four-seat majority and the fractious nature of his coalition, this was hailed at the time as a considerable win for McCarthy and the Republicans, allegedly proving the GOP could be a governing party. 

And that was the problem for the radicals. When you’ve convinced yourself that the “system,” “establishment” or “regime,” is irretrievably corrupt or some kind of existential enemy—a common conviction among numerous countercultures for millennia—any form of deal is seen as evidence that you’ve “sold out.” The only way to irrefutably demonstrate that you didn’t compromise your principles—whatever those might be—is to lose. Martyrs are pure. Dealmakers are collaborators. 

So the rabble-rousing core of the Freedom Caucus declared that it got rolled in the debt ceiling fight and vowed to use the budget “process” (for want of a better word) to force spending cuts from, well, everyone. They claim McCarthy made them promises he didn’t keep—which might be true. They insist government borrowing and spending is out of control and must be dealt with—which is certainly true. Something has to be done. 

Fair enough. But what?

Their answer is to force the shutdown of the government.

The only problem? This is perhaps the most predictable script of the modern political era. To the shock of no one, voters don’t like government shutdowns and,  mirabile dictu, the party that forces a shutdown gets blamed for shutting down the government while the other party—which in this case happens to control both the Senate and the White House—gets to score easy points. 

And then, eventually, a deal is worked out but only after enough damage is self-inflicted. It’s akin to declaring, “Do what I demand or I will repeatedly smash my hand with this hammer until you relent.” 

Or maybe it’s like ‘60s  student radicals occupying the Berkeley or Kenyon cafeterias demanding better library hours, more parking, and a total and complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam. Or maybe it’s in the Leninist spirit of “the worse, the better.”  After all, people who make a living from catastrophizing like catastrophes. As McCarthy said Monday, “It’s almost like they want to walk you into a shutdown and then blame you for the shutdown.”

That seems to be where their dashboard saint, Donald Trump is coming from. Over the weekend, he reiterated that the GOP should behave as if it has all the leverage. On social media he posted,  “UNLESS YOU GET EVERYTHING, SHUT IT DOWN.”  Of course, Trump wants to use a government shutdown to “defund” the federal prosecutions against him and “other patriots.” Even if you thought this radical asininity was a great idea, the idea that it could make it through a Democrat-controlled Senate and past the president’s veto is a childish fantasy. 

But even the comparatively more modest demands being made by the holdouts are unlikely to clear those hurdles which, again, is why it’s all so futile and stupid. These antics will fail, but not before harming the reelection chances of many Republicans including 18 from districts Biden won. Indeed, the most committed radicals come from extremely safe seats, which they’re not scared of losing.  As for losing control of the House, that would just prove how principled they are.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.