Politics makes cynics of us all but Republican politics in the Trump era has a special fragrance, more nihilism than cynicism. Cynicism is when you expect your leaders to behave shamelessly and excuse them for doing so as a matter of partisan duty. Nihilism is when you celebrate your leaders for behaving shamelessly because it demonstrates resolve. What is shame, after all, except timidity in the face of convention?
I won’t rehash my first newsletter for The Dispatch, but I will double down on this line as a fair summary of why Trump appeals to populists: “A strong man is a dishonorable man, ruthless in pursuit of his goals and untroubled by the civic hobby horses of weaklings.” His refusal to be shamed by scandal after scandal, his insistence on aggressively attacking his accusers, is the essence of his reputation as a “fighter.” Scandal isn’t fatal for a modern Republican. Handled correctly, it’s an opportunity to show your party’s voters that you’re a fighter too.
Which is why the one-two punch Herschel Walker took on Monday night was greeted by most political junkies with a shrug. Walker is a populist and a longtime friend of Trump. He’s weathered many scandals already in Georgia’s Senate race and remains competitive in polling with Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock in spite of it. When you read the new Daily Beast story accusing him of having paid for an abortion in 2009, or saw the hair-raising tweets from his son Christian that followed, two words likely sprang to mind: Access Hollywood. We’re about to endure a new Access Hollywood cycle in which a populist Republican is left for dead politically by the experts following an October surprise only to end up winning a few weeks later because it turns out voters want a renegade outsider to shake up the system.
A country willing to make a louche game-show host president is willing to make an unstable domestic abuser senator, or so we all assume. The cardinal rule of Trumpist populism abides: LOL nothing matters.