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How To Transform Vice Into Virtue in Three Easy Steps
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How To Transform Vice Into Virtue in Three Easy Steps

The Paul Pelosi attack and the art of calling evil good and good evil.

Arizona Republican nominee for governor Kari Lake. (Photo by Rebecca Noble/Getty Images)

One of the tough things about working at the new and expanded Dispatch is that it’s now common for me to read Sarah, or Jonah, or Nick, or Kevin, and immediately think, “Dang, that’s what I wanted to write, but they did it better.” And so it was this morning when Nick explained the “dreadful predictability of how partisans react to political violence.” 

We share the view that partisans engage the world as unpaid political lawyers who view their mission as zealously defending their political cause, no matter the facts at hand. Here’s Nick: 

Elon Musk has compared Twitter to the public square but the political side of it is more like a courtroom, particularly when emotions run hot at a moment of high partisan salience. Terrible news breaks; the “jury” is impaneled as Americans of all stripes put aside what they’re doing to follow the coverage; the “lawyers” from both sides immediately get to work.

It’s the worst, a recurring reminder that the country’s politics are so paralyzed that even the reaction to catastrophes will fall predictably along partisan lines. And it happened again this weekend after Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul, was attacked by an intruder in their home in San Francisco.

I’d urge you to read the entire thing. It’s outstanding. Because Nick covered the Paul Pelosi ground so well, I’m going to talk about something else. I want to explore the deeper reasons why it’s now so often deemed good to be bad. 

We’ve seen almost too many examples of this to count, including surrounding the attack on Pelosi. I’m not going to share all of them, but just consider this joke (and the reaction) from GOP Arizona gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake:

Or this vile tweet from Donald Trump, Jr., retweeting a picture of a hammer and a pair of underwear as a Paul Pelosi Halloween costume:

Back in 2016, when Donald Trump looked like he was about to lose, I had friend after friend after friend tell me that they were voting for Trump despite his demeanor. The calculus was simple—he was the “lesser of two evils,” but at least they seemed to regret his flaws.

But in 2020 everything changed. It was harder to find Republicans who voted for Trump in spite of his flaws. It was much easier to find people who loved him because of exactly who he was. Folks went from holding their nose to third bass boat in the boat parade, and if you doubt that for one second, consider the prevalence of Trumpism across the GOP, not just the love for Trump himself. 

Trumpism isn’t universal in the GOP, but it’s prevalent, and the more prevalent it is, the more it’s seen as an indispensable element of right-wing political engagement. Unless you’re Trumpist, you’re not serious about beating the left.

But it’s one thing to decry this reality. It’s another thing to understand why it is so pernicious. It’s a logical extension of our nation’s mutual fear and loathing, and unless a person builds a powerful moral firewall against fear, each one of us is vulnerable to the exact same process. 

Here’s how to turn vice into virtue in three easy steps.

First, believe your opponents will destroy America. Don’t think for a moment that this is merely a Republican belief. An October NBC News poll demonstrated high interest in the midterms and also included this eye-popping statistic: “80% of Democrats and Republicans believe the political opposition poses a threat that, if not stopped, will destroy America as we know it.” 

This sense of emergency had an additional side effect. While I’ve written a great deal about how white Evangelical voters have abandoned their former commitments to political character, don’t think for a moment this phenomenon is limited to Christian Republicans. Again, here’s the NBC poll: “two-thirds of reliable Democratic and Republican voters say they’d still support their party’s political candidate, even if that person had a moral failing that wasn’t consistent with their own values.”

If you think your opponents present a mortal threat to the nation, then you’re going to swallow a lot of imperfections and flaws to try to push your candidates over the line. But even that statistic doesn’t do justice to the emotional dynamics in play. The next step is just as critical.

Second, believe you’re losing. On October 3rd the Pew Research Center released poll results that didn’t get nearly enough public attention. It turns out that a remarkable 72 percent of all Americans say that, “on the issues that matter to them, their side in politics has been losing more often than winning.”

With Democrats controlling every elected branch of the federal government, it’s not hard to understand why 81 percent of Republicans and right-leaning independents believe they’re losing, but “two-thirds of Democrats and Democratic leaners (66%) say their side is losing more than winning, up from 60% in 2021.”

How can this be? Essentially nobody gets what they truly want. Even if the Democrats hold the presidency and Congress, with the Dobbs decision a conservative Supreme Court handed the left its worst judicial setback in fifty years. And the nationalization of local politics means that partisans of both sides are constantly aware of the worst political excesses in both red and blue states.

And remember, each loss isn’t just to a “normal” political opponent but to a person you believe will “destroy America as we know it.”

Third, watch cruelty win. I’m not someone who believes that every election is the most important election of my lifetime. The true “most important election” is often only apparent in hindsight. For most of my life, I had one clear answer—1980. I won’t go into all the reasons, but they’re summed up here, in an essay I wrote reflecting on the 40th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural address. 

Reagan was sworn in at a hinge moment in history, when many millions of Americans believed that America was in decline, the Soviet Union was ascendant, and the American spirit was exhausted. The difference in the United States and the world between the start of the Reagan-Bush era and its end is difficult to overstate. America went from Cold War retreat to the world’s sole superpower in 12 short years. 

Now there’s another election that might emerge as just as important—2012. Not because of the policy differences between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, but because of both the sense of emergency that descended upon Republicans and the Republican response to that sense of emergency. 

As I wrote recently in The Atlantic, Mitt’s loss triggered a Republican civil war—a war between an establishment that believed that, if anything, Romney lost because his message wasn’t inclusive enough and a grassroots that believed he lost because he was too much of a gentleman. He didn’t punch the Democrats (and the media) in the face. 

When Trump won, everything changed in the GOP. I watched it happen with my own eyes. I’ve told this to my friends on the left, but you really had to be in deep red America to understand the delirious joy of seeing Hillary Clinton lose against all expectations and the resulting psychological bond they forged with Trump. The GOP went from abject despair to incredible joy about four hours, between 7:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. on election night.

The message that radiated across Republican America was simple and clear: Cruelty wins, decency loses.

But it was more than that. In this context, cruelty doesn’t just “win,” it saves the nation (for the moment). America lives to fight another day. And given that understanding, if you turn your back on cruelty, you’re turning your back on victory—which also means turning over the country to its mortal enemies. 

This is why you see such shock and incredulity at the very idea that you might choose to lose a race simply because your party’s nominee lacks character. This is why you’re scorned if you object to cruelty on moral grounds. Only tactical arguments (“it’s not working”) matter. 

And this same phenomenon also explains cancel culture, including cancel culture on the left. Last week the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple wrote an admirably honest piece about the New York Times’s decision to force out editorial page editor James Bennet after he published Republican Senator Tom Cotton’s 2020 op-ed calling for President Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act, if necessary, to end rioting in American cities. 

Here’s the part of Wemple’s piece that truly resonates with the times:

It’s also long past time to ask why more people who claim to uphold journalism and free expression — including, um, the Erik Wemple Blog — didn’t speak out then in Bennet’s defense.

It’s because we were afraid to.

His conclusion is poignant:

Our criticism of the Twitter outburst comes 875 days too late. Although the hollowness of the internal uproar against Bennet was immediately apparent, we responded with an evenhanded critique of the Times’s flip-flop, not the unapologetic defense of journalism that the situation required. Our posture was one of cowardice and midcareer risk management. With that, we pile one more regret onto a controversy littered with them.

That’s exactly how cruelty works—by raising the cost of dissent. And in the absence of genuine moral regret, it persists until it doesn’t work any longer, until partisans believe they have to try something different to keep the hated opposition out of power. 

But a tactical retreat from cruelty doesn’t address the cultural sickness. So long as pervasive fear remains (along with a sense of looming defeat) our nation’s factions will remain vulnerable to cruelty, conspiracies, cancel culture, and all the other maladies of existential-threat politics. Accurately pointing out that Trump is cruel or that he lies is meaningless to those who’ve already drunk deeply of the catastrophist Kool-Aid. 

Indeed, in that context, a commitment to decency is seen as a form of “luxury belief,” available only to those who are secure with the status quo. 

That’s a message that shouldn’t resonate with Christians—to take just one American community—especially since part of the core call of Christianity is to “take up your cross” to follow Christ, obedient to His commands even to the point of death. The cross is most assuredly not a symbol of earthly power, but rather of supreme sacrifice. It’s a symbol of how a temporal defeat can lead to an eternal triumph. But that’s a hard, hard road, one that few are eager to tread. 

In the absence of nationwide repentance (a hope, not a plan), the path out of the darkness has to depend not just on defeating cruelty and hoping to induce a change of tactics, but also on changing the catastrophic perspectives that motivate the cruelty in the first place. Your place in this nation is not so tenuous. Your opponents are not so evil or extreme

Knock out one of the legs of this terrible stool, and the cultural moment collapses on itself. Preserve all three legs, and you’re constantly fighting a rear-guard action against people who believe either that you “don’t know what time it is” or that you’re an outright traitor. As we’ve seen throughout history, human beings can quickly turn evil into good in the name of fighting the True Enemy. 

One more thing …

Speaking of trying to combat catastrophic thinking, during a recent live Good Faith podcast, I explored a theme I’ve written about before—that American religious liberty is more legally secure than it’s ever been. I also explored the difference between liberty and power. These comments kicked up a hornet’s nest online. What do you think? Is losing power more consequential than gaining liberty?

One last thing …

Speaking of Democrats thinking they’re losing, I thought this Saturday Night Live skit was hilarious, and completely consistent with the fears of my Democratic friends. This is how Joe Biden runs again: 

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.