Chris Cillizza, a hackneyed Arrested Development reaction gif with a high-paying journalism job, had one of his trademark run-ins with the “outrage police” this week, when he tweeted something dumb and was told by many people that it was dumb. Here was the thing:
You remember this, don’t you? Montana’s then-candidate for Congress Greg Gianforte reacted like a testosterone-poisoned goon to a question posed by a reporter, tackled him, punched him according to some accounts, was allowed to leave the scene before the cops detained him, had his campaign send out a brazen false account of the incident that was belied by an audio recording, and then, finally, apologized—after he won his election. This all happened last week. It seems so long ago, doesn’t it?
And that, actually, is what is notable about this dumb Chris Cillizza Tweet: It’s partly, accidentally correct, but he doesn’t understand why or what it means.
Cillizza’s menchies were full of people telling him that they had not stopped thinking about the assault, or its broader implications, and many people certainly haven’t (especially, I imagine, in Montana). But I also think it is probably true that, for many, the shock and impact of Gianforte’s assault faded after a few days, especially after he won his election. I also think it’s true that most people will have forgotten about the attack in a few months, unless there are major developments in the story related to his misdemeanor charges or the actions of the sheriff’s department.
It is, finally, true that all of that is good for Republicans, and it is undeniably true that it vindicates their strategy, such as it was, of downplaying the seriousness of Gianforte’s assault or simply refusing to respond to it at all. That turned out to be a real “win” for the GOP. Where Chris falters, as usual, is in his refusal (or inability) to apply any moral stance to his analysis, or to think through its obvious and dire implications—yes, Republicans certainly “bet right” by trying to deny the story oxygen until it simply fades away, but is that, perhaps, Not Great For the Country?
A principled political observer would see what Cillizza saw and perhaps ask about the implications of that Republican “bet”—that so long as plainly incompetent or even dangerous persons are necessary for Republicans to cling to power, almost any misdeeds by those persons, from corruption down to violent assault, must be spun away or ignored. It is a blanket “no comment” on all of the many things that badly need to be commented on by people with power and influence in the GOP. It is a party-wide abdication of responsibility—a cynical shrug.
Republicans have few options other than the shrug, because their hold on power is tenuous and democratically illegitimate. A confident governing coalition can afford to throw its most problematic elements overboard. The GOP needs every last thug and cretin. It is a minority party; a coalition of the rich and the old, furiously exploiting every advantage—an endless supply of robber baron money, nakedly racist gerrymandering and redistricting, the purposefully undemocratic nature of our electoral systems, mass incarceration and disenfranchisement, outright voter suppression, and now a mass campaign of deportation and terror explicitly intended to halt the browning of the United States—to hold back the masses that oppose their toxic and unpopular ideology.
The strategy depends, too, on cynicism and disengagement—the sort of mass disillusionment with politics that is the inevitable consequence of repeated undemocratic electoral outcomes and a political system that responds only to the preferences of the rich.
But as Cillizza says, the bet keeps paying off. That collective Republican shrug has been vindicated in many ways, large and small, since Trump became the presumptive nominee. It’s good politics, in large part because cynical and dimwitted political media figures allow them to get away with it.
The shrug works thanks to the existence of an alternate conservative media that speaks only to the GOP’s most dedicated supporters, obviously. But it also works thanks to the inability and unwillingness of the nonpartisan political press to assign collective responsibility to Republicans for the moral bankruptcy of their party, and the press’ refusal to make the obvious point that creating a political culture in which literally no bad deed is going to be met with opprobrium, so long as the deed-doer is in some way useful to the party politically, will lead—has led—to to an utterly dysfunctional politics in thrall to the worst elements of a tiny and extreme fringe.
The Cillizzas of the world keep letting conservatives get away with anything and then marveling that conservatives seem to be able to get away with anything.