Politicians, especially republican politicians, often say stupid things. Sometimes, they say really stupid things.
And sometimes, they say things that are really wrongheaded.
And sometimes they say things that are painfully offensive, like maligning whole groups of people because of their color, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexuality. On occasion, they go way over-the-top and start “humorously” or otherwise inappropriately invoking radioactive emotional issues like slavery, rape, or the Holocaust.
But every now and then, some low-rent soul scores a trifecta, a perfect three-for-three, spewing into the headlines something that simultaneously displays complete ignorance of history or context, espouses a thoroughly perverted moral position, and goes so far past the line separating human decency from poor taste that, well, the line is just a dot to them.
How about a historical example? One of the Toteboard’s “favorites” occurred in 2006, when the current Minnesota attorney general Keith Ellison (who would later be instrumental in the prosecution of Derek Chauvin and his minions) became the first Muslim-American elected to serve in the House of Representatives, and the first to use the Qur’an in an informal swearing-in ceremony. This did not sit well with a Virginia congressman ironically named Virgil Goode, who dashed off a poison-pen letter to his constituents about the “Muslim Representative from Minnesota.” In this brief dispatch, Goode warned that “if American citizens don’t wake up and adopt (my) position on immigration there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran (sic).” Of course, Goode was worried about more than just Congress: “I fear that in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America.” In response to accusations of intolerance, Goode followed up with an op-ed in USA Today, reminding readers of the religious affiliation of the 9/11 mass murderers, and expressing fear that “we are leaving ourselves vulnerable to infiltration by those who want to mold the United States into the image of their religion.” And by the way Keith, congratulations on your election.
It's hard to know where to begin when it comes to identifying everything that was so fucked-up about Goode’s comments. Maybe that Ellison was actually not an immigrant, undocumented or otherwise, but a Detroit-born (and Catholic-born) African-American who could trace his roots in this country to the 1700s? Or maybe Goode’s assumption that it’s a self-evidently bad thing to have Muslims in Congress, or even in the US? Or maybe that there is something somehow un-American about a citizen employing the Qur’an for taking an oath? Or maybe his belief that Muslims are secretly conspiring to Islamicize the country? Or maybe the idea that Ellison or the people who voted him into office had anything even remotely to do with 9/11? Or maybe, just maybe, that he managed to insult Muslims, immigrants, African-Americans, Minnesotans, and anyone with even modest intelligence in one fell swoop? One wonders what he might say were he to find out that Ilhan Omar now occupies what was once Ellison’s seat in the House? That the Somalis have a secret plan to force all American women to wear headscarves?
IN THE SOUP
Of course, there may have been a time when such trifectas were relatively rare, but the conservative talk-radio and Fox News culture that culminated with Trump’s invasion of politics pretty much turned such swill into everyday occurrences. Still, one could argue that no one today embodies this phenomenon better than Marjorie Taylor Greene, Georgia’s most prominent entry in the National Registry of Public Embarrassments (NRPE). From claiming that school shootings were “false flag” events, to suggesting that California wildfires were caused by space lasers beamed in by a family of Jewish bankers, Ms. Greene really does seem to have taken no turn un-stoned. But arguably, Greene’s most famous doozy is her chilled tomato soup gaffe a few months back: “Not only do we have the DC jail which is the DC gulag, but now we have Nancy Pelosi’s gazpacho police spying on members of Congress, spying on the legislative work that we do, spying on our staff and spying on American citizens.”
And naturally, social media users, late-night TV hosts, and comics of all stripes had a blast with this one, justifiably deriding Georgia’s homegrown laughing-stock as a chowder-head, through a hearty stew of cutesy potage jokes du jour.
However, the Toteboard isn’t laughing. In fact, the Toteboard would dare to suggest that Greene actually does this stuff on purpose, i.e., that her best known “gaffe,” as well as many others, are actually well calculated and strategically deployed. Now one could make a case that she must be spewing these absurdities deliberately simply because no one, not even Our Little Marjorie, is that stupid. But of course, the Toteboard has a more nuanced argument in mind, which involves bringing together several loosely related premises.
Premise #1: The Suffering Masters. One of the most important characteristics of those who are Sympatico with MTG, and of the Trumpian crazies who have executed a hostile takeover of the republican party, is that they understand themselves as deeply aggrieved. But what is crucial to understand is that their grievances relate not primarily to specific policies or programs, as much as to perceived threats to their identity and power. That is to say, they carry with them a deep-seated, and corrosive, sense that their country no longer feels quite like their own, that it is being “given away” by “woke liberals” to various interlopers – Blacks, immigrants, feminists, welfare queens, LGBT people, etc. – while their own economic situations stagnate (or deteriorate) and their sites for cultural affinity seem to be collapsing. If readers of the Toteboard experience a certain rush when they noodle up and down Buford Highway and see storefront signs in Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, and Spanish, or feel a sense of pride that their communities so comfortably welcome gay and transgender neighbors, many folks on the other side of the cultural aisle experience profound alienation, and even fear, of those very same phenomena. “Why can’t we even read billboards in our own country? Why can’t they learn our language?” The Toteboard is not particularly interested in adjudicating the legitimacy of their grievances – at least not this time around – as much as pointing out that this is pretty much what always happens when a dominant group, especially one that is unaware of or has passively assumed its own dominance, confronts very real, very concrete, erosion of its hegemony. As strange as it may seem, racists and xenophobes often feel that they’re the ones to whom the world is so inhospitable, much like the characters introduced in the first lines of E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, who were swathed in the “accoutrements of patriotism” and who looked back wistfully on those imagined days long ago when “there were no Negroes” and “there were no foreigners.”
Premise #2: Abuse Thy Neighbor. In recent years, the aggrieved majority has begun to express its grievances in ways that are simultaneously hyperbolic and hostile. Now of course, exaggeration is nothing new for politicos, especially republican-leaning politicos, as evidenced by scenes like when Georgia’s earlier NRPE entry, Zell Miller, warned that a John Kerry presidency would dispatch troops into combat armed with little more than pea-shooters. But what is new is the grafting of this tendency toward exaggeration onto a kind of foaming-at-the-mouth (or damning-with-a-smile) mean-spiritedness that we all mistakenly believed had been vanquished from civilized discourse long ago. In an oddly post-modern inversion, it is now the unhinged right-wing that somehow claims the mantle of being transgressive, not by challenging conventional boundaries of authority and canon, but by publicly violating the most elemental norms of human intercourse, i.e., what the Toteboard identified last year as “the normalization of the despicable.” Whether it’s in the form of demeaning political rivals, dredging up harmful racial or ethnic stereotypes, making fun of people with physical disabilities, vilifying the independent press, or instigating acts of violence, public nastiness has become the republican version of civil-disobedience. Empowerment through malevolence.
Premise #3. Bearing Truthy Witness. Interestingly, it was a long-time republican operative and political reporter, Salena Zito, who first observed in The Atlantic of then-candidate Donald Trump that “the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” So when Trump initially launched his first presidential campaign and claimed that Mexico was sending criminals and rapists to the US, the press spent a lot of time and ink fact-checking who Mexican immigrants actually were, comparing their crime statistics to those of other Americans, and so forth. But for his supporters, the statement corroborated vague but deeply felt anxieties that their identities as Americans were under assault, that the growing immigrant population somehow made the country less safe, and that the Mexican government was working at cross-purposes with the country’s best interests. It didn’t really matter to them if such statements were false, or distorted, or even belligerent or cruel, as long as they were emotionally resonant, i.e., as long as they “felt right.” This kind of “double-coding” is frequently at work in the hostile and inflated expression of right-wing grievance, which play completely differently for different audiences.
Premise #4: Forsaking the Eggheads. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the republican right turned so rabidly anti-intellectual, but it’s fair to say that this broad brush of mistrust of expertise – applied to just about everyone from scientists and medical experts to scholars and educators – has morphed into a badge of contemporary tribal identity. To be fair, liberal academia has always had its share of peccadilloes, like an elitist tendency to issue top-down proclamations about “correct” language that seem out of touch with the people they are supposedly respecting or protecting, e.g., it’s almost comical to see recent polls showing that barely 3% of Hispanic Americans identify themselves by the term Latinx, and that fewer than a quarter of them have even heard of the word. But according to an informative and disturbing New York Times guest essay, a big chunk of conservative antipathy toward intellectuals can be traced to a “misguided policy shift made decades ago” during the Clinton administration, and then reiterated and amplified during the Obama years, where “Democratic politicians increasingly framed education, rather than labor unions or a progressive tax code, as the answer to many of our economic problems.” While the idea of an educated citizenry sounds like a really good thing, a modern echo of the Renaissance Man (sic) ideal, the Toteboard has previously noted that this linking of education to economic success brought about a chain-reaction of unanticipated consequences that were absolutely poisonous to higher education and spread insidiously like a hyper-mutated coronavirus to all levels of K-12 as well. With education becoming just another commodity in an increasingly amoral neoliberal dystopia, corporate forces now impose “quotas” and “metrics” and “measurable outcomes” onto an organic process where they most assuredly don’t belong, pod-people administrators (and too many complicit teachers) replace conversations about curricula and pedagogy with planning sessions on “recruitment” and “branding,” and students (bless their hearts) – who are simply acting on the programing that began when they took their first standardized test, and who never had a chance to understand what actual learning is – treat all of education as a hazing they have to endure and a system they have to game. And because there are only so many available seats at prestigious (and expensive) institutions, and only so many available positions in the corporate cesspool for which the students are being groomed, an already unhealthily competitive environment has gone on steroids. It’s no wonder so many high-school and college-age kids and young adults are battling depression and anxiety. But, the Toteboard digresses. According to this Times essay, the most serious social and political consequence of this paradigm shift was that it sent a message to non-college-educated working class people that “they had only themselves to blame” for their declining living standards, while the affluent and educated “were congratulated for their smarts and hard work.” This judgment didn’t play particularly well in certain quarters, and it (further) turned a lot of former allies against democrats, against inconsistently applied meritocracy, and against what they perceive as an unjustifiably smug elite that would make no attempt to hide its disdain for the uneducated. In short, intellectuals have come to symbolize what much of the right resents.
So what does this all have to do with the simultaneously stupid, wrongheaded, and offensive things Marjorie Taylor Greene has said over the last year or two? Well, we’re getting there, but let’s start for now with her simple-minded declaration of American energy independence at a Trump rally back in March – “We’re gonna drill oil right here in the USA” – which she inexplicably paired with a truly bizarre follow-up: “Pete Buttigieg can take his electric vehicles and his bicycles, and he and his husband can stay out of our girls’ bathrooms.” Um, OK, so we’re not quite sure what bathrooms have to do with energy policy, and even if they did, we can assume that even MTG knows that gay male couples probably don’t have a lot of motivation to spend much time in the girls room, right? But that’s not the point, or at least it’s not her point, and it’s not the point for her audience either. Rather, by shifting into serious-not-literal mode, she managed in a single tangled afterthought to 1) demean alternative energy strategies, 2) remind her audience that democratic leadership unapologetically includes gays and lesbians, 3) allude to the lie that trans people are dangerous predators, and 4) stake out her own position as defender against all of the above. Oh, and she also got to be what passes for “funny” (or something like that) among her constituents. You know, Pete and his husband are homos, snicker snicker, which means they act like girls, snicker snicker, which means they want to go into girls’ bathrooms, snicker snicker, like all those guys who are pretending they don’t have dicks anymore, snicker snicker. Yeah, she’s a regular Phyllis Diller.
Of course, Greene can only get away with this sort of adolescent taunting if her audience shares her prejudices as well as her grievances, i.e., she’s probably pretty safe tossing out anti-gay and anti-trans slurs during a Trump-headlined Georgia campaign rally. But how about her breezy invocations of Nazis, which include not just the “gazpacho police,” but also references a year earlier to “vaccine Nazis” and “medical brown-shirts?” Doesn’t this tap into such a universal taboo that her insensitivity would offend even her own constituencies? Maybe. But maybe not. When you think about it, The second world war ended almost eighty years ago, few members of the Greatest Generation are still alive to share their memories, and mid-20th century history isn’t exactly the main conversation topic in rural Georgia. And to be honest, MTG’s followers probably don’t have a lot of direct contact with people for whom the mere mention of the Holocaust is such a powerful trigger. In short, they probably wouldn’t recognize a Nazi if one goose-stepped on their feet, and probably imagine that “blowing the shofar” is what happens when the guy who drives Jews to synagogue on Saturdays gets lucky. Again, Greene knows her audience, and knows what plays for them.
But more important, Greene’s idiocies invariably provoke a response outside of yo-yo-land. Whether she’s committing simple malaprops, spouting junk science, or flipping her Nazi wig, the “educated elite” respond by making fun of her, by correcting her, by (justifiably) portraying her and her allies as . . . . well, stupid, wrong-headed, and offensive (sound familiar?). And this absolutely plays into one of the most dominant right-wing narratives: “We air our grievances, and all the liberals and intellectuals and woke media personalities want to do is flaunt their own education and tell us how stupid we are.” And you know, whether or not someone possesses the moral high-ground (MTG surely doesn’t), it doesn't play well to simply correct their grammar rather than engage them substantially on their grievances.
And so, the Toteboard offers the hypothesis that Marjorie Taylor Greene, like Donald Trump before her, says these stupid, wrong-headed, and offensive things deliberately, fully anticipating that a barrage of corrective criticism will rain down on her, but also fully secure that the criticism will serve to reinforce both the feeling of grievance and the anti-intellectualism of her constituents. And unfortunately, it’s actually a fairly effective strategy, mainly because there isn’t really an adequate defense against it. If we “take the bait” and correct whatever she said that was factually or scientifically inaccurate, we play into the anti-egghead narrative that educated liberals are out-of-touch elitists. If we instead engage her substantially on the specific issues – e.g., on whether Nancy Pelosi authorizes police to spy illegally on American citizens, or whether those engaged in the Capitol riots are being treated poorly in jail – we implicitly dignify her argument by giving it (and her) more air-time than they deserve, and probably end up missing the emotional gist of her diatribe anyway. And if we simply ignore her, well, then she’s the only one talking, and we allow truly dangerous statements to go unchallenged and almost certainly repeated in a feverish and often violent echo-chamber. It’s actually kind of reminiscent of how the Israeli government used to acknowledge that they hadn’t come up with a workable defense against suicide bombers. If we stretch the metaphor a bit, we can best think of Greene as a verbal suicide bomber, someone who repeatedly says things that inflict real injury while exacerbating vitriol among her followers, but that also guarantee history (and most of the civilized world) will ultimately come to regard her as an intellectually impoverished, morally defective villain. But unlike “real” suicide bombers, MTG won’t just throw one verbal bomb and go away. We can’t just, as the song says, call the whole thing off.
So if anyone has any suggestions for how best to respond to the Trumps and the Greenes and all the other deplorables, the Toteboard would really like to hear your ideas. Because for now, it’s all feeling pretty incapacitating.