Even if you don’t like or have never seen the 1992 film, or if you judge Jack Nicholson’s acting technique as, shall we say, a bit much, you can probably recite his signature outburst from “A Few Good Men,” with appropriate volume: “You can’t handle the truth!”
Why are so many in the GOP still insisting that the presidential election was rigged and that Donald Trump, the main attraction at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, is the “real” president? Why would a 9/11-style commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol — to avoid a repeat by the same forces who believed an election fraud lie — be a bad idea? Why all the squawking and attempts in some states to censor a social studies curriculum that presents a nuanced and complete history of a United States that has not always acknowledged the accomplishments and sacrifice of all its citizens?
Say it louder, Jack. I don’t think the Republicans present and represented at CPAC can hear you.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to reassure a justifiably fearful country, in the midst of a crushing Depression, by being honest and positive about “our common problems.”
“Let me assert my firm belief,” he said, “that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror, which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
Actions motivated by that emotion, by fear, can easily take a toxic turn, away from the truth toward full retreat from anything that acknowledges “common problems” or a willingness to solve them.
At CPAC, speaker after speaker repeated a lie that widespread voter fraud, not the votes of more than 81 million Americans, put Joe Biden in the White House. Though that lie fueled the pro-Trump riot of Jan. 6 that left five people dead, too many GOP lawmakers refuse to face that truth, fearful that Trump will name them, as he did every one of the House and Senate Republicans who supported his impeachment in his CPAC speech. This acquiescence is coming from some who were witness to the chaos.
It’s a soulless transaction that views democracy as expendable.
And it’s leading to an avalanche of additional attacks on democracy, in the form of voting restrictions in states across the country by legislatures dominated by Republicans.
A return to form
Newly minted swing states Biden won are clearly in the crosshairs. Arizona Republicans are floating a law that would allow the state Legislature to overturn the results of a presidential election. And sweeping election changes under consideration in Georgia would, among other things, limit Sunday voting — a move certainly aimed at the “Souls to the Polls” events popular with predominantly Black churches.
Additionally, in Georgia, Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, praised for defying Trump’s effort to hold up the state’s valid 2020 vote count, has made it known that his office will enforce the rule preventing folks from providing food or water to anyone standing in line to vote.
Enough GOP senators, looking more and more like those who once set up literacy tests and poll taxes, seem all too ready to stop House legislation proposed to make voting easier because of fear that a multiracial and multicultural America will reject what the party Trump still leads is offering.
With the Supreme Court looking primed to further shrink the effectiveness of the Voting Rights Act, if the justices’ questions this week in important voting rights cases are any indication, maybe the GOP shouldn’t worry too much about its battle on that front, though voters of color might truly have something to fear.
Fear laid bare
“Election integrity” was the focus of Trump’s weekend speech, as well as many of the sessions at CPAC. The fear behind that slogan has been laid bare by the continued attacks on voters in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Detroit and other majority-minority centers, presenting a scary “other” instead of an America that’s bending toward justice. Listening to the concerns of all Americans, to the truths about needed police reform, health care inequities in the communities most devastated by COVID-19 and environmental injustices on view just weeks ago in Texas must be a step too far for lawmakers who won’t believe the Trump-appointed director of the FBI when he warns of domestic terrorism by far-right groups.
At a Senate Judiciary hearing this week to address concerns about the intelligence leading up to Jan. 6, as well as the threat of domestic terrorism, Christopher Wray’s repeated declarations about the outsize role of militia and white supremacist groups and the danger that has his agency chasing more than 2,000 cases met GOP ears that would rather deflect.
While Sen. Chuck Grassley did not go full Ron Johnson, which would mean echoing the Wisconsin senator’s wild and false claims of “fake Trump protesters” who ruined a “jovial” pro-police gathering on Jan. 6, the Iowa Republican tried and failed in his effort to make Wray view domestic terrorism through a lens of antifa and leftist protests of last summer.
“We’re not serious about attacking domestic extremism if we only focus on white supremacy movements, which isn’t the only ideology that’s responsible for murders and violence,” Grassley said, though, according to Wray and anyone with eyes, those movements were most responsible for Jan. 6.
The Republican Party of now was on view at CPAC, with Trump the star and a soundtrack of “Y.M.C.A” and “Macho Man,” amusingly ironic for anyone familiar with the Village People’s ethos and the anti-LGBTQ turn of today’s GOP. Stereotypically tough “macho” talk marked speech after speech, though deception was rampant and the fear so thick you could cut it with a knife.
The scene was ridiculous, really, especially that golden Trump idol that had some worshippers bowing down. Don’t Trump’s white evangelical followers recall Moses, a golden calf and false gods?
But it’s not funny, as endless examples prove.
FDR seemed to forget his own wise words during World War II, when he signed an executive order that sent people of Japanese descent — men, women and children, most of them American citizens — to isolated internment camps. The racism-fueled decision, not extended to Americans of German and Italian descent, was eventually reversed by the Supreme Court, which once had given it a pass.
That whole chapter, which no telling of American history should cancel, remains a stain on professed American ideals.
It’s not just the truth, it’s a warning of what fear can lead to.
Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.