When I was a youth back in the 1950s, most of the movies on daytime television were old westerns. I personally was enamored with Hopalong Cassidy and a proud member of the Bar 20 Club. One of the popular clichés, when a character was considered to be a little off, was to say that he must have eaten “locoweed”.
It turns out that locoweed is a real thing, describing any plant that produces swainsonine, a phytotoxin harmful to livestock. Consumed in sufficient quantities by cattle and other animals, locoweed may cause bizarre behavior and can be fatal.
I mention these fascinating tidbits because I was struggling the other day to come up with an explanation for the phenomenon known as Marjorie Taylor Greene and her Republican associates, who seem to live in an alternative reality.
Rep. Greene and 62 of her fellow House members did not see fit to support a resolution reaffirming U.S. support for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The resolution was merely symbolic in nature, but the sentiment behind it—at this moment—is significant, especially considering the expressed views and actions of the 45th president. Many, if not all, of the 63 Republicans—30 percent of the Republican House members—are supporters of Donald Trump. If there should be a Restoration, a return to the 2016 configuration, who can predict what direction our government will take.
One needn’t be Nostradamus or Sherlock Holmes to see where this might go. In 2019, 22 Republican House members voted against a “NATO Support Act” that would have barred the use of any funds for the withdrawal of the United States from NATO. Now three times that number have expressed their non-support for NATO.
Opinions may vary on how and why Russia wound up invading Ukraine and whether the United States had a hand in provoking Russia by the big expansion of NATO after the collapse of the Soviet Union. That discussion is now academic. Russia, after all, has invaded Ukraine, and we can’t assume that, given the opportunity, Russia would refrain from invading Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Estonia. I won’t bother making the case for why we should care about that happening. Witnessing what’s happening in Ukraine is hard enough without imagining the murder, mayhem and destruction—not to mention political and economic dislocation–that more Russian aggression would cause.
The craziness doesn’t stop there. Let’s go back for a moment to January 6, 2021, and the days that followed. More than half of the Republican House members—139 in all—voted to overturn the presidential election. Eight Republican senators voted against accepting the election results. Only three Republican senators supported Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson—perhaps the most qualified nominee in American history—for a seat on the Supreme Court.
Congress has had zany characters before, often in positions of power. Some of them were evil—e.g., Theodore Bilbo (D-MS), a racist and anti-Semite. Otherwise, the House and Senate had the normal collection of fools, bounders, reprobates and what have you—the kind of men (and they were men until recently) that H.L. Mencken delighted in ridiculing.
What we are seeing now is something different. Even if Trump were somehow to exit the scene tomorrow, the current Know Nothing Movement would survive. It has a life of its own, a kind of mold that developed under the moist nurturing of the 45th president. He didn’t cause or create it. It has always been there, overlooked, ignored and not taken seriously by the majority for years as a fringe phenomenon and not much more. It’s no longer a fringe, and it’s a mistake not to take it seriously. It’s a manifestation not so much of tribalism as it is of something even more myopic—a feeling of isolation perhaps from the larger society and most certainly from the federal government. The Internet, as has been remarked upon a zillion times, has made it readily possible for these people and groups to find and communicate with each other. They have found each other, and, in many cases, they have availed themselves of their right to vote. That number may grow.
The problem is that they—I’m talking now about Rep. Greene, her associates in Congress and their supporters—have no agenda, nothing that they want to accomplish. The movement is all about something called “freedom,” which sounds suspiciously like anarchy, with suppression of persons of color and others who stand in their way. This, as has been pointed out in any number of times recently, is the road to fascism. Protests will give them the excuse to suppress. Failure to protest will simply open the floodgates to their laying the groundwork for the future, undermining democracy and cementing their hold on power. History tells us they don’t need a majority to do it. None of the totalitarian movements of the Twentieth Century won power by a vote of a majority.
Before we get there, however, we have to wonder how the Republican leadership in the House will be able to accomplish anything—assuming there’s anything they want to accomplish—with a sizable portion of its majority uninterested in doing anything constructive.
Speaking of the Republican leadership, one more thing needs to be noted. We’ve already witnessed an extraordinary, revealing political moment. In the days following the insurrection of January 6, 2001, the Republican leaders of both houses of Congress—Sen. Mitch McConnell and Rep. Kevin McCarthy—denounced Donald Trump on the floors of their respective chambers as the person morally responsible for the violence that occurred. Those denunciations aren’t what was remarkable, however. Both men may have spoken in anticipation of the universal moral outrage they expected from their Republican colleagues, and from the general population. When, however, they heard millions of voices echoing the false claims of fraud from the defeated president, McConnell and McCarthy may well have concluded that they misjudged—which is to say they over-estimated—the state of moral outrage in America. Realizing that millions of Americans—mostly Republicans no doubt—weren’t outraged at all, the two “leaders” backtracked. They had given their putative supporters more credit than they deserved, and the two men rushed to get back in front of the mob.
We can look back now, with nostalgia, to the good old days when Democrats and Republicans jousted for control of Congress, the White House, state legislatures and governorships. We can remember Democrats and Republicans joining forces to pass the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Politics was a contest for control, waged within limits and respect for norms, rules and conventions, not a blood sport. That era ended in 1994 with Newt Gingrich and his no holds barred tactics.
Nothing that Gingrich has said or done publicly indicates that he’s unhappy with where we are, or where we are apparently heading. I’ve suggested before, and I’ll do it again now—this is not an end point. We are on a continuum. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
Nothing about sustaining democracy is automatic. It takes attention, care and effort. Fascism is a political weed that grows where indifference overwhelms commitment and the truth is swamped by lies, hypocrisy and ruthless deception.
And stop thinking that it can’t happen here, because it is.