Picture this scene: You are minding your business, watching the kids play in the tubes of the McDonalds PlayPlace. In walks a rumpled guy in an oversized coat. He’s ranting at no one in particular, expressing his anger at the CIA for implanting thoughts in his brain. As he shuffles around the restaurant, his gestures get more emphatic and his volume rises. What do you do?
We carry an almost universal response to non-normative behavior in a public setting. First, we hunker down and try to escape attention. We appeal for an authority to remedy the situation. If those efforts fail, we abandon the space. This ingrained response holds for almost any form of norm-defying activity in public, whether facing an obnoxious preacher in the park or the loathed street mime. When people behave erratically or unpredictably in public, we tend to cede that public space to them and retreat.
What happens if the outrageous behavior is not removed and we cannot escape the shared space? Unless confronted, the lunatic always wins. Everyone around them will bend their behavior to establish a new order. You can watch this happen when someone engages in an obnoxious display on a subway or in an elevator. They will own that public space and define the boundaries of acceptable behavior until someone stops them. Unless someone gets frustrated enough to confront the crazy, the person engaging in the norm-defying behavior will, given time, successfully establish a new norm.
How did the Republican Party, our humorless bastion of business, commerce and pragmatism become a seething hive of lunatics? House Speaker Paul Ryan is demonstrating that process in real time, as he carefully bends around increasingly idiotic, even disastrous demands to avoid the awkwardness (and risk) of a confrontation. John Boehner did it before him. For more than twenty years, nice, sane, polite Republican activists at the grassroots level have been challenged by raving loonies. One by one, they have all gotten rolled until there is nothing left of the Republican Party worth saving.
Republicans in Houston experienced the normalization of crazy in a textbook display that unfolded across the 90’s. Until the late 80’s very few people were involved in the Republican Party at the grassroots level, leaving it vulnerable. Southern states had never, since their founding, supported two-party politics. The Democratic Party’s embrace of civil rights at the national level had weakened the party in the South, but down in the precincts Republicans in Houston still consisted of a thin collection of business voters combined with a small number of Northern transplants, like the Bush family.
In the early 90’s a bizarre religious fanatic named Steven Hotze led a bitter, divisive campaign by outsiders and former Democrats to seize control of the county GOP organization. It wasn’t that hard. Back then you could take control of the Republican organization in the country’s fourth largest city by having 200 like-minded people show up to vote at a meeting.
Hotze’s efforts caused a split in the local GOP. For several years there were two parallel organizations in Houston claiming to be the legitimate county Republican Party. Over time, though, the power of crazy and the urge to restore normalcy prevailed. Older, traditional Republican interests ceded the public space to the lunatics, creating a new “normal.” Major figures directly involved in this ugly business won’t even talk about it today. They downplay the event if they acknowledge it even occurred. What happened in Houston was repeated across the South as local weirdoes recognized and exploited the grassroots fragility of a party gaining popularity in the polls.
How did sane Republicans acclimate themselves to a political environment constrained by insane demands? First through self-delusion. In the decade after the takeover you could hear business Republicans, in private conversation, explain away the antics of anti-gay crusaders or bizarre abortion extremists as “harmless.” Religious fanatics welcomed into the party (and now occupying all major leadership positions) were “useful idiots” being manipulated toward the party’s wider business and commercial goals.
By the time that illusion became impossible to sustain, those who held it were either fully co-opted to the party’s new lunatic goals or had simply been pushed into irrelevance. As Orwell wrote in 1984, we’ve always been at war with Eastasia. When we abandon our attachment to empirical realities in pursuit of public calm, crazy takes over. Crazy, if tolerated, will in time create its own new normal, pushing reason to the margins before extinguishing it altogether.
For evidence of this process in action, look carefully at the gap between election results and issue-based polls. Surprisingly few of the people who have traditionally voted Republican actually support Republican policies. From abortion to universal health care to higher progressive taxation to climate change and gun control, only a fraction of the people who vote for Republicans support what Republicans are doing.
In private conversations, almost all Republican voters express the conviction that their Republican elected officials don’t actually mean what they are saying. Their Republican officials do not actually intend to implement the policies they described in their campaigns. Republican voters are almost uniformly convinced that their candidates are just saying crazy things to get elected and will not enact those stupid policies once in office.
A nasty backlash is building. You can see it in the 2016 Election results, but it is also evident in twenty years of voting patterns. Places that used to be Republican strongholds, like the suburbs of New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles have toppled. Clinton won every major city in Texas. She won the entire Atlanta metro area along with its traditional Republican suburbs. Clinton won the ferociously Republican Houston suburbs in Fort Bend County.
Relatively conservative voters (by the historical definition), educated professionals, and business people, voters who should in a sane universe be Republicans, are rejecting the party in greater and greater numbers. Trump and the GOP won by appealing to the voters who are most vulnerable to a con. They may not stay vulnerable as the real-world consequences pile up and a rebellion breaks the mesmerizing hold of crazy.
It is always a mistake to reason with crazy. Crazy wins every argument. When you resort to reason and persuasion in a disagreement with people who reject reason and persuasion, you lose before you start. Here’s a strange thing about lunacy in a public setting. It doesn’t fight well. When confronted in a serious way, it scatters and runs. It disintegrates.
Crazy prevails when people ignore it, when people are willing to cede their public space and their public rights to preserve quiet. It fails when people resist, when they publicly call it what it is. Our future depends on our willingness to speak up, to act, and to restore sanity to our own public spaces. Crazy loses when we decide to fight.