Toddler Nation

The Right has devolved into what even conservative commentator Charlie Sykes calls “performative assholery,” and there is no bottom to it.

Everything causes a fit, all is an outrage. Throughout the pandemic, people have refused to wear masks, to social distance, to get vaccinated — going so far as to verbally and even physically attack employees at groceries, stores, shops, restaurants, and on planes who have dared ask them to wear a mask. Most of us have seen so many videos of outrageous toddler-like behavior that we stopped viewing them for our own psychological health.

But it continues. Here are just a few recent examples of this exuberant acting out:

· In Williamson County, Tenn., parents at a school board meeting jeered other parents, including doctors and nurses, who supported the wearing of masks in school and who spoke about the need for a mask mandate. As the pro-mask parents headed to their cars, some were repeatedly threatened with shouts of: “We know who you are! We will find you!” (If you watch the video, near the end one of the anti-mask protesters says something to the effect of “Don’t give the media what they want.” Who wants this?)

· In Austin, Texas, in an altercation over a mask mandate at the Eanes Independent School District, a parent pulled off a teacher’s mask, leaving the superintendent to rightly plead, in a statement, “Please, I am asking everyone to be kind…do not fight mask wars in our schools.”

· In St. Louis County (where I live) anti-mask protesters swarmed a council meeting and called the vaccines “bioweapons” and compared vaccine mandates to what the Nazis did during the Holocaust. (In Springfield, Mo., a number of anti-vax protesters went so far in decrying a simple non-binding resolution to encourage vaccinations as to wear yellow felt stars, like those the Nazi regime required of Jews.

Whether you get vaccinated in America is still largely up to which political party you belong to and what your local politicians are saying and doing. It’s identity politics, and Democrats and Independents would say it is working for them, except for the fact that their own liberties are being curtailed every day because so many conservatives are not wearing masks and getting vaccinated, which invites new variants to develop and keeps the crisis going.

How on earth did this start? How did we get here? Here’s the simple workflow on the loss of politeness in politics (a k a “political comity”):

Rush Limbaugh => Fox News => Donald Trump

The late Rush Limbaugh, who dropped out of college to pursue his radio dreams, made his fortune posing as an everyman’s intellectual, throwing temper tantrums for three hours a day on the AM dial. His ditto-heads, like those sad creatures in a schoolyard who want to mimic or feel they must play up to the bully, puffed out their chests and followed suit.

It was time to own those libruuuls and femi-nazis, as Rush would growl into the golden microphone of his self-named “Excellence in Broadcasting” studio. He could have been a four-year-old broadcasting from the pillow fort he made on the sofa, but, no, he was an all-growed-up boy with a huge chip on his shoulder. (Podcaster Joe Rogan apparently plays that part now for younger disaffected men.)

In 1994, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich brought Limbaugh to Congress, and had Rush do some manners training of the incoming class of Republicans. Fight like hell, agree to nothing, and regard your political opponents as the enemy was the message. Proving that governance cannot work was their lofty goal.

Donald Trump not only learned a lot about whining from Limbaugh, he simply appropriated Rush’s culture wars cult, as Salon contributing writer Heather Digby Parton wrote earlier this year, after Limbaugh’s death:

Trump was perfectly suited to become the first Republican nominee to run exclusively on the culture war issues that had animated conservative talk radio for the previous two decades. He may not have been a listener but he was a member of the tribe. And because he was naive about politics he had no sense that projecting the worst of hate radio was politically dangerous so he just put it all out there, unfiltered. I think most observers, including his GOP rivals, assumed that would be the kiss of death. Instead, it turned out to be massively popular among Republican voters.

Trump reportedly spent hours every day in the White House watching Fox and then reactionary tweeting and bad-mouthing anyone — especially women — who challenged his authority. Was the 45th U.S. president an unbelievable baby about nearly everything? (One could imagine him fueling his rage drinking his beloved Diet Coke from a sippy cup.) His non-stop lying was documented, but it would be a more daunting task to count how often he mocked or derided others. It wasn’t for nothing that a giant balloon of Trump, first seen outside Parliament in 2018 to protest his visit, portrayed him as a sneering diapered baby holding a cell phone.

Not only was cruelty the point, as Adam Sewer put it in his much-shared 2018 Atlantic article, but real (or performative) stupidity and a lack of compassion became mandatory behavior throughout MAGA-land.

Concern about already exhausted health care workers trying to again handle a huge influx of coronavirus patients in hospitals around the country?

Not really. Not enough to put on a mask and get vaccinated.

Compassion for the Capitol and Metropolitan Police who told harrowing stories of how they were abused and beaten during the Jan. 6 siege by Trump supporters?

Nope. Scorn, ridicule, complaint, and truly demented attempts at diversion.

Understanding for world-champion gymnast Simone Biles after she took herself out of competition because the pressure had become too much for her?

Uh-uh. Outrage and venom.

If we were to teach our grandson, who just turned three, how to say tyranny, I’d expect it would become one of his favorite words. He’s often being asked to do things he really doesn’t want to do, like pick up after himself and eat his dinner and go to bed on time.


In a recent article in The National Review, Kevin D. Williamson likens the chaotic, performative behavior of much of the Right to what the hippies were in the 1960s. It’s an interesting idea, given the role-reversals seen in the Left praising expertise and government and the Right talking anarchy. But the hippies were fighting for more positive things than what Williamson allots them — they were for stopping the war in Vietnam, they were for increasing civil rights for women and African Americans. They stood for something, not for white grievance and against everything reasonable.

In an excellent piece written during the second impeachment comparing Trump to President Andrew Johnson, author Manisha Sinha writes: “What Mr. Trump and his enablers call the ‘deep state’ is nothing but the rules and norms of democratic government.”

That utterly destructive work is still underway, abetted by Fox News utilizing the public airwaves to spread disinformation.

As in dealing with any misbehaving toddler, a firm hand is in order. That is true in investigating the actors as well as the instigators of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol and in dealing properly with this performative assholery (to note again Sykes’s perfect term) by many when they are simply asked to do the correct thing for others during the pandemic.

As Salon’s Amanda Marcotte recently wrote, what we need is a vaccine mandate. Such rules around travel and concert-going and eating in restaurants would work very well for conservatives. It could both save their lives (and others around them) and give them something to complain about:

[W]hat vaccine mandates would do is give Republicans a way to save face. No doubt many of them are harboring secret worries about getting COVID-19, but they keep refusing to get the shot, out of the perception that doing so would be disloyal to the conservative cause. But if they were “forced” to, they could have it both ways. They could both get the protection while still claiming to oppose the vaccine in the abstract. It’s a win-win for most conservatives, even if they would publicly whine about it. (And, in fact, having something to whine about is a bonus for them!) It’s the same dynamic we see with taxes — conservatives pay them and then get the pleasure of complaining about it.

The main role of a parent is to keep a child from harm. While endlessly talking about leaving things up to parents, nearly all Republican leadership have adamantly refused to play that role, which is essentially what leadership is. Many of them — while quietly getting vaccinated themselves — have led and indulged the tantrums. It’s ironic that commentators on the right have lately taken to blaming America’s problems on “the childless left” (yet another pathetic misogynistic beta-male “cuck” putdown not worthy of a seventh grader) because any parent, on the Right or the Left politically, knows that with a toddler, you don’t negotiate. You really must put your foot down.

[First published on Medium.]