Opinion | The bizarre contradiction in the GOP’s view of America

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Candidates running against a sitting president will always argue that the incumbent has botched just about everything and spread misery throughout the land. But as the 2024 Republican contenders maneuver for position and respond to the news of each day, a strange contradiction has emerged.

On one hand, they tell voters that America’s deepest problems have been solved and that we bask in the light of the Almighty’s favor. On the other, they insist that our country is a nightmare of moral depravity and suffering.

These are the two faces of Republican rhetoric, especially that offered by the party’s presidential candidates: America is the greatest country that has ever existed on Earth, but it’s also a hellhole. It’s a place of limitless opportunity but also limitless woe. Even the lowliest among us can achieve anything they wish, yet we all struggle under the boot heel of an oppressive state. Our hearts overflow with virtue, yet we are a nation of perverts and reprobates. We are envied throughout the world, yet virtually all of our institutions are corrupted nearly beyond repair.

Asked on CBS’s “Face the Nation” whether he thinks there is racial inequity in the American education system, former vice president Mike Pence voiced the positive side of the paradoxical party line: “I really don’t believe there is. I believe there was.” Affirmative action isn’t a flawed solution to the problem of minorities’ access to elite universities, because there is no problem. Congratulations, America, you did it!

When you’re running in the GOP primary, you have to reassure the voters in your overwhelmingly White party that individual racism is but a fading memory, and that structural racism may never have existed at all. To even mention the latter is to commit the sin of invoking critical race theory. Some of the most enthusiastic testimony on this score comes from the party’s non-White candidates. “Take it from me,” says Nikki Haley, in one of her most oft-repeated applause lines, “America is not a racist country.”

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) insists that his rise from poverty proves that anyone can rise from poverty, an idea at odds with the facts of our striking inequality and the experience of millions of hard-working Americans who can’t get ahead. On race, he echoes Haley’s argument. “When I hear people telling me that America is a racist nation, I gotta say: Not my America, not our America, not the United States of America!” he said recently during a Fox News town hall, to the cheers of the nearly all-White audience. Those awful Democrats might tell you that America is bad, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Yet the loudest negative voices in American politics, those insisting that our country is a nonstop horror show, aren’t Democrats, they’re Republicans. No one shouts it with more vigor than the man who is still most likely to be the party’s nominee, Donald Trump. As he said in a recent post on his social platform (I’ll spare you the all caps), “Crime & inflation are rampant, our borders are open, our elections are rigged, our economy is in shambles, our energy independence is gone, our ‘leader’ is mercilessly mocked, & our country is being destroyed both inside & out.”

Sounds terrible! And also nothing like the truth. Meanwhile, Trump’s closest opponent, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, is running one of the grimmest campaigns in memory, painting a picture of a nation in the grip of depravity. In a recent speech to the far-right Moms for Liberty, he said there is “hardcore pornography” in books in school libraries, but that he’s working to root out “the sexualization of our children in our schools.” The driving motivation of DeSantis’s campaign is the tyranny of “wokeness,” a terrifying monster whose tendrils supposedly reach into every corner of our national life. A DeSantis speech is little more than a litany of powerful enemies destroying Americans’ lives, whom he plans to finally vanquish by using the power of the government.

In this telling, every institution has become the enemy of “normal” Americans: the media, the education system, the military, big business, the government, all of it. Prominent media figures on the right tell their audiences that political developments are created by “demons” and Satan himself, who apparently rampage through the land as they please. It’s a wonder any of us get home alive at the end of the day.

Put these two strains of Republican rhetoric together and you get a strange combination of passivity and panic. There are certain problems we shouldn’t even bother trying to fix. Racism? Solved. Inequality? A myth. Our health-care system is deeply dysfunctional? No, it’s the greatest in the world. Billionaires routinely buy politicians and judges? That’s just how “freedom” works.

Yet supposedly, there’s a powerful conspiracy at work to turn your kids gay and trans, so we have to start banning books, lest their minds be infected with dangerous ideas lurking in every school library.

But reality is both more mundane and more hopeful. Ours is a unique country, but not because it’s better — or worse — than all the others. We are not chosen above all nations, nor are we tumbling toward hell. That may not be as dramatic and thrilling as the extravagant claims of those who promise that in their hands politics will be an unending crusade against evil, but it’s the truth.

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