The New Nihilists
These midterms are proving how deep the GOP rot runs.
The crop of Republican candidates running in the midterms has taken immorality to a whole new level. Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake has refused to say she’ll accept the results of her race if she loses. Pennsylvania Senate candidate Mehmet Oz has a scandal about animal abuse related to his medical research. And Herschel Walker, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in Georgia, allegedly paid for an abortion—despite his own stated pro-life position that makes no exceptions for rape, incest, or the life of the mother. His actions also include holding a gun to his wife’s head, lying about graduating from college, lying about a career in the military and law enforcement, and lying about three secret children.
What was the response from GOP leaders and media figures? In essence: “LOL, nothing matters.”
It didn’t used to be like this. Walker’s scandal provides an interesting look at how much hypocrisy and immorality have taken hold. Before Donald Trump hijacked the Republican Party, his controversies would have drawn public recriminations from Republicans, if not calls to drop out of the race entirely. That’s exactly what happened in 2008 to Oregon congressional candidate Mike Erickson, who lost the endorsement of Oregon Right to Life—and eventually his election as well—after it came out that he had paid for an ex-girlfriend’s abortion.
That feels like a lifetime ago.
Now, Republican opinion-shapers are waving away the actions of its most unsavory candidates. The justifications range from “what about Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy” to more honest calculations of “Hey, we need that Senate seat.”
It’s a baffling turn for those of us who grew up in an era where the Republican Party built its public brand around morality and character. Glance over speeches from Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, and they’re filled with praise of “our deep moral values and our strong social institutions” and ringing exhortations like: “America's greatest economic need is higher ethical standards.”
Perhaps we were suckers for buying into all of this “Book of Virtues” stuff. After all, the GOP frequently preached sexual morality and condemned scandals like Bill Clinton’s Oval Office escapades, while tolerating sexual immorality and corruption among the likes of Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh. In 2012, the National Republican Senatorial Committee pledged to withdraw support from nominee Todd Akin over some gross comments about rape, but continued to covertly fund his campaign.
But there is a real difference between then and now. Until a few years ago, the GOP still defended virtue rhetorically, even when it fell short and engaged in double standards. For example: Trump’s moral and character failings were common knowledge when he was nominated. Everyone knew, or had reason to know, that he was an alleged corrupt sexual predator with a toleration (at least) for racism and foreign conflicts of interest—mostly because he bragged about most of these vices loudly and repeatedly. Yet Republican leaders largely viewed him as an exception to their moral framework. It meant Republicans hadn’t yet completely given up on morality.
In 2022, by contrast, the GOP ignores or perverts virtue altogether. Trump has spawned hundreds of GOP candidates who ape his lies about the 2020 election, his corruption, and his combative style. Candidates of low character—like Lake, Oz, and Walker—are the rule in the GOP, rather than the exception. According to the old saying, hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue—and Republicans have resolved their hypocrisy in favor of vice.
Defending his continued support for Walker, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell laid out the party’s position on bad candidates: “He’s a Republican, isn’t he? The magic number is 51.” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is even worse. He has steadfastly supported the most unsavory wing of the House Republican Conference, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who made anti-Semitic comments about Jewish space lasers, and Rep. Paul Gosar, who made threats against fellow members of Congress.
This is the same Kevin McCarthy who, just three years ago, stripped avowed white nationalist Rep. Steve King of his committee assignments. He also refused to support King in his primary, virtually assuring his defeat. It’s hard to imagine McCarthy doing this now, especially with his goal of becoming House Speaker at stake. The entire party is following McConnell’s and McCarthy’s lead.
This nihilistic view is reflected, albeit differently, among Republican voters. It’s not that they actively excuse the bad behavior and open hypocrisy of Republican candidates. They just see Democrats as worse. Negative partisanship is a core part of why Republican voters don’t see these moral and personal issues as deal-breakers the way they did just ten years ago. A man from one of my Georgia focus groups said about Rep. Greene: “We've got to have her to offset the nuts on the other side, where you get an AOC or somebody like that.”
To these voters, there’s no point in disadvantaging their side by enforcing the moral guardrails, because they believe Democrats refuse to do the same. As an Arizona man from a group of Trump voters from swing states put it: “[Democrats] didn't care about the country. It was all about their side winning.”
But there’s an obvious problem to justifying your own side’s bad behavior by claiming the other side is worse. Ultimately, you escalate the amount of bad, immoral, and corrupt behavior you’ll tolerate in the name of tribalism and negative partisanship. This mentality will drag America to a dark place. Or rather, a darker place.
We can and should expect more from our elected leaders.
With Republicans embracing moral nihilism, Democrats should endeavor to seize the high-ground. Already, the parties are realigning not just on questions of policy, but on questions of character. In 2020, Biden won voters whose top priority in terms of candidate character was “can unite the country” or “has good judgment,” and polled well even for those whose top criterion was “cares about people like me.” (Trump won those who prioritized a “strong leader.”)
I know our political culture is awash in cynicism these days, but there is still a market for decency. Something I heard over and over again from swing voters explaining why they couldn’t vote for Trump was, “How can I teach my kids how to be decent when the President of the United States behaves this way?” Plenty of Americans still crave moral leadership—or, at a minimum, elected officials they’re not embarrassed to have their children see on the news.
Sarah Longwell is a journalist and publisher of The Bulwark.
Editorial note: This piece has been corrected to remove the claim that the House Judiciary Republicans tweeted in support of Kanye West’s anti-Semitic remarks.
And, to receive pieces like this in your inbox and support our work, subscribe below: