August 6, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Beto O’Rourke’s Moral Clarity Goes Viral
Americans are starved for the truth.
There’s a good reason why moral clarity gets attention on social media. Demand for its outstrips supply. That’s why Beto O’Rourke’s outrage over coverage of the El Paso massacre was so refreshing. Jesus Christ, he said, of course the president is a racist. Of course, he inspired mass murder. Stop putting all of that on me, he said. Look around. You reporters already know the answer. Why keep asking the same question?
Moral clarity is in short supply in part because the Washington press corps tends to be nihilistic. When everything is as good or bad as everything else, nothing really matters. If nothing matters, there’s no reason not to—in fact it’s much easier to—give Donald Trump a never-ending benefit of the doubt. Sure, he’s lied more than 10,000 times. Sure, he established his power by denying the legitimacy of America’s first black president. But no one’s perfect. Others lie. Others pander. Nothing matters.
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But moral clarity is in such short supply in part because the Republican Party wants it to be that way, and makes it so. The party’s ability to persuade people to accept its version of reality is key to its dominance. It’s in fact to their advantage if normal people can’t quite figure out what’s what on their own, and if they depend on the party to tell them “the truth.” That’s why the GOP is hostile toward science, universities, free speech, free press and the whole truth. These threaten to undermine their power.
If the president is going to get blamed for a mass murder, Republicans believe, the Democrats ought to be blamed too. So they will search for a reason to blame them for the very thing they are being blamed for. The Republicans will do this not because they believe in right and wrong—remember: nothing matters—but because the Democrats must be wrong, because they are Democrats. Eventually, the Republicans will find a reason, even if it’s absurd. Absurdity, however, is merely relative in an amoral world in which everything is as good or bad as everything else, and nothing matters.
Patrick Crusius, the El Paso killer, was clear about his motives. He posted a document echoing Trump’s rhetoric about invading hordes of immigrants that, if permitted to continue and proliferate, would replace “real Americans” with something altogether horrible. So he set out to do something about it. To wonder, as the Washington press corps has, if a president who has maligned immigrants, racial minorities and Muslims inspired an act of mass murder is to behold the sky above and wonder if it’s blue.
Connor Betts, the Dayton killer, had motives far less clear—if he had any discernible motives at all. He reportedly made a list of women he wanted to rape. He reportedly made a list of people he wanted to murder. He also evidently claimed to be a “leftist” on Twitter, even declaring a preference for Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. None of this coheres into a recognizable political ideology in the way that Patrick Crusius’ white supremacy does. Even so, some of these facts were cherry-picked by the president’s defenders. If Trump is to blame for one mass murder, then the Democrats—one of them anyway, it doesn’t really matter who—are to blame for the other.
Moral clarity is in short supply in part because the GOP wants it to be that way, and makes it so.
One outcome of such nihilism is simple cynicism. “Don’t blame us for being awful. They’re awful, too.” Another is fraudulent civility. “No one knows why bad people do bad things. Let’s stop playing politics and try to get along.” In both scenarios, everyone shares the blame, no one is held responsible, and as a result, nothing matters. Except for all the dead bodies. It’s not really surprising, once you think about it, that Beto O’Rourke’s outrage over the nihilist press coverage in El Paso went viral.
Americans are starved for moral clarity. They are starved for the truth.
The Republicans are less inclined to do something about their bigotry problem than they are in finding ways to suppress complaints about their bigotry problem, and they are willing to do that by accusing their enemies of—wait for it!—bigotry. US Senator Ted Cruz wants to declare anti-fascism a form of domestic terrorism even though that makes no sense at all. Anti-fascist activists (or antifa, as they’re called) are against fascism, which is precisely the racist ideology that animated Patrick Crusius.
Instead of doing the moral work of figuring out what speech is dangerous—like the president’s demagoguery—and what speech is central to democracy—like calling out the president’s demagoguery—Cruz and his Republican allies would rather outlaw political dissent altogether in the name of national security. That would in turn deepen people’s dependence on the GOP to tell them what to believe while weakening people’s ties to the Democrats, which again is all the better for the Republicans.
Truly, nothing matters—if the Republicans get their way.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.