May 23, 2022 | Reading Time: 5 minutes

Expose the GOP’s fetish

Less focus on what they say. More on what they mean.


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Liberals still take rightwing propaganda too literally. This is partly because we are liberal. We are often annoying pedants. If there’s an error in one’s thinking, we can be trusted to correct it. That’s usually as far as it goes, alas.

Consider the liberal reaction to the latest bit of incoherence by the Republican National Committee. It tweeted: “11,007 pounds of methamphetamine was seized at the southern border in April alone!” 

It’s a variation on a familiar theme. “Joe Biden has created the WORST border crisis on record,” the account said last month. Also: “234,088 illegal immigrants were encountered crossing the border in April.”

Once liberals see the there that isn’t there, they can react effectively. Instead of meeting rightwing politics with liberal virtue, as they usually do, they can meet rightwing politics with equal and opposite liberal politics.

The RNC says these facts are evidence of a “border crisis” that the president – as well as the vice president – are ignoring. We are not told, but expected to understand, that this “border crisis” is part of a leftwing “open border policy” that’s bent on “replacing Americans.”

What was the reaction among liberals? 

Pretty typical. 

Rightwing word-power
If immigrants are being apprehended and detained at the border, that means they didn’t get away with breaking federal immigration law. 

The law is working as it’s supposed to. 

Ergo, there is no border crisis. 

If the border patrol is seizing drugs and contraband at the border, then law enforcement officers are doing what they should. So … what crisis?

Among liberals, the question appears to be: Why do Republican propagandists keep saying there’s a crisis at the border when the evidence they present to prove a border crisis proves the opposite? 

I don’t think anyone is satisfied, because virtually no one has gone beyond the fact that claims of a border crisis are self-evidently bunk. 

Worse is when liberals are content with pointing out the flaws in logic. Liberals, as is their wont, confuse liberal virtue for liberal politics.

And liberals lose.

To the rightwingers, language is about power. It’s not about meaning or coherence or sense-making or freedom of speech or thought. 

Why would they use language everyone understands when such a social, democratic and equitable approach to language undermines their goal of protecting and defending the natural order of things?

Instead, they use words that everyone else thinks they understand fully but that only the natural and chosen in-group fully understands.

Liberals should presume their word-power is a fetish. 

Fetish? Yes, fetish
I do not mean an obsession. 

That’s a common understanding of the meaning of the word “fetish.” To be sure, a fetish can be an obsession, but it’s not only that. By “fetish,” I mean a thing that’s really a stand-in for another thing. It’s a blank line that Republican propagandists know rightwingers will gladly fill in.

I mean there’s no there there. 

The principle there is the one that isn’t there. 

A man with a foot fetish isn’t aroused sexually by feet or the visual representation of feet. Feet are a stand-in for something else. Feet are a vessel into which fetishists pour associations with sexual pleasure. 

Whatever the fetish, it’s always packed with intense feeling.

Once liberals see the there that isn’t there, they can react politically. Instead of meeting rightwing politics with liberal virtue, as they usually do, they can meet it with equal and opposite liberal politics.

Abortion isn’t about abortion. Immigration isn’t about immigration. Gun rights are not about guns. I have explained all this before. 

What I haven’t explained is the law at the center of these “hot button issues” is not the rightwinger’s principle concern. It can’t be.

The closer you look, the clearer it is that “the law,” “lawlessness,” “law-abiding” and “the rule of law” are not what they seem to be. 

The law is supposed to apply equally to a people created equally. When rightwinger’s say “the law,” they can’t mean equal treatment under law.

Equal treatment undermines their goal.

“The law” is, therefore, a fetish, a blank line, an empty vessel.

“The law” is a stand-in for “white power.”

Rightwing politics vs. liberal virtue
A Senate subcommittee held a hearing last week about a proposed federal law similar to a Connecticut statute permitting police to seize guns owned by perpetrators of domestic abuse and violence before they have a chance to murder women fleeing their abuse and violence.

US Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, is on the panel. He said: 

If the objective is to stop violent crime, what is effective is targeting actual violent criminals. The approach of today’s Senate Democrats is to try to go after the firearms of law-abiding citizens instead of targeting the violent criminals that are the real threat. Firearms, yes, are used by violent criminals but they are also used over and over and over again by victims of violent crimes to defend themselves.

In response, US Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said:

Congress … should have eliminated the loopholes that leave women in the crosshairs of violent spouses and partners with guns a long time ago. What we’re talking about, I say to my colleague from Texas, is not going to take away gun rights for law-abiding citizens.

Wyden is correct. No law-abiding citizen would be affected by a federal version of Connecticut’s “Lori’s Law.” It would instead affect citizens who have committed criminal acts of domestic violence.

But Wyden did what most liberals do when confronted by statements that are not intended to make sense. He took them literally. Cruz’s words are mistaken, he said, before “correcting” Cruz’s word-power. 

Wyden met rightwing politics with liberal virtue. 

He failed to see the there that isn’t there.

White is the law is a gun
When Cruz talks about “law-abiding citizens,” he’s not talking about law-abiding citizens. That’s a fetish, a blank line, an empty vessel.

It’s a stand-in for white men, for white power. 

White men are “the law” by dint of being white men. No one else can be the law. If nonwhite people try to enforce the law equally, white men are under no obligation to respect their effects, because the law, when it’s prosecuted by nonwhite people, isn’t legitimate. It’s lawless.

Cruz accused President Barack Obama of being “the most lawless president in the history of the United States.” He said it was because the former president refused to enforce federal immigration law.

What he really meant was that “the law” and “a Black man” are incompatible terms in America. A Black man is subject to “the law” – to white power, yes. He is not, however, enforcer of “the law” – of white power. That can’t be. That would be a perversion of the natural order.

Indeed, “the rule of law,” under Obama, was “rule by a Black man.”

After the reelection of the first Black president, and after 20 school children were shot to pieces at Sandy Hook, the GOP made sure to right the wrong of “rule by a Black man.” They passed laws allowing white men to take “the law” into their own hands – with a gun.

Payton Gendron
The Senate subcommittee hearing occurred the week after a law-abiding citizen legally purchased a semi-automatic rifle, drove over 200 miles to Buffalo’s eastside and shot to pieces 10 Black people. 

The Democrats wasted a chance to expose the there that’s not there. “Law-abiding” is a stand-in for white power, a vessel into which an 18-year-old white-power terrorist by the name of Payton Gendron poured meaning in order to take “the law” into his own hands.

Liberals should pay less attention to what rightwingers say and more attention to what they mean. Liberals should presume the principle there is the one that isn’t there. And they should spell it out for normal people in order to ask if this is the kind of country they want to live in.

You can’t beat rightwing politics with liberal virtue. 

You can with liberal politics.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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