October 20, 2022 | Reading Time: 5 minutes

The Republican’s danse macabre

Yes, even if they suffer, too. It’s frivolous and terrifying.

The Dance of Death (1493) by Michael Wolgemut.
The Dance of Death (1493) by Michael Wolgemut.

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The House Republicans will hurt themselves to hurt their enemies more. That should have been the takeaway from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s recent interview with Punch Bowl News.

McCarthy said that his conference is set to refuse raising the US debt-ceiling if the party takes the House after November’s midterm elections, as most expect. McCarthy made it sound like the gambit was nothing out of the ordinary. “You can’t just continue down the path to keep spending and adding to the debt,” he said Tuesday. 

What would happen if the US defaulted? 

The conventional wisdom appears to be that there’s no earthly way the Republicans would push the global economy into the valley of the shadow of death. At the very least, they have incentive not to hurt their own, who would be ensnared in the cataclysm just like everyone else in the world. Why would anyone believe that?

The Editorial Board’s political economy correspondent Noah Berlatsky explained: “Refusing to raise the debt ceiling would create a massive financial collapse while simultaneously preventing the US from providing aid to those most in need,” Noah wrote Tuesday. “The cost in human suffering would be nightmarish and long-lasting, permanently weakening global faith in the US economy.”

By one estimate, $15 trillion in household wealth would poofthph.

The conventional wisdom appears to be that the House Republicans don’t really mean what they say. This is all political theater, the thinking goes. There’s no earthly way the Republicans would push the global economy into the valley of the shadow of death. At the very least, they have incentive not to hurt their own, who would be ensnared in the cataclysm just like everyone else in the world. 

Why would anyone believe that?

These are the same people who voted twice against indicting the criminal former president. They voted to overturn the results of the last presidential election. They have subsequently pushed the Big Lie deep into the connective tissue of the body politic, so much so that 45 percent of Republicans say they’ll doubt the midterm results. 

In word and deed, the Republicans tell us they can’t be trusted to care for democracy. Why would we trust them to first do no harm to the global economy and hundreds of millions of people? McCarthy suggested that, ackshully, doing harm is the first thing they’ll do.

As far as the incentive to avoid hurting their own – lol wut? These people said the covid was little more than a case of influenza Español, that wearing a face mask was tantamount to nutting a man, and that chugging babyshit brown worm paste was as good as the vaccine. 

More people have died of the covid in counties won by the criminal former president than in counties he lost. Another analysis, by the Post, found that the number of white people dead from the covid surpassed every other group in late 2021 and never stopped. 


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Not only have the Republicans lost the benefit of the doubt. They have lost, or should have, the presumption that they won’t do harm. 

The new presumption should be that harm is their goal, because the only thing that makes rank-and-file Republicans feel good about themselves is the sight of suffering by those they think deserve it.

Yes, even if they suffer, too.

So anyone talking about incentives as if rational choice theory had any bearing is ignoring the Republican’s politics of the macabre.

Politics of the macabre?

More precisely, danse macabre

“Danse macabre” is a literary, musical and artistic genre originating in medieval Europe that invoked the feeling of life as fleeting and the recognition that efforts to attain power and glory are vain. I like the way Wikipedia puts it. It’s the personification of death, a skeleton or cadaver, that reminds us that in time death comes for everyone: 

A personification of death [summons] representatives from all walks of life to dance along to a grave, typically with a pope, emperor, king, child and laborer. The effect was both frivolous and terrifying; beseeching its audience to react emotionally.

I don’t know about you, but there’s a certain frisson – or thrilling shudder of recognition – to the application of danse macabre. If nothing else, I think we can agree that threats to the US debt-ceiling, not to mention mass death for political gain, is something we can react to emotionally, as they’re “both frivolous and terrifying.”

To be sure, the Republicans don’t care about the universality of death. They don’t care about the universality of anything. They believe inequality is God’s plan, as are sociopolitical hierarchies, and that democratic politics threatens to pervert “the natural order.”


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So not all deaths are equal. 

If a few thousand GOP voters die in order to defeat “the enemy” – an inescapable conclusion if the Republicans take the Congress – those deaths will be neither tragic nor vain. They will instead be celebrated as heroes who sacrificed their lives in order for living Republicans to dance macabre to the music of the suffering of those “deserving” it.

Yes, even if they suffer, too.

It’s frivolous and terrifying.

The danse macabre has wide application.

To the body as well as the mind.

After Roe’s fall, states passed laws banning or nearly banning abortion. A consequence was a Texas woman who was forced to carry her dead baby to term for fear of running afoul of the law. “I was left wanting to get either so sick that my life was at risk or that my baby’s heart would stop beating so it could be over,” she said.

A Missouri woman’s water broke long before her due date. The baby’s chances of survival at that point were zero. Doctors would have recommended termination. Then the state banned abortions. According to a report in the Springfield News-Leader, “the couple wanted to be able to grieve the loss of their daughter, not sit at home or in a hospital ‘with a baby dying inside me,’” the mother said.  

A school district, also in Missouri, decided to reinstate beating children’s bodies (ie, padding) to uphold discipline. The policy states that, “When it becomes necessary to use corporal punishment, it shall be administered so that there can be no chance of bodily injury or harm. Striking a student on the head or face is not permitted.” Not only are kids terrorized with violence or threats of it. They’re lied to, too. Beating children leaves deep lasting psychic wounds. And yet we’re told there’s “no chance of bodily injury or harm.”

Not only are they beating kids, they’re preventing kids from being who they were born to be. According to Bloomberg, there are at least 40 bills proposed “in around two-dozen Republican-controlled states that would sharply limit or outright ban gender-affirming and transition-related health care, often specifically for minors.” Do you know what happens when law prevents children from becoming themselves? 

Let’s just say it’s grim, ghastly and grotesque. 

Perfect for the Republican danse macabre.

Then there’s the lying. 

The Republicans lie so much, so frequently, with such veracity that it’s understandable when people think it’s so normal as to be OK. But the scale is not harmless. Neither is the point merely to fool you. 

It’s to make you feel insane. 

So insane that you don’t flinch when the Republicans come right out and say that they can’t be trusted to care for democracy, that they will blow up the world economy if that’s what it takes, and that they will keep lying to the American people so that the conventional wisdom in Washington is that they don’t really mean what they say.

Yes, even if they suffer, too.

It’s frivolous and terrifying.

It’s the Republican danse macabre.


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

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