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In order to understand the current incarnation of the Republican Party, we’ll have to dive into some very dark corners of both the human psyche and American history. Human behavior is in large part the inheritance of our evolutionary past and the exceedingly complex brain it has given us. That complex brain is capable of creating culture, a set of ideas handed down over time and space in a given society. In American history, certain ideas, some noble, some neutral in their impact, and others shameful and disgraceful, have been handed down over the years and across the continent. Many of the negative, destructive ideas are ultimately rooted in one of the human animal’s deepest biological inheritances: fear. Fear, which is absolutely essential to our survival, can come to overwhelm humans to such a degree that it distorts the general perception of reality. The feeling of fear is deeply unpleasant, and when it is focused on other humans, it very frequently is sublimated into an emotion that is much more satisfying: hatred. Hatred gives us the illusion that we are in control, that we are not simply frightened, helpless animals. It can be an extraordinary motivator. Fear makes us victims. Hatred makes us aggressors. Hatred seems to be a solution. We will destroy the object of our fear, thus eliminating that fear altogether. What does all of this have to do with American political history? Simply stated, this:

Fear is the psychological basis of conservatism.

Human fear bred a sense of tribalism into our ancestors. Those who were different were potentially dangerous to us, and many times they actually were. The powerful phenomenon of Us vs. Them evolved. In order to truly and effectively hate others, it was necessary to strip them of their humanity. Since humans have a hard time doing harm to those they have a lot in common with, outsiders had to be dehumanized. The mentality can be expressed like this: These aren’t people we’re up against. They’re dangerous subhumans, who both need and deserve to be either subordinated or destroyed completely. When such feelings intermix with the human tendency to seek advantage, even at the expense of the lives of others, the results can be horrifying. Now combine all this with what I call cultural inertia—the automatic and unquestioning acceptance of ideas about our place in life and that of others—and a truly toxic phenomenon emerges. Fear, tribalism, hatred of others (or at the very least contempt for them), the belief that the norms of one’s society cannot be questioned, and the desire to exploit others for one’s own gain form, in  my view, the foundation of modern conservatism in general and the current version of the Republican Party in particular. Such a party tends to attract leaders who are cynics, fanatics, grifters, sociopaths, and/or bigots.

Individual conservatives can be quite admirable as people—kind, generous, hard-working, good-humored, intelligent, good neighbors, decent in their personal conduct—while holding appalling attitudes toward people they have never met, or else know through only limited and distorted interaction. Individual conservatives very often sincerely believe utter falsehoods about others, falsehoods they have been deliberately fed by those who seek to control and manipulate them. These falsehoods play to their fears, their hatreds, their desire to cling to ways of life or belief systems they have known all their lives, their sense of social status, their mindless veneration of the past, and their selfishness. If we seek to understand the Republican Party we are up against, we must, in my view, keep all these things in mind.

The major toxic themes that modern conservatism has absorbed can be expressed broadly. These themes are not always consciously perceived or stated (or even universally accepted) but they are believed, to varying degrees of intensity, ranging from casual to fanatical, by most hardcore conservatives:

White people built America, and they are its natural rulers. Non-whites can participate in American life, but they must not be allowed to control America’s government. Whites are generally more intelligent, more competent, and of better character than non-whites. The culture is now set up to favor minorities at the expense of whites. Whites have become the real victims of discrimination.

Males are more rational and less emotional than females. Men are the natural rulers of both America and of women. Women can hold power, but they cannot be allowed to dominate America’s government. Women must defer to the judgment of men in matters of ultimate importance. Women are more suited to family life than public or professional life. Within families, children should be disciplined severely if they misbehave. Women have no right to control their reproductive life and the expression of their sexuality must be controlled. All abortion must be outlawed.

Wealthy people are rich because they’re smarter, tougher, and more hardworking than others. They are entitled to gather as much as they can. In doing so, they will ultimately share it with everyone else. Businesses must be allowed a free hand to do whatever they can to make a profit. They must be completely unrestrained. Businesses exist solely for the benefit of their shareholders.

Heterosexuality is the only normal and natural state of human beings. Homosexuals, bisexuals, and so-called transexuals are perverse, unnatural, and dangerous to public morality. Such people must be treated as the threat they are, and they have no rights.

Only immigrants who came from Europe contributed to the building of America. Non-European, nonwhite, non-Anglo immigrants played an insignificant role. Hispanics and Native Americans, in particular, must abandon their own cultures completely and conform solely to the norms of white, Anglo society. Illegal immigrants are the reason there is unemployment. Illegal immigrants tend to be violent criminals. Illegal immigrants are here solely to drain resources from the rest of us. Illegal immigrants and their alien culture are a threat to the American Way of Life.

America had a right to acquire as much territory as it did, regardless of the harm it caused to any native people living here. We had a right to seize half of Mexico in the pursuit of this territorial expansion. We had a right to steal Hawaii, too. The United States must be the dominant nation internationally. We have a right to alter any government or intervene in any situation that even remotely threatens our interests. Other nations must defer to us. We have a right to control the world economy and to manipulate it for our benefit. When in doubt, we have the right to use violence in any situation we deem necessary. We should have the right to torture suspected terrorists. The military must be unrestrained by civilian interference and is entitled to the lion’s share of our resources. [CONTRADICTORY IMPULSE: America must withdraw from the world and its entanglements, and must establish Fortress America. Fortress America must be hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world.]

Government cannot be trusted. Government is inherently corrupt. As much as possible must be privatized. Taxes should be absolutely minimal. [Paradoxically], the government must have the right to fight terrorism by every means. If that means violating civil liberties, so be it.

Only religious people are capable of being morally good. Rights come only from God. Christians founded the United States, and the Christian faith must be the basis of American government. Evangelical/fundamentalist Protestants and conservative Catholics are the most morally upright people in America. The Constitution was inspired by God and establishes America as a Christian Nation. Non-believers and those of non-Christian faiths cannot be given a major role in government, although conservative Jews can be accepted. Israel must be preserved so that the End Times prophecy can be fulfilled.

Science cannot be trusted. Faith is superior to reason or science. Science pushes ideas that haven’t been proven, such as organic evolution or climate change. Scientists are largely godless anyway and should be viewed with suspicion.

If people are poor, it’s their own fault. There’s plenty of opportunities to overcome poverty. You’re not entitled to any help. If you’re poor or hungry, you have to rely on charity and the goodwill of your neighbors. If you’re sick, and cannot afford health insurance, it’s too bad but you’re not entitled to health care. Government programs to help the poor and the sick make people dependent and lazy. America was better off before all this government-mandated help became law. In fact, America was better off before there were minimum wage laws.

Americans have the right to own any weapon they can afford. They can carry these weapons anywhere at any time. Any attempt to restrain or control weapons is an outrageous violation of the sacred Second Amendment.

Labor unions are harmful to business. Public unions are especially harmful. Unions need to be broken, especially teachers unions. Unions distort the rightful relationship between employers and employees. Public education is largely a failure and should be replaced, wherever possible, by private schools, especially religious ones. Homeschooling would be best of all.

Rural people tend to be of better character than urban ones. Rural America is closest to true American values.

Criminals deserve harsh punishments. If the police kill someone, they were justified in doing so. Drug possession should be illegal. The death penalty needs to be used more widely.

Colleges and universities are controlled by Leftist radicals and exist only to indoctrinate people. Public schools indoctrinate people, too.

The regular news media are controlled strictly by liberals and cannot be trusted. Only right-wing news sources are credible. The schools and the liberal media push political correctness, which is designed solely to strangle conservative opinion.

Environmentalists are little better than air-headed hippies. Environmentalism is a leftist scam that does harm to the economy. Carbon-based energy is America’s strength and should be used as much as possible.

America was better off in the past. This nation’s history has been a glorious pageant of freedom. The Confederacy was a noble cause. The Civil War was fought chiefly to preserve states’ rights. America has always been a decent and tolerant society. The America of the early 1900s [or the 1920s or the 1950s] was the golden age of our country.

Only people like me are Real Americans and True Patriots. Liberals, progressives, moderates, RINOs, uppity women, discontented minorities, and others like them are the Enemy. Democrats must be kept out of power at all costs. Only people like me should be able to vote. Only people like me should govern.

Now, to be both fair and accurate, not every self-described conservative believes all of these items. But what should give us pause is the fact that many of them accept all of them. It was sobering for me to write all of these things out. They should serve as a warning about the kind of irrationality, mean-spiritedness, and moral ugliness we are up against.

The origins of these attitudes are myriad. Many of them go back to earliest days of the Republic. Many Americans have always despised newcomers. “Racial” hatred has always been commonplace. The flood of lies and the phony “history” surrounding the Confederacy go back to the 19th century. Many Americans have always grumbled about taxes and government overreach. Many of these items are products of evangelical Christian doctrine. Some of these items are rooted in the almost manic hatred of Franklin D. Roosevelt that many Republicans felt. (Must be tough to go 0-4 against someone you hate that much.)

But whatever their origins, it is my hypothesis that the current lunacy and viciousness we face is a formidable opponent. It will take every resource we can bring to bear to defeat it and restore our beloved country to sanity.

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This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.

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