Not that long ago—it was last year, though it feels like a lifetime ago—I wrote a column that could have made my reputation, and almost began to, but instead it made me sick. It was called “What Are Women For?”, and though it might have seemed like something a pundit had spent a night at a desk assembling out of notes and bookmarks and tabs, I actually wrote it in about 30 minutes at a coffee shop. I was more or less unemployed, I was wondering how long I could last in that state, and I had a deadline I wanted to hit.
When the column was published, I received an avalanche of criticism from outraged, irritated women and liberals, and the conservative establishment didn’t offer a peep in my defense. Rather than embracing my role as the bro version of Ann Coulter and try for a maybe-lucrative career as a conservative pundit, as the angry little controversy gave me a chance to do, I wanted to go back in time and arrange that the whole thing never would happen.
On the one hand, politics, like gossip, is the art of talking about strangers. You goad people you don’t know into having a reaction, and, as a rule, the intensity of that reaction translates into success. On the other hand, as I suddenly realized, there’s very little joy in spontaneously inspiring real people you’ve never met to despise you, as if a piece of writing you produced was not just something with your name on it, but was actually you.
And sure enough, as I came to realize more slowly, when you publish things online and live most of your professional life on social media, what you write really is the closest approximation of you that almost anyone on Earth can access.
I bring up that massive head check now because it seems like a premonition of what the Republican party is going through today, half in private and half in public. Between then and now, a sadly earnest wave of blog posts, tweets, articles, columns, and think pieces (if there’s any difference now between any of those things) have come out, all grappling with the urgency and difficulty of a “Republican reboot,” or a “new GOP,” or whatever. They're realizing, just as I did, that there's a whole lot of people out there who hate them and might have good reasons to.
This is pretty much the worst time ever to be a Republican. Times have been worse for people who were Republicans. But even in its darkest, least popular moments, Republicans possessed at least an inkling of what it was to be a Republican. Not so today. Throughout history, different factions have occasionally vied for control over the GOP. That’s politics. Today, the matter is way more depressing. Every one of the GOP’s traditional sources of party identity is slipping—or getting yanked—away.
Chamber-of-commerce Republicans find themselves hopelessly entangled with crony-capitalist financial interests, driven by an interest in ever-closer “partnership” with government. Abortion is the only issue that isn’t a complete loser for social conservatives, so culture-war Republicans are starting to think in terms of negotiating a conditional surrender. Tough-on-defense Republicans, meanwhile, face a new Democratic party where perpetual war is fine as long as it doesn’t look like Iraq.
I should know how bad right wingers have it—I’m technically still one of them. My tiptoe up to the brink of the conservative entertainment complex triggered a harsh bout of soul searching too. The political media routine goes like this: I opine, in a theatrically self-aware way on some “relevant” and “buzzworthy” piece of news. You vent your outrage, or your enthusiasm, in an even more theatrically self-aware fashion.
What happened to me was different. Pathetically, it came as a surprise. I accidentally touched off a round of honest, genuine outrage. One reaction to that kind of surprise is an embarrassed look inward—like today’s Republicans are doing. But sometimes, rather than asking why people don’t like you, it’s more helpful to look out at the people whose dislike you garnered.
Smart, decent guys like renegade Republican Jon Huntsman make headlines when they say the GOP is “devoid of a soul.” But the real problem is thinking that an organization as dull and profane as a political party can have a soul at all. Parties are just collections of people, some of whom unfortunately let politics become an excuse to set aside their own soul, spirit, integrity, authenticity—whatever you want to call it.
Politics tends to paint us into a corner, a narrow space where we worry endlessly about what we know. “Change” tends to be limited to a supremely limited number of policy goals, usually targeted towards one interest group or another. And sure, we need to base policy around what we know. But, as Donald Rumsfeld once said, the most important thing about what we know is the unknown unknowns: the things we don’t know we don’t know. When we know what we don’t know, we think we have useful knowledge, which leads us to cook up ideas about what needs to be changed. Mistakenly, we think we can fix things—and ourselves—based on what we already know.
If that sounds too confusing, try it on as a test for looking back at your life. I did, and what arose was a distinction between mere change and actual transformation. Transformation means coming into contact with unknown unknowns—like when your snarky, ersatz-profound internet column summons up a lot of real anger that you didn’t know about.
It’s not that I woke up one morning transformed. Personal changes likely transpire in chess- or seduction-like moves, inch by inch. But Republicans don’t have much time left on the clock. They don’t have the luxury to feel their way through. They need to get this now.
Transforming the GOP means dealing with people as they authentically are. It means recognizing that Republicans aren’t for anything. There is no inherent purpose for the GOP at all—there’s only possibility.
And one possibility that Republicans can create, something they can bring to people who maybe aren’t Republicans (and thus, are probably unknown unknowns to most members of the GOP) is the possibility of a politics free from fear. Whether it’s drones, criminal justice, immigration, social issues, or the deficit, wherever you look, the rule of fear is there. Both major political parties are organized around the politics of fear, and both want you to believe that the enemy’s victory will literally ruin your life.
Rather than somehow “proving” that this fear is based on lies, Republicans ought to consider—and invite everyone to consider—that we can simply choose to live out the proposition that this isn’t true. Instead of bitterly lining up behind some fraudulent doctrine of antagonism, we can dare to meet each other as we are and begin thinking through political life accordingly.
Naïve? Optimistic? Frustratingly vague? From the standpoint of the guys at the party retreat or the media roundtable, yeah, maybe. But from the standpoint of someone who’s stared at the internet learning what it means to have made people hate you, maybe a bit of naïveté is just what politics calls for.