Politics has always been cruel. Political candidates can be brutal in trying to discredit, or even destroy, their political opponents. Congressional leaders will at times act harshly when trying to whip party members into line. And as is true in any profession, there will always be politicians who mistreat subordinates simply because they are jerks.
But the cruelty of the far right is something different. This is cruelty as the defining characteristic of a movement. To the far right, cruelty is more than a means to achieving a policy goal—it is often the goal itself. Cruelty for cruelty’s sake—directed against “the other,” a variable collection of liberals, immigrants, and minority groups. It has become the substance, even the soul, of today’s far right. And it is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate the far right from the rest of the political right on this score.
It would be wrong to suggest that everyone in the far right should be diagnosed as a sociopath. It is striking, however, how closely these characteristics describe far-right groups and politicians.
Just look at how much pure cruelty by GOP leaders has been in evidence lately. Ron DeSantis spends public money to transport a handful of undocumented immigrants to politically liberal northern areas of the country. Substantively this accomplishes nothing. The tiny number of people involved doesn’t amount to a scratch on a Boeing 747-8, when compared to the number of undocumented immigrants in Florida. But even that understates the absurdity of the stunt. The coup de grâce is the fact the immigrants in question were taken from Texas, not Florida.
This wasn’t about seeking a policy success. It was a calculated demonstration of raw cruelty. By all accounts, many of these immigrants were misled. No effort was made to be sure they would have a place to stay, or something to eat, once they arrived at their destination.
It would be naïve to believe these transfers happened in the cruel way they did by accident. This wasn’t sloppiness. The cruelty was the point.
For DeSantis this was, of course, a political stunt. But he carried it out in a particularly cruel fashion because that is what his right-wing base would respond to. Political gain was the motive, but cruelty was, nevertheless, the point of the exercise. And then, far from recoiling from this in disgust, Texas Governor Greg Abbott started doing the same thing himself.
If you think this assessment of the right wing is unfair, spend a little time in right-wing cyberspace. The level of abject cruelty on display is shocking. You don’t even have to visit a right-wing website, just jump onto Twitter and look for the army of right-wing trolls. And don’t worry if you don’t find them right away because they will find you.
But cruel political stunts are just one example of right-wing cruelty. There is also the cruel way the right attacks transgender students. Unwilling to offer any accommodation, right-wing leaders work to bar them from participating in sports in their affirmed gender and require them to use bathrooms designated for the sex they don’t identify with. They go so far as to ban books that touch on transgender issues from school libraries, and prohibit any mention of the subject in class. The view from the right is clearly that no compassion is required. Who cares if they are 7.6 times more likely than other young people to commit suicide?
Then there is the troubling tendency of the political right in general to respond to political violence against liberals with cruel humor. This was recently on view in the right-wing response to the brutal attack against Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul.
There is no shortage of examples of right-wing cruelty. There is the perennial Republican effort to cut funding for Medicaid, a program providing healthcare for millions of Americans who otherwise would be unable to afford it. Then there was the successful effort to end the expanded Child Tax Credit, despite it having reduced childhood poverty by almost 50 percent.
And it’s too bad, the right would likely agree, about that 12-year-old girl becoming pregnant after being raped, but they still oppose making rape an exception to abortion bans. And for that matter, they would no doubt agree that it is unfortunate some women are being forced to continue a pregnancy even though the fetus has no chance of surviving, and even when this puts the mother’s life in jeopardy. But none of this seems sufficient to cause them to jump to fix the situation.
We might as well say it aloud. There’s something almost pathological about this. To try to use the DSM to diagnose a group, as opposed to an individual, would be ridiculous. That’s not what it’s designed for. Still, looking at what traits are indicative of sociopathy is enlightening. An article on Healthline characterizes a sociopath as follows:
Per Healthline, sociopaths often:
- Break rules or laws
- Behave aggressively or impulsively
- Feel little guilt for harm they cause others
- Use manipulation, deceit, and controlling behavior
Remind you of anyone? More to the point, does it remind you of any political movement?
Obviously, it would be wrong to suggest that everyone in the far right should be diagnosed as a sociopath. It is striking, however, how closely these characteristics describe far-right groups and politicians.
- Breaking rules or laws: The most obvious example, of course, is the January 6 insurrection. But there’s also the plot to kidnap Governor Whitmer of Michigan, attacks against liberal protestors, and numerous other acts of violence.
- Behaving aggressively or impulsively: Again, January 6 anyone? But even leaving the insurrection aside, far-right organizations are awash with the toxic masculinity that celebrates aggression and violence.
- Feeling little guilt for harm they cause others: Far-right groups often relish violence and cruelty, especially when directed against immigrants, liberals, and others they dislike. It is often a source of pride, not guilt. Just look at the right-wing’s celebratory response to Kyle Rittenhouse shooting three people, two of whom died.
- Manipulation, deceit, and controlling behavior: Looking again at the January 9 insurrection, Donald trump and militia leaders, whether they were working together or separately, were able to manipulate hundreds of people, with previously clean records, into committing felonies by attacking the capital. Militia leaders and other extreme-right wing actors are often charismatic.
There is no reason to think any of this will change. On an individual basis, some members of far-right organizations will likely be able to evolve over time—to back away from the darkness. But the far-right movement itself won’t. Cruelty, hatred for “the other,” and a love of violence are all now central to the movement’s essence, burned into its DNA.
It won’t change. It can only be defeated.
Steven Day practices law in Wichita, Kansas and is the author of The Patriot’s Grill, a novel about a future America in which democracy no longer exists, but might still return.
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