From Esquire, by The Collective.
Posted in full because editing or cropping would be a sin.
"Compassionate conservatism" was a hell of a brand name. You have to give Karl Rove credit for that. It was a masterpiece of political marketing. Rhetorically, at least, it managed to bridge the great gap between what the Republican party was doing and the people to whom it was doing most of it. It even managed to enlist organized religion in what was said to be an attempt to ameliorate the social consequences of the policies that were central to the agenda that the Republicans were bringing to the nation. If people were going to be forced into soup lines, they were going to be really good soup lines. The worst instincts of our politics were going to be sanctified by the best instincts of our people. It was as though the Laffer Curve described the arc of a censer or the wave of a thurible and not the inevitable swing of a wrecking ball.
Of course, it was all a shuck. (According to his memoir, David Kuo was a Republican who actually bought it, until he got to the White House and, one day, was told by Rove to come up with "a fucking faith-based thing," which is not how Saint Francis would have put it.) Not only that, but it was a shuck that, like so many things in the Bush White House, including the president therein, was so screwed up in its execution that it inevitably became a punchline. Nobody was ever going to be able to say "compassionate conservative" again with a straight face. And now, the Republicans, and the conservative politics that have possessed their party, have decided that they don't even have to try.
We are in an age dominated on one side by the New Politics of Sadism. Hurtful policies are enacted, not because of any logical benefit they might bring, but specifically because they hurt people the Republicans want to hurt. The thoroughgoing abandonment of the notion of a political commonwealth, cheered on by degrees since the elevation of Ronald Reagan and whatever ideas people could cram into his empty head, has reached the point among American conservatives where it is now the kind of faith you find in the most unshakable of perversions. It manifests itself everywhere. It's expressed politely by people like that intolerable foof, David Brooks, who's never taken a position in his life that cost him so much as a dinner invitation. On the radio, and on cable news, it's expressed crudely by people who are far more honest about their contempt for their fellow citizens.
And the sadism is running now through the institutions of government. We have made our peace with torture to the extent that support for it now is as much a litmus test for being a Republican as opposition to abortion is. (The Democrats, of course, choose to deplore it without condemning it.) The Supreme Court's majority opinion in the recent Thompson V. Connick decision — delivered, fittingly enough, by Justice Clarence Thomas, the walking Freudian petri dish who once opined that he saw nothing wrong with chaining inmates to a post in the hot sun — pretty much advises a man who was stuck on death row for fourteen years because of egregious prosecutorial misconduct to stop wasting the Supreme Court's time and be grateful his sorry ass wasn't fried a decade ago.
And, in the Congress, there is Congressman Paul Ryan, who is angling right now to make a career out of political sadism.
Make no mistake: Ryan is a thoroughgoing nutball, as bug-house crazy on economics as Peter King is on Muslims and Steve King is on anyone swarthier than himself. He is a lifelong adherent to the doctrines of Ayn Rand, which ought to disqualify anyone from ever being taken seriously enough to park cars by anyone over the age of fifteen. In terms of their connection to actual human reality, the difference between the doctrines of Ayn Rand and the doctrines of L. Ron Hubbard is not substantial, and the fervor of their acolytes is almost exactly the same. Picking Paul Ryan to handle your political economy is tantamount to electing Tom Cruise to be pope.
Paul Ryan is a thoroughgoing fraud. He went through high school and most of college on Social Security survivor benefits after his father's death. He voted for almost all the Bush programs — including both off-the-books wars — that ballooned the deficit he so piously condemns now. And this week, as he rolled out his lunatic conception of a federal budget, Paul Ryan produced the definitive statement of his political philosophy: There are those Americans who deserve to live and those Americans who don't. Period. All of the former are very, very wealthy. All of the latter are poor, or struggling, or old. Paul Ryan believes the true mission of government is to bring as much pain to the parasites as it can because, by doing so, it can liberate the genius of those people who deserve to live. When Paul Ryan dreams of a free nation, it is one in which the seventy-two-year-old spouses of seventy-five-year-old patients are free to go out and shop in a rigged insurance market for the $100,000-plus they're going to need over a lifetime of tending to that patient. If they insisted on feeding themselves, and even risking the odd vacation, over the course of their working lives and they failed to anticipate what might befall them, then the spouse is going to have to starve and the patient is just going to have to sit there in his own filth, until market forces determine that they should die.
Look at him when he talks about dismantling the hard-won protections of the shrinking middle class. He is so positively lubricious about it that his teeth seem to be sweating. Pain (not his) purifies the nation. Pain (not his) makes us free. This is what Paul Ryan dreams of when he dreams of a free people.
The object of his politics is to render political liberty subservient to economic exigencies, to render it an unaffordable luxury item available only to the wealthy, because only the wealthy are competent enough to exercise it. (Do yourself a favor and watch the interview that this serious intellectual did with that other serious intellectual, Glenn Beck, and see how fast they get around to calling ideas with which they disagree a "cancer" that needs to be excised from our civic life. The only thing that distinguishes Ryan's ideas from Beck's is that Beck is now universally recognized as a crackpot.) Ryan has come to the unremarkable intellectual conclusion that more people would rather inflict pain — even vicariously, even through his greasy sadist's smile — than receive it. He has seen that dynamic in action. Even the White House, occupied for the nonce by a putatively progressive Democrat, has signed on in a gentler way to the notion that "austerity" is the way out of our current economic morass, and "austerity" is fairly defined in this context as making other people hurt so you'll feel better about yourself. Unemployed workers, whose pensions were looted by Wall Street sharpers, rage against the pensions of public workers, not because those pensions are so gloriously lavish, but because they exist at all. Somebody has something you don't and they must pay for that. Small wonder that Paul Ryan thinks he can grin his way to the dystopic wasteland that he sees when he dreams of a free country. So much of the work already has been done for him over the previous three decades.
Look at how his nonsensical plan was received. The Right, led by the ever-polite Mr. Brooks, praised Ryan for the fortitude it takes to make life harder for the poor, the elderly, and the disabled while comforting plutocrats and corporations. Nobody laughed. The respectable Left tut-tutted, but several allegedly liberal commentators insisted that Ryan's monkeyhouse numbers should be taken seriously because Ryan himself is a serious person. (Writing at The Washington Post, the normally judicious Ezra Klein began his analysis of Ryan's proposal: "Ryan is the kind of politician I fundamentally like. He's smart, policy-oriented and willing to take political risks — but only, it turns out, of a certain kind." Jesus, kid, don't be so tough on the poor bastard.) The emerging default position within the Beltway seems to be that Ryan's budget is just crazy enough to make the recommendations of the president's Deficit Commission, which themselves were bad enough to be laughed out of the court of public opinion not six months ago, seem like a reasonable alternative.
The people explaining this troubled, wounded country to itself have completely lost their minds. They're giggling outside the cells, just loudly enough to drown out the screams from inside. When Paul Ryan dreams of a free country, he sees a glittering palace built atop blasted swamp. He dreams only of someone else's pain.
In-freakin-deed. People, we are lost.