The hallmark of the modern Republican Party is its shamelessness. You can be many things and still be a Republican — in favor of free trade or opposed; pro-Ukraine or pro-Putin; even in favor of climate change legislation or against. However, you must not feel shame. You cannot admit mistakes. Hypocrisy is a virtue, not a vice. Most of all, never admit defeat.
When Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) ran for president in 2012, a Republican candidate for Senate claimed that “legitimate rape” rarely leads to pregnancy because “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” That candidate was swiftly denounced by Romney and ostracized from the party.
Four years earlier, then-Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) stopped one of his supporters mid-sentence when she made false claims about former President Barack Obama’s background. “No ma’am,” McCain said. “He’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about.”
Even former President Richard Nixon felt sufficiently shameful about being associated with the Watergate break-in that he insisted to his supporters that he was not a crook. The assumption that being a crook would disqualify Nixon from holding office just shows that he was a Republican politician from a different era.
The Republican Party today embraces crooks. It revels in cheating. It celebrates fraudsters.
In former President Donald Trump’s GOP, being a crook is the way to prove loyalty. It shows you belong to the in-crowd. Being convicted of a felony is a badge of honor similar to becoming a “made man” in the mob.
This explains the GOP’s continued embrace of Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.). He is not a party outcast; he is its perfect embodiment. He lies with ease and adds a splash of not-so-subtle racism for the party faithful. Santos did not just lie about a few big things to get elected. He lied about inconsequential things, like being a star collegiate volleyball player at a college he did not attend. But, most importantly he did it all without shame.
When Republican operatives learned about Santos’ lies before the election, they were not aghast. They found it funny and looked the other way. They weren’t laughing at Santos for telling lies; they were laughing at the voters for believing them. Like the worthless trinkets Trump peddles to his gullible supporters, Santos was selling voters a garbage can full of lies and the GOP admired his ability to con voters into believing it. They knew he was a crook and they loved every minute of it.
Two years ago, when Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) trafficked in racism, antisemitism and conspiracy theories, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was willing to condemn her comments, even if he didn’t take action to punish her. Times have changed.
With Santos, McCarthy dares not even hint at disapproval. Trump’s “Kevin” has become Santos’ lapdog. Even after McCarthy learned that Santos’ staff impersonated McCarthy’s chief of staff to fundraise and rip people off, he did not complain. The most impotent speaker in modern history has embraced Santos and his lies, big and small.
McCarthy recently appointed Santos to two House committees. Without any sense of irony, he appointed the fraudster to the Committee on Small Business and the Committee on Science, Space and Technology. McCarthy did it because he has no shame.
You might ask why I am writing about Republican politics when I typically limit my essays to matters of voting, elections and democracy. The answer is because democracy only works if we share certain core values in common — Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, young and old.
Politicians must feel shame to have a functioning democracy. I am not talking about civic virtue or political courage. I am talking about something more basic: common decency. Shared decency is what holds our democratic system together. It helps citizens of differing views to trust each other. It allows political leaders to act in good faith based on a common understanding that some behavior is simply out of bounds.
A party that mocks acts of common decency cannot be trusted to campaign fairly within the rules. When one party targets minority voters with gross acts of suppression and intimidation, we cannot celebrate the democratic process regardless of who wins. If election workers are subjected to partisan harassment and vilification, we cannot have a democracy that accurately counts votes or certifies results.
There is no easy solution for our current situation because the government can’t mandate decency. We also must realize that Democrats are helpless to make this better. Only Republicans can change their culture and restore decency to their party. For now, at least, there is no sign that Republicans want to restore honor and dignity to the Grand Old Party.
In the 1950s, when another Republican politician named McCarthy lacked shame, a single lawyer stood up and shouted: “You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?” That one exchange shocked Congress and the Republican Party. Decency returned because, at that moment, Republicans were forced to feel shame.
I have no illusions about our generation’s McCarthy. But I promise that if I ever run into him, I will stand up and shout: “You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?” I doubt he will feel shame.