Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s distorted response to President Biden’s speech defending democracy from fascism was a mess. McCarthy seemed to be trying to stir up grievance against Biden by claiming that any legitimate criticism of insurrectionists, Q-nuts, Proud Boys, Neo Nazis and other violent white-supremacist thugs was the same as a denunciation of everyone who’d ever voted for a Republican.
This was the same weird distortion that the press enabled MAGA voters to get away with back in 2016 in response to Hillary Clinton’s comments about the “basket of deplorables” that formed one segment of Trump supporters.
Many Trump voters were simply Republicans and conservatives, Clinton said, explicitly, but he also had this other “basket” of enthusiastic fans that included actual klansmen, Stormfronters, 4chan Nazis, Proud Boys, Q-nuts, etc., and those folks were, in fact, deplorable. That observation caused the entire Republican leadership to clutch their pearls and recoil in badly feigned horror, claiming that she had just called all of them “deplorable.” The feckless guild of political journalists, unable to address any subject as anything other than a horse race, never bothered to point out that this not at all what she’d said. All they cared about was whether her accurate comment might be effectively exploited (with their assistance) by bad-faith demagogues on the other side.
Then, as now with McCarthy, this Republican response wasn’t so much an attack as it was a confession. Biden, like Clinton, offered Republicans the chance to say which faction they identified with. Are you Republicans and conservatives? Or are you something else — something deplorable, like the Klan or the Neo Nazis or the raving Neo-Confederate Dougs (Wilson, Mastriano)? And once again, “mainstream” Republican leaders like McCarthy are responding by clearly stating: “When you criticize Neo-Nazis, you criticize me. When you impugn the honor of David Duke, I take that personally. When you refuse to accept that the violent antisemitic hoodlums who marched in Charlottesville are very fine people, I regard that as a personal insult!”
That’s a confession.
The hilariously memorable part of McCarthy’s confession was his garbled attempt to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln. Here is something McCarthy said in his speech, on purpose: “The electric cord of liberty still sparks in our hearts.”
I was, until recently, the electric department supervisor at the Big Box, but you don’t need my professional opinion to know that when electric cords are sparking, it’s bad.
Doktor Zoom has a lot of fun with McCarthy’s shocking phrase — “Kevin McCarthy Sings The Body Electric” — tracing it, probably, to the congressman’s botched understanding of a remark from Lincoln in 1858:
Apparently McCarthy’s speechwriter was trying to pull off an inspiring allusion to something Abraham Lincoln said — many people don’t know he was a Republican! — about the Declaration of Independence, except for the vital difference that when Lincoln said it it didn’t sound like a fucked up home improvement project on Reddit.
Lincoln spoke about how all Americans were united by the Declaration — it was 1858, so he was leaving rather a lot of Americans out, but he worked on part of that later — even decades after the Founding, “as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration.” The Declaration’s statement that all are created equal, Lincoln said: “That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.”
Now, in 1858, electric home appliances were still a good 50 years in the future, so “electric cord” would have had a far different connotation for Lincoln’s audience, more in the metaphorical sense of electrifying, just as cord would have emphasized the sense that people were bound together by an invisible thread. Lincoln wasn’t at all talking about what a 2022 audience would think of when they hear “electric cord.” McCarthy’s attempt at sounding Lincolnesque was so jolting because you can’t necessarily take a phrase from the mid-19th Century and plug it in to your 2022 politics. It’s just not current, so it’s little surprise it met so much resistance. …
It’s as out of place, I’m saying, as Abraham Lincoln would be in today’s Republican Party.
Lincoln’s idea of a “cord” was, as the good Doktor says, something that binds us together. McCarthy can’t grasp that because his ideology is all about a game of musical chairs, a Hobbesian competition in which freedom means nothing binds us. (“Binding,” as Frank Wilhoit reminds us, is for Other People in out groups, not for us.) So the only way that McCarthy and his speechwriter could make sense of Lincoln’s “cord” was to anachronistically turn it into a power cord.
The only ties that bind, for McCarthy, are the ties that voluntarily bind him to the fascists and Proud Boys and Neo Nazis — to the deplorable energies that he hopes to plug into as a source of power.