Primitive Priorities of Survival: The Conservative Mindset

There’s something going on with the conservative mindset that isn’t what they say it is.

Salon, Amanda Marcotte, 21 Jun 2023: “Too stupid to know better”: MAGA eats up Trump’s idiot president defense, subtitled “Evangelicals, in particular, feel a flock should follow leaders who are neither smart nor moral”

Note in particular the subtitle.

The article concerns the idiocy of Donald Trump, who goes on TV and basically admits to the charges against him, as if he is too dumb to realize what he’s saying, or too narcissistic to realize that the laws apply to him too.

Watching this new interview, however, what really stands out is how focused Trump is on arguing that, ultimately, he was just too stupid to know any better. He portrays himself as a doddering old man who is both daunted by his own disorganization and too dimwitted to understand this whole “subpoena” business.

“These boxes were interspersed with all sorts of things; golf shirts, pants, shoes, all sorts of things,” he rambled on, claiming he was too “busy” to handle the supposedly overwhelming task of pulling out classified documents from a junk box of golf balls.

He is, of course, lying.

She goes on to explain why. Then considers the broader implications.

Understanding why this obvious contradiction doesn’t bother them offers tremendous insight into the authoritarian mindset of the MAGA voters. For authoritarians, the “right” to lead — really, to dominate — comes not from merit, but from one’s status in a strict hierarchy. This is in contrast to people who believe in a democratic system and expect leaders to display qualities making them worthy of the role, especially intelligence.

Authoritarians, on the other hand, believe in a strict hierarchical system where white men — especially rich white men — are at the top, and everyone else needs to be held in their place in a strict pecking order. Judging people on their talents threatens their hierarchical system, as women and people of color can rise above their “station.” That’s why so many Republicans completely lost their minds over both President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s campaign. It’s not that they failed to see both those politicians are capable leaders. On the contrary, that skillfulness is what threatened Republicans so much. They want a system where power is allocated on the basis of race and gender privilege, not competence.

Every day you see evidence of this: all those laws in Southern states meant to diminish anyone not white and Christian and heterosexual; the Southern Baptist Convention clamping down on congregations led by women. Conservative values seem deeply primitive and simplistic:



I’m beginning to suspect there is a simple explanation of the conservative mindset, that synchronizes with ideas in posts in recent days about the unexamined “common good” and the relationship between the biases of human nature with the ancestral environment and the resultant discomfort with the modern world. What conservatives want is the return to the ancient, simplistic past, in which those biases were honed. Small tribes in which everyone knew one another, outsiders were automatically bad, loyalty to the tribe was reinforced by acceptance of outlandish myths, and the restrictions of any sexual behavior that would not advance the expansion of the tribe. Conformity. Not freedom and liberty for individuals. Conservatives say they support the Constitution, but their actions indicate their support is limited and selective.

The irony, of course, is that these behaviors were refined by evolution to ensure the survival of the population. And they worked just fine, apparently. The problem is, in the modern world all those tribes have expanded and grown up and come into contact with so many other tribes around the world who have different outlandish myths. Who still regard each other as the ‘other’. Conservatives wish they would just go away. And all the people whose sexual expression is anything other than having lots of babies. And are now passing laws to suppress them.



Slate, Dahlia Lithwick and Michael Podhorzer, 21 Jun 2023: Our Major American Misunderstanding, subtitled “It’s been a long time since most Americans shared a values system. Maybe it’s time to accept that.”

Republicans accuse the Biden administration of weaponizing the DOJ in its actions against Donald Trump, despite any kind of evidence (Biden went out of his way to stay out of the process in which random citizens in Florida on a grand jury brought the indictment against Trump), and yet promise to do so against the Democrats:

In another least-surprising surprise of our times, last week Donald Trump expressed his intent, if elected to a second term as president, to utilize his Justice Department to destroy his political opponent. The New York Times reported that Trump had promised, in a speech after his arraignment, to “appoint a real special prosecutor to go after the most corrupt president in the history of the United States of America, Joe Biden, and the entire Biden crime family,” and went on to explain the plan to reinvent a DOJ entirely beholden not to the laws of the land, but the president. As the Times noted in its opening paragraph, such a move would “fully jettison the post-Watergate norm of Justice Department independence.”


But do you know who has adhered to the norm that walls off the DOJ from the White House? President Joe Biden. And the attorney general he appointed, Merrick Garland. And special counsel Jack Smith. They have taken elaborate care to keep Trump’s criminal investigation at arm’s length from the White House. This is not an aberration for Democratic administrations. Remember, Loretta Lynch stepped away from the Hillary Clinton email investigation (leaving it to Jim Comey’s judgement) just because she had run into Bill Clinton on a plane tarmac. Democratic leaders in the White House have taken pains to not just reaffirm the norm that separates the two entities, but to rebuild it as more of an immutable border than it was before.

The writers consider the many ways Republicans have violated norms that Democrats have honored.

Why is this happening? Is it that Democrats are virtuous and Republicans are hypocrites? Or that Republicans are strategic and Democrats are chumps?

Neither characterization is the most useful way to think about this. We use the word norm to refer to rules and conventions. But we keep missing the fact that norms are values systems. We don’t live in a country with a shared values system—indeed, our values are often in direct conflict. So we make the mistake of assuming that MAGA voters and their leaders will at some point be persuaded to return to American norms which they never agreed to in the first place.


Perhaps it is time to reconsider what we call a norm, and also to ask why we bind ourselves to ideas and values that are not shared. If the norms of democratic governance are not shared, then they are simply rules to which one side binds itself and the other does not. So perhaps instead of referring to all these soft rules and conventions and traditions as norms, we should more accurately refer to them as “rules to which we adhere and they do not.”

It’s emphatically true that if you cast these norms in that light, you begin to look like a chump. When one side is persistently priding itself on “going high” while the other side is already plotting the ways in which it can sink lower, one is forced to wonder whether following norms for their own sake is an end in itself. Maybe it’s just misplaced confidence in the moral arc of the universe. Instead of waiting for MAGA Republicans to come to their senses and embrace a set of norms of governance to which they do not adhere and to which they don’t want to adhere, it’s long past time we come to our senses and realize that their norms are not ours, and never have been. Thus, the stakes are not the preservation of norms, but democracy itself, and who writes the history of these times.

This reinforces my comments above. Republicans/conservatives don’t believe in a “moral arc of the universe,” they aspire to another set of values, which I perceive as the primitive ones of Savannah survival.

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