Conservative Morality

Items today respond to the latest indictment of a certain former president, how his supporters respond, and me trying to wrap my mind around what his supporters think morality and law and order actually is. But I have an idea about that, based on my recent reading about… chimps.

  • With citations of Tom Nichols, Carl Sagan & Ann Druyan, Jonah Goldberg

Tom Nichols, The Atlantic, 1 Aug 2023: This Is the Case, subtitled “Special Counsel Jack Smith has sounded the call, but voters must answer it if they wish to preserve American democracy.”

It’s tempting to fill a post with links to articles and essays about the latest Trump indictment. I’ll try to restrain myself, but I did notice several today worth noting without looking very hard. And once again, my interest here isn’t political, precisely (certainly it has nothing to do with Democratic vs. Republican policies), but psychological, to wonder yet again how conservatives, who repeatedly cite their allegiance to the Bible and to the Constitution and to “law and order,” nevertheless behave like a bunch of mindless underlings who need a mob boss to tell them what to do and what to think, and who dismiss all those rules and laws in those documents they say they admire when applied to their Fearless Leader, as if those rules and laws are meant only for the little people. Not for alpha-male Mob Boss.

(My provisional answer is — see end of post.)


First, consider this:

As in all primate leadership positions, an alpha male must accept certain obligations. In return for deference and respect, for sexual and dining privileges, he must render services to the community, both practical and symbolic. He adopts an impressive demeanour, even something approaching pomp, in part of because his subordinates demand it of him. They crave reassurance. They are natural followers. They have an irresistible need to be led.

This was Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan in their 1992 book SHADOWS OF FORGOTTEN ANCESTORS, page 296, about … chimpanzees. But the description could just as well apply to Trump and his MAGA followers, for whom he can do no wrong, and everything, even his hypothetically shooting someone on 5th Avenue, is forgivable. Because they need to be led. Because they need someone like him to push around the people they don’t like. The MAGA people are not thinking, reasonable people. They are tribalists, cultists.

As I’m reading this Sagan/Druyan book (which I decided to read because it’s one of the last Sagan books I’d not yet read, not realizing how closely it would apply to modern politics and my current thinking), I hadn’t realized how much certain patterns of behavior among humans are similar to those of other primates, and haven’t gone away entirely, even as humans expand across the globe and need to get along with others outside their own local tribe. Indeed, they appeal to a large portion of the population, not just in the US, as we’ve seen right-wing movements expand around the world. The democratic experiment was just that, borne of ideas that blossomed in the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution — among others, that different “races” were not inferior to white Europeans, and that women were just as reasonable (or not) as men — leading to ambitious declarations about “all men” being “created” equal, before the law if not literally.

But large segments of the population, apparently, have never believed that, and are more comfortable living in small-town good-old-boy communities were vigilante justice is preferred over tedious adherence to rules and regulations (imposed by elites! they now say) that were intended to apply to everyone — equally. Republican claims of being the party of law and order turn out to be laughable.


Here’s a piece attempting to understand why Trump isn’t losing any followers.

CNN, analysis by Ronald Brownstein, 1 Aug 2023: Even Trump’s indictments haven’t shattered the deadlock between the parties. Here’s why

So there’s this:

But the Democrats’ difficulty competing outside of large metropolitan areas, as well as the small state bias in the Senate and the Electoral College, has allowed the GOP to remain highly competitive in this era. In almost every critical dimension, the political system is now defined by stasis and stand-off.

The “difficulty” seems to be because conservatives don’t really believe in democracy, and will never agree to remediate those imbalances in the Senate and electoral college, which undermine American democracy.

And there’s this:

The parties now represent coalitions with such divergent visions of America’s future, particularly whether it welcomes or resists racial and cultural change, that it’s unclear what could allow one side to break out from the close competition between them.

Welcomes or resists change. Hmm.

The article mostly takes the small picture, considering all the current events that might sway voters one way or another, from the Biden economy to the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade. There’s nothing really new here that might explain why conservatives won’t continue to support the latest alpha male who comes along, no matter how crooked.


Here’s another headline that suggests an answer to the same big question.

LA Times, Jonah Goldeberg, 1 Aug 2023: Column: Is there any way to shift the bizarre Republican conviction that only Trump will save them?

“They’re not indicting me, they’re indicting you. I just happen to be standing in the way,” Donald Trump declared (again) in the wake of a new updated federal indictment connected to the classified documents case.

The claim is as effective as it is stupid. The federal government is not, in fact, prosecuting the average Trump supporter for mishandling documents or obstructing justice (save for two Trump aides who allegedly helped him mishandle documents and obstruct justice).

But the idea that Trump is a populist sword-and-shield against the “establishment,” “Deep State,” or “elites” has ensorcelled large swaths of the GOP base, which is at least partly why he’s got a massive lead over his opponents.

This alone undermines the MAGA base’s argument for supporting Trump. If the Republican establishment forces were as powerful as Trump and his voters think, they’d be able to do something about it. If the Deep State were half as formidable as they think, Trump would never have been president in the first place.

But large segments of the GOP suffer from the delusion that they are victims of the ruling classes and that the woke left is running everything — or will — if Trump doesn’t stop them.

These people are paranoid, and a bit stupid.

This is the paradox of Republican politics today. The populists run or at least dominate the party but they derive their power and intensity from the bizarre conviction that they’re powerless victims — and that only Trump can save them.

Goldberg’s point is that the notion that all-powerful coalitions are running things is a fantasy [another conspiracy theory, in a sense], and that voters, if they decide to, can determine the outcome. He concludes,

For those desperate for a Republican nominee other than Trump, hoping voters will change their minds seems scary. But that’s democracy for you.

But still no answer to why so many are devoted to such a despicable con-man, other than the usual observations about paranoia, conspiracy theories, and small-town morality.

Jonah Goldberg, like Tom Nichols above, is of the conservative persuasion. They are among a few sane conservatives still around.


One more. This item makes a good point, countering repeated Republican claims that the DOJ has been “weaponized” against the party. As if Republicans should be able to get away with crimes and not be charged; the temerity of having to be held accountable to law and order! (Can you imagine what they’d say if Biden had done anything near to what Trump has done?)

NY Times, 2 Aug 2023: The New Jack Smith Indictment Is Where Whataboutism Goes to Die

Mr. Trump and others like him will of course continue to assert that the Justice Department has been politically weaponized. That claim has it exactly backward.

To not charge Mr. Trump for trying to criminally interfere with the transfer of power to a duly elected president would be to politicize the matter. It would mean external political considerations had infected the Justice Department’s decision-making and steered the institution away from its commitment to holding everyone equally accountable under the law.


The answer it increasingly seems to me, is that humanity has never completely abandoned ancient, primitive forms of morality, and those clinging to the most ancient — the chimp, the Savannah, the tribal, the small-town vigilante — moralities are represented by the conservatives.

But let me add my usual clarification. Wording in the previous paragraph that states conservatives *are* this or that is slightly misrepresentative. The situation is that people that are this or that tend to be conservatives. It’s a crucial distinction.

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