Mitt Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan as his running mate is the latest episode in a story of conflict within the Republican Party that has many chapters. It has been said a thousand times that, in the long competition between the party’s radical base and its slightly less radical leadership, the choice of the extreme budget-cutter Ryan represents a shift toward the base, and that is certainly true. But it is also a development in another, related story.
The record of the last decade or so suggests that the GOP these days is animated by two main goals. First, it seeks unchallengeable, absolute power. Its modus operandi for achieving that goal has been to use institutional power—of corporations, the courts and legislatures—to acquire even more institutional power. A recent case in point is the drive in Republican-dominated states around the country to disenfranchise Democratic-leaning constituencies, such as the poor and minorities, by legislating onerous requirements for voting.
The other goal has been a less familiar one. More and more, Republicans have exhibited a strong desire to take up residence in an imaginary world, an alternate reality—one in which global warming is found to be a fraud perpetrated by the world’s top scientists, Obama turns out to be a Kenyan-born Muslim (and a socialist), budgets can be slashed without social pain, firing government employees reduces unemployment, tax cuts for the wealthy replenish government coffers, and so forth. Perhaps it seems odd to identify this retreat from reality as a political goal, but past ideological movements on the left as well as the right offer many examples of the power of such a longing.
Conscientious fact-checkers in the media have rebutted individual items that make up the GOP’s factitious universe. Such efforts are always worthwhile but are likely to backfire with the believers. Once they have been lured away from reality by ideology, fantasy is no longer a disadvantage for them; rather, it is the source of the appeal. The deceptions are popular not in spite of their untruthfulness but precisely because of it. When the target of the insurrection is not only some hated rival or establishment but the factual universe, with all its unwelcome restrictions and psychological burdens, then the more flagrant the violation of truth, the keener the thrill.
Often, the will to power and the will to fantasy go together. As the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century discovered, the two can reinforce each other. Such seemed to be the explicit ambition of a top Bush adviser when, at the height of the Iraq War, he famously said that the administration had delivered a coup de grâce to nothing less than “the reality-based community,” for “we’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” It was a classic statement of the totalitarian logic of the propaganda artist in power. What better way to win support for propaganda than to abolish the reality that contradicts it? The adviser’s boast was premature, but his logic was clear: If we don’t like the real world, we can do away with it.
Those dreams of omnipotence expired in the sands of Iraq and Afghanistan, but the conflict between the will to power and the will to fantasy lived on in new forms. The career of Sarah Palin offers an illustration. She and reality were strangers, as the world saw in her interviews. Her mind was almost a blank slate, and she showed neither inclination nor aptitude to remedy the lack. To draw her into that world was a kind of cruel mistake. She soon withdrew from it, deciding, after protracted dithering, to stay out of this year’s presidential race and retreat into a world in which her talents and temperament were in fact stellar: the world of mythmaking and spin on Fox News. It is entirely in keeping with this choice that her husband, Todd Palin, has now turned up in NBC’s militarized “reality” show, Stars Earn Stripes.