If you want to know what's happening within much of the Republican Party these days, just watch Sean Hannity. He's become the cuckoo in the GOP coal mine.
Last week, for example, Hannity went off on an angry, frustrated rant on his radio show against those conservatives who had dared to point out that Emperor Trump is prancing around naked. If Trump loses, Hannity complained, "I am pointing the finger directly at people like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham and John McCain. I have watched these Republicans be more harsh toward Donald Trump than they’ve ever been in standing up to Barack Obama and his radical agenda."
“I’m getting a little sick and tired of all of you," he added. "I am, honestly, I am tempted to just say I don’t support any of you people ever.”
Bret Stephens, a WSJ conservative columnist who has himself been highly critical of Trump, responded on Twitter by calling Hannity "Fox News' dumbest anchor." That's doubly cutting because, well, Fox anchors are already not the fastest swimmers in the pool, so to speak. Hannity then responded with an epic, curse-laden Twitter tirade that I am not at liberty to republish on this fine, family-oriented website.
This is only early August, folks; Election Day is still three months away. Yet you've already got various factions within the GOP at all-out war over who to blame for the coming catastrophe. Hannity and fellow Trump supporters say they will never forgive the treason that they see perpetrated against their candidate; Erick Erickson and others in the #NeverTrump camp are taking the opposite course, declaring that those who inflicted Trump on the party should have no role in its post-election resurrection.
"Don’t blame us," as Erickson wrote last week, addressing the Hannitys of the world. "Blame yourselves. You championed the braying jackass, even attacking good conservatives in the race, and the only thing happening now is exactly what the rest of us have said all along would happen."
For a long time, Republicans have used the charge of party disloyalty as a weapon to keep each other in line, and it's been very effective. But now that there's no agreement on what the party line even is, every faction of the GOP is firing accusations of RINO at every other faction. It's like watching a political version of that biker shootout down in Texas last year.
We will always have a conservative party in this country, but at this point I can't imagine how you put all this back together into a functioning political organization after November. Because as Hannity demonstrates, nobody in the party seems to be in a mood to forgive each other, to say the least.
Speaking of our cuckoo in the coal mine....
In another segment last week -- this one a typically fawning interview with Trump -- Hannity had sympathized with Trump's suggestion that the election was being rigged. If Trump loses in November, they suggested, the outcome won't be a legitimate expression of the American people but instead an outcome dictated by voter fraud and other trickeration.
The whole idea is stupid for any number of reasons. The most obvious is that when your Chosen One is losing by double digits in your own network's polling, election theft is not your most pressing concern. Democrats have no need to try to steal an election that Trump is handing them in a gift-wrapped box topped by a pretty silver bow.
More importantly, as CNN's Brian Stelter pointed out, Trump's repeated warnings of a rigged election are part of a highly destructive effort "to delegitimize our democratic process without proof." The machinery of self-governance depends on a willingness to accept the will of the people as expressed at the ballot box, and if Trump wants to call that into question as a means to salvage his own ego, "it is unpatriotic for any interviewer or any journalist to help him," as Stelter put it.
"This is dangerous," he said, aiming his criticism at both Hannity and Bill O'Reilly. "Suggesting an election is going to be stolen, this is Third World dictatorship stuff."
Hannity responded to Stelter as he did to Stephens, with an angry Twitter rant in which he endorsed the theory that the 2016 election was being rigged. He also resurrected bizarre claims that Mitt Romney's 2012 defeat had also been the result of massive voter fraud in states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio.
That tells us a couple of things:
1.) The GOP base that Hannity represents is nowhere near coming to terms with the fact that they are a minority in this country. They do not yet recognize that the world view that has been so carefully tended on their behalf within the hothouse bubble of Fox News and talk radio simply collapses when exposed to the rigors of the outside world. The denial is so strong that they are already preparing an intellectual "safe space" to which they can retreat after Trump's defeat.
2. ) The GOP establishment invented the threat of large-scale voter fraud out of thin air and sold it to their base for a very practical if cynical reason, as an excuse for their inexcusable attempt to discourage voting by minorities and the young. Such fraud claims never had any basis in fact, as multiple studies have proved and as federal courts around the country have ruled in recent weeks. But like so many of their useful if fictional narratives, GOP leaders have now lost control of it, allowing it to mutate into the kind of destructive nonsense propagated by the likes of Hannity and Trump.
Again, I don't have the slightest idea how this ends. Trump is going to lose, yes, but I suspect that we'll look back on that defeat as the real beginning of this story rather than the end of it.
UPDATE: On "Morning Joe" today, host Joe Scarborough and Bret Stephens -- both of them conservative -- had a conversation along these very lines.
SCARBOROUGH: What do we -- I don't want to speak for you. I'm a registered Republican, I don't know if you are or not. I'm a conservative, I certainly know you're a conservative. How much do we look at our own party and say, well, you look at a lot of polls and in some states 50 percent of people not only wanted to ban Muslims, they wanted to ban mosques in America. Shouldn't we, after this election, have a post-mortem, not just about the candidates we nominate, but the party that we're in?
STEPHENS: Well, I think the point you're making is an important one, in that too much of the Republican Party became an echo chamber of itself. And so, if you spend your time listening to certain cable shows all the time, listening to nobody else, if you're prone to the kind of conspiracy theories that whiz around on Twitter or certain fringes of the internet, you end up having this kind of conversation that's just increasingly divorced from reality. The people coming over the border, from south of the border, is not a horde of Libyan jihadists, but you would think, talking to some large segment of the GOP base, that that's the kind of challenge that we face. Trade is not hurting working class Americans. Trade is helping working class Americans. But, again, because of the echo chamber that we created -- and by the way, one large problem I would add, and a wise Republican friend of mine made this point, because of redistricting, because red districts are so red, and the only challenges that incumbents face are primary challenges, we are moving in a kind of a self-polarizing direction. That doesn't help the country, doesn't help the Republican Party.
SCARBOROUGH: Yeah, I mean basically -- and you saw it even with Mitt Romney's campaign. They watched Fox News. They still believed at two in the morning that -- they were still -- or at least they believed late into the evening, when everyone else knew the election was over, that they were going to win, because their entire campaign apparatus was inside the bubble. The Republican Party has been inside the bubble now for too long.
STEPHENS: Well it's a kind of a Pauline Kael phenomenon. I guess she was the New York or New York Times movie critic who said, "I can't believe [Richard] Nixon won, all my friends voted for [George] McGovern."
SCARBOROUGH: Didn't know a single person that voted for Nixon, right.
STEPHENS: And a lot of people have no idea that Trump is headed for a historic defeat. That's why, I think the larger the defeat, in a sense, the healthier it will be for the Republican Party. At least if it doesn't bring Paul Ryan's speakership down with him and there's a kind of healthy divided government, because it might be a wake-up call to those Republicans who have existed in this little thought bubble of their own that this isn't a winning form of politics.