The Republican Presidential debate conducted in South Carolina on Tuesday night accomplished what a presidential debate really should: it gave us a deep peek into the soul of the current GOP and the candidates vying for its leadership. Since the arrival of George W. Bush, the Republican Party has been viewed as the creature of the Religious Right, what Karl Rove (revealed last week by Christopher Hitchins to be an atheist) calls his “base.” The Religious Right GOP quakes to the themes drawn from the Deepest Dixie Bible thumpers: it opposes abortion, gay marriages, flag burning and homosexuals in the military – all offenses described in tremendous detail in Scripture (or at least in the personally annotated Bibles of James Dobson, Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell).
But South Carolina revealed an entirely new orientation in GOP politics, namely a warm embrace of torture and all the paraphernalia of the new national security state. Indeed, the debate quickly turned into a sort of geek show of debased morals. Rudy Giuliani’s expressions of pleasure over pulling the wings off of birds were quickly trumped by Mitt Romney’s suggestion that biting their heads off would be both more efficient and nutritious – that at least is the flavor that much of the dialogue conveyed to me. And here was Romney’s clincher, the lines that garnered the most explosive applause from the audience in the whole debate:
I’m glad they’re at Guantanamo. I don’t want them on our soil. I want them on Guantanamo, where they don’t get the access to lawyers they get when they’re on our soil. I don’t want them in our prisons. I want them there.
Some people have said, we ought to close Guantanamo. My view is, we ought to double Guantanamo. We ought to make sure that the terrorists – [applause] — and there’s no question but that in a setting like that where you have a ticking bomb that the president of the United States — not the CIA interrogator, the president of the United States — has to make the call. And enhanced interrogation techniques have to be used — not torture but enhanced interrogation techniques, yes. [thunderous applause]
Guantánamo is correctly understood and used as a metaphor for those “enhanced interrogation techniques,” namely waterboarding, the cold-cell, long-time standing, sleep deprivation and many others.
The Republican candidates are playing to the Republican faithful, which now represents the roughly 25 percent of Americans who adhere to torture as a virtue. Current polling by Pew Research shows that Americans as a whole have come decisively to reject torture as an immoral abomination. But not the core of the Republican Party.
Most Republicans see at least some instances when the use of torture is justified: 20% believe torture is often justified, 35% believe it is sometimes justified, while 22% believe it is rarely justified and only 21% believe it is never justified.
Hence, torture is an issue which divides activist Republicans from the rest of the population – Democrats and Independents. Truly, the Republicans have become “the party of torture.” And they have also become a distinctly smaller and more insular party than at any time in recent memory.
Now if we consider this is both the party of torture and the party of the Evangelical Christians, we see a clinical schizophrenia. Christian doctrine is unambiguous about torture – it holds that the torture techniques used at Guantánamo are unacceptable. This is a shared view between Catholics, Orthodox, mainstream Protestants and Evangelical Christians of the Christianity Today variety who form the core of Rove’s “base.”
And from a perspective of doctrine, the use of torture techniques is not merely “wrong,” rather it belongs to a theologically quite rarified category known as “intrinsic evil.” (Not many other things that make that cut. For Evangelicals, for instance, abortion would.) So, the Republicans – with the notable exception of the two calm voices of reason in the group: John McCain and Ron Paul – are embracing intrinsic evil as a preferred method in the war on terror.
The party cannot sustain the claim to be the party of torture and the party of Evangelical Christianity. One of those claims must fall. And clearly it is the latter.
Note what a dramatic evolution this means for the GOP. It has cast off the suffocating embrace of religious dogma and embraced that ultimately Nietzschean Wille zur Macht or “Will to Power.” Nietzsche, the son of a pastor, considered Christianity to be the creation of the enslaved masses who felt powerless before their natural masters. This notion Nietzsche coined as ressentiment, or to use his own words in what may be the most famous passage of On the Genealogy of Morals:
The revolt of the slave in morals begins in the very principle of ressentiment becoming creative and giving birth to values — a ressentiment experienced by creatures who, deprived as they are of the proper outlet of action are forced to find their compensation in an imaginary revenge. While every aristocratic morality springs from a triumphant affirmation of its own demands, the slave morality says ‘no’ from the very outset to what is ‘outside itself,’ ‘different from itself,’ and ‘not itself’; and this ‘no’ is its creative deed.”
The Republican Party’s warm embrace of torture reflects its liberation from the weakness of Christian morality, its transcendence of this “lower stage of human evolution.” It reflects a natural resurgence of the “Will to Power,” a recognition of the ability of those liberated from “naïve Christian morality” to choose weapons and tactics according to their efficacy. Surely Nietzsche would not be surprised by this: after all, in Thus Spake Zarathustra he envisioned a new, superior breed of men – the Supermen – who would be brutal and unscrupulous from the perspective of all those Christian sheep. But does that mean he envisioned Giuliani, Romney and Duncan Hunter?
In the end, the concept of “Wille zur Macht” has driven a lot of misery in human history and particularly in the middle of the last century, though surely the malefactors who used it misunderstood Nietzsche’s meaning. In the end, he was looking for the triumph of people who were truly smart and who engaged constructively with the realities of life about them. And nothing was clearer from the Republican debate than that all these would-be Supermen are just as detached from reality as the Bubble Boy president in whose footsteps they would follow.
If you’re a student of Nietzsche, then you know these are precisely the people for whom Christian doctrine is best suited. Republicans, better to embrace the Cross.