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The Unreasonable Man: Madness, Monomania, and Mindlessness on the American Right
The man in the Clapham bus encounters a roadblock
Conservative arguments often rest on an appeal to conventional wisdom. Economic policy is discussed in light of middle class household finances, with prudence and thrift presented as key virtues. Criminal justice and public safety are debated from the position of suburban parents whose children play in the street and are in before it’s too late. Reform is greeted with a keen eye to what the “regular” or “average” American can tolerate.
British political thinker Lord Patrick Devlin offered a tidy formulation of this approach with his deployment of what he called “the man in the Clapham omnibus.” Devlin, arguing against legitimization and equal treatment of LGBTQ persons, asks us to consider whether a typical, unassuming type of citizen in a given place and time might accept such changes. The conservative appeal is that they would not.
Devlin’s argument is as follows:
“English law has evolved and regularly uses a standard which does not depend on the counting of the heads. It is that of the reasonable man. He is not to be confused with the rational man. He is not expected to reason about anything and his judgement may be largely a matter of feeling. It is the viewpoint of the man in the street-or to use an archaism familiar to all lawyers-the man in the Clapham omnibus. He might also be called the right-minded man.“
As Matt McManus observes, this is essentially a populist position. Devlin’s “reasonable person” has often “been an object of praise by conservative populists… And it has proven extremely effective as an ideological fiction with which millions will identify for the sake of protecting their material and social interests. But it is important to notice how minimal these concessions by populists like Devlin really are.”
This hide-the-elitism appeal to common sense is a philosophically precarious endeavor. As Devlin’s conceptualization shows, it is mainly a stand in for status quo thinking. But even if we set aside this normative approach to what the reasonable man might desire in favor of more descriptive theory, we can’t fully set the ship aright. The broader conservative fiction to which McManus alludes emerges over and over again and is proven at best unreliable. The famed homo economicus of rational choice is supposed to explain human behavior through the maximization of self interest. But this is not nearly as simple as it appears.
A great deal of social science demonstrates that individuals often don’t conform to classic models of reason. People can act irrationally, and define their interests in much more aesthetic or identitarian terms than the strict economic calculus we are led to believe drives choice.
In today’s “populist” moment, Devlin’s formulation appears turned on its head. Appeals from the Trumpian right are neither to placid, middle class sensibility, nor to a tidy understanding of self-interest. Instead, delusion reigns, as many Americans range from rageful paranoia to a level of disengagement that allows them to forget and forgive the existential threat Trump poses to our democracy. Rather than a false kind of reasonableness in defense of a status quo, more disintegrating forces are at play—deeply unreasonable ones—which are still taken as the will of the common man.
Denial, or Don’t Bullshit a Bullshitter
“Aren’t we all fed up with the deep state bullshit? End the bullshit! We want Trump, the MAGAdor, to kill that goddam bull! End the bullshit! Kill that goddam bull!”
Former Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger offered a bleak but frank assessment on X (the website formerly known as Twitter): “Brain worms. Someday we will look back and be amazed at how many people fell for someone who had a mental illness, and how that illness spread by contact”
That spread is hard to deny. After all, Barr’s rant is an eccentric but hardly rare example of the reality denialism that plagues the MAGA right. We are all too familiar with the claims of the Big Lie and the “Russia Hoax.” In this elaborate fiction, Trump has never been defeated in his electoral or policy aims, at least not in any way that could be called fair. He’s been foiled by traitors and bad actors, undone by conspiracy.
Every Trump rally comes back to the idea that these subterfuges were really about undermining the will of decent, average Americans. But the recent one in Hialeah was perhaps a masterpiece entry in the canon. As The Atlantic’s John Hendrickson put it, “This was a dystopian, at times gothic speech. It droned on for nearly 90 minutes. Trump attacked the ‘liars and leeches’ who have been ‘sucking the life and blood’ out of the country.”
It was a tour de force to be sure. Naturally, he repeated his lie that “the election was stolen.” But he also continued to martyr himself, telling his audience that “I’m being indicted for you” and “2024 is our final battle.” This is the man who is leading the Republican pack. It is also the man who has a competitive chance of being president again in 2025.
Since 2020, Trump rallies have been superspreader events. But, to echo Kinzinger, now they spread a kind of madness through our body politic.
Who Among Us?
Kenneth Darlington is a septuagenarian American expat, living in Panama. On November 7, the retired lawyer and professor allegedly shot and killed two protesters who were blocking traffic on a Panamanian highway.
Responses from the right, particularly on social media, immediately revealed a strong sympathy for Darlington. Many expressed a sense of empathy, claiming Darlington’s murders resulted from both justifiable and recognizable sentiments.
On X, Rod Dreher posted a photo of Darlington, pistol in hand, with the caption “He did wrong ... but I know just how he feels. And you do too.” It is unlikely that the vast majority of us do “know just how he feels.” After all, most Americans have not opened fire on fellow human beings in a moment of irritation and lapsed judgment. But what if, as others have implied, it wasn't really a lapse so much as a giving in to a common urge that is nevertheless illegal and punishable?
The Daily Wire’s Michael Knowles was also quick to approach the incident with the kind of understanding he never extends to his non-homicidal opponents on the left, summing it up like this: “A 77-year old man in Panama had enough of climate activists blocking the road. So he did what probably many people want to do in these situations and shot two of them dead.”
“Endwokeness,” an anonymous right-wing account promoted by Elon Musk and X’s algorithm, posted perhaps the most chilling assessment of all: “No veins bulging. No red face. No yelling. This is not anger. This is fatigue.”
The crux of every statement here is that Darlington’s actions were perhaps extreme, but motivated by entirely understandable impulses. His decision to fire upon and kill two strangers on a highway is reasonable. Relatable, even! Who among us wouldn’t feel murderous at such an inconvenience? Who hasn’t dreamed of executing some obnoxious lefty protester?
For many on the right, Darlington is a standard for the average, beleaguered middle American. He’s beset by inconveniences and outrages, put upon by insufferable liberals, and only wants to continue on his way.
This is similar to the excuses offered up for many January 6 defendants. It is impossible to forget RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel referring to January 6 as “legitimate political discourse,” and bemoaning that the subsequent FBI investigations were targeting “ordinary citizens.” Hundreds of Jan. 6 rioters getting convicted of serious crimes in court—such as assaulting police officers and seditious conspiracy—hasn’t altered the claim.
The Party that Cried Panic
The GOP and its grassroots have also spent considerable time since 2020 claiming that ordinary Americans are distraught at what they see as an assault on society by trans rights activists.
The American Principles Project ran an ad in Kentucky showing a teen coming out to their parents as trans. The parents calmly question their child’s thinking, only to have the FBI enter, warn them against hurting their child, and subsequently take the child away. As dramatic music plays and the child shouts for their parents, text encourages the viewer to “Learn more about Andy Beshear’s ‘Equality Agenda’ for our families.” Another of their Kentucky ads featured anti-trans activist Riley Gaines declaring she intended to support “real man” Daniel Cameron. Beshear secured reelection with far better totals than when he won his first term in 2019.
The trans panic reveals a certain monomania on parts of the right, one that has always agitated to curtail the rights of LGBTQ Americans. Fortunately, this obsession looks electorally counterproductive. Americans are unsure on many trans rights issues, but most don’t think trans people pose a critical threat to the national society or buy the idea that Joe Biden intends to imprison anyone who isn’t in lockstep with the most progressive views.
The same can be said for Moms for Liberty, the far-right organization committed to taking over school boards with pro-America, anti-LGBTQ, and sometimes overtly racist education agendas. The 2023 elections have proven to be a real setback for the group, which had managed some surprising wins since its founding in 2021.
In the Washington Post, Greg Sargent highlighted Democratic successes across the state of Virginia that saw the party take both chambers of the legislature. Not least of these was Danica Roem’s achievement of becoming the South’s first openly transgender state senator. And there is real hope to be gained here. As Sargent writes, “The right’s culture-warring fell dramatically short of the promise it held for [Republican Virginia Governor Glenn] Youngkin last time around, and the robust liberal mobilization in response shows no signs of going away.”
Erin Reed offered a similar view, telling MSNBC’s Ali Velshi, “Voters, by and large, saw the intense focus on often only one or two trans kids in the school and said that that isn’t what we want to be spending our time on.” Reed put it succinctly on her Substack, “After championing a significant anti-trans agenda in 2023 and proposing more legislation against the LGBTQ+ community than the past decade, Republicans running on that platform faced unexpected and widespread defeats.”
I think there’s significant merit to Sargent and Reed’s analyses. I also think there are reasons to feel good about the rejection of extremist politics in the most recent elections. Culture war does not seem to be cutting in quite the way the GOP’s activist base hoped. But that doesn’t remove their sense that this is an obsession the median, normal American ought to share. I’m hopeful that this will continue to prove false, but I don’t know how confident we can truly be at the moment.
That’s because of the uncomfortable reality that Republicans are still invested in advancing these policies. Moreover, a vast television and new media ecosystem exists to continue pumping trans, DEI, and CRT panic into conservative eyes and ears. So we have to reckon with this when we contemplate the dangerous possibility that Americans will return Donald Trump to the White House next November, perhaps with a Republican Congress.
The Melted Middle
Trump’s cultish following notwithstanding, early polling and focus groups for 2024 show that a great many voters who do not consider themselves ideologues or MAGA loyalists are open to supporting a man who tried to overthrow American democracy and currently has 91 felony charges against him.
Let’s take the New York Times and Siena College poll that has roiled party operatives and sent pundits into overdrive. That poll showed 59% trusted Trump more on the economy, compared to 32% for Biden. Despite their three-year age gap, 71% saw Biden as “too old” but only 39% felt the same about Trump. Another 62% said they doubted Biden was mentally up for the job. Perhaps most astonishingly, respondents gave Biden only a three-point advantage on “handling democracy.”
Is polling a year out from an election all that valuable? No, not as a forecast of results. But the very fact that such a poll could be produced by a reputable and methodologically sound pollster in the wake of the last few years ought to be as alarming as it is astounding. Outliers happen. A single poll is not reality. And yet, that Trump is polling well ahead of his primary opponents and does not appear to be dead on arrival as a general election candidate is damning enough.
Sarah Longwell’s The Focus Group Podcast has provided some of the most valuable insights currently available into the mind of the American voter ahead of 2024. The interviews are probing, and the commentary offered by Longwell and her rotating guest hosts is both respectful and not the least bit elitist.
But the takeaways can be grim. In an October episode, co-hosted with the Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter, they talked to Trump-Biden voters. These are the vaunted swing voter of American politics, the non-partisan types so often held up as a model of democracy by pundits, and so desperately pursued by political campaigns.
One woman said, “Trump was a nut. However, he didn’t leave the country in the shape that Joe Biden is leaving is in, and, for that, he’s fired.” Another participant argued that Biden “is incompetent” and that “I have to choose somebody to run the country and that choice would have to be Trump.” Another man interjected, “You’re gonna have to pick between the two evils, and I’m going Republican this time around because this country needs to turn around and not put up with the bull crap and just turn off CNN and Fox for the next four years after that.”
An ABC News/Ipsos poll released this August showed that 65% of Americans think Trump’s indictments related to January 6 are either “somewhat serious” or “very serious.” It’s worth noting that the “very serious” number came out to 51%, compared to 14% for “somewhat serious.”
Some everyday Americans are unaware of the specifics or depths of Trump’s criminality. And their views on the charges are complicated, muddied by partisanship and distrust. They do not link America’s post-2020 economic turbulence with the actions and policies of his administration. Additionally, they misapprehend the relative nature and degree of our economic troubles, and discount the successes. Numerous economists and pollsters have noted a an unprecedented divergence between public sentiment on the economy and actual economic performance.
Beyond this, many express doubt that Joe Biden is physically and mentally up to the task of being president, while retaining higher confidence in the stability and competency of a man who declared to his supporters back in March that “I am your retribution.” In August, Trump was still defending the January 6 storming of the Capitol, telling Tucker Carlson, "I have never seen such spirit and such passion and such love, and I've also never seen simultaneously and from the same people such hatred of what they've done to our country." Just this past Friday, he said on CNN, “If I happen to be president, and I see somebody who is doing well and beating me very badly, I'll say, 'go down and indict them.'”
Frustration at the economy, or concerns about a politicians’ age, shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. But focusing on them talks around the obvious problem: America’s swing voters are simply not opposed to offering the man who presents the single greatest threat to our democracy a second chance in the White House.
Unlike the organic sensibility of Devlin’s man in the Clapham bus, a great swathe of what passes for center-right and moderate America is fueled by a mixture of ignorance, denialism, and potentially violent hostility, under which no normal, healthily functioning electorate can reasonably operate.
This is not meant as an attack on my fellow Americans in general or the residents of the deep red heartlands that I so dearly love. (I agree with the argument that entertainment and news media too often present these Americans in the form of parody and outright derision.) Rather, I am trying to sound the alarm on a crisis in our thinking. It is a philosophical crisis.
Reasonable People and Democracy
This Veterans Day, Donal Trump posted on his app, Truth Social,
“In honor of our great Veterans on Veteran's Day, we pledge to you that we will root out the Communists, Marxists, Fascists, and Radical Left Thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our Country, lie, steal, and cheat on Elections, and will do anything possible, whether legally or illegally, to destroy America, and the American Dream. The threat from outside forces is far less sinister, dangerous, and grave, than the threat from within. Despite the hatred and anger of the Radical Left Lunatics who want to destroy our Country, we will MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”
His use of the term “vermin” is abjectly fascist, but it is not a break with his past behavior. It’s just a continuation. As such, his team has doubled down. Responding to accusations that Trump’s language clearly echoed fascist leaders of the past, spokesman Steven Cheung told the Washington Post that “those who try to make that ridiculous assertion are clearly snowflakes grasping for anything because they are suffering from Trump Derangement Syndrome and their entire existence will be crushed when President Trump returns to the White House” (emphasis added).
Earlier this fall, Brian Klaas argued the need to amplify Trump’s most outrageous behavior in order to ensure everyday Americans see the danger: “Right now, Trump is still popular, still getting his message out…But what percentage of the US public knows about him calling to execute a general? Five percent? Less?”
Almost every American at this point has encountered at least some variation of Trump’s violent, hateful, utterly deluded worldview over the last eight years through speeches, tweets, interviews, and the unending hum of controversy around them. It is inescapable, even if a particular or individual event goes unnoticed, which means we cannot attribute his continued electoral viability solely to right-wing elites and media distortions.
Amidst all this, Trump, his party, and right-wing commentators appeal again and again to their preferred notion of the regular American, one brimming with some combination of anxiety and malice, and curtained off from any reality that does not favor them. The notion that this is all false consciousness—that “they know not what they do”—hasn’t been tenable in years.
We are left to ask what the unreasonable man will tolerate.