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© Christos Georghiou

The Kleptophobia at the Core of Republican Rhetoric

The one thing to take away from the Republicans’ CPAC is the fear of Democrats taking away the keys to their identity. The Daily Devil’s Dictionary explains.

At the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), former White House aide Sebastian Gorka, reminding his audience of the horror in store for them if Democratic progressives ever get their way, summed up the indignation felt by President Donald Trump’s base. He declared: “They want to take your pickup truck. They want to rebuild your home. They want to take away your hamburgers. This is what Stalin dreamt about but never achieved.”

At the same conference, Evangelist and Liberty University President Jerry Falwell warned: “I’ve got 100 cows — you just let Alexandria Cortez show up at my cows and try to take my cows away,” without delineating the actual threat he had begun to articulate.

Both were using what should, in a broader context, be called a “trope,” a rhetorical device that relies on the repetition of an idea expressed with identical words. The original formulation was a leitmotif of the Obama era, when politicians such as Marco Rubio could complain about the president: “His plan after the attack on San Bernardino? Take away our guns.”

Reporting on CPAC, Aaron Rupar on Vox commented: “In this respect, they’re taking cues from the president, who has in recent weeks also mocked the Green New Deal (claiming ‘they want to take away your car’).”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Take away:

Implement socialism by confiscating honest citizens’ inalienable property, and in particular the most precious items that Americans require to live as a civilized people. These include pickup trucks, assault weapons, gas-guzzling cars, as well as the cattle of the plains that so conveniently replaced the barbaric bison allowed by uncivilized savages in former times to roam across unclaimed land, thanks to the natives’ total ignorance of the requirement to establish and issue deeds to every square inch of land.

Contextual note

One pro-Trump website went so far as to say they were hoping to take America itself away, though without indicating where they intended to deposit it. As impatient with establishment Republicans as with Democrats, the website Townhall asks us to: “Take America away from Washington politicians, like Bush, Clinton and McConnell whose very nature reduces freedom and nets excessive regulation that harms job-creating businesses.”

Americans clearly think of the world as a complex set of discreet objects that can be carried from one place to another, where the possibility of seizing in one’s hands an object as big as a nation or as small as a hamburger constitutes a way of implementing a policy or solving a problem.

Here’s how The Washington Post parses Gorka’s warnings about hamburgers: “Republicans have turned environmentalists’ recommendations to eat less meat into an all-out culture war in which nothing less than American freedom is at stake.” But they may be missing the real point.

The Vox article highlights the Republican strategy as that of “motivating the Republican base by stoking fears about what Democrats will do if they retake the White House and/or the Senate in 2020.” And although the Democrats built their own election strategy in 2016 around the fear of Trump as an irresponsible egoist in a fundamentally ad hominem attack, by failing to identify what Trump would steal from them they missed the opportunity the Republicans never fail to exploit: to create the irrational fear that Democrats are out to rob them of what is rightly theirs. Kleptophobia, the fear of being robbed.

Historical note

The “take away” trope predates the National Rifle Association’s defiant message of recent decades, made famous by actor Charlton Heston when he summoned his cheapest, mawkish Hollywood rhetoric to conclude that the only way they can take away his guns would be “from my cold, dead hands.” In the same speech, Heston evoked the mission of the Republicans in 2000, six months before the presidential election pitting Al Gore against George W. Bush. They have “set out this year to defeat the divisive forces that would take freedom away.”

Republicans like to think of elections as a form of war, not about winning but rather about defeating the enemy. They frame it as a war on crime as they assail the thieves who wish to “take away” everything that defines them. “Take away” has become the essential metaphor at the core of Republican rhetoric.

This ploy has its roots in history. Ever since the Boston Tea Party, Americans have a negative perception of taxes, which they see as an act of taking away their “hard-earned money.” A decade after the establishment of the US federal income tax (1913) and a decade before President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” Republican President Calvin Coolidge argued that: “In essence, citizens of the United States are slaves, and the slave owner is the ever-growing bureaucracy that confiscates their hard-earned money.” As a privileged white man born in 1872, Coolidge may have forgotten that in his parents’ lifetimes, slavery wasn’t just a metaphor but an established institution, and it concerned human bodies and minds, not just “hard-earned money.”

But the fear of being forced to share one’s wealth for the sake of the common good — other than for “defense,” which plays out in reality as “offense” — has become the basis of a kleptophobic instinct that, at least in terms of rhetoric, even liberal Democrats bought into. When they say, for example, “Let’s Take America Away from Wall Street and Give it Back to Main Street,” they appeal to a similar notion of possession and the attribution of a title to property to its rightful owner.

The two sides seem to agree that “America” is meant to be somebody’s property, while they disagree on who owns the deed. On the Republican side, we heard in the 2016 election: “Trump is our last chance to take America away from the elites and those who rule through oligarchy. If you love America, YOU MUST VOTE FOR TRUMP!”

These two statements by opposing sides reveal a trend that the establishment of both parties has failed to take on board. The feeling has grown among voters that America (an idea and presumably an ideal rather than a nation) should be “taken back” from the “elite,” the “oligarchy.” They simply don’t agree on how to define the elite, though the sentiment is growing that, whatever it is, it includes all the establishment politicians.

The one thing they do share is the fear and indignation of someone who feels they have been robbed. That is a sentiment deeply implanted in US culture.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.