(*This column was updated at 5:25 p.m. on 10/28/20 to clarify that Tom Nichols was speaking in his capacity as a private citizen)
Tom Nichols is on a tear.
QAnon conspiracy theorists are “narcissists.” Aging Republican GenXers have been “huffing too much conservative press,” with Trumpism as the ultimate midlife crisis. And COVID-19 deniers “would rather be dead than wrong.”
Nichols, an author, magazine commentator, television pundit, and professor at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I., has emerged as one of the leading voices of the anti-Trump right. He’s an adviser to the Lincoln Project, the well-funded cabal of ex-Republicans who live rent-free in President Donald Trump’s head, and whose expertly tailored television commercials trigger the nation’s 45th chief executive at a level only rivaled by former President Barack Obama.
For Nichols and his fellow Lincoln Project provocateurs, it’s not enough for Trump and Republicans to lose at the polls on Tuesday, they have to be comprehensively defeated so that the political cyst of Trumpism, which he views as antithetical to conservatism, can be fully excised.
Then, maybe, the GOP will get its soul back.
“I don’t think [this is] a party that John Heinz would recognize today,” Nichols, 60, a former aide to the late Pennsylvania United States senator, said during a wide-ranging telephone conversation last weekend. Nor is it one that he recognizes, he adds, even as he acknowledges that the moderate Heinz had to put up with his share of grief from the right-wing in his day.
*”The difference is that Pennsylvanians knew John Heinz,” said Nichols, who stressed that he was speaking in his personal capacity as a private citizen.
When I ask him if that means the contemporary GOP will blink out of existence in a post-Trump America, joining the Whigs and Federalists on history’s scrap heap, Nichols says he’s “enough of a political scientist to recognizes the structural obstacles to a new party.”
What he thinks is more likely is that a Trump defeat will herald the collapse of the GOP as “an electoral force until the national committee and state committees are taken over by sane people.”
But, he added, “It’s not impossible that a new party emerges.”
As our conversation progresses, it’s clear that Nichols has spent lots of time thinking about this stuff. Answers tend to come in complete paragraphs.
But that’s not surprising, Nichols laid the groundwork for a lot it with his 2017 book “The Death of Expertise,” a tautly argued volume that concludes that, rather than making us smarter with its torrents of information, the Web has actually made us dumber by collapsing respect for expertise and the commonly shared facts that powered our debates.
Nichols’ scorn for QAnon adherents, the bonkers conspiracy theorists who comprise an ever-growing and louder portion of the GOP base, is withering. Well, nearly as withering as his contempt for Republican politicians who have cynically embraced people who believe Democrats … wait for it … torture children for a chemical that helps them stay young.
“The underlying problem with QAnon and all these [conspiracy] theories is narcissism,” he said. “It’s an incredible need to feel important and heroic. It’s a script so bad that Hollywood would reject it. But it allows people who believe in it to cast themselves as Schwarzenegger in ‘Total Recall.’ It is a complete indulgence in a narcissistic theory.”
But the larger problem, as Nichols sees it, is why QAnon believers have become a larger share of the Republican base in the first place. And there, he points the finger of blame at a fragmentation that has resulted in both of the Big Two parties viewing each other with growing suspicion, as bipartisan cooperation largely evaporates.
“It wasn’t a bad thing to have people believe for years that the parties are basically alike,” he said. “Yes. there were arguments about taking different roads to the same outcomes and different arguments about how to spend the people’s money.
“But, you could get a lot done because the parties were made up of Americans,” he continued. That’s a contrast with 21st Century Trumpism where there is “almost a revision to culture of small villages a 100 years ago. They only trust family, friends and the czar — and everyone else is a stranger or an enemy. What is underlying this is the complete collapse of any sense … that they are part of a nation of people who are decent and sensible people.”
As the race heads into its final furlong, and with America now north of 8.8 million cases of COVID-19, with 227,000 dead, and with maskless supporters packed in at super-spreader rallies, pandemic denialism is the ultimate symptom of that deadly strain of know-nothingism.
And Trump, with his promises of a vaccine before public health experts say one will be available, his dangerous claims that the nation is turning a corner when it provably is not, and rejection of science, only feeds it.
“The people at these rallies would rather be dead than be wrong,” Nichols said. “It’s just that important to them.”