May 24, 2024

© Illustration by Paul Spella / The Atlantic. Source: Shutterstock

It’s been a difficult and disorienting four weeks in MAGA world.

On March 30, former President Donald Trump was indicted by a Manhattan grand jury for his alleged role in participating in a scheme to cover up potential sex scandals during the 2016 presidential campaign. Trump is the nation’s first former president to face criminal charges, and more serious charges may well follow.

Last week, Fox News, the highest-rated and most influential cable news network in America, agreed to pay more than three-quarters of a billion dollars to resolve a defamation suit filed by Dominion Voting Systems over the network’s promotion of deranged conspiracy theories about the 2020 election. It was, according to The Washington Post, the largest publicly disclosed monetary settlement ever in an American defamation action. There are more, and potentially more expensive, lawsuits pending.

And on Monday Fox abruptly cut ties with its biggest prime-time star, Tucker Carlson, one of the most mendacious and poisonous figures in the history of American television.

[David A. Graham: Tucker’s successor will be worse]

“I’m shocked. I’m surprised,” Donald Trump told Newsmax’s Greg Kelly. “I think Tucker’s been terrific,” the former president added. “He’s been, especially over the last year or so, he’s been terrific to me.” Other key figures on the MAGA right, like Donald Trump Jr., described the network’s decision as “mind-blowing,” and called Carlson “an actual thought leader in conservatism” and a “once-in-a-generation type talent.”

Republican Senator J. D. Vance, in a text message to The New York Times, said, “Tucker is a giant, and the most powerful voice against idiotic wars and an economy that placed plutocrats over workers. This is a huge loss for a conservative movement that hopes to be worthy of its own voters.” Representative Matt Gaetz, a MAGA star, lavished praise on Carlson during an appearance on Newsmax. And Megyn Kelly, a former Fox News host, said it was a “sad day for Fox News” but a “great day for Tucker,” because he no longer had to “answer to a corporate power.”

What used to rule the day on the American right was “owning the libs.” But now they are owning one another.

Some of us have spent the better part of eight years warning about the incalculable damage that would be done to the United States, to its politics and culture, and to the Christian witness by those who embraced a Trumpian ethic, defined by cruelty, lawlessness, the shattering of norms and traditional boundaries, and an eagerness to annihilate truth and trust in institutions. Those warnings have been validated, those concerns vindicated. What happened on January 6 wasn’t an anomaly; it was an apotheosis.

Now this movement, which has taken such delight in aiming its nihilistic arrows at the Democratic Party and the Republican establishment, at media outlets and scientists, is in the process of devouring itself. A l’exemple de Saturne, la revolution devore ses enfants.

It is a lesson nearly as old as time itself: Those whose passions are inflamed—and Trump supporters are nothing if not perennially inflamed—are drawn to destruction. “Rage and phrenzy will pull down more in a half an hour, than prudence, deliberation, and foresight can build up in a hundred years,” the 18th-century conservative statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke warned.

Lack of restraint is the essence of the Trump movement. Shattering guardrails is what they find thrilling. But what MAGA adherents forget is that those guardrails exist to protect not only others, but also ourselves from excess, self-indulgence, and self-harm. There’s a reason temperance—self-mastery, the capacity to moderate inordinate desires, balance that produces internal harmony—is one of the four cardinal virtues.   

The extremism, aggression, and lack of restraint in MAGA world are spreading rather than receding. They are becoming more rather than less indiscriminate. Those who are part of that movement, and certainly those who lead it, act as if they’re invincible, as if the rules don’t apply to them, as if they can say anything and get away with anything. That has certainly been true of Trump, and it is often true of those who have patterned themselves after Trump, which is to say, virtually the entire Republican Party.

But it goes even beyond this. MAGA world directs its ridicule at those who exercise temperance, who embrace restraint, and who ask themselves what they should do rather than what they can get away with. Those who reject the ethic of Thrasymachus—the cynical Sophist in Plato’s Republic who believes might makes right and injustice is better than justice—are dismissed as weak and delicate. The denizens of MAGA world not only relish discarding guardrails; they scorn those who abide by them.

The priority for those who love our country is to contain the wreckage and defeat the MAGA movement. We’re still in mid-drama, so that day is a ways off. But it will come. Because in the end, those who live without limits are destroyed by them.