2020

The Politics of Bullshit

Beto O'Rourke gives naiveté a bad name.
September 16, 2019
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Just please hand over your guns now, right to Beto. (Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

“Hell yes,” Beto insists amid a flurry of f-bombs, “we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.” 

We are, I guess, supposed to take O’Rourke seriously but not literally when he says that he will confiscate 15 million guns from Americans, because, surely. One in five firearms sold in the United States today is an AR-15. And Beto wants to take them away. 

But seriousness isn’t the point is it? Beto is passionate. More passionate and emotional than anyone else. And realism really isn’t the point either, is it? 

Beto isn’t making a realistic proposal for action; he’s performing an act of ideological self-pleasuring that is supposed to signal purity of heart and fervor of intention. 

This is the politics of aspiration; in which candidates make “bold” proposals that they have no intention of actually enacting. This is, of course, the politics of bullshit. 

As philosopher Harry G. Frankfurter helpfully explained in his treatise “On Bullshit,” bullshitters “seek to convey a certain impression of themselves without being concerned about whether anything at all is true. They quietly change the rules governing their end of the conversation so that claims about truth and falsity are irrelevant.” 

We live in the Age of Political Bullshit.

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Donald Trump claimed that he would build a big, beautiful wall and that Mexico would pay for it. Elizabeth Warren proposes a plan for everything and says that her new “wealth tax” will cover the tab. Bernie and the others embrace sweeping environmental schemes that are unconnected with reality.

And no one takes them literally, of course. Because the bullshit is baked in. 

Which brings us back to Beto. 

This will be an unpopular opinion, but as Beto himself might say, fuck it: There is something Trumpian about his latest posture. 

During his 2016 campaign, Trump suggested that he would deport all 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States. No sentient observer took that seriously, but it served its purpose: it was Trump’s aspirational vision that marked Trump’s brand as the most authentic and extreme. What it lacked in practicality it made up for in simplicity and purity.

Imagine, he said, a world without any illegal immigrants. That appealed viscerally to a certain kind of voter.

Now comes Beto. Imagine, he says, a world without AR-15s. A ban on the sale of the weapon is not enough; we must remove all of them from the hands of their owners. Details of logistics, constitutionality, and common sense don’t matter here. What matters is that appeals viscerally to a certain kind of voter.  

What’s striking here is how little thought O’Rourke seems to have put into his new proposal. How would the mandatory buyback be enforced? Listen to Beto’s magical thinking: 

“My confidence is in the people of this country. Go into a gun show in Conway, Arkansas and listening to the owners of AR-15s and the vendors of AR-15s, many of whom, you can imagine, didn’t agree with my proposal, but each of whom was willing to at least have the conversation, some of whom said, ‘Look, you know what? I have an AR-15. Don’t need it. Would gladly sell it back or destroy it,'” O’Rourke told MSNBC’s Joy Reid. “All of them seem like they’d follow the law. We are a nation of laws. It’s part of what defines us and distinguishes us from the rest of the world.”

“I believe that America will comply with the law and I believe that there will be a due process in devising the law in the first place, where we listen to stakeholders, all concerned and affected,” he explained. 

Officials would not enforce the law by going door  to door. “No, we expect people to follow the law,” he says. “And that’s certainly what I believe will happen.”

This gives naiveté a bad name. In reality, a mandatory buyback program would weaponize our tribal divide. By the way, that is an observation, not a threat.

Given the polarizing nature of the politics, it seems surpassingly ingenuous to think that millions of gun owners would not defy what they regarded as an illegitimate and unconstitutional infringement of their Second Amendment rights. 

Who else would refuse to comply with the law? Lawbreakers. 

This includes, not surprisingly, anyone who is contemplating using the weapons for a mass shooting or other crime. By definition, the passage of the law would not itself deter them. It would not take a gun out the hands of a single potential mass killer. 

But that’s not the point is it? The point is striking a pose and doing something “big and bold.”

But big and bold turns out to be extreme and unpopular. Once the sugar high drops, Democrats might realize that Beto is turning a winning issue into a loser and making the prospects of a compromise even dimmer than they already were.

Exit take. ICYMI: Make sure you watch this supercut from the Washington Free Beacon. For years, gun control advocates had insisted that no one wants to take your guns away. And Beto just blew the lid off that:

Charles Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.