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There’s a quote from Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) I think about with some frequency. It’s from early 2017, when the libertarian-leaning Massie was grappling with the strong support then-newly elected President Donald Trump had received in his district. Musing in an interview with the Washington Examiner, Massie proposed a theory:
All this time, I thought [my supporters] were voting for libertarian Republicans. But after some soul searching I realized when they voted for [Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)] and [former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas)] and me in these primaries, they weren’t voting for libertarian ideas — they were voting for the craziest son of a bitch in the race. And Donald Trump won best in class, as we had up until he came along. [Rep. Thomas Massie via the Washington Examiner]
This was a tough truth for libertarians like me to hear four years ago, when it was becoming undeniable the “libertarian moment” was past and any hope of ideological capture of the GOP must be indefinitely suspended. It must have been particularly tough for an elected figure like Massie, who, it seems, had imagined himself the chosen leader of a burgeoning movement of principle in his home district. Trump’s ascendance showed Kentucky’s 4th isn’t a pocket of philosophical libertarianism. Massie was just the craziest SOB on offer.
That dynamic, particularly when thus consciously realized, creates a terrible dilemma for even the humblest, sincerest politician: Do you court the craziest SOB vote?
If you don’t, you may never be elected. If you’re an incumbent, you might get primaried. The populism of the craziest SOB crowd adores a primary challenge, provided the target isn’t their SOB.
If you do, perhaps you can fake it through campaign season. Do a few wild tweets. Post some risqué memes. Introduce legislation you know won’t pass. Signal to your constituents that you’re still the wildest guy running, but devote most of your time in office to the quieter, more mundane work of attempting to implement policy you genuinely believe will be beneficial to the country.
Walking that line between heavy PR and outright deception might be the best-case scenario for a politician who isn’t the desired SOB but wants to court this vote. I’m not sure it’s sustainable for a House member on a two-year election cycle, though. If you spend roughly every other year playing the craziest SOB, you significantly are the craziest SOB — and, depending on how far you take the role, you may make yourself too politically polarizing for the policy collaboration across the aisle or with tamer members of your party that you’ll need to accomplish those genuine goals.
Still, the alternative — to be, rather than to seem, the craziest SOB — is even worse, especially for someone like Massie, who came into office with a philosophical perspective that distinguished him from the average Republican candidate and precluded him from being a lockstep party man who’d mirror any mood of the GOP base. Decide to become the SOB and there’s a real risk you’ll slide down a slippery slope into ever wilder rhetoric and behavior.
Massie’s comment came to mind again today when I saw the news that Sen. Paul has been temporarily suspended from YouTube for a video in which he said “most of the masks you can get over the counter don’t work because the virus particles are too small and go right through them.” (You can see the video here; begin at 3:20 for the relevant part.) In a follow-up video protesting the suspension, Paul commented further. “Most of the masks you get over the counter don’t work, they don’t prevent infection,” he said. “Saying cloth masks work when they don’t actually risks lives, as someone may choose to care for a loved one with COVID while only wearing a cloth mask. This is not only bad advice but also potentially deadly information.”
I’m probably closer on policy to Paul than most members of Congress — I once interviewed him for The Week — but this strikes me as courting the craziest SOB vote. Everything he’s saying is true, yet in a deeply misleading way. Of course, viruses are much smaller than holes in the weave of cloth or surgical masks. The point isn’t to catch individual viruses; it’s to catch far larger drops of virus-laden spittle. Yes, these masks are comparatively ineffective for protecting their wearer. Catching spittle protects other people. And yeah, if you’re unvaccinated and caring for someone with an active COVID-19 infection, a cloth mask isn’t enough. Did anyone credible say it was? You should get something like an N95 respirator, which keeps nearly all viruses out instead of simply keeping your spittle in.
Paul technically didn’t lie, but I think he did court this voting base. Massie does it, too. The libertarian position, for example, is that freedom of association allows employers to condition employment on vaccination if they so choose. But Massie recently touted a Kentucky statehouse “bill to prohibit employers from requiring the vax.” And where he used to pal around with the likes of former Rep. Justin Amash (L-Mich.), now he’s buddy-buddy with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), she of the QAnon ties, bad Holocaust analogy, and big craziest SOB vibes.
This is generally the slide of the slope. It’s not impossible that your constituents will develop more sensible, principled tastes after they’ve had a bite of Flamin’ Hot Nacho Cheese Dorito politics, allowing you to recalibrate accordingly. But it sure isn’t likely.