Two Cases of Arrested Development

As the Republican primary battle gets more acrimonious, Romney and Gingrich reveal their hatred of reality

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Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney Newt Gingrich participate in the NBC News, National Journal, Tampa Bay Times debate held at the University of South Florida on Jan. 23.

Viewers who tuned in to the latest Republican debate expecting to see the candidates in attack mode certainly got what they were looking for. But their attacks were not directed only at each other or the President they hope to unseat. They were attacking reality itself.

When the Republicans attempt to advance their causes by disregarding the facts, they are essentially attacking both internal reality (either by rejecting the idea that they need others or that they support grandiose fantasies) and external reality (by denying their destructiveness or the effect of their behavior on others.)

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Moreover, their distortion of the truth represents an attack on the boundary between belief and knowledge. This is not unusual: most people don’t recognize that what they think of as facts are actually beliefs, even when they are proven wrong. It’s especially common in politics, as the candidates showed when they called Obama an appeaser, an apologist, even a socialist — directly or by implication — although there is a mountain of evidence to the contrary. They criticized one another even more — especially Mitt Romney’s jabs at Newt Gingrich for lobbying and lying about it. Looking closely, however, it’s easy to see the projections — the getting rid of unpleasant facts about self and pointing fingers at the other.  Newt and Mitt called each other “liar” in ways reminiscent of 10-year-old children on a school playground who hate facing the reality — internal and external — of their own cheating at four square, for example, so they can loudly point the finger at the other.

For all the attacking, however, the candidates were remarkably subdued. This is largely due to the moderator’s instructions to the audience to watch in silence. One of a leader’s fundamental tasks is to contain the primitive impulses of his constituents. In the case of the quiet Tampa audience, the attendees were forced to hide their reactions to the primitive hatred and aggression on display on the stage.

At no time was this hatred more apparent than in the stunning absence of humanity that Romney and Gingrich demonstrated as they tried to outdo one another about wishing Castro dead. The exchange helps us understand why both candidates have so much difficulty talking with people who differ from them — they simply cannot accept the real complexity of people who oppose them.

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Hatred of reality is part of the human condition. In early life children hate their absolute dependency on their parents and construct grandiose fantasies to deny their fears of helplessness or humiliation. As adults we express our hatred of internal and external reality through lying to ourselves and to others. Gingrich may actually believe that he wasn’t a lobbyist, just as Romney may believe he is paying his fair share of taxes — although the latter’s defense, telling voters that they don’t “want a candidate who pays more taxes than he owes,” suggests that on some level he knows that he expresses his hatred of having to do something he despises by using the system to keep his tax payments down. The reality that they now both face — and likely hate — is that they must continue to square off against each other for the foreseeable future. How they each move beyond that hatred towards acceptance may provide valuable insight into how they might function in office.