The defining characteristic of modern-day, right-wing conservatism is malignant narcissism — the utter inability to empathize with a human being who is not a) oneself, or b) in one’s immediate orbit and of some value to one’s deluded conception of self. Empathy, of course, is the tendency to feel the pain of others as one’s own. If you can’t stand seeing one of those neglected-puppy ads and you feel physical pain when you see an athlete suffer some horrific injury on live TV, you have empathy. If you think the serial cracking heads and crotch-walloping on a “funny videos” show is entertaining, you might not.
This divide is presently the driving force behind American politics. I bristle when I hear a politician say, as many politicians are wont to do during kumbaya moments like the Scalise shooting in Alexandria, that “we all want the same things for our country; we just differ on how to get there.”
That is categorically untrue, and until we diagnose the problem here as systemic and metastatic rather than superficial and benign, we’re not going to be able to start treatment. Liberals believe that we are all in this together; that we are each responsible for the well-being of all; that the pain or suffering of any one of us is an evil to be avoided. Fundamentalist conservatives believe that pain and suffering can be the righteous outcomes of failure and laziness; that we are only responsible for our own selves and our own progeny; and that, at least as far as the government should be concerned, it is every man, woman, and child for himself or herself (in the post-natal phase of life, anyway).
We do find exceptions — the occasional conservative who will stray from the flock. Take LGBTQ rights. Conservative dogmatists universally condemn the LGBTQ community as an immoral and uppity minority whose agitating for acceptance must be put down, lest every manner of pursuing happiness break out across the land. But when — and only when — one of them discovers that a child or equally close loved one is gay, a conservative might budge. (Think Dick Cheney.)
This characteristic of far-right conservatism — the lack of concern about any issue that does not affect the self — is ubiquitous. A typical conservative is against stem-cell research until his loved one is stricken with Alzheimer’s; is against reproductive choice until his own minor daughter becomes pregnant; is “tough on crime” until Junior gets busted with a trunk full of cocaine; and couldn’t care less about healthcare costs until himself facing catastrophic illness.
This brings us to Senator John McCain. Some might think that he would have voted ‘no’ on the “skinny bill” repeal (which would have left millions uninsured) regardless whether he’d recently learned of his own emergent and likely very expensive end-of-life predicament. I’d like to believe that, but I hesitate. Hero though he was in war, his concern for the less fortunate melted away during his political career. Politically speaking, John McCain has been all about John McCain. Had the fates not jammed a bitter dose of hypocrisy down his throat, the problems of others would not have been his own, and I fear he would have voted ‘yes.’ Given his voting record (rather than his sometimes rebellious rhetoric), there’s little reason to believe otherwise.
The point, of course, is that it’s too bad we have to wonder. It should not, in so many cases, require that misfortune befall a conservative himself or herself before he or she begins to care about an issue that affects millions of others. How we’ll ever break free of mass malignant narcissism is a mystery, but we should start by calling it what it is.