EDMUND: Why bastard? wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us
With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?
- King Lear, Act I Scene ii
If both popular culture and history have a short-hand for a villain, it’s calling him a bastard.
Greek mythology’s bastards are often deformed or monstrous. King Arthur’s son Mordred is a bastard (of incest no less). Shakespeare crafted several bastard villains. In Much Ado About Nothing’s Don John plots to ruin a woman’s good name out of spite. In The Tempest Caliban, whose very name is an anagram for ‘canibal’, plots murder and rape. Most famously, Edmund, bastard son of Gloucester, lies, manipulates, and cheats his way through King Lear, sacrificing everyone and everything in his way to achieve what he feels was denied him because of his illegitimate birth.
Similarly, the Bible makes it clear that bastards are to be punished and cast out: “A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; even to his tenth generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 23:2) And again here: “Are ye not children of transgression, a seed of falsehood, enflaming yourselves with idols under every green tree, slaying the children in the valleys under the clefts of the rocks?” (Isaiah 57:4)
History itself reinforces the bias against bastardy. The word ‘sinister’ originally simply meant ‘left’. It only evolved its modern meaning of ‘evil, ominous, and threatening’ by its association with the baton (also known as the bendlet or bend-sinister), the heraldric device denoting an illegitimate knight.
During the Renaissance, bastards were called ‘natural children’, thought to be Mother Nature’s own, bearing the traits of untamed nature: sexually ravenous, charming, sneaky, and driven by a powerful will to survive. In Colonial America, bastardy was itself a crime, and in Victorian England illegitimate children were considered to come from “criminal” stock and their “survival should not be encouraged.” (Lionel Rose, Massacre Of The Innocents, page 170)
This obsession with the evils of illegitimacy lasts right up to modern times. Until the 1950s, American bastards weren’t allowed certain civil service jobs, and their birth certificates were either stamped ‘Illegitimate’ or else were printed on a different color paper to denote their bastardy.
At the heart of the slur is our implicit yearning for legality. The cement that holds every society together is the law. Without laws society cannot function. If a thing is illegitimate, it is immoral, wrong, and (most significantly) illegal.
Bastardy, the state of being illegitimate, conjures both an illegality at the making and a ruthlessness in the person, an ambition, and a instinct towards lawbreaking. Think of the words we associate with bastardy: illegitimate, illicit, spurious, unauthorized, illegal.
For the last three decades, this is how Republicans have cast Democrats.
The Bastardizing of Democrats
It began slowly, under Reagan. “Weak on defense”, “Soft on Communism”, “Permissive on immigration”, “Socialists” — these accusations were applied, not just to individual candidates, but to the Democratic Party as a whole as a way to discredit them in every election.
It all boiled down to one charge — Democrats were un-American. They were illegitimate.
Then came the Clinton years, where attempts to make his presidency illegitimate was the unstated goal. Spearheaded by Speaker Newt Gingrich, Kenneth Starr’s investigation was given free rein to dig into any and every aspect of Clinton’s administration and, tellingly, his personal life (they especially went after his wife, casting her as, wait for it, ambitious and unladylike, code for unnatural). Two years and millions of dollars later, they got Clinton for lying about extramarital sex.
But it was not moral outrage that spurred the impeachment of Bill Clinton — Newt Gingrich was himself involved in an extramarital affair at this time. Rather, it was to gain political power. But he was justified, wasn’t he? If Democrats won at the ballot box, then it must not have been a legitimate election.
We’ll come back to that.
Next, we have the George W Bush years. What’s telling is that, though Bush lost the popular vote and gained the presidency in a most controversial way (Bush v. Gore is nakedly partisan, saying “Please don’t ever use this as precedent”), the Democratic Party never accused his presidency of being illegitimate. It’s genuinely astonishing how orderly the transfer of power was after such a contested election (though John Lewis and the Congressional Black Caucus did boycott the inauguration in protest).
During the 2004 campaign the GOP worked very hard to bastardize John Kerry, a distinguished soldier, by questioning his soldiering and delegitimizing his bravery. It worked, he lost. Again, an effective campaigning strategy. Despicable, but not unheard of in politics.
What happened next was anything but politics as usual. As Andres Martinz wrote in 2017:
The impulse to disqualify, rather than merely debate, leaders we don’t agree with intensified in the late 2000s. There was no disputing the mandate conferred upon Barack Obama by his resounding 2008 win, so the questioning of our first African American president’s legitimacy swirled around the underhanded, racially motivated and absurd allegations — peddled by our current president-elect, among others — that Obama wasn’t a natural-born citizen. Newt Gingrich spoke for many in 2010 when he accused the president of being beyond the American mainstream, pursuing instead a “Kenyan, anti-colonial” worldview.
From the first moment of his presidency, the GOP decided he could not be allowed the traditional powers of the presidency. Here’s John Boehner on his plans for Obama’s agenda: “We’re going to do everything — and I mean everything we can do — to kill it, stop it, slow it down, whatever we can.” And the famous quote from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
Any policy Obama was for, they were against, even if they’d been for it before (oh hi there, Romneycare). But worse, they threw sand into the very instruments of government, instigating government shutdowns (as they had under Clinton) and causing an unprecedented backlog of nominated judges who never received hearings. Most obvious was Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court, for which Mitch McConnell never even allowed hearings.
To the GOP, Obama was not a legitimate president. Therefore he could not be allowed the full powers of the presidency.
You see, for many people there is a disturbing and deeply entitled belief that runs like this: “If I lost, it must not have been fair. And if it wasn’t fair, then I can fight as dirty as I like.”
If the fight isn’t fair, then anything goes. As Adam Serwer writes in The Atlantic:
“If your political enemies are inherently illegitimate, then depriving them of power by any means necessary is not effacing democracy; it is defending it. The southern Democrats who stripped black Americans of the franchise at the end of Reconstruction using a battery of literacy tests, property requirements, poll taxes, and grandfather clauses saw themselves not as crippling democracy but as strengthening it, by limiting the ballot to those who were worthy of participating.”
The trouble here is a lack of another demonized word — empathy. If you cannot see Democrats, or African-Americans, or Latinos, or the poor, or women, as equal, but only as the enemy, there is no need to feel anything for them but contempt. They don’t have their own inner lives. The are sub-human. Unnatural. Illegitimate. Bastards.
For some, however, the delegitimizing is entirely calculated. You see, one key to getting away with lawbreaking is to accuse the other side of committing the same crime. Muddy the waters, make sure both sides seem dirty, politics as usual, ho-hum. Our current president is a master of this.
What’s remarkable about the delegitimaztion of the Democratic Party is that each accusation has been followed by an actual illegitimate Republican act. The GOP tries to make Clinton illegitimate, then George W Bush wins in an illegitimate way. The GOP tries for eight years to bastardize Barack Obama, then Trump wins the most illegitimate election in history.
Which brings us to today. President Trump has not only hit the accelerator on this trend. He’s pumped it with steroids and injected it in the heart with adrenaline. His aim is to delegitimize everything and everyone but him. The media, America’s allies, the FBI, the CIA, the Deep State, the polls, members of his own administration, even his beloved FOX News if they dare report something unfavorable to him. Nothing is legitimate but him. They’re all a bunch of bastards.
And there are no bigger bastards than Democrats.
When left to its own devices, the natural tendency of power is to accumulate unto itself. In a democracy, this leads to oligarchy. And oligarchy is interested, not in promoting the general welfare, but only in promoting itself.
It’s how we get partisan gerrymandering. It’s how we limit who is allowed to vote. It’s making it difficult for those who aren’t like us to even get to the polls, or how they’re given the broken voting machines. It’s how we purge voters from the rolls if they have names that ‘sound’ black or hispanic. It’s how we rig the census to count fewer people of color so they have less representation in their government. It’s how we delegitimize an entire race. We’ve done it before. Hell, we’ve gotten the media to call immigrants ‘illegals’.
Even handed? Never. Tim Tebow kneels against abortion and he’s a hero. Colin Kaepernick kneels against the murder of black citizens and what does Donald Trump say? “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now!” Son of a bitch. Another way we have of saying ‘bastard’.
This is what oligarchy must do to maintain power. The other side can’t be debated, or respected. It isn’t legitimate, so it must be destroyed. We don’t have to look back into history for this, though it’s certainly rife with examples. Just look at Russia today. We use the term oligarchs readily. These are the people Donald Trump associates with, admires, and wants to emulate. When Putin and his fellow oligarchs want to maintain their power, they regularly imprison their detractors, or worse.
It’s not a marketplace of ideas. It’s a monopoly. And a corrupt one at that.
Ronald Reagan was the politician who popularized the notion that the true enemy of the American people is its government. He sowed the seed that anyone who wanted to work for the government was lazy, incompetent, and venal. Since it the Democrats who want to push government to increase justice and lower inequity, their motives are automatically suspect. It’s much easier to be a Republican voter. Democratic voters need to know what they’re voting for. Republican voters need to know what they’re voting against. It’s easier if there’s an enemy, a scapegoat, a villain.
This is where we are headed. With the Trump era, we have entered a long, dark night of the soul for the American republic. For the next year, the Democratic Party will be called un-American. They’ll be accused of trying to do exactly what Trump has done, using the power of his office to enrich himself, punish his enemies, and ensure his political survival.
Until this week, “impeachment” has been a frightening word for Democrats in the House. Because of how Gingrich perverted the power of impeachment as a power-grab in the ‘90s, Democrats feared that it would be viewed the same way today. But finally the high crimes and misdemeanors of this president were too much to bear. Notably it was when the moral compass of the House, John Lewis, came forward for impeachment that Speaker Pelosi made it official.
Think things have been ugly up to now? They haven’t even started yet.
One instinct people will feel is to sit the whole thing out, to be “above the fray”. But, in the words of Churchill’s mentor, congressman William Bourke Cockran, “Abstention from civic duty is never commendable. When the Republic is in danger, the only place for the patriot is in the ranks of its active defenders. Absence from the field of contest or shooting in the air can never be justified.” The Republic is in definite danger today. When a society has two sets of laws, one for those in power and one for those without, then it is no longer a just society, and we are no longer the country we claim to be.
Another instinct will be to bend over backwards to been seen as “fair”. But as the Republicans have known for three decades, there’s no one scoring this fight for fairness. We’re fighting for the soul of our democracy. We must use every legal means granted us by the Founding Fathers to fight just this kind of corruption. We cannot be afraid of labels, or of appearances. We have to fight. We have to fight so hard that the other side remembers that the law is there to protect them too, and that it is the law that makes us whole.
To make that happen, we have to fight like the bastards they call us.
David Blixt is an author, actor, and fight director based in Chicago, where he’s allowed to co-exist with an awesome woman and a pair of really cool kids. His new book, WHAT GIRLS ARE GOOD FOR: A Novel of Nellie Bly, is available now. Follow David on Twitter @David_Blixt, on Facebook here, and on his website at www.davidblixt.com. Sign up for David’s Mailing List here.