Among all the spooky stories at this time of year, none summons the creeping unease of our country today better than Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” In Jackson’s story, first published in the New Yorker in 1948, the residents of a small village gather once a year to draw slips of paper, one marked with a black dot.
The “winner,” we realize as the story goes on, is to be stoned to death. No one has any particular animus toward the winner. The lottery simply happens every year. Nobody can articulate why it happens, or what would happen without it. The people merely want to get it over with in time for dinner. The story’s “winner,” Tessie Hutchinson, goes to her death protesting that the draw was unfair.
The spookiest Halloween story for many Republicans in 2017 resembles the lottery. At least one of them, and maybe several of them, will get primaried. It won’t be fair, but it will happen because, well, this is what Republicans do, and Steve Bannon has said that they will do more of this in 2018. Someone will be the Tessie Hutchinson of 2017, but it won’t be Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeBiden nominates former Sen. Tom Udall as New Zealand ambassador Biden to nominate Jane Hartley as UK ambassador: report The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Goldman Sachs - Voting rights will be on '22, '24 ballots MORE (R-Ariz.). He has dramatically taken himself out of the running for that distinction.
The problem for Republicans is that primary challenges simply don’t work. Yes, incumbent Sen. Luther StrangeLuther Johnson StrangePandemic proves importance of pharmaceutical innovation The Hill's Morning Report - Biden assails 'epidemic' of gun violence amid SC, Texas shootings Trump faces test of power with early endorsements MORE lost his primary in Alabama last month, but that was an unusual situation. Strange was not elected in the first place, and he entered the special election primary tainted by the scandal that derailed the career of former Governor Robert Bentley (R). There have been a variety of unexpected events in the primaries, but the last time anyone made it into the Senate by way of a primary challenge was 2002 (and that was a fluke, too). There have been a few successful House challenges, but even those remain exceedingly rare.
Furthermore, there is no evidence whatsoever that primary challenges spearheaded by Donald TrumpDonald TrumpCheney says a lot of GOP lawmakers have privately encouraged her fight against Trump Republicans criticizing Afghan refugees face risks DeVos says 'principles have been overtaken by personalities' in GOP MORE, Bannon, or the Mercer Family work. Trump has weighed in three, maybe four times in Republican primaries. As a candidate, he backed Republican Renee Ellmers in North Carolina’s incumbent vs. incumbent primary. She lost by thirty percentage points.
He endorsed Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPaul Ryan researched narcissistic personality disorder after Trump win: book Paul Ryan says it's 'really clear' Biden won election: 'It was not rigged. It was not stolen' Democrats fret over Trump-district retirements ahead of midterms MORE’s (R-Wisc.) primary opponent Paul Nehlen before backing off and offering a tepid endorsement of Ryan. Nehlen got 15 percent of the vote. Trump spoke favorably of John McCainJohn Sidney McCainWhoopi Goldberg signs four-year deal with ABC to stay on 'The View' Collins to endorse LePage in Maine governor comeback bid Meghan McCain: Country has not 'healed' from Trump under Biden MORE’s (R-Ariz.) primary opponent Kelli Ward before, again, backing down and reluctantly endorsing McCain. Ward lost. And, Trump endorsed Strange in Alabama last month. Strange lost, but he was going to lose whether or not Trump supported him (or Bannon and his forces backed Roy Moore).
What we are seeing this year is the power of stories. In “The Lottery,” all of the townspeople hold to and don’t fight the tradition. In today’s Republican Party, it has become accepted wisdom that the Republican Party is being “trumpified.”
Has-been candidates like Ward and Nevada’s Danny Tarkanian are re-crafting themselves to fit this narrative; they ran before and they were obnoxious, but now they are obnoxious in a Trumpish way. Principled yet polite conservatives like Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.)) and Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerCheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP How leaving Afghanistan cancels our post-9/11 use of force The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her MORE (R-Tenn.) are bowing to the logic of the story.
That doesn’t make it true, but if everyone believes as if it is true, then it might as well be. It is not entirely original on my part to point out that the recent fiery and compelling speeches by Flake and Corker seem a little less impressive when one considers that they felt moved to give them only after deciding not to seek reelection. But it is perhaps worse to consider that they chose not to seek reelection based on potentially faulty beliefs about things that have not even happened.
One might raise three objections to this claim. First, one might point to polling numbers. Flake was running well behind in the polls. But the Arizona primary is still nearly a year away; Donald Trump was also far behind in Republican polling at this point in his presidential race.
Second, one might also simply note that serving in the Senate is not pleasant any longer for people like Flake and Corker. This is probably true. But it is not a very impressive reason to give for leaving the Senate right now.
And third, it does seem like Flake and Corker, and perhaps other Republicans, did face the unpleasantness of having large sums of money thrown at them by the Mercers and other Bannon-affiliated donors. Their conservative credentials would be questioned. Their reelection campaigns would be ugly, and as Flake noted in his speech, they might have to make compromises. The past few elections have shown us, however, that there’s ample money out there to support candidates like Flake and Corker. Perhaps some prominent conservative donor will publicly commit to backing anti-Trump Republicans. Either way, it’s hard to imagine and there is no evidence to support that these guys would be defenseless in their primaries.
I write this not to criticize Flake and Corker. Flake’s speech was genuinely moving. But the takeaway from it, for me, was that sincere, well-meaning conservatives no longer can make the compromises necessary to participate in governing the country. Purity may be a nice personal value, but if conservatives want to help solve the problems that have been brought upon us, purity only gets us so far.
Robert G. Boatright is a professor of political science at Clark University and the director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse Research Network.