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Why do so many Republicans now dress like cartoon supervillains? It’s what the MAGA base craves

After President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address on Tuesday, it was generally agreed across the media that Joe from Scranton had won the evening by masterfully baiting Republicans into showing their asses. The second star of the night, however, was also indisputable: The brillantly white wool coat with an alpaca fur trim that had the misfortune of being draped over the body of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga. 

Look, it was a lovely coat, but its proximity to such a repulsive person created an unmistakeable air of comic book supervillainy. It served as a stark reminder that, despite her classless and illiterate demeanor, Greene is actually a wealthy heiress who spent her pre-political life as a woman of leisure. She got compared to a Stephen King monster, a gangster’s wife in a mob movie, and, of course, a campy Disney villain:

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Alas, even though Greene made the unusual choice of wearing a coat inside, all too many folks assumed she must not know how she looked. “Why is she wearing a white fur coat to the State of the Union address?” Seth Meyers asked on his late night comedy show. He went on to compare her to “a Long Island dance mom about to get her final warning.”

The MAGA movement is about glorying in their own self-image as political scoundrels. 

But, of course, it’s wiser to assume that Greene knew exactly how she looked. Moreover, her ridiculously out-of-place outfit did exactly what it was meant to do: Get her photo on the front of every newspaper and website imaginable. Aso intentional: Drawing scorn from people like Meyers, which she can then repackage as “proof” that she’s a victim of the “coastal elite,” defined not by money, which she has plenty of, but the fact that they know the difference between the Nazi police and cold tomato soup. Above all else, she wanted to look the part of the villain. Far from being people who are unaware they’re the baddies, the MAGA movement is about glorying in their own self-image as political scoundrels. 

Greene is far from the only one. Despite their hatred of actual drag queens, the modern GOP has a robust interest in using costumes to create fantasy versions of themselves — and almost always, that fantasy is of someone who is a proud scalawag. The current trend of Republicans dressing like Batman villains can be traced back to dirty trickster and shameless Nixon fan Roger Stone. For instance, he dressed like the antagonist of a Charles Dickens novel for Donald Trump’s inauguration. 

Trump is more married to his badly fitting suits than he ever has been to one of his wives. However, the White House staff understood the value of sinister costuming choices and used the body of Melania Trump to often send a message of cackling evil. 

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Since then, the Bond villain method of self-expression has started to really spread through the GOP. Rep. George Santos of New York has a background as a drag queen, but the current fantasy he’s serving is “malevolent prep school student in an 80s movie.” (Are those even prescription glasses?) After successfully evading an FBI investigation for sex trafficking of minors, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida’s hair only seemed to grow taller, turning him into a dead ringer for Cesar Romero’s version of The Joker. Rep. Anna Paulina Luna of Florida, whose fabricated background is drawing Santos comparisons, favors dramatic makeup paired with shiny menswear that looks very much like a cheap knockoff of Annie Lennox’s dominatrix stylings in the “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” video. 

If this was “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and the category was “Sinister Visions,” most of these folks would be strong competitors. But they are politicians in D.C., a town where a lot of people deliberately dress terribly so that the voters keep buying the humble-servant-of-the-people routine. For Republicans, especially, looking too stylish has always been a dangerous proposition. Vanity is associated with femininity, and “feminine” is the worst thing you can be in GOP land. Even the women tend to dress more like church ladies than people with real money (which they usually are), lest someone accuse them of having airs. 

More Republicans look the part of cartoon villains because that’s what they’ve turned themselves into. 

But MAGA is not interested in the traditional false humility of American politicians. It’s a movement dedicated to the darkest desires of American right-wingers. It’s about dispensing entirely with pretensions of morality and giving themselves permission to be proud villains. Trump, of course, started things by bragging about how good he is at getting away with crime, from sexual assault to tax fraud. He was backed by an online army of trolls with Pepe-the-frog avatars, who relished their newfound freedom to use politics as cover to harass and abuse people. 

By the time the pandemic rolled around, Republicans were so caught up in their Trump-era self-image as vainglorious evildoers that they didn’t even hesitate to reject masks, vaccines, or any measures to save human lives. Basic decency has been redefined as being “woke.” People like Kyle Rittenhouse and Alex Jones are held up as heroes. One of their most popular pundits is a guy who calls himself “Cat Turd.” More Republicans look the part of cartoon villains because that’s what they’ve turned themselves into. 

To a certain degree, I get it. Playing the part of the villain can be thrilling. I’ve long been a fan of goth and punk fashion, both of which get their glamour through transgression. The bad guys in movies are often way more fun than the heroes, from Ursula in “The Little Mermaid” to the characters in pretty much every Martin Scorcese film. The Satanic imagery in Sam Smith and Kim Petras’s Grammys performance drew fake outrage from the right, but most people watching it had a good time with the playful blasphemies. Even a shiny good girl like Taylor Swift likes to play at being bad occasionally. 

The problem with Republicans, of course, is they aren’t actually playing. Their goals are straight evil, from forced childbirth to turning away political refugees to slashing the retirement benefits of seniors to decimating health care. What’s shifted in the past few years is a willingness of GOP leaders to wink knowingly about the immorality of their own views. Sure, there’s still plenty of effort put into pretending that they want to do heinous things for good reasons. So we still have to sit through disingenuous conservatives feigning “pro-life” reasons for abortion bans, for instance. But, led by shameless criminals like Trump, there’s just a lot more trollish approach on the right, one that treats evil like it’s just an impish good time. Once “triggering the liberals” became the main political goal, gleeful wickedness became inevitable. Of course, many of them want the costuming to match their self-congratulatory attitude about being the worst. 

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