The Rules

What is a game without rules? What are rules, if we've stopped playing the game?

The Rules
Flag on the play. (Photo: The Washington Post/Getty Images)

Hello my friendlies.

I’m back. You’re still here. That’s awesome. Let’s get into it.

When I was a little kid there was this older cousin, or second cousin, or second cousin twice removed (I don’t remember how to calculate those things), who would play with my sister and me. He was considerably older than me—an adult, already—so we called him “Uncle.” Since his name was Dan, we called him Uncle Dan. Like I said, he played with us, which made him among the most awesome of adults. I suspect this means he is still among the most awesome of adults.

The game I loved to play with Uncle Dan was called Rules. The way Rules worked was this: Uncle Dan would give us some picayune and meaningless rule. Don’t go into the living room, don’t sit on the sofa, don’t bark like a dog. Then my sister and I would gleefully and immediately break that rule, and Uncle Dan would feign outrage and yell and chase us and put us in some sort of time out, and we’d run out of the timeout—which was against the rules!!—and he’d feign outrage, and put us back in a timeout, and eventually that cycle would run out of steam, and we’d beg Uncle Dan to give us another rule to break, and he would, and the cycle would start anew. My sister and I would giggle like gibbons the whole time. I imagine Uncle Dan got tired.

You guys, it was so much fun.

I played Rules with my kids when they were little. They didn’t call it Rules. They called it Mad Dad. They loved it. There’s something in the semi-developed kid mind, it seems, that really loves finding a safe space to play with the idea of rules and boundaries, and finding a mutually agreed-upon space to break them without consequence is thrilling and massively entertaining.

When you’re a kid, you learn that the world has rules, and following the rules is how the world works. If you break the rules, there are consequences. If you have skilled parents, you might even learn that these consequences are most often natural ones. If you lie, people stop trusting you. If you’re mean, people stop wanting to play with you. If you’re selfish, people stop wanting to share with you.

Even games have rules. If you break the rules, then the game doesn’t work and it stops being fun for everyone. If you knock over the board, now nobody gets to play.

For a kid, the idea of a game where the point of the game is to break the rules is mind-blowing. It seems like a portal into something topsy-turvy. It gives a kid a giddy and heady sense of control over an aspect of their world which until then had been out of their control.

I think it’s because kids do want to be selfish sometimes. They want to knock over the board. They want to do the wrong things, so it’s massive fun to make a space where that can happen without consequences, because everyone has agreed that in this particular space the rules actually don’t matter, and the consequences won’t be real.

I think it’s actually a healthy part of human development, now that I think about it. You make such a space so you can differentiate between that space, where rules are arbitrary, and the real world, where respecting shared rules is a part of natural human socialization; so you can develop an understanding that other people matter just as much as you do, and deserve the same respect as you do; so you can enter an understanding that society itself relies on shared understandings based on observable reality. You play Rules as a kid to understand why we have rules—that’s what I think, anyway. I think you play Rules so that your understanding of the world around you isn’t unnaturally stunted in natural but harmful childish urges toward selfishness and solipsism.

Anyway, this all makes me think of the shitshow from last week, when Republicans—that is to say, authoritarian supremacist insurrectionists—took over the House of Representatives again.

It also makes me think about the Republican reaction to new scientific discoveries about gas stoves.

Maybe you see what I’m getting at.

So Republicans took the House this month, based on the results of last year’s democratic elections. In case you didn’t know, democratic elections are a relatively newfangled human innovation designed to allow everyone’s voice to be heard in public life, in support of establishing a pluralistic society that fixes what is broken, solves problems as they arise, makes life more livable, cares for everyone, and recognizes everyone’s equal rights under that law.

Anyway: Republicans won enough of these elections to take a narrow control of the House but, because Republicans are an insurrectionist authoritarian supremacist organization, the system of elections that they won depends on an electoral superstructure that happens to be a construct Republicans are actively trying to dismantle and destroy as much as they can and as fast as they can—a sabotaging project which they have promised to use their new power to promote and advance.

Now, the reason I say that Republicans are a supremacist organization is that, observably, all their rhetoric and all their actions are motivated by the idea that only some people matter, and so only some people belong to our shared society. The reason I say they’re authoritarian is because most of their policies and rhetoric and rationales are authoritarian. (And maybe you want proofs of these claims, and I’d direct you to look at literally anything in political life, because we’re past debating obvious things here.) The reason I say that they’re insurrectionists is because almost exactly 2 years before they took back control of the House, their large pouchy leader sent a violent mob to seize control of it, and that mob killed some cops, and erected a gallows, and many of them had things like zip ties and tactical gear and a clear plan, and the members of that body barely escaped with their lives, and so on. Meanwhile, many of the elected members of that body from the Republican Party helped incite the violent mob, and some of them provided the violent mob with clear real-time intelligence to try to help make their violent plans successful, and almost every single one of them voted to overturn the result of free and fair elections, and to protect their large pouchy leader and others from any consequences, and continue to do so to this day.

These were crimes, committed in open daylight. These crimes weren’t prosecuted. And now the perpetrators are in control.

They very much want a country that exists only for the people who matter: mostly white, mostly male, mostly wealthy, mostly landowning, mostly Christian. They’re willing to destroy anything they can in order to get it. They’re certainly willing to overthrow democracy, which would involve overthrowing the U.S. Constitution, which is something that violates their oaths of office.

So they are, to any casual observer, an authoritarian supremacist insurrectionist organization. I just think it’s good to be clear about terminology.

Anyway, the moment they got into power, they demonstrated their clear inability to operate within anything like a functional governing body. A number of their most culpably insurrectionist members held the rest of their group hostage, which is exactly what you’d expect authoritarian supremacist insurrectionists to do.

It breaks down like this: To have a functional government, you need to have a Congress. To have a Congress, you have to swear in its members. To swear in members, you have to elect a Speaker—the person who sets the agenda, and handles all the administrative and operational decisions that govern how the House works, and generally acts as the leader of that branch of Congress including doing the swearings-in, and also incidentally is third in line to the Presidency, should anything happen to end the lives of the President and Vice President, which is something many authoritarian supremacist insurrectionists clearly hope will happen to both of them, preferably at the same time.

The guy the Republican Party wanted as Speaker is a tall slack pale pillar of skin and dandruff named Kevin McCarthy. McCarthy is an authoritarian supremacist insurrectionist, a man who has done nothing but support the ongoing open insurrection waged by Republicans these past two years (at least) against the United States and against the notion of a shared pluralistic society; a man who has done nothing to counter his party’s supremacist agenda; a man who has done nothing but promote it in his rhetoric, and support it by his votes, and encourage it through his actions.

However, he wasn’t enough for a small but determined radical extremist faction of the Republican Party. They needed somebody more radical. They needed somebody who would promise to do things to crash the nation, doing irreparable damage to millions of people; things like defaulting on debt, and choking our system with frivolous investigations as a smokescreen for any investigation into their insurrection or any of their other corruptions and crimes.

They demanded that, before the government could start, they would have to have the ability to call another vote for Speaker if even one of their extremist faction wanted to, and that they would have prime committee assignments, and other modifications to the rules that all redounded to making the management of our government as maximally authoritarian, supremacist, and insurrectionist as possible—which is to say, as failed and sabotaged and non-functional as possible.

The Republican Party had some options. They could have abandoned McCarthy and tried to locate a member of their party who isn’t an authoritarian supremacist insurrectionist, if any exist—which is a pretty iffy proposition, honestly—whom their opposition, the mostly conservative Democratic Party, might have supported. Or they could have simply thrown their support to the minority leader, Hakeem Jeffries, himself a very conservative politician if measured against any reasonable spectrum in any country where one of two options isn’t a gang of authoritarian supremacist insurrectionists.

They didn’t do this, though. That was never really considered, and we all knew it never would be—because the Republican Party is supremacist and authoritarian, so its members have spent the last 4 decades telling their supporters that Democrats are the organizational hub of all people who do not matter and whose participation in society is illegitimate. If they worked with Democrats now, the next nooses the next violent mob carry will almost certainly be for them, and they all know it.

So they caved—if “caved” is the right term to use for a group of people doing something they were always going to do anyway.

They will control a government that exists to sabotage public life, as they promised.

Their government will be maximally authoritarian, supremacist, and insurrectionist.

By the way, the Constitution of the United States clearly states that people who belong to insurrectionist organizations such as the Republican Party aren’t permitted to hold public office. Again: by our rules, it’s against the rules for Republicans to hold public office, unless you don’t think that the Republican Party is an insurrectionist organization (and if you don’t think that by now, I’ve got nothing for you, other than to say this strikes me as an act of willful ignorance).

There doesn’t seem to be any way to enforce this rule, though. Those with the power to do so lack either the will or the ability, or maybe both.

Furthermore, most people I mention this to seem to think even mentioning this rule is far more dangerous than our current status quo, which is a maximally authoritarian supremacist and insurrectionist party in control of a branch of our government, seeking to establish their dominion over all of it.

I get it. It would be a very disruptive rule to enforce, and it’s based on a rather alarming observation, even if that observation is rather obviously true at this point.

But it is a rule.

Isn’t it?

Here’s a few thoughts.

1) There's the game and there's the rules. Two different but entwined things.

Without the game, the rules don’t make sense. If somebody tries to call you offsides when you’re walking down the sidewalk you’re going to look at them funny even if they’re wearing a striped shirt and blowing a whistle. Right? Offsides of what? Offsides to what end?

2) The rules exist to make the game work, not the other way around. Without the rules, the game doesn’t work. I’d go further: if one team playing the game stops following the rules, and nothing exists to stop them, and they’re allowed to go on playing like that, then you aren’t playing that game anymore. You’re playing a different game, defined by the people allowed to go on breaking the rules. If your rules don’t include checks and consequences for those who have no regard for the rules, then you don’t actually have rules. If such checks and consequences exist, and those charged with imposing them lack the will or the ability to impose them, then the rules don’t exist anymore, nor does the game they defined.

If you’re playing football, and one team starts using aluminum bats as weapons, and sets their goalposts on fire, and ignores downs and the clock and penalties, while demanding that the other team continue to play by the established rules, it’s not a football game anymore. Correct?

At that point, if the referees don’t take control of the game, then the game has been abrogated and the refs are just weirdos in striped shirts. The game has become “open melee,” which isn’t really a game. Anybody on the opposing team who agrees to the demands for continued compliance to the rules and keeps trying to play football, or anybody in the stands who cheers such an effort, would have to be considered side-eye, as you would anybody who has abandoned observable reality.

If you want to go on having a football team, you’re going to have to get rid of the bats and eject the players wielding them. Getting rid of the bats means recognizing that you’re not playing football anymore. To stop playing football then shouldn’t be thought of as more disruptive than what the rule-breaking team is doing.

It shouldn’t be thought of as an act against football.

3) The rules are necessary to the game, but the rules are not the point.

The game is the point.

Which leads me to this question: what’s the game?

We ought to know.

It seems to me that underlying all other reasons to play the game of football (managing the clock, getting first downs, running plays, scoring points, winning) is the desire to engage in athletic excellence and fair competition, and the enjoyment of observing both. If somebody decides the point is to simply go on following the rules no matter how many times an opposing tackle takes an aluminum bat to the knee, then you’re dealing with somebody who loves something other than the point of football.

It seems to me that the point of having a democracy is to establish a pluralistic society that fixes what is broken, solves problems as they arise, makes life more livable, cares for everyone, and recognizes everyone’s equal rights under that law. If the point of democracy is simply to go on playing a game of bipartisan political horse-trading with any opposition, even authoritarian supremacist insurrectionist thugs who are following the rules only to the extent that it allows them to dismantle pluralistic society and install an authoritarian supremacy, then we’re dealing with somebody who loves something other than the point of democracy.

I observe that for many people, following the rules seems to be the main point of the game, even once we’ve reached a moment where it’s quite clear we are no longer playing the game anymore, even when it has become quite clear that our opponents are people who have, through toxic levels of privilege and self-regard, never socialized past the level of childish solipsism.

There’s a danger to suggesting that Republicans are children, that we might minimize what they are.

To be clear: I don’t think they’re children. I think they insist on establishing and defending at all costs their right to hold a childishly solipsistic understanding of the world. I think that these elected Republicans1 are clearly demonstrating themselves to be people who have, because of their own entitled sense of supremacy, never developed themselves mentally or spiritually to overcome a childish urge toward selfishiness and solipsism and join a shared reality upon which any society depends. I would observe that their refusal to do so seems to give them a giddy and heady sense of control over an aspect of their world which otherwise feels out of their control. And, because they are not children to be raised but rather powerful adults in control of a major part of our government, that leaves us all in serious danger.

To give just one recent and perhaps minor example of the danger we’re all in, this week a report came out that gas stoves might not be good for our cognitive and physical health. There are links to childhood asthma, which harms and kills children, and so forth. As a result, there is a nascent thought among people who would like to raise our life expectancy and prevent childhood asthma that a consumer protection ban of some kind might be appropriate. You know, to save lives, and foster a livable society for everyone.

I have a gas stove. I’m sort of thinking of replacing it. We’ll see. It seems a reasonable thing to consider, given the new information.

The Republican response to this new information was as immediate as it was predictable: a maximalist conflation of freedom with possession of gas stoves, and threats of violence for any Democrat who would come for their gas stoves, and sneering social media posts demonstrating use of their gas stoves, with the clear implication that the hoped-for outcome would be that “the libs” would find this demonstration disturbing or distressing.

I’ll remind you again, this is all in response to receiving new information that gas stoves might pose a health risk to them and particularly their children.

It was a predictable response, because it's been the same response in recent decades to any public announcement that something in current circulation that might pose a health risk, or than some action might help prevent one: immediate alignment with the risk, immediate alignment against the remediation. We see it with Covid, and incipient climate catastrophe, with guns, with red meat and other various causes of cancer, with vehicle efficiency, even decades ago with speed limits and seat belts, truly with anything that is designed toward furthering the point of the game our rules are meant to protect and define—which, again, is establishing a pluralistic society that fixes what is broken, solves problems as they arise, makes life more livable, cares for everyone, and recognizes everyone’s equal rights under that law.

Here’s what I think: the game the Republican Party is playing is not democracy, but supremacy, and supremacy is always going to lower life expectancy, because supremacy is committed to the idea that some people matter and others don’t, and that people who don’t matter haven’t earned life and don’t deserve it. To be a supremacist is to be naturally aligned with lowered life expectancy—as (I’d argue) we clearly see.

Certainly if the Republican Party were literally committed to lowering their own life expectancy, their behavior wouldn’t be any different than what we see from them.

I don’t think they want to lower their life expectancy, but I think they’re so committed to the underlying game of supremacy that, whether consciously or not, they’re willing to pay any price that supremacy demands of them in order to lower everyone else’s. I think they’re playing Rules, but without any shared agreement among us that breaking rules is the point of the game, and no Uncle Dan. I think breaking rules without consequence is how authoritarianism establishes its supremacy.  Their ultimate desire is for freedom, not from bans on gas stoves, but on natural consequences for being the sort of people they are being. To lie without people being allowed to stop trusting them. To be selfish and mean without people being allowed to stop wanting to be around them. To harm freely, without being harmed. And so their perceived right to lower even their own life expectancy for no good reason other than to do it represents their ultimate expression of this solipsistic urge, which is inevitably insurrectionist and fundamentally, childishly anti-reality.

I see one big reason why they’ve never overcome these childish urges. I think far too many of the rest of us see the disruption of establishing natural consequences for the antisocial behavior of supremacists as more disruptive than letting them continue in their sociopathic ways, while pretending they are the reasonable actors they’ve already flagrantly proved they are not. We’re playing the game to follow the rules, in other words, rather than following the rules so we can play the game.

I think we’d better start loving the game we’re ostensibly trying to play as much as Republicans love supremacy—which means being willing to take on the disruptions and costs necessary to re-establish the game.

I think its time to recognize that we did not agree to create a safe space for supremacist authoritarians, where they could experiment with breaking rules for their own amusement—which means we need to stop playing with people who have shown they shouldn’t be played with anymore. Natural consequences, in other words. I think we’d better get a lot more comfortable with the disruptions that come with establishing those consequences for insurrectionist supremacy—not because we want to see the game disrupted, but because we recognize that it already has been, and we want to see it re-established.

I think we’d better expect the leaders we empowered to employ that power toward such consequences, not to end the game, but to re-establish a game that’s already been stopped.

I think we’d better be as willing to pay the cost of disruption that goes along with that as supremacists are to pay the cost of disruption that attends their defense of their supremacy.

Time to stop playing games with authoritarian supremacist insurrectionists, so we can return to the game we love.

LOST in a week. See you then.

A.R. Moxon is the author of the novel The Revisionaries, from Melville House, which is available in most of the usual places and some of the unusual places, and co-writer of Sugar Maple, a musical fiction podcast from Osiris Media which goes in your ears. He’s on the highway now, with higher hopes, while all around are rolling eggs with living yolks.

  1. Republican voters are a mixed bag, perhaps, since we can observe that not all of them are openly authoritarian, supremacist, or insurrectionist, but all of them are at least willing to accept authoritarian supremacist insurrectionism—and I think one natural consequence of doing so is to have other people let them know that the rest of us now understand them to be the sort of person who finds reasons to make themself comfortable accepting such things.