In the worlds of medicine and psychology, Stockholm Syndrome is a psychological response. It occurs when kidnapped hostages or abuse victims bond with their captors or abusers.
In the New Jersey Republican Party today, there is widely extant a political variant of the Stockholm Syndrome, highly analogous to it. To be sure, it is not a medical or psychological condition.
Yet it is very comparable to the Stockholm Syndrome in that the Republican Party of New Jersey has been kidnapped by the hostile authoritarian forces of Donald Trump. And much of the former leadership of the NJGOP has now bonded with their captors: the Trumpist autocrats.
No, I am not suggesting that this political malady is a medical or psychological condition or disease. Nor am I contending that its victims suffer from any medical or psychological illness. But it is a disabling political malady and/or malignancy nonetheless.
This is the essence of the New Jersey Republican Political Stockholm Syndrome. One of the chief victims of this totally destructive political cancer in New Jersey is Republican Gubernatorial Candidate Jack Ciattarelli. And thus far, I can establish with certainty only one leading Jersey Republican who has not in any respect succumbed to this malaise, Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick.
The New Jersey Republican Political Stockholm Syndrome breeds and produces three symptomatic conditions.
The first may be most accurately labeled as “Base Obsession” This occurs when a political party focusses almost solely on its base, to the virtual exclusion of any significant outreach to voters of the opposite party or the unaffiliated.
The New Jersey Republican base in the era of Donald Trump is rapidly diminishing. Democrats now make up 38.8% of New Jersey’s total electorate, with Republicans at 22.2%. Unaffiliated voters are now at 37.8%.
The NJGOP, limited by the ideological constraints of its Trumpist captors has no significant meaningful and persuasive outreach message to voters who are unaffiliated or Democratic. This dooms the Republicans to continuing defeats in all forthcoming statewide elections in the Garden State.
Recently, in speaking to a conservative crowd in Hunterdon County, Ciattarelli appealed to the audience to “give me a little wiggle room” to make such appeals to unaffiliated and Democratic voters.
His actions and positions, however, on cultural issues involving vaccines and the LGBTQ community are so far out of the mainstream that he will need more than a “little wiggle room” to persuade centrist voters that he is not a troglodyte reactionary.
And as veteran journalist Charles Stile noted, Jack’s plea to the Hunterdon County audience indicated he feels that he needs the permission of the Trumpists to take centrist positions. In my view, this is classically clear and compelling evidence of the stranglehold the New Jersey Republican Political Stockholm Syndrome has on his campaign.
The second symptom of the Political Stockholm Syndrome is a resort to major distortion of the positions of any opposing party. The victims have taken on the beliefs and positions of the captors as an article of faith. When such new values and beliefs are seriously challenged, a resort to distortion is necessary to combat the obvious uncomfortable truth: the emperor of the captors wears no clothes.
The third symptom is an unsurpassed degree of vitriol in combatting opponents of the captors and the victims. The emperor of the captors expects no less.
All three of these symptoms of Political Stockholm Syndrome have been present on the part of Jack Ciattarelli in his recent conflict with the LGBTQ community. In assessing the politics of his position overall, it is necessary to make historical comparisons with past candidates.
This is the second time during the past fifty years that a New Jersey GOP gubernatorial candidate has been engaged in political conflict with the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) community. The first involved the losing 1989 general election gubernatorial campaign of the then Congressman Jim Courter against Jim Florio, also a member of the US House of Representatives.
Courter’s conflict with the LGBTQ community resulted from his advocacy of limiting the rights of homosexuals to work as teachers, foster parents and camp counselors or in other jobs that put them in contact with children. There is no question that this position was immoral, discriminatory, and without any policy justification.
It must be said, however that Courter’s stance was consistent with the prevailing Zeitgeist of that time. The great majority of the masses of both political parties and all ideological groups, left and right, were intolerant of any gender preference other than straight.
And that is the significant difference between Jim Courter in 1989 and Jack Ciattarelli in 2021. Courter took his anti-homosexuality position in 1989 to appeal to constituencies beyond the GOP base.
By contrast, the view of the New Jersey electorate on same sex relationships has changed dramatically from 1989 to the present. Ciattarelli’s battle against the LGBTQ community in this year of 2021 is viewed most negatively by the great majority of voters outside the Trumpist culturally reactionary base. Jack’s advocacy of these issues is a classic case of “base obsession.”
Courter was running way behind Florio in September, 1989 when he took his anti-homosexual positions. In terms of crass campaign politics, his stance, while reprehensible, was based on a cold, calculated evaluation of the orientation of the electorate. His new position was the equivalent of a “Hail, Mary” pass thrown by the quarterback of the trailing team in the fourth quarter of the NFL Super Bowl.
In the America of 1989, many Republicans believed that Courter’s anti-homosexual stance would have a cross-cutting appeal to voters of all races, nationalities, and creeds.
At the time Courter first engaged in his gay bashing, some key members of the outgoing Kean administration who disagreed with this tactic nevertheless believed that this gambit might be successful. Typical of this belief was the following response by an unnamed high ranking Kean administration official in a New York Times interview:
”Personally, I was offended, but when I thought about it, I imagined that 80 percent of the voters might agree with him,” said a high official in the administration of Gov. Thomas H. Kean, a Republican who opposes Mr. Courter’s proposals. ”As much as it pains me to say it, I think it is going to be a plus for Courter.”
The Courter anti-homosexual gambit backfired, and he lost in a landslide. Expect the gay bashing of Ciattarelli to have an even worse backfire.
This counter-productive effect of Ciattarelli‘s battle with the LGBTQ community is made even more likely by his continued distortion of the issue, distortion being the second symptom of Political Stockholm Syndrome.
Jack keeps asserting that the LGBTQ curriculum legislation signed by Murphy requires exposing kindergarten students to issues of gender identification and safe sex practices.
As I read it, this is a gross distortion. The legislation 1) requires instruction on “diversity and inclusion IN AN APPROPRIATE PLACE” in kindergarten through eighth grade; 2) The state’s education standards on social and sexual health, which includes instruction on safe sex, also requires defining “vaginal, oral and anal sex” BY EIGHTH GRADE. I fail to see where there is a kindergarten mandate.
Finally, the personal ad hominem attacks on Murphy by Ciattarelli on this issue exemplifies vividly the vitriol characteristic of Political Stockholm Syndrome. In his 2017 primary campaign for governor, Jack was a model of fairness, dignity, and avoidance of ad hominem criticism. He has behaved in opposite fashion in this campaign, serving up a continued, campaign diet of vitriolic ad hominem rhetoric, even mocking Phil Murphy for the way he eats pizza.
Such personal invective is offensive and inappropriate. And Ciattarelli has injected personal invective into his LGBTQ conflict by baseless allegations that Murphy is attempting to supplant the role and responsibility of parents. I have followed New Jersey Gubernatorial campaigns for nearly half a century, and Jack Ciattarelli’s campaign is by far the most vitriolic I have observed.
There is a fourth symptom of Political Stockholm Syndrome that is very prevalent in the Ciattarelli campaign: Cultlike Veneration of the Leader of the Captors, in this case, Donald Trump.
In his campaign of 2017, Jack Ciattarelli courageously defined Donald Trump as a charlatan. Since that campaign, Jack has paid abject fealty to Trump, even attending a Stop-the-Steal rally.
Yet the most offensive example of Ciattarelli‘s servile and obsequious fealty to Trump took place in a recent interview of him by Star-Ledger editor Tom Moran. Jack said that he voted for the Donald in 2020 and would not rule out voting for him again in 2024.
Will Jack Ciattarelli continue to be unwilling to rule out voting for Donald Trump for President in 2024 in spite of the rising tide of evidence of the 45th president’s responsibility for the Big Lie and the Insurrection of January 6? If Jack continues to give Trump this pass, then he has truly lost his moral authority to govern.
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.