How about that race for the Republican nomination? Was last night's debate crazy, or what?
Throughout this entire process, the spectacle of these clowns thrashing each other and continually seizing and then fumbling frontrunner status has left me with an oddly reassuring feeling, one that I haven't quite been able to put my finger on. In my younger days I would have just assumed it was regular old Schadenfreude at the sight of people like Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich suffering, but this isn’t like that – it's something different than the pleasure of watching A-Rod strike out in the playoffs.
No, it was while watching the debates last night that it finally hit me: This is justice. What we have here are chickens coming home to roost. It's as if all of the American public's bad habits and perverse obsessions are all coming back to haunt Republican voters in this race: The lack of attention span, the constant demand for instant gratification, the abject hunger for negativity, the utter lack of backbone or constancy (we change our loyalties at the drop of a hat, all it takes is a clever TV ad): these things are all major factors in the spiraling Republican disaster.
Most importantly, though, the conservative passion for divisive, partisan, bomb-tossing politics is threatening to permanently cripple the Republican party. They long ago became more about pointing fingers than about ideology, and it's finally ruining them.
Oh, sure, your average conservative will insist his belief system is based upon a passion for the free market and limited government, but that's mostly a cover story. Instead, the vast team-building exercise that has driven the broadcasts of people like Rush and Hannity and the talking heads on Fox for decades now has really been a kind of ongoing Quest for Orthodoxy, in which the team members congregate in front of the TV and the radio and share in the warm feeling of pointing the finger at people who aren't as American as they are, who lack their family values, who don’t share their All-American work ethic.
The finger-pointing game is a fun one to play, but it’s a little like drugs – you have to keep taking bigger and bigger doses in order to get the same high.
So it starts with a bunch of these people huddling together and saying to themselves, "We’re the real good Americans; our problems are caused by all those other people out there who don’t share our values." At that stage the real turn-on for the followers is the recognition that there are other like-minded people out there, and they don’t need blood orgies and war cries to keep the faith strong – bake sales and church retreats will do.
So they form their local Moral Majority outfits, and they put Ronald Reagan in office, and they sit and wait for the world to revert back to how they remember things used to be, a world where there was one breadwinner in the family, and no teen pregnancy or crime or poor people, and immigrants worked hard and didn't ask for welfare and had the decency to speak English – a world that never existed in reality, of course, but they're waiting for a return to it nonetheless.
Think Ron Paul in the South Carolina debate, when he said that in the '60s, "there was nobody out in the street suffering with no medical care." Paul also recalled that after World War II, 10 million soldiers came home and prospered without any kind of government aid at all – all they needed was a massive cut to the federal budget, and those soldiers just surfed on the resultant wave of economic progress.
"You know what the government did? They cut the budget by 60 percent," he said. "And everybody went back to work again, you didn't need any special programs."
Right – it wasn’t like they needed a G.I. Bill or anything. After all, people were different back then: They didn’t want or need welfare, or a health care program, or any of those things. At least, that’s not the way Paul remembered it.
That's all the early conservative movement was. It was just a heartfelt request that we go back to the good old days of America as these people remembered or imagined it. Of course, the problem was, we couldn't go back, not just because more than half the population (particularly the nonwhite, non-straight, non-male segment of the population) desperately didn't want to go back, but also because that America never existed and was therefore impossible to recreate.
And when we didn’t go back to the good old days, this crowd got frustrated, and suddenly the message stopped being heartfelt and it got an edge to it.
The message went from, "We’re the real Americans; the others are the problem," to, "We’re the last line of defense; we hate those other people and they’re our enemies." Now it wasn’t just that the rest of us weren't getting with the program: Now we were also saboteurs, secretly or perhaps even openly conspiring with America’s enemies to prevent her return to the long-desired Days of Glory.
Now, why would us saboteurs do that? Out of jealousy (we resented their faith and their family closeness), out of spite, and because we have gonads instead of morals. In the Clinton years and the early Bush years we started to hear a lot of this stuff, that the people conservatives described as "liberals" were not, as we are in fact, normal people who believe in marriage and family and love their children just as much as conservatives do, but perverts who subscribe to a sort of religion of hedonism.
"Liberals' only remaining big issue is abortion because of their beloved sexual revolution," was the way Ann Coulter put it. "That's their cause – spreading anarchy and polymorphous perversity. Abortion permits that."
So they fought back, and a whole generation of more strident conservative politicians rose to fight the enemy at home, who conveniently during the '90s lived in the White House and occasionally practiced polymorphous perversity there.
Then conservatives managed to elect to the White House a man who was not only a fundamentalist Christian, but a confirmed anti-intellectual who never even thought about visiting Europe until, as president, he was forced to – the perfect champion of all Real Americans!
Surely, things would change now. But they didn’t. Life continued to move drearily into a new and scary future, Spanish-speaking people continued to roll over the border in droves, queers paraded around in public and even demanded the right to be married, and America not only didn't go back to the good old days of the single-breadwinner family, but jobs in general dried up and you were lucky if Mom and Dad weren’t both working two jobs.
During this time we went to war against the Islamic terrorists responsible for 9/11 by invading an unrelated secular Middle Eastern dictatorship. When people on the other side protested, the rhetoric became even more hysterical. Now those of us outside the circle of Real Americans were not just enemies, but in league with mass-murdering terrorists. In fact, that slowly became the definition of a "liberal" on a lot of these programs – a terrorist.
Sean Hannity’s bestseller during this time, for Christ’s sake, was subtitled, Defeating terrorism, despotism, and liberalism. "He is doing the work of what all people who want big government always do, and that is commit terrorist acts," said Glenn Beck years ago, comparing liberals to Norweigan mass murderer Anders Breivik.
And when the unthinkable happened, and a black American with a Muslim-sounding name assumed the throne in the White House, now, suddenly, we started to hear that liberals were not only in league with terrorists, but somehow worse than terrorists.
"Terrorism? Yes. That’s not the big battle," said Minnesota Republican congressional candidate Allan Quist a few years ago. "The big battle is in D.C. with the radicals. They aren’t liberals. They are radicals. Obama, Pelosi, Walz: They’re not liberals, they’re radicals. They are destroying our country."
In Spinal Tap terms, the rhetoric by the time Obama got elected already had gone well past eleven. It was at thirteen, fifteen, twenty …. Our tight little core of Real Americans by then had, over a series of decades, decided pretty much the entire rest of the world was shit. Europe we know about. The Middle East? Let’s "carpet bomb it until they can’t build a transitor radio," as Ann Coulter put it. Africa was full of black terrorists with AIDS, and Asia, too, was a good place to point a finger or two ("I want to go to war with China," is how Rick Santorum put it).
Here at home, all liberals, gays, Hispanic immigrants, atheists, Hollywood actors and/or musicians with political opinions, members of the media, members of congress, TSA officials, animal-lovers, union workers, state employees with pensions, Occupiers and other assorted unorthodox types had already long ago been rolled into the enemies list.
Given the continued troubles and the continued failure to return to good old American values, who else could possibly be to blame? Where else could they possibly point the finger?
There was only one possible answer, and we're seeing it playing out in this race: At themselves! And I don’t mean they pointed the finger "at themselves" in the psychologically healthy, self-examining, self-doubting sort of way. Instead, I mean they pointed "at themselves" in the sense of, "There are traitors in our ranks. They must be ferreted out and destroyed!"
This is the last stage in any paranoid illness. You start by suspecting that somebody out there is out to get you; in the end, you’re sure that even the people who love you the most under your own roof, your own doctors, your parents, your wife and your children, they’re in on the plot. To quote Matt Damon in the almost-underrated spy film The Good Shepherd, they became convinced that there’s "a stranger in the house."
This is where the Republican Party is now. They’ve run out of foreign enemies to point fingers at. They’ve already maxed out the rhetoric against us orgiastic, anarchy-loving pansexual liberal terrorists. The only possible remaining explanation for their troubles is that their own leaders have failed them. There is a stranger in the house!
This current race for the presidential nomination has therefore devolved into a kind of Freudian Agatha Christie story, in which the disturbed and highly paranoid voter base by turns tests the orthodoxy of each candidate, trying to figure out which one is the spy, which one is really Barack Obama bin Laden-Marx under the candidate mask!
We expected this when Mitt Romney, a man who foolishly once created a functioning health care program in Massachusetts, was the front-runner. We knew he was going to have to defend his bona fides against the priesthood ("I’m not convinced," sneered the sideline-sitting conservative Mme. Defarge, Sarah Palin), that he would have a rough go of it at the CPAC conference, and so on.
But it’s gotten so ridiculous that even Santorum, as paranoid and hysterical a finger-pointing politician as this country has ever seen, a man who once insisted with a straight face that there is no such thing as a liberal Christian – he’s now being put through the Electric Conservative Paranoia Acid Test, and failing!
"He is a fake," Ron Paul said at the Michigan debate last night, to assorted hoots and cheers. And Santorum, instead of turning around and laying into Paul, immediately panicked and rubbed his arm as if to say, "See? I’m made of the right stuff," and said, "I’m real, Ron, I’m real." These candidates are behaving like Stalinist officials in the late thirties, each one afraid to be the first to stop applauding.
These people have run out of others to blame, run out of bystanders to suspect, run out of decent family people to dismiss as Godless, sex-crazed perverts. They’re turning the gun on themselves now. It might be justice, or it might just be sad. Whatever it is, it’s remarkable to watch.