Republican Days of Wrath

Ann Coulter; drawing by Pancho

In the week after he announced he would run for president, Texas Governor Rick Perry attacked the targets right-wing Republicans love to hate, ranging from the Federal Reserve to climate scientists to evolutionists to the current president, who allegedly makes the military feel ashamed to be wearing the uniform of the United States. His charge that it would be “treasonous” of Fed Chair Ben Bernanke to try to help the economy with more quantitative easing, issued with the warning that “we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas,” grabbed most of the headlines. But the other comments were barely less extreme. Global warming, he said in New Hampshire on August 17, was a con cooked up by grant-hungry scientists.

The national press has largely pigeonholed Perry into the “Tea Party” category, a designation that is certainly not without merit. It was, for example, outside a Tea Party rally in April 2009 that Perry made his remark about the possibility of Texas seceding1:

Texas is a unique place. When we came into the union in 1845, one of the issues was that we would be able to leave if we decided to do that. You know, my hope is that America and Washington in particular pays attention. We’ve got a great union. There’s absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, who knows what may come out of that?

Yet calling Perry only a Tea Party candidate is misleading. He is also a candidate of the Republican establishment—the senior party members who raise millions of dollars and influence the party’s priorities—because that establishment today is itself quite right-wing. It is based chiefly not on Wall Street anymore but in Texas (and in Wichita, Kansas, where Koch Industries is located). The “tiny splinter group” of “a few Texas oil millionaires” whom Dwight Eisenhower famously disparaged in 1954 now is arguably the most powerful tendency within the party. The state’s rich Republicans have been the chief backers of everything from George W. Bush’s campaigns to attacks on Democrats like the Swift Boat ads used against John Kerry in 2004.

While it’s reportedly the case that Karl Rove is no fan of Perry now, he helped launch the governor’s career, acting as his adviser when he successfully ran for agriculture commissioner in 1990 against the liberal populist Jim Hightower. Rove may feel, according to reports, that Perry lacks some of the varnish—and therefore potential appeal beyond the South—that Bush acquired by coming east to Andover and Yale. Perry went to Texas A&M; but that people are even speaking of Bush’s East Coast varnish is instructive. In any case Perry is very much a product of the party Rove helped build, and he is therefore part of that establishment whether Rove currently claims him or not.

He is, then, a kind of hybrid candidate, representing a fusion of the new establishment Republicanism and its Tea Party variant. Whether establishment Republicans end up coalescing behind him or Mitt Romney of course remains to be seen, but the point is that a Perry candidacy can be a serious one because the establishment has moved so far to the right that it is nearly indistinguishable from, and certainly now afraid of, the activist base.

This is what is new in Republican politics. Party establishments typically mitigate the more extreme impulses of the activist bases. But this isn’t happening in today’s GOP. As recently as a few years ago, establishment Republicans would never have demanded extensive budget cuts in return for a vote to raise the debt limit, a vote many of them have routinely cast dozens of times. A few years ago, moreover, it would have been an extreme step indeed for an establishment GOP senator like Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to subject approval of the debt agreement to the cloture process, requiring sixty votes to avoid a filibuster.2 The new political use of the debt limit was a demand of the Tea Party, very deliberately plotted by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and others from the moment the new Republican majority was sworn in.3 The use of cloture was a strategic adjustment necessitated by the fact that had McConnell not called for cloture, one of the Senate’s Tea Party Republicans—Jim DeMint, Rand Paul, Mike Lee—would likely have blocked a vote single-handedly, or maybe all of them together. Both maneuvers, then, were embraced by a party establishment deeply fearful of the movement’s wrath.

So the establishment is cowed, and there are no mainstream conservative Republicans willing or able to stand up to the more rabid faction from a position of strength. Those who could have—senators like Orrin Hatch and Charles Grassley—have instead been doing all they can to pander to the Tea Party base, which showed it could elect dozens of congressmen in 2010 and keep some previously secure Republicans from being reelected.

One keeps thinking that surely this all has to end sometime, but for now there is no end in sight, which is a crucially important point to understand. To movement conservatives such as Cantor and Paul Ryan, the victory they secured against Obama in the debt deal—in my view, the political and even moral low point of his presidency, and one from which he may never recover—is not a culmination of anything. It is a beginning. Wyoming Senator John Barrasso told Fox News right after the deal was agreed to: “This [debate about the debt ceiling] is just round one in a fifteen-round fight…of cutting of spending. We need to realistically take a look at all the spending in this country….”

Some observers in Washington continue to hold out hope that the so-called “super-committee” of twelve senators and representatives who are supposed to agree to $1.2 trillion in cuts and revenues by December will succeed, and maybe it will somehow. But it’s nearly impossible to imagine the committee’s six Republicans agreeing to any measures that will raise revenues. Democrats will accept some entitlement cuts—for example, in Medicare reimbursement rates to providers—but not enough to satisfy Republicans. There is little reason to think that between now and Christmas, establishment Republicans will somehow reassert themselves and demand that business be conducted in the old way, based on bargaining in good faith, especially when the bad-faith method has been paying off quite handsomely for them against a president who by all appearances keeps convincing himself that surely they will behave reasonably at the end of the day.

How did this happen? Usually a political movement is driven by its ideas. Then it chooses the rhetoric it thinks best advances the ideas. I’ve long thought that sometime in the 1990s, this normal process reversed itself on the American right, and rhetoric began driving, and even elbowing out, ideas. Once this wall is breached, compromise on any important issue becomes impossible, and responsible policymaking nearly so.

In the 1980s, it could plausibly be said that the Republicans had become the party of ideas. The Public Interest, the famous quarterly, had laid the groundwork with its criticism of the Great Society. The still-new think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute were turning out policy papers, and Commentary was publishing much-quoted articles on the alleged excesses of welfare and on what became the Reagan Doctrine. We can debate the merit of these ideas, but at least they were ideas, and they were a big reason conservatism became dominant.

A bit later, the conservative movement started becoming known for its overheated rhetoric. Rush Limbaugh began his national broadcasts in 1988, and many imitators quickly followed. The cold war ended, and the need to find a new enemy presented itself. Bill Clinton, that spawn of the Age of Aquarius, was elected president, and Republicans and conservatives went into opposition, with no governing responsibilities. Cable news began to dominate. The Fox News channel became a platform for aggressive right-wing dogmatism, with no nonsense about fairness to other views.

A new literary genre was finding its way onto bookshelves. Conservative books about the various ways in which liberals were bringing America to ruin and why Republicans had to resist were not new. Nor even was the fact that they sold in large numbers: Phyllis Schlafly’s 1964 A Choice Not an Echo had sold hundreds of thousands of copies.4 What was new was their sheer number, and the fact that The New York Times started listing them. If one looks back to the 1980s, the conservative books that we might have thought of as extreme then—Charles Murray’s Losing Ground, say, his critique of the welfare state—at least made substantive arguments about policy.

But it was in the Clinton era that we could observe a new virulence. Books attacking Hillary Clinton alone blossomed into a nice little industry, with appropriate scare titles, among them Madame Hillary, Hell to Pay, Hillary’s Scheme, Can She Be Stopped?, and American Evita. Each one purported to contain this or that new revelation, but what really mattered was that they reassured readers that yes, Clinton was bent on destroying America, placing children in reeducation camps, stripping parents of their control over family life. From the way these books (not just on the Clintons, but all such attack books) climb and stay on the best-seller lists, it seems apparent that conservatives will read basically the same story over and over again, provided the moral is reliably one of liberal perfidy.

When you call someone an “enemy” enough times, when you say enough times that the person across from you doesn’t have simply wrong ideas but wicked ones, how can you tolerate compromise with such a person? The conservative rhetoric factory has persuaded millions of Americans that Democrats and liberals are evil, that the poor are lazy, that government is incapable of any good, and that the press, television, and Internet are in on the conspiracy to make sure they all triumph at the expense of everyone else.

After the economic crisis of 2008, those millions, primed by all those years of dyspeptic expression, rose up in fury. The reach and impact of their rhetoric placed certain conditions on Republican politicians: that they not support anything that even hinted that the government would intervene in their lives, and of course that they oppose the Kenyan-Muslim-terrorist-pal President above all else. As a survey by Robert Putnam and David Campbell recently concluded, the Republicans who became “Tea Partiers” are not only “overwhelmingly white,” but they “had a low regard for immigrants and blacks long before Barack Obama was president, and they still do.” Policy and ideas mattered a little, but not very much. Rhetoric determined the collective Republican position.

Proof of this could be found most obviously in the fact of the individual mandate to buy health insurance, a centerpiece of the Obama health bill whose constitutional validity the Supreme Court will probably weigh next term. The proposal for an individual mandate came in no small part from, of all places, the conservative Heritage Foundation in the 1990s. The Heritage conservatives argued that each family should be required to take responsibility for its health care and not depend on handouts. A party more interested in ideas might have claimed victory in seeing a Democratic president come around to its way of thinking; it might then have worked with the administration to arrive at a bill that included still more of its ideas, to which Obama would no doubt have been amenable. But the rhetoric prevented that. The base insisted that compromise was treason, and the party establishment agreed.

Rick Perry; drawing by Pancho

The same process will play out again this fall. Obama, as part of his jobs initiative, plans to seek an extension in the temporary 2 percent payroll tax reduction for employees, and may toss in a similar reduction for employers, which would make it less expensive to hire new employees. This, obviously, is a decrease in taxes. Yet Republicans will oppose it. Similarly, those few Republicans who have broken with orthodoxy and shown a willingness to consider raising revenues (Senators Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia) could not possibly have been named to the joint committee by Mitch McConnell. He knew he would have to pay dearly for any such heresy.

Ann Coulter, of course, is one of the masters of the hate genre, with many best sellers under her belt, some with alarming one-word titles (Guilty, Godless, Treason, Slander). In Demonic, Coulter begins by quoting from the Gospel of Mark (she knows her audience) and then dives straight in: “The demon is a mob, and the mob is demonic,” she writes, continuing two paragraphs later:

The Democratic Party is the party of the mob, irrespective of what the mob represents. Democrats activate mobs, depend on mobs, coddle mobs, publicize and celebrate mobs—they are the mob. Indeed, the very idea of a “community organizer” is to stir up a mob for some political purpose.

Two key themes run through the book. First, Coulter tells her readers over and over again that everything—everything—they read and hear from nonconservative sources is a lie. For example:

The liberal fairy tale that Southern bigots simply switched parties, from Democrat to Republican, is exactly wrong. What happened is: The Democrats switched mobs. Democrats will champion any group of hooligans in order to attain power…. This is why the Democrats are able to transition so seamlessly from defending Bull Connor racists to defending Black Panthers, hippies, yippies, Weathermen, feminists, Bush derangement syndrome liberals, Moveon .org, and every other indignant, angry mob.

And this:

Nixon indeed had something called the “Southern Strategy,” but it had nothing to do with appealing to racial resentment. His idea was to force nice patriotic, churchgoing Southerners to recognize what a rotten, treasonous bunch the Democrats had become. It was a regional version of his appeal to the Silent Majority.

And this:

Although it is accepted wisdom that the Allies were too harsh on Germany after World War I, leading to World War II, in fact, the truth is the opposite. We didn’t crush Germany sufficiently the first time. Consequently, in 1919, a lot of Germans accepted the claim that they had not really been defeated but had just been “stabbed in the back” by civilians.

This last theory, she notes, was the handiwork of “documented crackpot” John Maynard Keynes.

Her second polemical point is to make Democrats and liberals and the left (it suits her purposes to use the terms interchangeably) into an alien and Other, and not American. Back-to-back chapters on the French and American revolutions describe, in perfervid but not inaccurate language, the violent nature of the French rebellion and the comparatively calm aspect of the American one. The point of this contrast is not that America is a superior nation to France, although that of course is noted. Rather, it’s that Democrats and liberals and the left are like the French, and that “the men behind the American Revolution…were the very opposite of a mob. Today we would call them ‘Republicans.’” The actual development of American political life from the Federalist period on, as described by such historians as Gordon Wood, has no place here.

Obama is somewhat incidental to the Coulter worldview, which holds that Democrats have been working toward the downfall of America since long before he came on the scene. But another, newer genre of hate books places Obama at the heart of the plot, as in Red Army by Aaron Klein and his coauthor, Brenda J. Elliott. Their earlier effort, The Manchurian President, made the extended New York Times best-seller list last year. Now they return—and how quickly!—to “document” the years-long drive to put Obama in the White House spearheaded by the likes of Michael Harrington’s old Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC). It’s often hilarious to read about socialism’s alleged stranglehold on the congressional Democratic Party, just because a few Democrats like Ron Dellums and Jerry Nadler have attended events organized by Democratic Socialists of America. A book like Red Army, with its simultaneously solemn and preposterous prose (Coulter at least is capable of getting off a few jokes), is proof that individual facts can all be true but can easily be combined in a way that tells a fundamentally false and silly story.

This is certainly the case with the authors’ treatment of “Journolist,” a “listserv” (Internet chat group, in essence) of mostly liberal journalists, economists, and policy experts of which I was once a member (I am quoted in the book, my name misspelled on second reference). It was an off-the-record group, but an unknown member leaked some bits of comment from it to a conservative website last year. Ever since, conservatives have taken the revealed comments as shocking proof of “the media bias toward Obama,” as the authors put it. They seem not to know that opinion journalists are perfectly entitled to express…opinions, and that I and Eric Alterman and Ezra Klein of The Washington Post (the group’s founder) and all the others, with a few exceptions that were noted at the time of the leak, were writing publicly exactly what we were saying privately in 2008—that we were drawn to Obama and very much wanted him to win the election. We made a case for him, yes, but openly so.

Actually, I think Klein and Elliott must know the difference between opinion journalists and straight-news reporters. It just serves their purposes to fudge the distinction, and the distinction is fudged in service of the real point of Red Army and the raft of other right-wing Obama books resembling it. Something has to explain to the conservative mind how a man such as this could have attained the presidency. That he could have collected 69 million votes from the American people legitimately is impossible, so it has to have been the result of a broad conspiracy years in the making: of democratic socialists, Journolisters, the Acorn group of community organizers, and the ex-Weatherman Bill Ayers, not to mention George Soros.

This is a difference, I believe it’s fair to say, between conservative attack books and progressive ones. Trashy, conspiracy-minded polemics against George W. Bush existed, but very few of them found wide audiences among mainstream liberals. If the authors’ past success is any indication, Red Army will be read by hundreds of thousands. No conservative can emerge from these pages reaching any conclusion other than that Obama must be destroyed and that “the socialist agenda of the radical network will march on unless it is fully exposed.” This message will gather force across the heartland and keep finding its way back to establishment Republicans in Washington.

A key thing to watch for, in determining the future direction of the Republican Party, is whether this no-compromise base becomes a majority within the GOP electorate during next year’s primaries. Henry Olsen of the American Enterprise Institute wrote an interesting analysis for the Summer 2011 issue of National Affairs in which he divided Republican voters into two camps. He identifies “dispositional conservatives” as voters who are conservative by general preference—in an old-fashioned, Russell Kirk sort of sense—and are not quite so far to the right as what he calls “ideological conservatives,” the legatees in his view of Barry Goldwater (although of course today’s ideologues are well to Goldwater’s right).

These two camps correlate roughly with my view of a split between establishment conservatives and an activist Republican base. In every GOP nomination process to date, Olsen writes, the dispositionals have outnumbered the ideologues. This is why Republicans have tended to choose the candidate who, after working his way up the hierarchy, was the “next in line”—Bob Dole in 1996, John McCain last time. Olsen believes dispositionals will continue to outnumber ideologues, which may be true overall but will vary from state to state. In two key early states, Iowa and South Carolina, the Tea Party followers are active, so the opposite might be the case. Add to that the fact that there really is no “next in line” candidate this time. Romney is as close as there is to one, since he ran last time and appears to have establishment support. But depending on the circumstances prevailing next winter, particularly the trend in unemployment, this could be the election when GOP primary voters finally go against type and nominate someone more responsive to the activists than to the establishment.

And finally, if we ask how all this might play out on Capitol Hill, it will be telling to see whether Obama can finally acknowledge to himself that the Republicans aren’t much interested in putting party to the side and working with him for the good of the country, or however he’s putting it these days. He looked awful during the debt debate, and the nosedive his polls have taken since reflects that he did not get the credit for being the “adult in the room” that he believes he should receive. Democrats in Congress fear palpably that the White House will cut a deal with Republicans on entitlements without their input, at the same time that those Republicans will be thumbing their noses at Obama’s programs to create jobs. Will he finally confront what he is up against and fight? Will he strongly put forward the programs for job creation and repair of infrastructure that are needed and clearly blame the Republicans for rejecting them?5 I can’t in good conscience recommend that anyone read Red Army, except perhaps the President.

September 1, 2011

  1. 1

    Neither Texas nor any other state can secede. Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase’s majority opinion in the 1869 Texas v. White decision made this stipulation, and it has never been challenged. In a sign perhaps of our dispiriting times, the Supreme Court Historical Society will conduct a mock rehearing of the case this November, to be presided over by Justice Antonin Scalia. 

  2. 2

    This is an important procedural point that few people know about. Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid noted during the debt debate, and he was never contradicted by a Republican I’m aware of, that the Senate had raised the debt limit seventy-four times since 1963, but by mutual consent it had always been done by simple majority—that is, neither party had ever subjected it to the requirement of clearing the cloture process’s sixty-vote hurdle until McConnell did so this summer. One more old gentlemen’s agreement defenestrated. 

  3. 3

    See “Origins of the Debt Showdown,” The Washington Post, August 6, 2011, by eight Post writers, a thorough explication of how the strategy was hatched. 

  4. 4

    The website of Schlafly’s Eagle Forum claims that the book has now sold three million copies and is one of the ten best-selling conservative books of all time. 

  5. 5

    See, for example, the proposal of former Senator Bill Bradley for hiring subsidies, “How President Obama Can Spur Immediate Job Creation,” USA Today, June 26, 2011, as well as the various proposals for government-sponsored infrastructure programs, for example, by Robert Skidelsky and Felix Martin, ” For a National Investment Bank,” The New York Review, April 28, 2011, and by Jared Bernstein to “repair, retrofit and modernize the nation’s public schools,” The New Republic, August 24, 2011.