When the fool supports the knave the good man may fold his hands. The fool in league with the knave against himself is a combination that none may withstand.
—Samuel Beckett, Murphy
Doctor, ‘tis a great comfort to know the disease whereof I die.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals
Strafford, New Hampshire—Thank God the Republican road show has moved on from New Hampshire. Our voters, for whose benefit this protracted spectacle was produced, were sounding peevish by the end, asking more and more probing questions of the candidates and even roundly booing Rick Santorum a couple of times. Starting more than a year ago the guessing game about the eventual nominee lurched from one preposterous candidate to the next, including such early favorites as Donald Trump and Herman Cain. The first debate took place last May, with some fifteen others following in short succession. It became an endurance test for both the candidates and those bothering to pay attention.
The first time I saw the seven men and one woman onstage with their eager-to-please expressions and fake sincerity, they made me think of salesmen on a shopping channel peddling Florida vacation homes and work-saving kitchen appliances, until the live audiences broke the spell by cheering for the death penalty, torture, child labor, and a policy of letting those who cannot afford medical insurance die. Even people who ordinarily ignore the primaries couldn’t avoid seeing on TV these celebrations of meanness and inhumanity, and learning the names of the candidates whose words inspired them.
Not that our first-in-the-nation primaries were such edifying spectacles in the past. A fair number of dunces and palpable crooks from both parties have paid us visits over the years, trying to sell us some crackpot idea on how to fix the country, except they were not as numerous as they are today. Still, in the 1980 Republican primary, which Ronald Reagan won, the runners-up were George H.W. Bush, Senator Howard Baker, Congressman John Anderson, Congressman Philip Crane, and Senator Robert Dole. Compared to today’s bunch, they lacked the hint of being unhinged that now seems the first requirement of any Republican running for elective office. If the 1980 contenders twisted the facts now and then, they also had coherent national policies that would appeal to many Americans, and were by and large competent to run the country.
New Hampshire is a traditionally Republican state that overwhelmingly voted for President Obama—54 percent to 45 percent for John McCain—and has a Democratic governor and one Democratic senator. It tends to be fiscally conservative but moderate on issues dear to social conservatives, such as abortion. The state’s population is 92.3 percent white, 1 percent black, with the rest divided between Hispanics, Asians, and other minorities who live mostly in larger cities such as Manchester and Nashua near the Massachusetts border.
While conservatives in the South and the Midwest describe themselves by significant majorities as evangelicals, in New Hampshire a 2008 poll showed that 35 percent of residents were Catholic and 32 percent Protestant while 17 percent said they had no religion. In fact we have the lowest church attendance in the nation. The state was settled by people fleeing Puritan intolerance in Massachusetts and Connecticut in early colonial times and has never lost its suspicion of religious extremism. I recall running into an old woman, a neighbor and a solid Yankee Republican, in our small post office during the 2000 primary, who said to me, as she made her way slowly using her walker: “Charlie, I heard this man Bush said that God told him to run for president.” “I heard the same,” I replied. “They ought to stuff him in a straitjacket and carry him off to the nuthouse,” she shouted to me as she left.
Still, we have our share of evangelicals, born-agains, and conservatives: opposed to the modern secular and egalitarian state, ready to believe that countless conspiracies are being hatched by liberal elites and our Kenyan-born, terrorist-sympathizing president to demolish our free enterprise system and take away our guns. I recently saw a sign saying “STOP SOCIALISM” on the back of a car driven by a young mother with two cheerful-looking small children who waved to me. We have lawmakers who appear to get all of their information from right-wing websites and hate radio: nine of our state legislators tried to keep the president’s name off the Democratic primary ballot by challenging the validity of his birth certificate; others managed to pass in the state legislature a bill that would allow guns to be carried without a permit in public places and universities. One legislator introduced a bill against the teaching of evolution, claiming that the Columbine school shootings and the atrocities of Nazi Germany both are linked to Darwin’s fraudulent theory.
The New Hampshire Union Leader, which backed Newt Gingrich in this primary a few days after he called for the return of child labor, may have been even further to the right when I moved to the state in 1973. Its owner, William Loeb, famously said that President Eisenhower did more to destroy the respect, honor, and power of the United States than any president in its history. He believed, like the John Birch Society, that Ike was a secret Communist agent. The governor in 1973 was Meldrim Thomson, the darling of Loeb and his newspaper, and a world-class idiot. My favorite among his many stunts was his demand that the Pentagon arm the state’s National Guard with tactical nuclear weapons in case of an insurrection. Long before Grover Norquist came up with his Taxpayer Protection Pledge, which 97 percent of all Republican congressmen signed last year, William Loeb was successful in having every politician of both parties running for office in New Hampshire swear at election time never to vote for sales and income taxes.
As a result we have some of the highest property taxes in the country; the wealthier towns have much better schools than the poorer ones, and the state is left with little money for social services or education. Our four-hundred-seat legislature, of which 295 seats are held by Republicans, is the largest in the United States; it has no intention of doing anything about taxes. If this overt class war drives many of us living here to despair, it likely makes others deeply content: high-tech companies and other corporations are drawn here by the low taxes, and relatively little public money is being squandered on the poor and their children.
There were no huge surprises in this year’s primary. Mitt Romney, who is well known in New Hampshire as the former governor of Massachusetts and who, despite ample evidence to the contrary, is still regarded as a moderate, had been endorsed by the state’s entire Republican establishment, including former Senators Judd Greg and Warren Rudman, former Governor John Sununu, and Congressman Charlie Bass. Romney boasted of his ability to “restore the soul of the nation” thanks to his career as a successful businessman, but came across in his speeches and his interviews as a man ready to reject practically everything he ever claimed to believe in—not only years ago, when he was governor of Massachusetts supporting mandatory health insurance and women’s reproductive rights, but even what he said the day before on the campaign trail. He won with more than 97,000 votes.
Ron Paul came in second with 56,848. For those of us who live here this was more or less expected since the state has a strong libertarian tradition. Paul’s ambition is to shut down every branch of the government that serves Americans, from the EPA to the FAA, and turn their responsibilities implausibly over to the states. Despite voting in Congress against student loans, he attracted many young voters by speaking forcefully about the foolishness and cost of our foreign wars, calling them undeclared, unnecessary, and unwinnable—a view that, when he expressed it, made the other candidates physically recoil in what seemed like horror. Paul is the only candidate who says that, as an admirer of Martin Luther King Jr., he supports “the libertarian principle of peaceful resistance and peaceful civil disobedience.” Asked about some racist remarks in newsletters sent out under his name in the 1980s and 1990s, and later withdrawn, he said something rarely heard in US politics:
True racism in this country is in the judicial system. The percentage of people who use drugs are about the same with blacks and whites. And yet the blacks are arrested way disproportionately.
They’re prosecuted and imprisoned way disproportionately. They get the death penalty way disproportionately. How many times have you seen a white rich person get the electric chair or get, you know, execution?
If we truly want to be concerned about racism…look at the drug laws, which are being so unfairly enforced.
Jon Huntsman, the ex-governor of Utah and Obama’s former ambassador to China, who ignored Iowa and campaigned exclusively here for a month, came in third with 41,945 votes, and withdrew not long after. He had genuine foreign policy experience and knowledge of the countries the other candidates rant against, but despite sounding levelheaded by ruling out military action in Iran and planning to pull most troops out of Afghanistan, he wanted to repeal Obama’s financial reforms and health care plan. Like Ron Paul, he favored a market-based approach to welfare, education, and much else, carried out only by states that want them. Given that every state except Vermont has a constitutional requirement to balance its budget, this would be impossible to accomplish, as he must have known very well.
Rick Santorum, a Catholic more conservative than the pope, had only 23,362 votes; stewing with hatred of a pluralistic society and gays, he promised to ban all abortions—even in cases of rape, incest, and threat to the mother’s life—to repeal the corporate income tax, and to bomb Iran. He was not expected to do well since he campaigned against individual expression of unconventional feelings in a state where for more than a few voters the writings of Thoreau and the poetry of Frost are not unfamiliar.
Newt Gingrich, acting out of desperation at his low numbers in the polls after the damage done by Romney’s attack ads in Iowa, rebranded himself a populist in the last days of the New Hampshire primary. He attacked Romney from the left by unmasking him as a corporate raider who had devised clever ways to loot a company legally and to leave many of its workers without a job. This attack shocked conservatives everywhere; their most respected pollster, Frank Luntz, described what Gingrich had said as a “Marxist linguistic conspiracy.” Even though he told the truth for once, Gingrich beat Santorum by only forty-nine votes and came in fourth.
And finally, with 1,766 votes, there was Governor Rick Perry, a Tea Party and evangelical candidate from Texas who warned us that the White House was waging war on Christianity and that Iran will occupy Iraq “again” unless we send our troops back in. His lack of knowledge often puzzled even the other candidates in the debates, accustomed though they are to hearing claptrap from each other without batting an eye.