Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The G.O.P. Likes 'Em Mean

Glenn Greenwald has been performing a tremendous public service by detailing the descent of the Republican party from some semblance of principaled conservativism into sheer authoritarianism. Currently he is highlighting the astonishing statements in which 2008 GOP front-runner Rudoph Giuliani pre-emptively claims bizarre dictatorial powers for the president far exceeding not only what the Constitution provides but even what the Bush administration claims in its moments of greatest hubris.

In an update to his latest post, Greenwald writes this:

It is glaringly clear that the most important priority for the Republican base--by far--is that the new Leader be filled with contempt for his enemies and refuse to accept limits on his own power. Anyone who doubts that should consider the fact that conservative pundits like Kate O'Beirne and Rich Lowry have both said that Giuliani's horrendous and publicly humiliating treatment of his second wife, as he was divorcing her, is actually a great asset among some Republican base voters. As Lowry put it:

Have been talking to some smart people today about Giuliani. Two of them said independently that the appeal of Giuliani is he'd be "a tough SOB--for you," and that he'd be "a d*head--for you." Another said . . . that a Giuliani supporter he knows considers the nasty divorce a kind of asset because it speaks to his toughness. . . .
Not only do I think this is correct but I think it is simply the logical 2007-era extension of a tendency in the Republican party that dates back at least to Nixon and perhaps to Joe McCarthy.

I vividly remember back in 1968 (when I was fifteen years old) discussing the impending presidential election with some liberal friends, parents of a high-school classmate. These smart, well-meaning people expressed the hope that enough Americans would recognize how mean and dishonest Nixon was before November and thereby prevent him from becoming president. I replied, "Actually, I'm afraid that there are plenty of people who will vote for Nixon precisely because they believe he is mean and dishonest."

I didn't articulate my point well at the time--my friends were shocked at what I said and pooh-poohed it--but America in 1968 was a country riven by tremendous fear, anger, and paranoia. There were, I sensed, millions of people who wanted (consciously and explicitly or not) a president who would "control" the forces they felt threatened by, including the commies, the hippies, the Blacks, the criminals, the drug dealers, the uppity women, the Jews, etc. etc. (In many minds, these groups were all in cahoots if not actually demographically merged.)

Nixon and Agnew were elected twice because they appealed to these emotions. They appeared like men who would put down the forces of chaos using any means necessary, regardless of constitutional niceties, legality, or even honesty. The portion of the electorate that handed the Republicans these victories was dubbed at the time "the silent majority." It was caricatured on television in the form of Archie Bunker. But don't let the caricature fool you--it was a real and powerful social and political movement that drove the success of the Republican party throughout the final third of the twentieth century.

Today, of course, we live in the post-9/11 world, in which the fears of the late 60s and early 70s have been revived in a form that is at least as intense. Now the threatening forces no longer include commies or hippies (and maybe not even Jews). But the current list has been expanded by the inclusion of Muslims, terrorists, illegal immigrants, people who won't speak English, members of the ACLU, trial lawyers, "radical" environmentalists, atheists, gays, "radical" feminists, animal-rights activists, child molesters, labor union supporters, and liberals.

Many commentators have remarked on the policy discontinuities among the various groups that make up the Republican base. And indeed it is hard to discern a logical ideological thread that unites Christian fundamentalists, tax-cutters, libertarians, defenders of big business, nativists, NRA members, and advocates of executive privilege. The only thing they all share is their fear and hatred of the threatening forces I listed above, and their desperate wish to invest power in someone who will hold those forces at bay.

In such a world, are there people who find Giuliani's vicious streak appealing? I don't doubt it.

Are there enough of them to make him our next president? I pray not.

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