The Persistence of Resentment

Sometimes there’s just something in the air, and everyone seems to come to the same conclusion all at once, without prompting of any sort. What was perhaps implicit suddenly becomes quite explicit – and it’s not that great minds think alike or any such nonsense. It’s just that things shift, maybe there’s one defining event, and almost everyone abruptly sees what’s really going on. Tom Cruise in no longer cool – he’s kind of a jackass. Why didn’t anyone notice that before? All his previous odd behavior and bizarre anger now doesn’t seem an excusable anomaly – now all that stuff forms a pattern of foolishness, the core of who he is. He’s a quite unpleasant and belligerent fellow, and a one-note second-rate actor.

 

So people stop going to his movies. He’s no longer the big star who can guarantee that big box office, no matter how crappy the movie and no matter how perfunctory and clichéd his performance. He’s lost it, whatever it is – but not because there was any conspiracy against him, or some personal enemy behind it all. It’s no one’s fault. It just happened – public opinion shifted. People just kind of woke up, simultaneously, and, without consulting each other, came to the same conclusion. Tom is a royal pain in the ass, the kind of guy you go out of your way to avoid – he’ll just smugly berate you about something or other.

 

Ah well, his agent will think of something.

 

Of course this happens in politics. John McCain knows. He had everything going for him – the war hero stuff, the impressive prisoner of war tale, his long years of being the maverick senator, ticking off his own party, a reputation for being a fair-minded independent sort and a real reformer, and his easy-going and approachable manner that charmed the press, won over a few folks on the left, and really wore well on Leno and Letterman, and on Saturday Night Live. He was cool.

 

But somehow he lost it all – he became the angry old man, two steps behind on everything, able to get the general idea of this issue or that, but often getting the details dead wrong. People saw him reacting impulsively – suspending his campaign and trying to cancel the first presidential debate to be the hero who solved the financial crisis, only to make things worse, and then showing up for the debate anyway. People heard him say Country First, then saw him chose that Palin woman as his back-up should he win, a woman not only not up on any of the issues, but not particularly interested in any of the issues. People heard him talk about taking the high road in his campaign – then saw him having to try to calm the crowds he and Palin had whipped into a frenzy with talk that Obama was clearly a socialist and probably a terrorist.

 

Opinion shifted – but not because anyone set him up for a fall. There weren’t secret little meetings in basements around the county – there was no plan to destroy him. People just kind of woke up, simultaneously, and, without consulting each other, came to the same conclusion – you didn’t want this fellow in charge of things. You finally saw who he really was. You didn’t need a call from an Obama staffer, and you didn’t need to listen to some pundit on cable news – you just saw it, on your own. Enough people saw it. He was toast.

 

And the same thing happened to a good number of Republicans in the 2008 election – they seemed to have everything going for them, then they didn’t. And now the party is in trouble.

 

And people are waking up to what the Republican Party has become – and waking up one by one, without consulting each other.

 

For example, the column in these pages on Saturday, November 29, was about how the Republicans seem to have made a fetish out of loyalty – the assumption that loyalty is more important than competence or honesty, or anything else. And the idea there was that all that madness about blind loyalty goes back to one key figure, Joe McCarthy. Back in the McCarthy-Blacklist days of loyalty oaths out here, Ronald Reagan was in the middle of it all – yeah, he was a union guy back then, president of the Screen Actors Guild, but proudly anticommunist and willing to rat out anyone in Hollywood to Joe in DC. They kept reelecting him to the position as he kept Joe and the like off everyone’s back – he proved Hollywood was loyal and patriotic, and they could go back to just making movies. He was useful and he became governor, then president. There was a clear lineage to be considered.

 

Fine – read the column and decide if you buy that. But others are coming to the same conclusion, independently.

 

The next morning, Sunday, November 30, the Los Angeles Times landed outside the front door with the usual dull thud. Okay, fresh coffee, the morning pipe, glance at Sunday funnies, check the sports scores, plow through the news and note the op-ed pieces. But what’s this? It’s Neal Gabler – The GOP’s McCarthy Gene – “Think Goldwater is the father of conservatism? Think again.”

 

He seems to be saying the same thing. Joe McCarthy is the man who gave us the Republican Party as we know it today.

 

Of course you have to consider the source. Neal Gabler has written a lot of books, but not about politics, or not directly about politics. His most recent is Walt Disney: The Triumph of American Imagination – a cultural thing. Back in 2000 it was Life: The Movie – How Entertainment Conquered Reality. This is not his field, although the Hollywood Blacklist is somehow intertwined with Joe McCarthy and Ronald Reagan, and Uncle Walt was a bit pro-Nazi.

 

Still, he’s onto something – his thesis being that the story of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign being the catalyst of the modern conservative movement, the one thing that reshaped the Republican Party, even if Goldwater lost, or maybe because he lost, just doesn’t hold up. The real father of modern conservatism is Joe McCarthy, and “the McCarthy gene” runs deep in the party’s DNA, so to speak, “and because it is genetic, it isn’t likely to be expunged any time soon.”

 

That goes like this:

 

McCarthy, Wisconsin’s junior senator, was the man who first energized conservatism and made it a force to reckon with. When he burst on the national scene in 1950 waving his list of alleged communists who had supposedly infiltrated Harry Truman’s State Department, conservatism was as bland, temperate and feckless as its primary congressional proponent, Ohio Sen. Robert Taft, known fondly as “Mister Conservative.”

 

… McCarthy was another thing entirely. What he lacked in ideology – and he was no ideologue at all – he made up for in aggression. Establishment Republicans, even conservatives, were disdainful of his tactics, but when those same conservatives saw the support he elicited from the grass-roots and the press attention he got, many of them were impressed. Taft, no slouch himself when it came to Red-baiting, decided to encourage McCarthy, secretly, sealing a Faustian bargain that would change conservatism and the Republican Party. Henceforth, conservatism would be as much about electoral slash-and-burn as it would be about a policy agenda.

 

For the polite conservatives, McCarthy was useful. That’s because he wasn’t only attacking alleged communists and the Democrats whom he accused of shielding them. He was also attacking the entire centrist American establishment, the Eastern intellectuals and the power class, many of whom were Republicans themselves, albeit moderate ones….

 

McCarthyism is usually considered a virulent form of Red-baiting and character assassination. But it is much more than that. As historian Richard Hofstadter described it in his famous essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” McCarthyism is a way to build support by playing on the anxieties of Americans, actively convincing them of danger and conspiracy even where these don’t exist.

 

Steve Benen, at the Washington Monthly, sees it this way:

 

Gabler’s point seems to be a stylistic one, not an ideological one. Goldwater championed a libertarian, anti-government conservatism. McCarthy championed a political blood-lust, premised on scapegoats, cultural resentment, and fear.

 

In this sense, while the traditional model shows a line from Goldwater to Reagan to Bush, Gabler points to a different line – McCarthy to Nixon to Bush to Palin. Indeed, if Karl Rove has a godfather, in this model, it’s Joe McCarthy.

 

That may be so, as Gabler concludes with this:

 

There may be assorted intellectuals and ideologues in the party, maybe even a few centrists, but there is no longer an intellectual or even ideological wing. The party belongs to McCarthy and his heirs – Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and Palin. It’s in the genes.

 

Tom Hilton at No More Mister Nice Blog concurs, but adds a new twist:

 

Gabler is right: the Republican Party is held together not by any real ideological coherence (it is a collection of incompatible constituencies with radically different interests) but by a shared devotion to aggression. Or, as innumerable bloggers have put it, to Pissing off the Liberals.

 

In (rightly) putting McCarthy ahead of Goldwater, though, Gabler neglects the malignant role Goldwaterite ideology did play in this story: its inherent unsuitability to governing led directly to the nihilism of modern conservatism.

 

As I said back in 1994, when you put government in the hands of people who believe it has no useful function, they don’t make the state wither away; they simply use it to benefit themselves and their campaign contributors. People who don’t think the government’s power should be used for the common good will instead seek power for its own sake. People who seek power for its own sake will do so by any means necessary.

 

As long as there was a tension between electoral strategy and practical behavior – between the desire to win and the desire to govern, between (for example) the Southern Strategy and Nixon’s more benign domestic policy, or between Willie Horton and Bush Sr.’s multi-lateral foreign policy – the Republican Party remained tethered, however tenuously, to reality. What removed any ideological counterweight to McCarthyist aggression, what allowed it to go spinning off on its own, was the abject failure of Goldwaterite ideology.

 

Okay then – if people are waking up and not voting for these guys, then it just might be a general shift in how people see them. You wake up – they’re selling resentment and fear, and telling us to vote for them, and put them in charge of things, because they know government doesn’t work, and it cannot work, it never worked, so… something. It makes no sense. Hilton is right – if government for the common good is itself a joke to these guys, what else is there but them grabbing all the money?

 

People must be beginning to get it, even if, as Gabler notes, what McCarthy started will be intensified:

 

Republicans continue to push the idea that this is a center-right country and that Americans have swooned for GOP anti-government posturing all these years, but the real electoral bait has been anger, recrimination and scapegoating. That’s why John McCain kept describing Barack Obama as some sort of alien and why Palin, taking a page right out of the McCarthy playbook, kept pushing Obama’s relationship with onetime radical William Ayers.

 

And that is also why the Republican Party, despite the recent failure of McCarthyism, is likely to keep moving rightward, appeasing its more extreme elements and stoking their grievances for some time to come.

 

An actual conservative, Andrew Sullivan, sees it this way:

 

The American conservative era owes just as much to Goldwater’s libertarianism and Reagan’s pragmatic freedom agenda. It’s also bundled up with Buckley’s erudition, Gingrich’s populism, and the first Bush’s realism and prudence.

 

But Gabler is surely onto something in seeing the McCarthyite strain in American conservatism being more tenacious and transmittable, because human resentment is more common and politically potent than agreement about limited government.

 

The resentment theme also tends to get stronger when there is too little raw political talent around: when you have the limited grasp of the world of W and Palin, a resort to McCarthyism is often helpful, even necessary. When you’re as desperate as John McCain in August, ditto. Nixon, again, was the purest of the type…

 

Gabler is okay with that as he had said this:

 

McCarthy’s real heir was Nixon, who mainstreamed McCarthyism in 1968 by substituting liberals, youth and minorities for communists and intellectuals, and fueling resentments as McCarthy had. In his 1972 reelection, playing relentlessly on those resentments, Nixon effectively disassembled the old Roosevelt coalition, peeling off Catholics, evangelicals and working-class Democrats, and changed American politics far more than Goldwater ever would.

 

Sullivan just sighs, and hopes for the best:

 

Because we’re all human, resentment is part of us. It will be a part of all political movements – as class resentment often emerges on the populist left. The key is that it be complemented and, with any luck, massively diluted by more positive arguments.

 

This year revealed how almost all the positive arguments in American politics have come from the left. The exception was Ron Paul. On the right, the collapse of governing coherence led to a campaign and a party of almost pure resentment. It leaves a truly Coulter taste in the mouth. And it will take one hell of a palette cleanser to forget it.

 

But maybe you can forget it, or at least walk away from all the calls for you to resent this, that or the other thing. More and more folks are saying – What, Joe McCarthy again? They remember. It might be one of those processes where many, many individuals, acting alone, just say, nope, not going there. It’s not an anti-Republican conspiracy – just waking up to what’s really going on. Enough people wake up and the ghost of Joe McCarthy goes back to Wisconsin for good, and McCain retires to obscurity, and Tom Cruise doesn’t make another stupid movie. Resentment may be a part of us all. We can get over it – or just not go there in the first place.

 

Well, that was the Sunday Los Angeles Times. On the radio out here, on KFI, 640 AM, the special – Obama may actually be the Antichrist. Joe McCarthy is smiling somewhere, still.

 

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Attack Politics, Conservatism, Conservative Framing Devices, Fickle Opinion, Joe McCarthy: The Father of Conservatism, Sudden Shifts in Opinion, The Politics of Resentment. Bookmark the permalink.

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