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The New Minority

Cover of "What's the Matter with Kansas?:...

Cover via Amazon

Copyright © 2009 by Stephen W. Potts. All rights reserved.

We are now six months into the Obama presidency, and the honeymoon is over. Fortunately, we are still a long ways from marriage counseling.

Many of the President’s supporters are less than happy that more change hasn’t happened faster, or that this administration refuses to investigate the crimes of the last one, or that it has accepted compromises. If Democratic voters and their ideological allies haven’t gotten everything they want so far, the Republicans and their fellows on the Right have gotten much that they don’t want. Still, my answer to both sides is — and shall remain — no matter what happens, no one could suck as badly as that last guy. The good news is that we really hit bottom in the first eight years of this century. Every time the Republican Party appears to have scraped bottom, however, they manage to find a new bottom.

Many — including more thoughtful conservatives like the Davids, Brooks and Frum — thought that last November’s Grand Slam would teach the GOP a lesson: namely, that it would have to return from the faith-based universe to the real world if it wanted to be a serious party again. No more bashing the urban power centers of the East and West Coasts as elitist and out-of-touch; no more bashing higher education and the media and science, the instruments of information and progress; no more alienating America’s minorities, who are increasingly the collective majority in states like California, or America’s partners in the world, like the nations of Europe.

Judging by the news since the inauguration, however, it looks as though the Davids are up against the Goliath of the Republican Core.

Let’s just take the top story of the past couple of weeks of July. No — not the adulteries of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford and Nevada Senator John Ensign, both righteous Christian Republicans who never tolerate that sort of behavior in anyone else. I mean the real news: the Senate confirmation hearings of Judge Sonia Sotomayor, Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court.

If there was any doubt about the fundamental racial bias that saturates the Core, it should have been dispelled in the lead-up to the Sotomayor hearings. Her now oft-repeated comment in a 2001 talk with UC Berkeley law students that in some cases a wise Latina could decide better than a white male was used as evidence that she always thought Latinas wise and better. Charges of racism were hurled at her from the airwaves by Rush Limbaugh and his ilk as well as from Republicans in Congress like Mitch McConnell, John Kyl, and Jeff Sessions.

Sessions, the Alabama senator who is the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, is of course the poster boy for the racial philosophy of the Republican Right, having been denied a federal judgeship in the 1980s because of his unreconstructed Old South sensibility toward black and white, marked by his comment that the NAACP was a communist-inspired organization — something, by the way, that Ronald Reagan apparently believed. Their model of a good non-white justice is Clarence Thomas, who hates black people and can always be counted on to be the single vote against extending or expanding civil rights to minorities, as he was last month when he voted against continuing the Voting Rights Act.

Pat Buchanan was even more blatant: repeating the arguments of fifty years ago — both on The Rachel Maddow Show and on his web site — that this was a white man’s country, so white men should continue to run it. For him and his fellow travelers, white men are the new oppressed minority.

Such so-called conservatives continue to maintain that civil rights organizations like the NAACP should be regarded like a black KKK, and that the groups to which Sotomayor belonged — La Raza, the Belizean Grove — provide the similar evidence of racism and sexism. This would of course be true if the NAACP had spent decades lynching and terrorizing white people, depriving them of such rights of citizenship as voting and holding public office, or if La Raza represented a demographic that had historically controlled 100% of the power up to the end of the 1960s. Happily, while cementing the convictions, and the feet, of their own, the noisemakers of the Right, in and out of Congress, have now guaranteed that Latinos will lean Democratic for the foreseeable future.

Terror seizes the White Right. The NRA claims that Obama’s election has been the single greatest factor in the explosion of firearms purchases since the end of last year. All evidence to the contrary, gun freaks are still convinced that this administration plans to vacate the Second Amendment and go after them. They love insisting that Obama, our first African-American president, wants to reduce the nation to slavery. Meanwhile, dozens of “teabaggers” have rallied across the country with posters proclaiming Obama as Hitler and Stalin and bringing the Boston Tea Party into the 1930s.

Best of all, the “Birther” movement continues to maintain that Obama was not even born an American and is therefore not legitimately president. Calls to release his birth certificate to the public have gone unanswered, they claim, notwithstanding the copy of his birth certificate that has been released to the public and that now resides online. Never mind — as inhabitants of the faith-based universe, they are going to believe what they want to believe, not the evidence of their own eyes. To them, anyway, the mixed race Obama looks like an alien. He doesn’t look like them, and he certainly doesn’t resemble all of the presidents who preceded him.

Given this self-generated atmosphere of utmost fear, it is not surprising that the basest levels of the base are reaching for their guns. Scott Roeder, who shot abortion doctor George R. Tiller in his Kansas church on May 31 of this year, may not be representative of everyone in the Core, but he certainly received encouragement from those like Bill O’Reilly, who consistently called Tiller a mass murderer. James von Brunn, the 88-year-old white supremacist who attacked the Holocaust Museum in D.C. on June 10 and killed guard Stephen T. Johns, did not belong to any organization but his own, but he did carry out in practice what some elements in the White Right have been preaching since last November: armed resistance to the status quo. There will be more like these in the years to come.

Roeder and von Brunn certainly do not represent conservatism, except as conservatism has been redefined in the last thirty years as rightwing populism. As Thomas Frank described it in his 2004 tome What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, this new conservatism “is the doctrine of the oppressed majority. . . . [T]he Republicans are the party of the disrespected, the downtrodden, the forgotten. . . . All claims on the right, in other words, advance from victimhood.” The GOP expanded its base in the 1970s and 80s by sucking up the red-white-and-blue left-behinds: rural rednecks, the white South, the “disgruntled blue-collar American” who had lost his middle-class security to forces outside his control. Today’s Right, as Frank notes, regards their battle as a desperate siege because liberals and internationalists run all our institutions.

This apocalyptic sense of being a chosen few against overwhelming evil feeds into a culture of paranoia and bullying. In their 1997 study Political Paranoia: The Psychopolitics of Hatred, Robin S. Robins and Jerrold M. Post, M.D. trace the roots of many a terrorist or tyrant to the psychology of victimhood. Quoting Eugene Bleuler in 1911, they observe that a paranoid seems “perfectly normal except for delusions of conspiracy and victimization.” For Robins and Post, the “paranoid’s certainty brooks no disagreement,” preserving his/her “generally hostile attitude toward the world.” He “is always prepared” to fight “an infringement upon his autonomy or free will; ‘don’t tread on me’ is his psychological motto,” a motto often displayed at the “teabagging” ceremonies. Paranoids live and act under the conviction that

a vast and subtle conspiracy exists to destroy their entire way of life. . . . Characteristically, the conspiracy is described as already powerful and growing rapidly. Time is short. Absolute and irreversible victory of the conspiratorial group is near. The conflict cannot be compromised or mediated. It is a fight to the death. The conspirators are absolutely evil, and so, as opponents of this evil power, members of the paranoid group see themselves as the force for good.

This sounds almost exactly like Thomas Frank’s summary of the philosophy of Ann Coulter, noted rightwing mouthpiece and crossdresser, whose prevailing argument is that liberalism is evil because it intentionally creates all the evils of the world.

The potential threat of such paranoid subcultures provides the main thesis of Robins and Post: they produce political movements rooted in their worldview — the Nazis of the 1920s and 30s, the Neo-Nazis of post-Soviet Eastern Europe, the various terrorist cliques of today’s Islamic world. The good news for the U.S. is that, despite its recurring wins in the Reagan era, the Gingrich era, and the Bush II era, the Right continues to fail overall. All it really has left is the Power of Nope, which didn’t stop the election of Obama and won’t halt the confirmation of Sotomayor. At this moment, the party of Nope is staking all its hopes on defeating health care reform; as Republican Senator DeMint of South Carolina expressed in his July 17 remark to partisans, health care reform could be Obama’s “Waterloo. It can break him.”

Historically, there is something to be said for an intelligent conservatism that urges caution and skepticism, but this is not that conversatism. Today’s NOP is simply obstructionist: they just say no to anything connected with the term “public” — public health, public education, public welfare. They just say no to anything requiring compromise or cooperation, like lawmaking or diplomacy. They just say yes to unilateral military adventures and yes to corporate elites that oppose environmental protection. They use their hatred of “big government” as their excuse, when only a big government can operate the biggest military machine in the world or institute the kind of secret surveillance, nationally and internationally, seen under the Bush-Cheney junta.

Although polls in mid-July showed Obama’s approval slipping from the highs of last January, he still claims 56% approval versus 38% for Republicans. Of course, it is too soon to predict the attitudes of the public in 2012 or 2016. The sane wing of the Republican Party seems increasingly isolated, and right now the popular choice for the Core is still Sarah Palin, whom 71% of Republicans claim they would vote for at the top of a presidential ticket of 2012, presumably with Joe the Plumber in the V.P. spot.

The smart money across the political spectrum bets that a Palin nomination would mean the end of the Republican Party as we know it. We can only hope they are right, and that the NOP either cuts itself loose from paranoid fantasies and the bullying pulpit and enters the 21st century or that it shrinks into a permanent minority, poisonous but powerless. Because if today’s Republican Party manages to sneak back into power, it would certainly mean the end of our nation as we know it.

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