The Anger of the Right

An article in The Guardian online by Kevin Baker, “The right kind of anger,” seeks to probe the psyche of the right, specifically its fondness for vitriolic anger. Baker observes that the Anne Coulters of the world are back to their old slash and burn ways, despite the fact that those very same tactics didn’t save them in the run up to last November’s elections.

It’s a worthwhile line of inquiry, and one the Democrats ought to consider seriously. The appalling thing about Coulter and Limbaugh and all the other wingnuts isn’t that they say crazy things. It’s that there is a big audience for this sort of craziness. It somehow resonates with some people and reinforces their beliefs.

The left, for the most part, has stayed above the fray and refused to stoop to this level of discourse, partly because it is such a mis-match with their identity, and part because they believe anyone nuts enough to fall for this sort of thing won’t be swayed.

Maybe. But I have a feeling that the fallback position of appalled liberals, which is to ignore this sort of thing and hope it will pass, is a mistake. One doesn’t necessarily have to stoop to the level of the kooks to respond. The failure to reply is read as an admission that you have no response, therefore the charge is accurate. Look at the damage that was done to Kerry by his silence. He looked weak, and to some, he looked guilty too.

Baker reads the current anger of the right as the product of failed policies in Iraq. He points out that the right has, from the Cold War onward, advocated extreme aggression as the answer to most geopolitical problems. The conservatives finally got to execute on their plan, and it turned out to be a disaster, so they are lashing out.

But the tone, and even the content, is pretty much the same as when the neocons were riding high. Baker’s point is interesting but it doesn’t explain the repetition of now-failed tactics (anger didn’t help them in the Congressional elections) nor does it explain where it came from in the first place.

Psychologists have studied the question of what predisposes someone to be conservative or liberal, as recounted in a New York Times article, “Across the Great Divide: Investigating Links Between Personality and Politics.” Some observations are cringe-making (conservatives are neat, liberals are sloppy), while other observations, for example, that liberals are more open, particularly regarding change; conservatives place considerable stock in tradition and loyalty, seem both more valid and more useful.

The reliance on anger, just like the reliance on fear, may be an attempt to push voters into their reptile brains (this was an observation made by Adrianna Huffington). Once you get people operating from there, they are immune to reason, hence immune to liberals.

But why is the anger button so easy to hit in conservatives? Is it anger that others no longer follow the rules (well, their rules) of how to raise children, how to conduct themselves in marriage, even how to behave in public? Liberals are genuinely puzzled about the fuss about gay marriage; I wonder if conservatives are so overwrought because it is a focus for their upset about the breakdown of traditional families. Is it anger over how things are changing so quickly? About America’s decline in the world (and the fact that it is non-Caucasians that will be on top soon?)

If I were Howard Dean, I’d take a couple of million dollars of party money and hold a ton of focus groups. I’d get some good actors/improvisors, and cast some to play the Michael Savage Coulter part, and others to play people responding to them. I’d run various types of responses to typical anger tactics again and again before carefully chosen center and center-right groups to see what kind of attacks are worth answering, and what sort of responses are most effective. This is too important to go on guesswork and gut.

From Baker:

The American right is angry again. Ever since it narrowly lost control of Congress last November, American conservatives have taken to lashing out in all directions.

Within weeks of the election, rightwing publications were vilifying the authors of the Baker-Hamilton report on Iraq as “surrender monkeys” and Israel-bashers. New books by movement intellectuals such as Dinesh D’Sousza and Bruce Bawer blame jihadist successes on, respectively, American popular culture and European appeasers. No less an authority than William F Buckley Jr, the longtime dean of the modern conservative movement, fulminates against “Defeatocrats” and “Vertebrate-challenged Europeans”. And then there was Ann Coulter’s tirade at this weekend’s CPAC conference: “I was going to have a few comments on the other Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards,” Coulter said towards the end of her speech. “But it turns out you have to go into rehab if you use the word ‘faggot’, so I – so kind of an impasse, can’t really talk about Edwards.”

What is going on? The right used to be able to take a punch. Its exemplar was Ronald Reagan, who shrugged off two failed runs for the presidency and made it to the White House by inventing conservatism with a smiley face. That aw-shucks grin could stretch wide enough to cover up everything – from contra death squads to the world’s largest banking scandal. Reagan fundamentally altered the way the right presented itself to the world, transforming the clench-jawed negativity of Barry Goldwater and George Wallace into a sunny, optimistic faith in rugged individualism.

Reagan’s cheerful chiding of liberals morphed into a vulgar but spirited style of political taunting under the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich. Their brand of ridicule was originally so over the top that it often seemed to be satirizing itself, like professional wrestling, while still getting its core message across – a brilliantly effective way of taking down ponderous liberals in an America of all irony.

So why has the right reverted to its old, perpetually angry style of politics? I suspect the creeping disgruntlement has to do with the fact that conservatives have at last been confronted with the realities of their policies in Iraq.

Consider: For more than sixty years now, or ever since the start of the Cold War, the right has insisted that every major international dilemma could be solved merely by the application of American might and will. The Chinese Communists were to be vanquished by “unleashing” Chiang Kai-shek from the island of Formosa; the Korean War could be won by General MacArthur’s suggestion to create “a belt of radioactive cobalt” between China and North Korea by dropping some fifty atomic bombs there. The Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe was to be “rolled back”. Castro should have been removed by an American invasion, but failing that President Kennedy should have followed the advice of several of his Joint Chiefs of Staff and used the “opportunity” of the Cuban Missile Crisis to hit both the Soviets and the Chinese with a surprise, atomic attack. Vietnam should have been reduced to the proverbial “parking lot” or at least, according to Goldwater in the 1964 campaign, had its Ho Chi Minh trails cut with nuclear devices. Iran is once again being subjected to George W Bush’s scabbard-rattling, and on and on.

Always and forever the right’s response to a problem, anywhere in the world, has been to hit it with a two-by-four. This may have once been mere campaign foaming, but somewhere along the way American conservatives made the always fatal mistake of believing their own rhetoric. Under Bush, the right had the opportunity to act on its long-stated worldview for the first time, unfettered by any effective opposition. The results lie broken all around it, in the bloody chaos that is today’s Iraq.

This is the end of the line for the right’s free ride, for its long insistence on the application of military might, first, last, and always, without having to worry about the aftermath. As a result, the right has drifted into confusion, baffled about how to react to a world that does not, after all, respond to its bidding. In its childlike regression to the movement’s early years, conservatives have once again decided simply to throw a tantrum and rail against their ever-expanding list of enemies, at home and abroad. And why not? We have all disappointed them terribly.

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