Beer, Boots and the GOP Base

I always figured I appreciated a tragic female — Mary, Queen of Scots, the Black Dahlia, Edie Sedgwick — as much as the next ghoul. But when it comes to Sarah Palin, I seem to have overlooked a deep seam of tragedy that my colleagues in the Fourth Estate have been mining for years. Quite by chance, I discovered that not one, but two articles titled “The Tragedy of Sarah Palin” have appeared in high-profile publications over the past thirty-one months.

Both say basically the same thing — that Palin, had she contrived to present herself as something other than a conservative culture warrior, could have made a better impression on swing voters in 2008, and would have a better chance than a snowball’s in Phoenix of doing so in 2012. In the words of John Ridley, writing for the Huffington Post in October, 2008:

Over the past eight years, the Republican Party has imploded. In this election cycle, the conservative intelligentsia has effectively split from the “base,” that portion of the party that is seemingly “excited” or “energized” not by issues of war or oil or the economy but by those that forge a social wedge. Add to that the shifting demographics of America and the Republican Party’s woeful inability to attract people of color, and there is a very real possibility that for the foreseeable future the Republicans will be reduced to a nonentity within politics.

The Republicans desperately need their Barack Obama.

It could have been Sarah Palin.

In this June’s Atlantic, Joshua Green makes the point that, not only should Palin have courted the center, she had a resume and a skill set that could have made the courtship succeed. After praising Palin for leading a bipartisan campaign to raise the state tax on oil revenue, he asks, rhetorically:

How did someone who so effectively dealt with the two great issues vexing Alaska fall from grace so quickly? Anyone looking back at her record can’t help but wonder: How did a popular, reformist governor beloved by Democrats come to embody right-wing resentment?

Ridley regards conservative values voters with brazen contempt. On first reading, Green sounds more thoughtful, but the phrase “right-wing resentment” carries a whiff of paternalism, a sense of “the natives are getting restless.” It’s an attitude that has always seemed to lend itself to a self-flattering logical fallacy. Ever since the 2008 elections, it’s become fashionable — frankly, a bit of a cliché — to explain disaffection among conservatives by citing “The Paranoid Style in American Politics. In analyzing the tropes of early 1960s John Birch-type rhetoric, Hofstadter writes:

RegardingBut the modern right wing, as Daniel Bell has put it, feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies; the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high.

The right-wingers Hofstadter has in mind were the ones who believed that the U.S. government was being run by communist cells — cells that some swore included both Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy. That type has by no means perished from the earth. We’ve seen birthers, we’ve heard Glenn Beck warn that a concern for social justice is the first step on a very short and slippery slope to fascism. And it’s pretty self-evident that many conservatives are upset that their values and opinions are, in many cases, no longer the dominant ones. But just because some of the self-perceived dispossessed resort to conspiracy theorizing, doesn’t mean their sense of dispossession is no more valid than a conspiracy theory.

In a 2008 blog entry titled “No Laughing Matter,” Times columnist Judith Warner finds hersel taking these feelings of marginality more seriously than she ever expected to, or even wanted to. While attending a Sarah Palin rally, hoping for mockable material (“A Harold and Kumar Escape the Barracuda storyline was the idea,”), she learned that “Palin Power is about making yearnings come true.” Without actually validating these yearnings — they include “respect and service, hierarchy and family,” each word loaded like, well, like a rifle — she warns that the “empathy barrier” may play into conservative hands.

“Liberals feel contempt for the conservative moral view, and that is very, very angering. Republicans are good at exploiting that anger,” she quotes University of Virginia professor Jonathan Haidt as saying.

I don’t expect that Sarah Palin will be the front-runner in next year’s GOP race, but not because she addresses the disaffected portion of the base as one of its own. On the contrary, whoever does win the nomination, will only be able to win by doing his or her best Sarah Palin imitation. If any empathy barrier stands in the way, he or she will have no choice but to scale it or breach it.

This isn’t an easy thing. Members of the GOP base are not fools; appearing as a fellow traveler in their eyes is not easy. The code that defines the marks of authenticity is easy to spoof but hard to crack. I learned this over many years posting on a right-wing message board — possibly the best of its kind, whose members formed lasting friendships. Some tenets of orthodoxy were just what I’d have guessed. For example, everyone who worked for the government was held in general contempt — except, of course, for members of the armed forces. (Members of the Air Force formed an exception within the exception. On the great social usefulness scale, they seemed to rank far above schoolteachers, but slightly below firefighters.)

But on those cultural issues that boiled down to a matter of taste, I got some real surprises. There weren’t too many opera buffs, but neither were there any country fans. No, the mark of the all-American boy or girl was an encyclopedic knowledge of classic guitar rock – Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith. To be able to quote the lyrics from quirky, cerebral performers like Bob Dylan and Ray Davies was considered a sign of the highest breeding. The line was drawn at punk, I suspect because punk amounts to whining with bravado, which popular opinion considered the definitive activity of liberals.

The second surprise was food and drink. Not once in the seven years I hung around the place did I see anyone post, “I can’t get enough of Applebee’s baby-back ribs” or “There’s nothing like Kraft macaroni and cheese for building a strong republic.” On the contrary, gastronomy is another one of those areas where conservatives put the “hip” in “citizenship.” Maybe because so many people had served in overseas postings while in the military, it was considered excellent form to like sushi, turtle soup, snake, or even the Fillipino delicacy balut — to my taste buds, more a practical joke than a real meal.

It was the same story with booze. Though I didn’t meet too many wine-sippers, anyone would have blushed to say, “This Bud’s for you” or “Tonight, let it be Lowenbrau.” The only person who claimed Jack Daniels as her brand was a culturally anxious African-American girl who also liked to say, “Thank God for the boat,” and once posted a picture of herself wearing a bikini decorated with the Confederate flag. Among conservatives, in my experience, the comme il faut drink is good imported beer — and by “good,” I mean those Belgian lagers that look like maple syrup and sell for $15 per pint. When I admitted liking Stella Artois, people treated me like I had the palate of a billy goat. Before bellying up to a bottle of Yngling, President Obama demanded confirmation that it was brewed locally. He needn’t have bothered.

Now we arrive at the most sensitive subject of all: women. If you were impressed or alarmed to see America’s hockey moms close ranks for Palin, all I can say is, you should have seen the dads. Whatever pro forma endorsements conservative men may give to traditional gender roles, nothing gets them hot and bothered like a forceful conservative woman. In what I call the Iron Maiden Syndrome, women who plug tax cuts, unilateral military action or marriage protection laws reduce conservative men to such puddles of reverence that the effect verges on kinky. Not only does it work for women like Palin, Bachmann, Condoleeza Rice, Ann Coulter and Michelle Malkin, attractive by anyone’s standards, it works, retroactively, for Margaret Thatcher. Whether Hillary, had she switched parties and husbands, could have become a pin-up, is one of those what-ifs that could keep people up all night arguing.

So here’s my free advice to any GOP hopefuls: to bring the base into line, don’t pull a Howard Dean and start talking about pickup trucks with gun racks. Pour yourself a glass of Chimay and come out singing “Ape Man.” And if you’re a girl, wear those go-go boots.

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