Sunday, October 19, 2008
Germans had been shaken to their roots by defeat in 1918. The emotional impact was all the more severe because German leaders had been trumpeting victory until a few weeks before. So unbelievable a calamity was easily blamed on traitors.
The Anatomy of Fascism
With the prospect of a bone-crushing election defeat staring them full in the face, the diehard rump of the conservative movement is already busy fashioning a narrative to explain the dissolution of its world -- the one that Ronald Reagan built and that George W. Bush (with an assist from Wall Street) has thoroughly trashed.
And the emerging story line appears to be, roughly, that ACORN did it.
Given the underlying proclivities of the modern conservative movement (Sarah Palin division) we should have understood that sooner or later it would come to something as absurd as this. Failed authoritarian movements needs scapegoats the way fecal coliform bacteria need a steady supply of raw sewage, and this one has a lot of failures that need explaining.
The remarkable thing, of course, is the right's effort to make the ACORN boogie man do double duty: responsible not only for the looming "theft" of American democracy (per John McCain) but also for bringing the US and global financial system to its knees (per any number of conservative
quacks economists and cranks pundits).
You have to admit: That's a damned impressive revolutionary track record for an obscure group of community organizers operating on a shoestring budget. I mean, who needs the Red Army when you've got ACORN and the Community Reinvestment Act?
It would be easy to dismiss this lunacy as a manifestation of what the social scientist Richard Hofstader called the "paranoid style" in American politics. And some liberals have already made the connection. As far as the grassroots hysterics are concerned(i.e. the sort of people who are obsessed with the kerning and font size on Barack Obama's "alleged" birth certificate) this is no doubt true.
But I think by now it's also very clear that the GOP high commmand -- as far back as the Twin Cities white power rally, if not before -- deliberately adopted the demonization of ACORN/community organizers/the poor as a proxy for the hatred that no longer dares to speak its real name (except at the occasional Sarah Palin rally).
I think this strategy serves two purposes. One is obvious: to play upon traditional racial and class resentments to try to win back middle-class and working-class voters who might otherwise be waivering as they watch their jobs, their homes and their already inadequate retirement savings go spinning around the hole in the bottom of the economic toilet bowl.
We can take a page from John Lewis and call this the George Wallace gambit -- not the Wallace of the stand in the schoolhouse door or the bridge at Selma, but rather the Wallace who ran for president in 1968, '72 and '76 and managed to attract quite a few Northern Democratic votes with his attacks on school busing, affirmative action, fair housing laws and other examples of "social engineering" foisted upon Regular Joe (Joe Sixpack's dad and Joe the Plumber's granddad) by Ivy League professors and pointy-headed government bureaucrats.
Exactly who was supposed to benefit from all that social engineerin' was left unsaid, just as it is today.
Students of American politics know that Wallace's populist rabble rousing was quickly expropriated by the GOP and -- watered down for respectable middle-class consumption -- became one of the weapons used by Richard Nixon and his pit bull of a running mate, Spiro Agnew (Sarah Palin with jowls) to crack open the New Deal coalition.
The ACORN monster, in other words, is a stock character out of a play the Republicans have been performing with mind-numbing efficiency for the past 40 years -- making it the political equivalent of what The Fantasticks is for suburban dinner theater.
Given that the same attacks have been used, in some form or another, against a long line of lily white Democratic candidates, it would be unfair to characterize them as coded attempts to make an issue of Obama's race per se. That's a line the GOP high command apparently is still not willing to cross, even as coded attacks on Obama's alleged "foreignness" (i.e. his middle name) have become the order of the day. It is, however, an obvious coded attack (and very lightly coded at that) on the inner-city poor. And in American political slang, "inner-city poor" is simply a five-syllable substitute for "black".
However, as the McCain campaign descends into bitter futility (clinging to its guns and its religion all the way) and the band of the USS Republican Party assembles on deck to strike up "Near My God to Thee," the anti-ACORN hysteria is starting to look less like a coherent campaign attack and more like a post-defeat rationalization. Clearly, conservatives are preparing themselves to take a knockout punch. Unfortunately it appears a big part of this psychological armouring will be convincing themselves the election was stolen, not lost. Even worse: stolen by the same "socialist" extremists who destroyed the American economy by forcing the banks to give loans to the n------.
This, of course, is not how the new stabbed-in-the-back myth will be expressed in polite conservative company (i.e. among the David Brooks and Ross Douthats of the world). But anyone who doubts that is the way it will be internalized among the many new members of the Sarah Palin Fan Club simply hasn't been paying attention.
Choosing ACORN (and/or its constituents) as the scapegoat for the implosion of the biggest credit bubble in American history and, simultaneously, a wholly fictional attempt to steal a presidential election, may seem like a bit much. Why not pick on someone a bit more believable -- like, say, the demon id from Forbidden Planet?
The GOP at times has tried to do this -- citing, variously, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the Democrats in Congress (i.e., the demon id from Forbidden Planet) and greed and corruption on Wall Street as the prime villains. But for various reasons (such as the fact that Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager, was a Fannie Mae lobbyist, or that Wall Street is the ideological Vatican of the same militant free market doctrine that modern conservatism has sworn to defend) none of these have proven very satisfactory. As I once noted of the effort to blame the nearly invisible anti-war movement for the debacle in Iraq:
The best scapegoat is one that is both blameless and weak. Blameless, because it relieves the truly guilty parties of the need to decide who among them must take the fall. Weak, because the guilty themselves have been weakened by defeat, and even a modest defense might enable a truly blameless set of scapegoats to convince the country of their innocence.
Given the fratricidal war brewing on the right over which faction (neo, paleo or psycho) is responsible for conservativism's 1918, that comment appears particularly relevant now.
We don't need to hark back to the unfortunate history of a certain Central European country in the 1930s to understand how poisonous this kind of political myth making can become. Powerful elements of the Republican Party and the conservative "movement" aren't just preparing themselves to go into opposition, they're preparing themselves to dispute the legitimacy of an Obama presidency -- in ways that could, if taken to extreme, lead to another Oklahoma City.
It's hard to tell to what degree the GOP high command fully understands or is trying to feed these dynamics (indeed, it's becoming increasingly difficult to even tell who the GOP high command is these days). The last thing I want to do is get into an arms race with the wingnut right when it comes to paranoid conspiracy theories. (That's one race the left will always lose). Still, the recent statements of John McCain and his Bircher-influenced running mate aren't exactly reassuring:
My opponent's answer showed that economic recovery isn't even his top priority. His goal, as Senator Obama put it, is to "spread the wealth around."
You see, he believes in redistributing wealth, not in policies that help us all make more of it. Joe, in his plainspoken way, said this sounded a lot like socialism.
I've been following politics for going on 35 years now, and I don't think I've ever heard a Republican candidate publicly refer to his Democratic opponent as a "socialist" -- not even while hiding behind a cardboard cutout like "Joe the Plumber". This from a man who told the entire nation on Wednesday night that believes an obscure nonprofit group is "perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy."
Likewise, I don't think there's ever been an American vice presidential candidate who explicitly referred to entire regions of the United States as "pro-American" -- with the clear implication that other regions are something less than "pro-American." Not since the Civil War, anyway.
We've crossed some more lines, in other words -- in a long series of lines that have made it increasingly difficult to distinguish between the ultraconservative wing of the Republican Party and an explicitly fascist political movement. And John McCain and his political handlers appear to have no moral compunctions whatsoever about whipping this movement into a frenzy and providing it with scapegoats for all that hatred, simply to try to shave a few points off Barack Obama's lead in the polls.
To call this "country first" only works if you assume your opponents (and scapegoats) are not really part of that same country. And we all know where that leads.
It may lead us there yet, or to something like it. Middle class America has clearly entered a prolonged period of economic pain -- on top of the existing climate of cultural disorientation and rapid demographic change. Conventional assumptions (401k plans are an adequate substitute for company pensions; black men can't be elected president) are toppling left and right. Scapegoats that seem remotely plausible only to the most deranged partisans may appear less fantastic to the apolitical majority by and by. And even a party that has nothing left to offer America but fear itself may eventually find itself in a seller's market.