Note: this item was originally published on October 12, 2008
Conservatives are going to start claiming that the 2008 election will be “stolen by goons and hooligans,” that “Dems caused the financial crisis” and that Obama is a ”secret radical/terrorist sympathizer” — and they are going to throw John McCain right under a bus if he doesn’t play along.
Dedicated movement conservatives can read the poll numbers as well as anyone else and, in the last few days, they have started to see that John McCain may very well lose this election.
They can live with that. They have been in opposition before – like the Clinton years – and they can figure out a political strategy to follow once they are in opposition. But they are also aware that an Obama victory poses a threat of unprecedented dimensions to their brand of conservatism. It is the kind they like to call “existential” – a threat to their very existence.
Coming after an intensely fought election campaign with a compelling — indeed mediagenic, rock- star cultural conservative like Sarah Palin on the Republican ticket, a strong Obama victory would imply:
That most Americans don’t actually share cultural conservative’s vision of themselves as “the real America,” opposed by only a minority of educated elites.
That most Americans don’t share the view that Obama and Democrats are essentially un-American and unpatriotic.
That most Americans do, in fact, believe that it was eight years of Republican pro-free market policies that created the current economic crisis.
This, conservatives simply cannot accept. As a result, in the last few days, we have seen the beginnings of the new conservative narrative start to emerge from Steve Schmidt’s Rovian media operation within the McCain campaign. The key elements of this new narrative are as follows:
1. That Barack Obama is not only actually a secret radical/terrorist sympathizer but that there has been a vast and concerted conspiracy by “the mainstream media filter” to hide this truth from voters.
2. That leading Dems including Nancy Pelosi, Barney Frank and Harry Reed are the primary culprits in the current financial crisis
3. That primarily Black “goons and hooligans” are going to steal the election.
Each of these new tropes has been launched by one or more of the major McCain campaign ads in the last few days and each is widely repeated and reinforced by extensive viral e-mail campaigns.
As a result, each of these notions is already being reflected directly back to McCain in the remarks his supporters are making to him at his town meetings – remarks like the woman who insisted that Obama is actually “an Arab” or “a terrorist” or the men who argued that McCain should get “the names of the people responsible for the crisis and punish them” and that “goons and hooligans” are going to steal the election.
When McCain finally felt obligated to speak up and disagree with these distortions last Friday he was roundly booed by his own supporters – and it will only get worse after the election. If McCain does not rigidly stick to the new conservative script that Steve Schmidt has handed him to read and he loses the election, the conservatives – including Sarah – “et tu, Brutus” – Palin – will turn on him like wild hyenas.
If you think Democrats have been mean to McCain this year, just wait until you hear the conservatives rip him apart after the election. They will call him a “weakling,” “a bumbling fool” and a “senile, doddering old man who let an easy victory escape him.” “After all,” they will add knowingly, “he was never really a true conservative to start with.” This “the loss was all McCain’s fault” rationalization will actually provide the fourth and final element of the new conservative narrative.
This may seem cruel, but conservatives really have little choice except to explain the election in this way because a key part of their world view is an unrelenting insistence that politics is a simple morality play of good vs. evil — with themselves invariably in the heroes’ role. In this storyline Conservatives are always basically right and always essentially pure – they do not make fundamental mistakes or display major moral and ethical failings (if an individual conservative does any of these things, it simply proves that he or she was not actually a “real” conservative to begin with).
Thus, the new Steve Schmidt conservative narrative will make it possible for conservatives to continue to claim after the election that the American people don’t really support Barack Obama (they were tricked), that Republican policy did not really cause the current economic crisis (Democrats did) and that true conservatism was not really rejected by the American people (just the overly timid and bumbling John McCain).
This will then provide the foundation for the kind of intense “take no prisoners- politics is warfare” stance that conservatives will want to embrace after the election. The Obama administration will be described as basically “illegitimate” and conservatives will assert that they therefore have no obligation to support it. The Republican minority in congress will describe itself as a “government in exile” and they will identify their various attempts to block initiatives by the Democratic majority as heroic acts of resistance to tyranny rather than minority obstructionism.
This was essentially the public relations approach the Gingrich forces in Congress used after the 1992 elections and the new approach will unfold along similar lines. But the situation today is far more perilous than in 1992. In 1992 (1) Bill Clinton could be stereotyped as a 60’s student radical, (2) working class voters’ sense of alienation from the government could be channeled into the quasi-military militia movement and (3) religious conservatives could withdraw into various relatively isolated religious sects and communities, all without putting intolerable stresses on the American political system (although, as the Oklahoma bombings illustrated, serious risks were indeed present).
Today, in contrast, the economic crisis has put millions of Americans in very desperate financial distress. Huge numbers of Americans have seen their retirement savings shrink catastrophically and many will also see layoffs and unemployment as well. In these circumstances, a conservative narrative that descends into stereotyping a Black president as a “secret radical” or near-traitor and that scapegoats leading Democrats as conniving in the creation of a financial disaster will have far greater consequences. The danger of unleashing a genuinely dangerous wave of political extremism and social hysteria is vastly larger. The cliché of the powder keg and the match is not inaccurate.
For Democrats, the situation after the election will demand a painful degree of political maturity and prudence. After a likely major electoral victory there will be a powerful desire to try to settle old scores and to openly gloat in the discomfiture of opponents who were so contemptuous of Dems when they were in power.
But, while the conservative leaders’ motives in making patently false and demagogic accusations may seem transparently cynical and easy to dismiss, their followers’ motives are not. These will be ordinary Americans driven deep into desperation by economic reversals and urgently seeking someone to blame for their situation. To prevent them from being swayed by demagogic slogans and accusations, Dems will have to calmly and sympathetically listen to their doubts and dark suspicions and systematically discuss and review page after page of facts and evidence with them, patiently and without anger demonstrating that the lurid accusations against Obama and the Dems are simply and categorically false.
“Intellectual” conservatives, on the other hand will face an even more difficult challenge. In recent days, a parade of respected conservatives – George Will, David Brooks, Christopher Buckley – have openly broken with the McCain/Palin campaign. After the election, however, the balance of power within the Republican Party and conservative movement will shift decisively toward the right-wing culture warriors. The diminished number of jobs and prestige posts will go to “politics as warfare” militants who will have no scruples about passionately defending the utterly false and demagogic accusations at the heart of the emerging conservative narrative. There will not be many cushy beltway jobs around for university trained conservatives who think of genuine conservatism as an intellectually serious philosophy that traces its linage back to Adam Smith and Edmund Burke, rather than to populist demagogues like John Birch, Spiro Agnew, Patrick Buchannan and George Wallace.
It will be interesting to see how many serious conservatives choose to uphold personal integrity and intellectual honesty when, for the first time in their professional lives, they have to make actual sacrifices of comfort and career to defend these virtues. Hopefully, there will be many who rise to the occasion. Democrats actually write better laws when they have their assumptions systematically challenged by intellectually honest conservatives and while many ordinary Republicans will not listen to criticisms leveled by Democrats, they may pay more attention to warnings from men and women who have been part of the conservative world for decades, but who recognize with a cold and clammy sense of repulsion the dark echoes of 20th century history inherent in the stereotyping and scapegoating that are a central element of the new conservative narrative now being unveiled.