“Because one can almost feel it: what a bleak and merciless world this host lives in – believes, nay, knows for an absolute fact he lives in. I’ll take doubt.” – David Foster Wallace, “Host”
Recently departed Nixon speechwriter and grammar police commissioner William Safire once wrote that liberals were, “nattering nabobs of negativism.” For years after, on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times, Safire’s unshakable optimism in the power of the capitalist marketplace to not only encourage but actually cause freedom and prosperity shone like a beacon for the conservative faithful. There’s no evidence that Safire ever looked over the state of his party and despaired in his last years, but that fundamental optimism that he embodied seems entirely absent from Republican rhetoric these days.
Glenn Beck weeps for America. Lou Dobbs, framed by the American flag, implies that journalism can effect no positive change on immigration reform, his signature issue. Limbaugh goes apeshit when the President has the temerity to be photographed saluting American troops during their final homecoming. Health care reform will lead to piles of emaciated bodies bulldozed into mass graves, if you believe the Tea Partiers.
Leaving aside the question of whether or not the right’s objections have any basis in reality, one wonders to whom this apocalyptic rhetoric is designed to appeal. Reagan was the Great Optimist. Bush 43 believed that America represented freedom and the right to be free and the ultimate in free market freedom of choice to be free. Eisenhower may not have been sunny, but his faith in international alliances, his backing of civil rights and his vigorous opposition to Communism all showed his commitment to improving the state of life in the United States and the world at large. These three Republicans had a great many policies that Democrats considered absurd or even abhorrent, but the underlying message of the two-termers was neither chilly nor disastrous.
The New Right hates the direction the country is moving in and proclaims it loudly, honestly, openly. Which is rather refreshing, truth be told. However, their opposition has little relation to the policy or style of Democrats now in power. The issues that galvanize the various fringes of the conservative wing into a mass of angry protest can’t be framed in a positive manner. Economic protectionism, anti-immigrant fervor and a foreign policy of isolationism have been championed by the right for as long as there’s been a right. One of the many reasons that Eisenhower ran for President in the early 1950s was his disagreement with Republican leadership on the best method of opposing Communism. His main opponent for the Republican nomination, Senator Robert Taft, was a long-time isolationist who wanted the United States to stay out of foreign affairs unless attacked, at which point the entire nuclear arsenal be used to annihilate the enemy. Eisenhower, the general, played the dove to Taft’s end-of-times preaching and carried the day.
Because this is the thing: doom and gloom about the plight of white men in America might get you elected to Congress and even, if your state is small or loony enough, the Senate. But George W. Bush didn’t achieve the White House by claiming that Americans who pay a 50% tax rate were slaves, as Representative Michelle Bachmann recently said to a conservative group in Colorado. Ronald Reagan may not have agreed with anything that Jimmy Carter said, thought or did, but he never compared him to Hitler, as Representative Paul Broun did last November. If you want to be a national governing party, you have to say things that appeal to people. My family loathed Reagan with special fervor because he was such a fine salesman that people didn’t realize they were being bamboozled until it was too late.
It’s all right with me if the right-wing style of Limbaugh, Gingrich, Bachmann and Palin continues to sink the fortunes of mainstream Republicans. As the demographics of the country continue to change, opposing everything will become a harder and harder sell. After all, if the choice is between spending time listening to speeches about how awful the world is and America’s in decline and the President just might be the anti-Christ or a hopeful assessment of challenges and how we’ll meet them as a courageous and optimistic people, no matter how doubtful the outcome, which side would you choose?