"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
So Ann Coulter has done it again. She called John Edwards a “faggot” at a major conservative conference and everyone is outraged. But do we have to go through this ridiculous charade again? Nothing’s going to happen. This is old and profitable hat for the shameless buffoon who once compared Hillary Clinton to a prostitute (when Clinton was first lady, no less) and displayed her keen grasp of geopolitical strategy after 9/11 by declaiming, “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.” (Following her sage advice, George W. Bush acted on the first two recommendations, with splendid results, but the third, despite the best efforts of some of his holy pals, is proving difficult.) We all know that Coulter will emerge from this episode selling even more books, appearing on even more right-wing talk shows and being even more fanatically worshipped by her legions of fans. A few newspapers have dropped her column, and some GOP presidential candidates condemned her statement — who cares? As should be amply clear by now, there is virtually nothing that Ann Coulter can do that will cause her to be cast out of the bosom of the American right. And even if she was to lose her head and cross a line that even she can’t cross — calling Obama a “nigger” is about the only thing that would do the trick — a thousand hissing Coulters would spring up to take her place.
For this isn’t really about Coulter at all. This is about a pact the American right made with the devil, a pact the devil is now coming to collect on. American conservatism sold its soul to the Coulters and Limbaughs of the world to gain power, and now that its ideology has been exposed as empty and its leadership incompetent and corrupt, free-floating hatred is the only thing it has to offer. The problem, for the GOP, is that this isn’t a winning political strategy anymore — but they’re stuck with it. They’re trapped. They need the bigoted and reactionary base they helped create, but the very fanaticism that made the True Believers such potent shock troops will prevent the Republicans from achieving Karl Rove’s dream of long-term GOP domination.
It is a truism that American politics is won in the middle. For a magic moment, helped immeasurably by 9/11, the GOP was able to convince just enough centrist Americans that extremists like Coulter and Limbaugh did in fact share their values. But the spell has worn off, and they have been exposed as the vacuous bottom-feeders that they are.
It will be objected that Coulter, Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Michael Savage and their ilk are just the lunatic fringe of a respectable movement. But in what passes for conservatism today, the lunatic fringe is respectable. In the surreal parade of Bush administration follies and sins, one singularly telling one has gone almost entirely unremarked: Vice President Dick Cheney has appeared several times on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. Think about this: The holder of the second-highest office in the land has repeatedly chummed it up with a factually challenged right-wing hack, a pathetic figure only marginally less creepy than Coulter. Imagine the reaction if Al Gore, when he was vice president, had routinely appeared on a radio show hosted by, say, Ward Churchill. (The comparison is feeble: There really is no left-wing equivalent of Limbaugh, just as there is no left-wing equivalent of Father Coughlin or Joe McCarthy.) The entire American political system would melt down. Beltway wise men would trip on their penny loafers in their haste to demand Gore’s head. Robert Bork would come out of retirement to call for a coup to restore the caliphate, I mean the Judeo-Christian moral law in America. Yet the grotesque Cheney-Limbaugh love-in doesn’t raise an eyebrow. We’re so inured to the complete convergence of “respectable” conservatism and reactionary talk-radio ravings that we don’t even deem it worthy of comment.
The right in America has always flirted with various forms of gutter populism, but its latest incarnation may represent its lowest limbo-dance yet. It’s worth pausing for a moment to recall how this happened. Newt Gingrich, the adulterous moralist and demagogic hit man who led the vaunted Republican Revolution of 1994, is largely responsible for the GOP’s debased state, along with evangelical holy warriors — let’s call them Christo-jihadists — like Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed and James Dobson. In a reprise of Nixon’s “Southern strategy,” which used racist appeals to white Southerners to devastating political effect, Gingrich and the Christo-jihadists fired up the so-called values or social issues conservatives by ranting about guns, God and gays.
Just as important as Newt and the holy men was what former right-wing operative David Brock called “the Republican noise machine,” the well-funded media apparatus that ceaselessly broadcasts right-wing propaganda. Figures like Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and, of course, Ann Coulter, using the enormous power of the new Fox News network and of talk radio, whipped their audience into a resentful, self-righteous fury, raging against “godless secularists” and “liberal elites” who they blamed for the moral collapse of America. This vicious culture war played on the fear and confusion of traditional Americans confronting massive societal and cultural changes — a process brilliantly described in Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”
In fact, the right’s culture war was — and is — mostly bogus. Most of the deep societal changes it decried — the decline of community, the loss of religious faith, economic insecurity, selfishness, social atomization, anomie — cannot be blamed on liberalism: They are products of modernity itself and of the modern world’s triumphant economic system, capitalism. (Daniel Bell pointed this out more than 30 years ago in his 1976 classic “The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism.”) And those changes have been greatly exacerbated by the monopolistic, heck-of-a-job-Brownie, corporate-crony version of capitalism — one loudly championed by, naturally, the GOP. Other aspects of the right’s culture war are simply reactionary and/or unconstitutional, like its attack on science and its outrageous attempt to tear down the wall between church and state. There are some culture-war issues, like the fight over abortion, that are genuine moral cruxes and difficult to resolve. But even these have been made far more toxic and destructive than necessary by the right’s hysterical use of them as a bludgeon to attack its enemies.
But if the right’s culture war is almost entirely a fraud, and is one of the major factors behind the unraveling of the American polity, it paid big political dividends. The right’s embrace of “values” allowed it to stave off what should have been its inexorable decline. If the price is obeisance to an increasingly vulgar, bigoted, nativist, know-nothing and theocratic ideology — well, apparently it is better to survive as a slimy Gollum hungering after the Ring of Power than not to survive at all.
By rights, American conservatism should be dead or on life support by now. The ideology has always been incoherent, deeply divided between its libertarian, free-market wing and its traditionalist, “values” wing. As George H. Nash noted in his 1976 book “The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945,” a shared anti-communism and political convenience temporarily concealed these profound differences. Ronald Reagan’s anti-communism, and his sunny personality, allowed free-market conservatives to overlook the fact that government actually grew enormously on his watch. With a majority of Americans continuing to believe in Democratic social policies and programs, and demographic trends running in the Democrats’ favor, the right was facing disaster after Reagan’s exit and the fall of communism. It desperately needed a boogeyman to unify its unruly factions. Fortunately, conjuring up boogeymen has been a right-wing specialty since the days of the Know-Nothing movement.
First the right launched the culture war, a key part of which was demonizing the Clintons. This and a disgraceful Supreme Court decision sufficed to get a featherweight named George W. Bush named president. But Bush lived down to his résumé, and after his first year his approval ratings were tanking. The old culture-war tricks weren’t working anymore; the magic was wearing off. And then a miracle literally fell from the skies: 9/11.
The terror attacks were just what the right needed. It allowed it to fold “national security” into its culture war portfolio — a potent mixture, especially with Congress and the mainstream media drugged by patriotic fervor. Islamic terrorism was hastily dressed up as the new Red Menace, liberals were painted as Chamberlain-like appeasers, and all was well for a while. In 2004, Bush’s strategy of appealing to his base proved successful, despite his disastrous war on Iraq, and inspired GOP hopes that Rove’s dream of a decades-long realignment might prove true.
But the “Islamofascist” solution to the right’s woes proved to be short-lived. Bush’s bungled war on Iraq angered not just the old-style traditionalists, who tended to be isolationist, but the free-marketers and libertarians, who seethed as Bush busted the budget and squandered trillions of dollars on his war of choice. As for the neoconservatives, who dominated Bush’s administration, they never established themselves as a dominant political force to begin with, and they lost all credibility after the Iraq debacle.
That left only the base — the culture warriors for whom the battle over “values” trumps everything else, the zealots who brook no compromise. The problem is, no political movement led by its most extreme elements can win. The right’s culture warriors are too manifestly unhinged; their obsessive mean-spiritedness, more than their actual positions, leaves them out of the American mainstream, even out of the mainstream of the Republican Party. A movement figuratively led by the likes of Ann Coulter (or literally by Newt Gingrich, who is lurking on the sidelines, ready to run) cannot win a general election in this country. A red, white and blue banner inscribed with “Faggot!” may rally the hardcore, but most Americans will reject a politics based on hate and fear.
And they will do so in large part because they’ve been there and done that. The disastrous Bush presidency, which is certain to be recorded as one of the worst in American history, managed to stay politically afloat by making primal appeals to fear, revenge and patriotism. But like the boy who cried “wolf” — or, in this case, “terrorism!” — once too often, it has used up its fearmongering capital.
Episodes like the Coulter debacle make it all too clear, especially to the swing and independent voters and pragmatic Republicans who will decide the election, that the GOP’s base (which, by the way, is what “al-Qaida” means in Arabic) is a rather scary group. The GOP is reaping what it has sown. It preached hatred, fear and resentment for years, it whipped up the troops with apocalyptic rhetoric, and now it has created a core constituency that only too obviously reflects that negativity. Indeed, the Republican base increasingly defines itself not by positive values, which a true conservatism would affirm and which could hold broad appeal, but only by its partisan hatreds.
The sorry state of contemporary conservatism shows that there is an innate danger to civil society in letting loose the dogs of “values” — especially right-wing values. Because conservatives tend to believe more than liberals in good and evil, in a clear-cut, transcendental morality, a values-based politics for them quickly acquires not just an authoritarian cast, but an almost religious one. As we learned on 9/11, and observe every day in Iraq, religious zealotry is not conducive to reasoned discussions. When you have God, right and patriarchal authority on your side, anything goes. The result, among other things, is ugly psychosexual mudslinging like Coulter’s. As my Salon colleague Glenn Greenwald has pointed out, the right’s strategy is “to feminize … all male Democratic or liberal political leaders. For multiple reasons, nobody does that more effectively or audaciously than Coulter, which is why they need her so desperately and will never jettison her.”
Yet despite their supposed beliefs, a kind of nihilism, an intellectual sterility, emanates from the Coulters and Limbaughs of the world. This is in part due to the fact that they are, at bottom, entertainers, stand-up comedians of resentment. Their riffs are so facile and endless that they devour whatever actual beliefs supposedly stand behind them. Incapable of compromise or nuance, lashing out robotically, never finding common ground or examining their own ideas, they are shills of negativity, forever battling cartoonish monsters in a lurid, increasingly unrecognizable world. And most Americans, even conservative ones who may share some of their putative positions, are tired of their glib, empty paranoia. If these are the messengers, there must be something wrong with the message.
The GOP brain trust presumably knows this — but it doesn’t have any other cards to play. And as the feebleness of the right’s agenda becomes more and more apparent, we can expect the noise from figures like Coulter and Limbaugh to get louder and louder. But the tactic will not work — in fact, it is likely to backfire. And if the Republicans go down big in 2008, conservatives will finally be forced to confront the Frankenstein monster they created — and decide whether they dare get rid of it before it consigns their movement to oblivion. Based on their recent history, I don’t think they have the common sense to take out the garbage.
Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.More Gary Kamiya.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)