Fall of the house of kitsch

Like Haggard and other GOP cultural warriors, Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld were empty historical characters -- faux "war heroes" who trafficked in style over substance.

Sidney Blumenthal
November 9, 2006 4:15AM (UTC)

The cultural crackup of conservatism preceded the final political result. For weeks before Election Day, prominent figures on the right threw themselves into their culture war only to be left in the trenches battered, scorned and disoriented. They were unable to shield themselves through their usual practices. Their prevarications were easily penetrated; derision hurled at their targets backfired; hypocrisy was fully exposed. These self-destructive performances were hardly peripheral to the campaign but instead at the heart of it.

The Bush administration and the Republican Congress could not defend themselves on their public record and urgently needed to change the subject. They required new fields of combat -- not the Iraq war, certainly not convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, convicted Rep. Duke Cunningham, investigated Rep. Mark Foley or indicted House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. So they launched offensives on Michael J. Fox's Parkinson's disease, Jim Webb's novels and gay marriage. Yet battle-hardened cultural warriors -- Rush Limbaugh, Lynne Cheney and the Rev. Ted Haggard, among others -- did not find themselves triumphant as in the 2004 campaign, but unexpectedly wounded at their own hands.


The president, vice president and secretary of defense, meanwhile, marched to their Maginot line to defend the fortifications of the "war president" and his war paradigm ("alternative interrogation techniques" ... "terrorist surveillance program" ... "terrorists win, America loses"). Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld behaved as though they were the latest in a straight line of descent from heroes past, inheritors of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Winston Churchill. Mythologizing themselves as they struggled to gain support for "victory," they sought to distract from catastrophe by casting deepening failure as inevitable success. Envious of the "Greatest Generation," they claimed its mantle. But elevating themselves into the latter-day versions of the leaders from World War II was delusional imitation as the highest form of self-flattery.

And now the first of the Bush "warrior-heroes" has fallen. Although President Bush had said he would keep Rumsfeld in his job until the end of his term, on Wednesday Bush announced Rumsfeld's resignation, naming former CIA director (under the elder Bush) Robert Gates as his replacement. Currently serving on the Iraq Study Group led by James Baker, secretary of state under the elder Bush, Gates remains close to the realist foreign policy circle that has been excluded and dismissed for six years. With Gates' appointment, it appears that the father is at last being acknowledged by his son.

The cultural style of the Bush warriors is the latest wrinkle in one of the most enduring modes of antimodern aesthetic expression. "Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas," wrote art critic Clement Greenberg in his seminal essay, "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," in 1939. "Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times."

Kitsch is imitative, cheap, sentimental, mawkish and incoherent, and derives its appeal by demeaning and degrading genuine standards and values, especially those of modernity. While the proponents of the faux retro style claim to uphold tradition, they are inherently reactive and parasitic, their words and products a tawdry patchwork, hastily assembled as declarations against authentic complexity and ambiguity, which they stigmatize as threats to the sanctity of an imaginary harmonious order of the past that they insist they and their works represent. Kitsch presumes to be based on old rules, but constantly traduces them.

The Bush kitsch warriors have created a cultural iconography that attempts to inspire deference to the radical making of an authoritarian presidency. These warriors pose as populists, fighting a condescending liberal elite. Wealthy, celebrated and influential, their faux populism demands that they be seen however as victims.

Having risen solely by association with sheer political power and economic force (News Corp., etc.), the cultural charlatans become the arbiters of social standing (especially in a capital lacking a secure and enduring establishment). In Washington, the more status-conscious elements of the press corps, aspiring to the shabby fringes of the talk-show media (the low end of the entertainment state), often serve as publicity agents in the guise of political experts, and it is from this platform that they then derive greater status. Indeed, the conservative kitsch cultural industry is centered in Washington, where Republican political power has protected philistinism from the ravages of cosmopolitanism, unlike in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago.


Under Ronald Reagan, conservative kitsch was the last nostalgic evocation for a glowing small-town America before the New Deal, with its raucous city dwellers, brain-trusters and an aristocratic president gleefully swatting "economic royalists." Reagan drew his raw material for "morning again in America" from an idealized view of his boyhood in Dixon, Ill., where his father was the town Catholic drunk, rescued at last only by a federal government job. Reagan also had a well of experience acting in movies romanticizing small-town life, produced by the Jewish immigrant moguls of Hollywood for whom these gauzy pictures enabled them to assimilate into a country that had richly rewarded them but in which they remained outsiders.

Bush's America contains no nostalgic evocation of small-town life. The scion of the political dynasty, raised in the oil-patch outpost of Midland, Texas, where the streets are named for Ivy League universities, and whose family retained its summer home in its New England base of Kennebunkport, Maine, attended all the right schools as a legacy, one of the last of his kind before more meritocratic standards were imposed and religious and racial quotas abolished. George W. Bush's inchoate resentment at the alteration of the world of his fathers impelled the son of privilege to align with the cultural warriors of faux populism.

The pathology of Bush's kitsch is the endless reproduction of vicarious hatred of the "other," who is the threat to the sanctity of what kitsch represents. The "other" lies beyond the image of the lurking terrorist to the lurking Democrat -- "America loses." "You're either with us or with the terrorists," Bush said famously. You either have a "pre-9/11" mind-set or a "post-9/11" one, according to his strategist Karl Rove, who carefully set the terms of demonization. In the great act of kitsch, Bush et al. apotheosized their fiasco in Iraq into a battle against Hitler -- "appeasers" ... "Islamofascism." By impersonating a historical context, they projected themselves into it.

Unlike the kitsch before and during the Reagan era, the Bush warriors' kitsch lies beyond unintentional camp. Their kitsch lacks more than irony or self-consciousness. It is deliberately sarcastic, mean-spirited, fearsome and fearful. Their unbridled bullying reveals their deep fears within. Their personal disintegrations expose what they fear most about themselves. Whether it is accused sexual harasser Bill O'Reilly (the biggest right-wing TV star), thrice-divorced drug addict Rush Limbaugh (the biggest radio star) or closeted gay drug abuser Ted Haggard, their self-destructive patterns invariably emerge.


The results of exit polls on Election Night 2006 showed that the voters were most outraged by "corruption," as well as the predictable issue of Iraq. This revulsion at "corruption" was more than the sordid wheeling and dealing of the Republican congressional barons. It was disgust at the moral hypocrisy and false sanctimony of the cultural warriors and the transparent fakery of Bush's imagery. The fate of the Senate turned on many contests, including crucial ones in Missouri and Virginia. In Missouri, an initiative that would authorize embryonic stem cell research that could lead to cures of many diseases divided the candidates. Actor Michael J. Fox made a TV commercial for the Democrat, Claire McCaskill. Looking straight into the camera, with no imagery other than his constantly swaying body, racked with the effects of his medication for Parkinson's disease, Fox made a simple appeal wholly on the basis of the stem cell research issue. Fox was a promising young actor whose his career came to a halt when his disease seized control of him. Now he plays only himself. Immediately, Rush Limbaugh was thrown into the breach against the new enemy. Earlier this year, he had declared, "What's good for al-Qaida is good for the Democratic Party in this country today." Mocking Fox by spastically wriggling in his chair as he spoke on his syndicated radio show, Limbaugh told listeners that Fox's jerky movements were "purely an act" and that he'd whack him "if you'd just quit bobbing your head." In the ensuing uproar, Limbaugh steadfastly refused to apologize. He depicted his mockery and physical threats as expressions of conservative conviction: "I stand by what I said. I take back none of what I said. I wouldn't rephrase it any differently. It is what I believe. It is what I think. It is what I have found to be true." As the criticism built, he acknowledged: "So I will bigly, hugely admit that I was wrong and I will apologize to Michael J. Fox, if I am wrong in characterizing his behavior on this commercial as an act."

Limbaugh's act as an embattled profile in courage continued to influence his followers. In Wyoming, the hard-pressed Republican incumbent, Rep. Barbara Cubin, after a televised debate, vented her frustrations by turning on her Libertarian opponent, Thomas Rankin, who has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair. "If you weren't sitting in that chair, I'd slap you across the face," she said. After apologizing, she explained that she had been inspired by Limbaugh's example in his attack on Fox. Cubin narrowly survived on Election Day. But, in Missouri, McCaskill ousted the Republican, Sen. James Talent, in an indispensable victory in turning the Senate Democratic. In Virginia, Sen. George Allen had planned for this race to serve as the trampoline for a presidential campaign in 2008, where he expected to become the consensus conservative candidate and thus the Republican nominee. His opponent, James Webb, had a résumé that not only included winning the Navy Cross in combat in the Vietnam War, and serving as Reagan's Navy secretary, but a career as an acclaimed novelist. His novels, based on his experience in Vietnam, are realistic, harsh and disturbing. For the beleaguered Allen and his Republican supporters, Webb's writings provided a source for out-of-context negative attacks. Scenes depicting unsettling sexual behavior were lifted to taint Webb as a pervert. Allen ran TV spots with Webb's words obliterated by huge red letters: "Censored." On Oct. 27, Lynne Cheney, wife of the vice president, who bills herself "Grandmother of the United States," but who is also an ardent conservative, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and ferocious former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities during the Reagan period (during which he established her bona fides as a cultural warrior), appeared on CNN to discuss her new children's book, "Our 50 States: A Family Adventure Across America," and to attack Webb's novels. "His novels are full of sexual explicit references to incest, sexually explicit references -- well, you know, I just don't want my grandchildren to turn on the television set," she told interviewer Wolf Blitzer. In fact, in 1981, she had published a novel, written in the kitsch softcore pornographic style of a Harlequin romance, featuring a bisexual heroine in the Old West. To wit: "The women who embraced in the wagon were Adam and Eve crossing a dark cathedral stage -- no, Eve and Eve, loving one another as they would not be able to once they ate of the fruit and knew themselves as they truly were." The attack on Webb as novelist failed; he narrowly defeated Allen. On Amazon.com used copies of Cheney's novel are selling for $495.

In Colorado, as Republicans tried to muster support for their candidates through a statewide initiative against gay marriage, a homosexual prostitute named Mike Jones disclosed that the Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, confidant and one of the most influential backers of President Bush, a participant in a weekly White House telephone conference call with evangelical leaders, was one of his regular clients for three years and also a purchaser of methamphetamine. After initially denying the accusations, Haggard resigned from his New Life Church in Colorado Springs and issued an apology. "I am a deceiver and a liar," he said. "There is a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I've been warring against it all of my adult life." Haggard's self-loathing confession continued his projective campaign against homosexuality as satanic, even within himself. However personal his drama, the fallout had a political effect. In Colorado, Democrats took the governorship and a congressional seat.


At the White House, on Oct. 25, Bush summoned a gaggle of conservative columnists to the Oval Office. He confided in them his self-comparison to presidents past. "That's what makes this more difficult -- I don't know what Harry Truman was feeling like, or Franklin Roosevelt."

The day before, the White House had summoned dozens of right-wing radio talk-show hosts to conduct interviews with officials to rally the Republican faithful before the election. Vice President Cheney, interviewed by Scott Hennen of WDAY in Fargo, N.D., posed as the virile tough guy. Hennen asked Cheney if he was in favor of waterboarding detainees, an interrogation technique that is a form of torture. "Would you agree a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?" "Well," said Cheney, "it's a no-brainer to me, but I -- for a while there, I was criticized as being the vice president for torture. We don't torture. That's not what we're involved in." For the next week, the White House issued a series of denials that Cheney had said anything about waterboarding or torture.

Rumsfeld, who had been holding forth for years about his fascination and identification with Churchill, on Oct. 26 held a peevish press conference at the Pentagon in which he said simply, "Back off." His analogies had run their course -- but by Wednesday he no longer needed them.


With their fabrication of faux identities, Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld were of a piece with the other cultural warriors. Fashioning themselves in the image of historical characters was ultimately fashion. Rather than the real things, they were impersonating the genuine articles. And after the judgment of Election Day, they were revealed as historical reenactors without the costumes.

Sidney Blumenthal

Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton, writes a column for Salon and the Guardian of London. His new book is titled "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime." He is a senior fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2006 Elections Dick Cheney Donald Rumsfeld George W. Bush Iraq War Robert Gates

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