Yesterday, Mike Huckabee, the guitar-playing, Nugent-loving, ex-Governor preacher from Arkansas, announced that he is running for president. This was not unexpected, but it's always a treat to hear him give a full-blown speech. He's very talented, after all, at doing what he does best -- stoking resentment among the white working class and lifting up the spirits of social conservatives. Often they are the same people. And they are all Mike Huckabee's people.
In his speech yesterday, Huckabee hit all the right notes to get crowd excited. He pledged to repeal Obamacare and promised instead to adopt what he called a "curative approach," which means he thinks we should concentrate on curing diseases rather than treating them. It's an unusual policy, to say the least, but considering who he is and his background as a fundamentalist preacher it's always possible that he thinks this can be accomplished through faith healing. So there's that.
On the other hand, he heartily defended Social Security, a very wise move that you would think all the Republican candidates would adopt, considering the average age of their base voter. He also, however, defended Medicare against the encroachment of the evil Obamacare, following a successful GOP strategy since 2010: convincing the elderly that the federal government wants to put them all on the proverbial ice floe in order to give their hard earned health care to people who don't deserve it.
Huckabee also took a very hard line on national security, characterizing Islamic militants in serpentine terms:
When I hear our current president say he wants Christians to get off their high horse so we can make nice with radical jihadists, I wonder if he could watch a Western from the 50s and be able to figure out who they good guys and the bad guys really are. As president, I promise you that we will no longer try to merely contain jihadism, we will conquer it! We will deal with jihadis just as we would deal with deadly snakes.
Once again showing his savvy recognition of the age of his likely voter, he evoked an image only people who were born in the first half of the 20th century would understand. (People of more recent vintage might just think the "bad guys" of those movies were the intended "good guys," and vice versa.) It's fair to say that Huckabee, like most of the GOP pack, promises a national security policy based on old cowboy movies. (And it wouldn't be the first time.)
He also went right at the social conservatives with fiery rhetoric about "the slaughter of over 55 million babies in the name of choice." In case you didn't know it before, he also explained that the United States is criminalizing Christianity. (It's unclear if this is just a new front in the long simmering War on Christmas or if a wider war against the entire religion has broken out.)
Taking aim at his rivals in both parties he played up his average Joe personal background to the hilt.
"I don’t have a global foundation or a taxpayer-funded paycheck to live off of. I don’t come from a family dynasty, but a working family. I grew up blue collar, not blue blood.”
This pitch is vintage Huckabee -- all about how he raised himself up from his bootstraps and never forgot where he came from, a tried and true All-American archetype. Why he could be Abraham Lincoln. But what makes Huckabee different is his perfect grasp of the Republican politics of resentment. Huckabee is probably the most pure rightwing populist in the race.
Conor Kilpatrick discussed this particular aspect of the rightwing personality in this recent piece in the Baffler. In it, Kilpatrick explains that as the child of conservative parents he had grown up listening to the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity in the car. And he observes that, just as the left has developed a theory of "privilege," so too has the right. In fact, it's a cornerstone of their philosophy:
With conservative politics, there’s a consistent logic. And a huge part of it is an attack on what they see as a series of unjust and unfair “privileges” being protected by a liberal state.
For decades, the conservative movement has taken advantage of the malaise of the labor movement in order to turn wage earners against unionized workers. With their hard-won benefits and higher wages, unionized workers are, after all, “privileged” members of the working class.
How many hours has Limbaugh & Co. done on the lazy United Automobile Workers thug who gets paid $70 an hour to screw a light bulb into a Chevy? Or the “rubber rooms” full of tenured public school teachers who can’t be fired ’cause of their damn union? Just look at how handily Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was able to turn the bulk of his state — including the working class — against “privileged” public sector employees.
When the social-democratic parties of the Western world chose neoliberal policy solutions over the material interests of the working class, it was the Right who stepped in there too — arguing that immigrant families were “privileged” beneficiaries of social programs that workers fought for throughout the twentieth century.
There are so many examples of this that one could write a book. I'll just take one relatively recent canard from a few years ago, set forth by Rush Limbaugh, who claimed that activist Sandra Fluke wanted the taxpayers to pay for her birth control:
"What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She's having so much sex she can't afford contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.
Mike Huckabee agreed:
"If the Democrats want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government, then so be it
Both of these salt-of-the-earth millionaires claimed that women who merely wanted their health insurance to cover the cost of contraception (something which close to 100 percent of women will have used in their lifetime at some point) were seeking a privilege at the expense of hard working taxpayers --- to subsidize their sex lives.
This issue was a threefer: They got to degrade women, titillate their mostly male audience with sexy talk and, most importantly, ram home the idea that the only people who deserve government benefits are the nice, white traditional families who vote Republican. They've earned it while everyone else is mooching off of Uncle Sugar.
Kilpatrick points out that these wealthy conservatives often look to other countries to contrast them with the American poor and note that they have cell phones and TVs and microwaves! How privileged can you get.?And for those who might weakly complain about having the food stamps cut, Sean Hannity, who reportedly got a 5-year contract for 100 million dollars is there to provide some helpful hints:
I don't believe people are going to bed hungry. Do you know how much, do you ever go shopping? I go sometimes but I hate it. Do you ever go? ... you can get, for instance I have friends of mine who eat rice and beans all the time. Beans protein, rice. Inexpensive. You can make a big pot of this for a week for negligible amounts of money and you can feed your whole family.
Look, you should have vegetables and fruit in there as well, but if you need to survive you can survive off it. It's not ideal but you could get some cheap meat and throw in there as well for protein. There are ways to live really, really cheaply
So stop your (empty)-bellyaching, poor people.
Each of these conservative lines ignores the ruling class at the top and, instead, drives our attention elsewhere. Never once does the conservative’s search for “privilege” blow back in his face and land on the capitalist class in general.
The Right deploys privilege politics to avoid class politics, obscuring just where the real wealth, power, and, yes, privilege lies in our society. Clearly, there’s something about this tactic that’s conducive to the conservative mission. They’ve been using it for decades now.
And they're going to keep using it. The only question is which GOP hopeful will be the most successful at tapping into that deep vein of resentment that lies at the heart of the modern conservative project. Huckabee is very good. But they have all been marinating in the juices of right wing victimization for so long that any of them could probably pull it off.