Chris Christie roared onto the presidential campaign stage calling out his onetime pal, President Obama, for being “weak.” He labeled the economy as “weak,” U.S. foreign policy as “weak,” and the president’s style of governance as a “handwringing” incompetence. Christie’s theme is not just his, though; it seems to dominate the Republican candidates’ critique of any Democratic leader whose approach to the larger world refrains from their over-the-top bluster. The real question, though, is what makes the Republicans think theirs is the party of strength? What lies behind their in-your-face, Clint Eastwood-style American bravado?
For one, the macho pose ironically owes some of its inspiration to the famed breeder and hockey mom Sarah Palin, who adopted as her motto “going rogue,” which was actually a euphemism for departing from the facts. Now another untamed candidate, Donald Trump, sees nothing wrong in maligning a sizable percentage of Mexican immigrants as roving rapists; instead of recognizing his irresponsible comments for what they are, a certain slice of the Republican electorate has insisted that he was merely saying what others are thinking but haven’t the guts to voice publicly.
Guts? Another word for the wing-nut rhetorical method is “gall,” which in linguistic terms takes us even closer to the internal bitterness that oozes from angry mouths in the form of hypocritical taunts. Hispanic immigrant Ted Cruz is so viscerally troubled by the Hispanic immigrant problem that he must sound the alarm louder than his colleagues, who have less to prove on that score. Piyush “Bobby” Jindal, exudes a gargantuan impatience with all foreigners who refuse to shed their foreign skin. One narcissist’s blanched bigotry meets another narcissist’s self-denial. The common denominator is how loudly each feels impelled to proclaim his or her visceral rejection of the imaginary force of human pollution that Democrats define, less fearfully, as a respect for difference. When it comes to foreigners, the Dems’ watchwords of “sensitivity” and “moderation” are characterized as “weakness” in the GOP lexicon.
The Democrats' thoughtful restraint may in fact be accompanied by unspoken, behind-the-scenes intelligence collection and terror elimination activities, but the Republicans have constructed a narrative that paints Democrats as physically, constitutionally weak. Though it hasn’t succeeded of late, and isn’t even true, Republicans attach to themselves a well-practiced, “reality-based” focus on reactive power. They yell at the camera that the American ideal is something marked by uncompromising strength, and only one party will “stand up” for that America.
Here’s the problem with their Eastwood logic. The notion that the louder the verbal attack, the more real it is, is as idiotic at yelling at an empty chair. Indeed, to rely on rudeness to convey one’s mind is, sadly, childlike. Trump and Christie resemble high school punks more than prospective statesmen. It is fitting, in that sense, that Christie staged his campaign kickoff at his alma mater, Livingston High School. Perhaps he really believes that it was here that the New Jersey governor attained manhood. He reminds us that he was a star catcher on the varsity baseball team, a point of pride he used to belittle Port Authority executive David Wildstein during the Bridgegate scandal: poor, nerdy David was not his friend, not in his crowd, but strictly a member of the chess team. It was in this “Back to the Future” episode that the line between the nerds and jocks was permanently drawn: a mindset, a small worldview, in which the scripts for future success are found in yearbooks. Trump, too, recalls out loud his educational background as a young student of business, whose promise was readily apparent at a tender age -- all to pose questions about phony, unAmerican Barack Obama: “Nobody remembers him” until “Barry” suddenly appeared as a pot-smoking college student. Are we to assume that democracy is like high school -- a place where uncensored arrogance triumphs? Is that where these Republicans are trapped?
Let’s go a bit deeper. In politics, rudeness seems to be, at least at this moment, a white male privilege. What would it look like if the careful, ruminative President Obama suddenly became as forward and obnoxious as Chris Christie? He would be an out-of-control black man. Or if Hillary Clinton snarled like Trump? The ravenous press would have a field day, remaking her into the heartless mogul Leona Helmsley, or the poisonous Lucrezia Borgia, or the evil queen in “Snow White.”
Here is the obverse image transformation to ponder: Louisiana’s Jindal is as close-shaven and clean-cut as they come, but he has gone overboard to befriend the “Duck Dynasty” clan; they represent his main constituency these days. Sure, NRA-supported candidates will don camouflage and go out for some photo-op weekend hunting; but imagine how Republicans would react to Jindal if he sported a bandana and grew a long, scraggily beard. Despite his constant call for everyone who loves America to be a “real” and not a hyphenated American, the Robertson clan’s hillbilly chic only works on white men’s bodies.
What do the faux-macho Republican candidates think it takes to belong to the proud American past they have manufactured and seek to “recover”? In the Trump-Christie tell-it-like-it-is Eastern boastfulness or the Cruz-Jindal self-reinventing backcountry Gothic, we have the perverse appropriation of a make-believe Western narrative, one that functions as a mirror image of the nineteenth century’s romance with “Manifest Destiny.” Like then, nativist dismissal of inferior others still accompanies an exaggerated rhetoric of America’s bigness and irresistibility.
Our current GOP candidates’ love for a folksy “democracy of manners” dates back to the 1840s, the first time that educated men saw that they could get elected to state or national office by dressing down and appealing to voters as “log cabin” types. That same fascination with commonness was revived in the 1940s, when a host of down-home candidates strummed their way into office: Ohio-reared Wilbert Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel became a governor, then senator from Texas after he wrote little ditties and performed on the radio (and was the only politician who ever defeated Lyndon Johnson at the polls). The “singing cowboy” Glen Taylor was elected to the Senate from Idaho; Louisiana Governor Jimmy Davis was yet another actor and country crooner, who composed the memorable “You are My Sunshine.” So, Canadian-born Cruz’s Texas twang and Rhodes scholar Jindal’s constant reference to his stupid cowboy boots are nothing new. Remember Mitt Romney in mom jeans? Politicians have been pretending to humble themselves before the almighty voter, and largely getting away with it, for ages.
On another level, the macho bragging that Trump and Christie excel at (or at least can’t resist) allows them to go against type, to distance themselves from the “Northern liberal” stigma. Dr. Ben Carson is another perfect example of this phenomenon. The neurosurgeon Carson rejects his educational background, when it comes to social issues, by finding his inner Ann Coulter and lashing out with the refinement of your average high school bigot. Ivy League darlings like Cruz and Jindal have to go out of their way to make up for pampered educations. Any chance they get, they scream: Hey, look at me, all them liberal manners ain’t infectin’ my “real American” social fiber!
As masters of illogic, the GOP presidential wannabes have to hate “Big Government” so much that they are the ones best qualified to head the federal government. Beltway insiders become Washington outsiders with a flip of the switch. All to satisfy an ego that is still, somehow, trapped in the fantasy of being the hero of the high school football game that they never actually played in. They pretend they have the guts to plow over this or that foreign enemy: Putin, ISIS, Iran. Trump makes the ridiculous claim that he will force Mexico to build a wall to keep all their trashy people in their own country. So far, he’s the only one of these egotists to make so outlandish a boast; the others are not quite so strung out, so that their fake promises appear to have at least a tiny atom of possibility.
The new purveyors of the old “democracy of manners,” aided by the poll-driven, media-manic, “Hollywood Squares” game show that is pre-election 2016, forcibly cast America in a truly B movie. Nothing about Republican primary theatrics has a single relevant thing to say about the qualifications of the candidates to behave as president in the way a reasoning chief executive like Barack Obama does on a constant basis. Instead of improving on the Obama presidency, or fending off the next Democrat with policy ideas, the Republicans are all trying to be Elvis. They think primary voters are unpolished, and that acting unpolished is how you command that audience and solicit their votes.
It’s called the “clown car,” and still, no one in the limelight seems to bat an eyelash at this transparent tactic, save for the ultimate child of privilege, John “Jeb” Bush, and even he has a folksy first name. Of those taken seriously, the only real outlier is libertarian ideologue Rand Paul (with his designated political persuasion contained in the name he was given at birth). Paul is a nepotistic creation, who only garners attention by making, and then defending, and then walking back, a controversial remark.
So, the Republican Party has a candidate makeover for every cockeyed political taste. Rick Perry imagines that, like Superman, he can disguise his dubiously informed self by wearing thinking man’s glasses. The college-dropout union-buster Scott Walker reaches for the Koch Brothers-purchased voter. And then there’s the Republican version of eye-candy, Marco Rubio, a moderately competent lawyer who can’t manage his own finances but likes to live large, and is therefore the fiscal conservative to get the economy on track.
Competence has no part in the GOP proceedings. They don’t really say so, but Jeb Bush is this year’s Romney, scion of past Republican orthodoxy; and the ill-mannered, tough-talking outsider, whoever that may be at any given moment, is out there in search of a camera-ready opportunity, hoping, by some chance, Jeb will fail. Thus, half of the so-called clowns are half-heartedly trying to dethrone the next President Bush-in-waiting. (Or, perhaps, trying to command enough attention to qualify as Jeb’s running mate.) Since any other approach would look boring, their method involves claiming outsider status in the most convincing way they can come up with. In the Republicans’ Bizarro World, candidates who protect billionaires from government regulation pretend that they are running for president to break down existing barriers between the ruling elite and the common man. Like Pappy O’Daniel and the singing cowboy from Idaho, they all need a gimmick.
This is phony populism, and they are not so much clowns as a few hidden intellects, and the rest egocentric mediocrities -- all conning the public. Unsuccessful governors tell you that being hated is a virtue. When a Jindal, a Christie or a Walker takes pride in being hated for his callous treatment of unions, journalists and regular citizens; or a job-killing ex-CEO Carly Fiorina defends doing “what needed to be done,” they insist that it only means they are willing to make the hard choices that will ultimately benefit the public, and that, if elected, they will next clean out the stables in the scandalous national capital. Through some imaginary act of purification, the downtrodden people they are speaking to will be empowered. That’s the con.
The last time this impulse worked was with Andrew Jackson, the first presidential candidate to have commissioned his own campaign biography. He had so little experience in governance that he had to make up for the absence in his record by popularizing grand tales of military exploits on the savage frontier. He tarred the candidates who opposed him as wimpy, sedentary men seated at their desks, who didn’t know how to confront the dangers of the world as he did. He gave it to the Indians in Alabama, gave it to the Spanish across Florida -- both lesser peoples -- and most spectacularly gave it to the British at the Battle of New Orleans, which we might analogize to standing up to ISIS in the Near East or predatory Mexicans on our border. In the process of rewarding his friends with valuable Indian lands, he secured America’s borders. By not following orders. By following his noble instincts. By being an outsider. Even as president, he always carried a sword in his cane. Just in case.
Jackson courted controversy, and stayed in the news. When he was called to Washington to answer for his unconstitutional actions after the Florida invasion, he lashed out at those in Congress who hated him, threatening to cut off the ears of Senate investigators. It was he who first talked about going to Washington as the outsider-president to “clean the Augean stables,” thus likening himself to Hercules. Sure, he boasted and bullied. But he also carried a bullet next to his heart.
So let’s face it, it is not some “authentic” Republican of yore, but a frontier bully and vintage Democrat, the common man’s hero and wealthy landowner’s protector, Andrew Jackson, whom the current crop of Republican high school bullies is channeling. He was the real Dirty Harry. And that fella could easily wipe the floor with those bloated eastern wimps Trump and Christie. Oh, and big game hunter Ted Cruz, in recalling your finest hour as an orator, we daresay you wouldn’t catch that “man of the people” Andrew Jackson launching a lamestream filibuster with a reading of Dr. Seuss.