Nightmares from the American right

Going Rouge: An American Nightmare
Edited by Richard Kim & Betsy Reed
OR Books (2009)
335 pages (pb)

At the 2008 Republican national convention, vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin famously quipped, “What’s the difference between a hockey mom and a pitbull? Lipstick.” Since that moment, Palin has fallen from the mantle as Republican saviour to the party’s biggest albatross — though she’s not alone in the field.

Her meteoric rise to the national spotlight gave momentary pause to the millions of progressives who had poured their money, time and hope into the presidential campaign of Barack Obama, a campaign that promised a “new America” and an end to the reign of George W. Bush. After a bitter and protracted Democratic primary contest with Hillary Clinton, Obama’s victory seemed almost assured until John McCain picked the unknown governor of the US’s 47th most populous state in an attempt to win over the far right, evangelical base that made Dubya’s “victory” possible in 2000.

Over the course of the 2008 campaign, Palin received at least as much, if not more, media coverage than Obama. Reporters, pundits and bloggers were transfixed by both the mythology of Sarah Palin — small-town mother of five who just up and took on those Big Oil boys and the Alaskan Republican establishment and in the process garnered some of the most favourable gubernatorial ratings in the country — and the reality: a half-term governor of the state that relies more on Federal earmarks (aka pork barrel spending) than any other and who was wilfully ignorant to the point of near celebration.

Going Rouge is an anthology of writings from some of the best known mainstream authors on the US left, including Naomi Klein, Robert Reich, Frank Rich, Matt Taibbi, Gloria Steinem and Christopher Hayes. As an avid consumer of all things Palin during the 2008 campaign, I was pleasantly surprised to find some previously unread articles. What’s even more surprising is how relevant the book remains as the fringes of the US right gain a fervid following, with few having more dedicated acolytes than Sarah Palin.

Palin and Hanson

In the introduction, editors Richard Kim and Betsy Reed explain: “Like Nixon, Reagan, and George W. Bush, Palin has managed to become a brand unto herself, quite a feat for a failed vice presidential candidate. No one speaks of McCainism or Doleism, but Palinism signals not just a political position but a political style, a whole way of doing politics. [It] works by draping hard-right policy in a winning personal story and just-folks rhetoric, delicately masking the extremism of her true positions and broadening the audience for them. Its genius rests in its ability to magically absorb inconvenient facts and mutually contradictory realities into an unassailable personal narrative. In the Palin universe, her unwed pregnant teenage daughter Bristol is somehow a poster child for abstinence-only education; hence criticism of Palin’s sex-ed policies is an attack on her family.”

It would be reasonable to draw comparisons between Sarah Palin and former MP and soon to be expat Pauline Hanson. But while Hanson was forced out of the Liberal Party for extremely xenophobic views, Palin’s extreme social conservatism is one of her greatest virtues in the eyes of the Republican establishment. While Hanson floundered in relative obscurity, only resurfacing to make repeated attempts to regain political office, Palin has yet to fall off the radar since quitting as Alaska’s governor in July 2009. (And since she was recently signed as a contributor to Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News juggernaut, it is unlikely she’ll be packing her bags and heading back to Wasilla any time soon.)

Going Rouge doesn’t shy away from discussing Sarah Palin’s record or her appeal (both physical and ideological) to the conservative right. Nor does it lack in the absurd humour Palin became infamous for. (Palin’s Top 25 Tweets are a particular brand of headache-inducing hilarity.) And unlike Sarah Palin’s own Going Rogue: An American Life, this compilation doesn’t try to sugar-coat its underlying message.

Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi writes about Palin’s lowest common denominator appeal: “Here’s the thing about Americans. You can send their kids off by the thousands to get their balls blown off in foreign lands for no reason at all, saddle them with billions in debt year after congressional year while they spend their winters cheerfully watching game shows and football … And none of it matters, so long as you remember a few months before Election Day to offer them a two-bit caricature … as part of your presidential ticket. And if she’s a good enough likeness of a loudmouthed Middle American archetype … John Q. Public will drop his giant-sized bag of Doritos in gratitude … and rush to the booth to vote for her. Not because it makes sense, or because it has a chance of improving his life or anyone else’s, but … because the image on the TV reminds him of the mean, brainless slob he sees in the mirror every morning.”

Media tea parties

There is more than a touch of liberal contempt for the “lower classes” in Taibbi’s description of “mean, brainless slobs”. But a willingness in the far-right ranks to be manipulated with mindless symbols is factor that is currently being exploited by the likes of conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh — arguably one of the most powerful voices within the Republican Party given his ability to extract swift apologies from any member who dares question him — and Fox News and radio personality Glenn Beck, the loose figurehead of the “Tea Party” movement and the craziest clown in the whole circus.

Originally aligned more with US Congressman and sometime Libertarian Party candidate Ron Paul, the Tea Party movement arose from disgruntled citizens trying to rekindle the spirit of “no taxation without representation” of the 1773 Boston Tea Party. However, the 2009 version failed to acknowledge that they do, in fact, have representation in the bourgeois political system — it just may not be the candidate they like. The first Tea Party protest happened on April 15, which is also known in the US as Tax Day. Purportedly called to protest Obama’s tax plan (which was not yet in effect and from which 95% of US taxpayers were to get a tax cut), it became an amalgam of right-wing causes, both the rational and the insane.

What started off as an arguably grassroots movement has since been coopted, corralled and cajoled into the lifeblood of the US conservative movement. Astroturf (pretend grassroots) outfits like FreedomWorks and perennial lobbyist Rick Berman’s various front groups have been quick to harness the energy, but none of them have been as successful as Fox News’ newest star, Glenn Beck. In just over a year since he joined the cable channel, he has surpassed Sean Hannity and even Bill O’Reilly as its biggest star, drawing up to 3 million viewers for his nightly screeds against the evils of the Obama administration, the community organising group ACORN and numerous conspiratorial (and imagined) socialist/communist/progressive conspiracies.

While Sarah Palin did her bit to derail the health care reform legislation with her lie about a so-called “death panel”, Glenn Beck somehow manages to take that fear-mongering further in a flurry of tears and chalkboard dust. When 23-year-old Richard Poplawski killed three Pittsburgh police officers during a multi-hour stand-off, a friend later told a KDKA reporter that Poplawski feared “the Obama gun ban that’s on the way” and “didn’t like our rights being infringed upon”.

Dog whistle politics are alive and well in the US. It will be interesting to see how it turns out and whether that pitbull with lipstick will be relegated to the annals of humorous political history or something more sinister. An American nightmare, indeed.