Sunday, February 20, 2005

The Three Faces of George

(This was written in response to call for essays on the the meaning of Right Wing in American politics by News Snipet Blog.)

Here, and elsewhere, I have written about three different George W Bush’s.

George the Theocrat This George is rigidly ideological and dogmatic. He’s a Christian. But he’s true object of fundamentalist worship is America. He has a set view of the world which is not amenable to change based on the vagaries of reality. Information which conflicts with his worldview is ignored, denied, explained away or made to fit. Dissent is error. Dissent is danger. There is right and there is wrong and these are knowable. There is no room for ambiguity or nuance. This George went to war in Iraq based on a belief that planting the seeds of democracy will make the world safer – where “democracy” is understood to mean Western Culture and the “world” is understood to mean the US. This George wants to privatize Social Security based on a belief that any part of government which isn’t him is bad, that any government transfers of wealth from the rich (the producers) to the poor (the mooches) are theft.

George the Autocrat This George wants to win – and he doesn’t care what he needs to do in order to prevail. He cynically floats trial balloons in the media with potential rationales for his policies and then goes with whatever seems to work the best. For George the Autocrat, Conservatism is a brand name he sells to a credulous public instead of a governing philosophy. He is willing to pursue dangerous and harmful policies, if there is a short-term political advantage. He is not inhibited by any moral or ethical prohibitions. His tools are fear, greed and hatred. This George went to war in Iraq to Wag the Dog – to scare the bejeebas out of us and make us cling to his jacket sleeves for protection. This George wants to privatize Social Security because, having declared “success” in Iraq now, he needs some other manufactured crisis to keep the public in line.

George the Plutocrat This George is all about the money. He squeezes benefits from the poor while slashing taxes for the rich. He decries welfare for the needy while doling out corporate welfare for large corporations. His bloated budgets are an orgy of pork barrel spending. He is using government to make his friends, associates, family, and, eventually, himself rich. This George went to war in Iraq for the oil and the spoils. This George wants to privatize Social Security in order to divert trillions of taxpayer dollars into government selected corporations as investments and to pay billions to large brokerage houses in fees. He expects to be rewarded handsomely for his efforts after leaving office.

This does not exhaust the cast of characters living inside the GWB in the popular imagination. There is George the Fool and the closely related George the Puppet. The Fool couldn’t think his way out of wet paper bag. For the Fool, every language is a second language. The Puppet is the likable front for the unelectable Cheney and Rove. But these Georges do not describe governing styles and motivations like the three GWB archetypes. They simply make judgments (about a gullible public) or assign responsibility (to the Machiavellian Puppetmasters).

The Right has different names for the Georges. There is George the Savior (He will restore decency and democracy to a world gone mad.), George the Champion (“We” won. That makes us right.), and George the Entrepreneur (I want to be rich someday myself. And when I am, I don’t want to pay taxes either.) And let us not ignore George the Everyman. (I could see myself having a beer with him. That makes him a good president.) Both the Left and Right see the same thing. It just means something different to each.

The Three Faces of George, in the left’s imagination at any rate, present a disjointed and, on the surface, contradictory picture of our current president.

My thesis is that these three persona are mutually reinforcing and are the key to GWB’s electoral success. They correspond, roughly, to the three main elements of the coalition of the religious right, the Republican Party and the political class, and the monied business interests that propelled GWB into office and kept him there. They are a magnet for those who hold the American desire to be right, triumphant and rich.

This, then, is the story of the Right in today’s American polity. It is the story of the voices inside the head of one man. And it is the story of how that man became a Rorschach test for America.

The thesis begs some questions that we might as well deal with up front. Are these personas real or for show? Does this really describe how Bush thinks or is this part of some political strategy? I don’t think that this is knowable. And for purposes of our present discussion, it doesn’t matter. The outcome for policies and the public is the same either way. We also need to consider that a stratagem can become sincere. People can talk themselves into believing their own rhetoric – to where what is real and what smoke and mirrors blurs into one. Since it is apparent that this has happened to a significant amount of the American public, why not George?

Let’s also dispense with the George the Puppet problem. Whether GWB is “The Man” in charge, part of an administration or simply the smiling front man is again not relevant here. We need to separate out George the flesh and blood person from George W Bush the President. It is this public George that I’m interested in – no matter how much or how little the private George goes toward constituting him. This is the George that makes policy. This is the George that is knowable. This is the George that tells us about ourselves.

George the Theocrat has two nearly indistinguishable constituencies – religious fundamentalists and nationalists. It is no coincidence that the former is for the most part a subset of the latter. Both groups are deeply anxious about status and norms. They need to feel “right” and they worry that the rest of their culture is abandoning them, judging them negatively.

Theirs is a vision that starts with a fixed ideology which then seeks out opportunities to apply itself. It is a vision convinced of its own essential correctness and so proceeds with the assumption that the key to a good result is to maintain the integrity of the vision. It doesn’t depend on reference to the external world for validation. It is unconcerned when reality fails to produce the predicted results. It is equally unconcerned about being universally applicable. And yet it happily excepts validation wherever it comes from. It doesn’t worry about what it ignores or when reality contradicts it. It simply assumes that faithfulness to the original vision will, eventually, produce the desired results; or, if not, that some external force is actively preventing the realization of expectation.

It’s a mindset that is unable to contemplate error on the part of America and finds danger in any such assertions. Many scholars of empire argue that the citizens of an empire, comfortable and isolated from the realities of their government’s colonial exploits, are forced to adopt nationalist or even racist attitudes to if they are to shield themselves from the knowledge of the connection between their comfort and the misery it is built upon. The American Empire may be unlike its colonial predecessors in many ways. But even the administration is admitting, “We're an empire now, and when we act we create our own reality.

I contend that it takes more work to maintain the bubble of illusion of the invasion of Iraq as a nearly bloodless liberation than is apparent on the surface. Ever eager to bring us the news we want to hear, the American media do not tally the Iraqi dead like the American dead. Nor do they bring us images of the daily distress, destruction and death in Iraq. People die in wars. We know that. We knew that before the invasion. No matter how we may try to atomize the individual stories of violence and death in Iraq, we cannot avoid noticing the ever increasing body count. It takes work and effort to continue to believe that our initial support of the war did not result in a massive loss of life for Iraqi civilians. No gloss of noble purpose or demonization of the enemy is sufficient to maintain the kind of denial necessary to support the illusion that Americans have borne the brunt of burden of the invasion of Iraq.

And the illusion of a liberated Iraq, with minimal civilian causalities, is not the only one being maintained. Stagnant job creation, declining health insurance costs and troubles at home have many people looking to the twin cures of denial and moral fortitude.

This points to how George the Theocrat can indeed fit quite nicely with the seemingly contradictory George the Autocrat. The Theocrat’s ideology is entirely ends oriented. It holds the promise that focusing on the endgame will make all the immediate problems go away.

When Bush shifted the rationale for invading Iraq to liberating the Iraqi people, many liberals objected that if we took that logic and ethical framework and applied generally it would mean needing to “liberate” a great many other nations too. But the Right never meant for this to be applied generally. It wasn’t a matter of general principles that they were arguing. They had in mind justifying this specific goal. This goal was good, therefore anything we do in its pursuit is good too. This is what ties together the Theocrat and the Autocrat. They may lie in order to achieve the goal, but the goal is good. Thus Bush’s autocratic constituency can feel quite good about their superior gamesmanship. It’s all in a good cause.

But the gamesmanship has become for the Right more than just a means to an end. It’s become its own end too. The constituency for George the Autocrat feels left out and left behind. They see their personal and financial security at greater risk. They feel as though those “liberal” programs have “taken away” something they have felt entitled to. They resent the self-critical nature of liberalism. They want to win.

These are your “angry white men.” But it’s not just them. It’s all sorts of people who feel disempowered and voiceless. So when an Ann Coulter says in a syndicated column on September 12 that in responding to terrorists “we should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity,” or:
The “backbone of the Democratic Party” is a “typical fat, implacable welfare recipient”---syndicated column 10/29/99
To a disabled Vietnam vet: “People like you caused us to lose that war.”---MSNBC
“Women like Pamela Harriman and Patricia Duff are basically Anna Nicole Smith from the waist down. Let's just call it for what it is. They're whores.”---Salon.com 11/16/00
“I think there should be a literacy test and a poll tax for people to vote.”---Hannity & Colmes, 8/17/99
“I think [women] should be armed but should not [be allowed to] vote.”---Politically Incorrect, 2/26/01
“If you don't hate Clinton and the people who labored to keep him in office, you don't love your country.”---George, 7/99
“The thing I like about Bush is I think he hates liberals.”---Washington Post 8/1/00


the autocratic constituency can focus on the way in which it advances their cause and “sticks it” to their opponents rather than the actual substance of the statements.

If the Theocrat provides the ideology and the Autocrat provides the means, the Plutocrat promises the rewards. Mind you, I didn’t say he provides the rewards, just promises them. The Plutocrat is about reward and hope. George the Plutocrat has two constituencies. First there are the actual rich. Rick Perlstein, in an article published 11/9/04 entitled, “It's the Wealth, Stupid”, argues persuasively that the group that tipped the balance in 2004 were those earning more than $100,000 per year. “The people who won the election for him—his only significant improvement over his performance four years ago—were rich people, voting for more right-wing class warfare.”

The Plutocrat’s other constituency are those who want to be rich. Wanting to be rich means that you must believe that this is good goal. It also fits nicely with wanting to be one of society’s winners. To believe that hard work and playing by the rules is not a potential path to wealth, is to abandon the dream of wealth, the dream of winning. When liberals criticize corporations and the wealthy for not playing fair, this constituency hears, “Give it up. You can’t win. You’ll always be stuck in the same dead end job.” This is a message that the Plutocrat’s less affluent constituency is not prepared to accept.

So the Theocrat, the Autocrat and the Plutocrat and live comfortably in the same persona since they ultimately do not conflict. And their constituencies can band together since the goals, methods and rewards are mutually reinforcing. This makes the war in Iraq something of a trifecta. It served the noble goals of bringing Western Democracy to a foreign land and securing the Homeland. It brought a quick and easy “victory” (sorta). And the fact that it enriched Halliburton et al did not contradict the noble purpose, it validated it. To the winner goes the spoils. The spoils prove the winner. And being a winner means you were right.

It is tempting to contrast this with the liberal call for things like responsibility, where this is understood to mean responsibility for one another instead of simply oneself. But the story of the American Right would not be complete if we didn’t introduce another character. This persona has no place in the multiple personalities of George. This is the Conservative. I do not mean Conservative as brand name, packaged and marketed by our Autocrats. I mean conservatism as a general philosophy of governing.

Christie Todd Whitman, former head of the EPA under Bush and Governor of New Jersey, has started a mini-movement to reclaim the Republican Party from what she calls “social fundamentalists.” Her website It’s My Party Too talks about “the battle for the heart of the GOP and the future of America” and “a drive to get back to the fundamentals of the Republican Party.” She is not alone. Nor have the Three Faces of George, particularly the Autocrat, been oblivious to these philosophical conservatives in their midst. Labeled RINOs (Republican In Name Only) the Autocratic arm of the modern Republican Party has gone huntin’. And they’ve targeted RINOs for extinction just like those dinosaurs, the Democrats.

Whitman and her kind represent the Achilles Heel of the Republican Party. The fact is that many of the Plutocrats, for example, are not so thrilled with the fundamentalism of the Theocrats. There are cracks in the foundation. George’s coalition manages to cohere while there is a George who can be a blank slate upon which each part may map their own agenda. Whitman, if I may thoroughly mix my metaphors, is pointing out that the Emperor has in fact no clothes. The Whitmans of the Right have been silent too long. Their silence has been a necessary condition of maintaining George’s Empire.

George’s Empire has accumulated a third as much debt in four years as the rest of all the presidents before him combined. They have betrayed the promise of smaller government by introducing Big Brother into our bedrooms. It created a mammoth new bureaucracy in the form of the Department of Homeland Security. It wasted our blood and treasure on nation building based on a false threat, leaving us less able to defend ourselves against a real threat. More than a handful on the Right have been questioning whether Bush really is a conservative or will help to advance conservative goals.

The reality of the Right, then, is more complex than either the mapping of Theocrat/Autocrat/Plutocrat or Savior/Champion/Entrepreneur onto the public persona of George W Bush or the unified front and "message discipline" of the Right would indicate. The Three Faces of George is designed to attract and hold a broad coalition of diverse interests – as well at to strategically exclude others. The façade of unanimity is meant as both a club to beat the Left and a rope to keep the rank and file in line. Everyone else is cooperating. But among the Right there is life outside the Dittoheads. In addition to the suppressed internecine conflicts, there is a diversity of opinion on the Right that this denied a voice by the Three Faces of George. Socially moderate conservatives are uncomfortable with the hold of religious fundamentalism on the party leadership. The conservative CATO Institute has voiced concerns over aspects of Bush’s fiscal policy. My own state’s Senator Dick Lugar has criticized the conduct of the war in Iraq. The philosophical conservatives can be silent no longer.

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7 Comments:

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