Former White House press secretary Scott McClellan has published an unsettling book dissecting what he considers the most serious failing of the Bush presidency: "a decision to turn away from candor and honesty when those qualities were most needed." Ranging from the invasion of Iraq to the retributive outing of Valerie Plame as a CIA agent, McClellan’s revelatory memoir is the most scathing indictment yet from a member of Bush’s inner circle. "The top White House officials who knew the truth–including Rove, Libby, and possibly Vice President Cheney–allowed me, even encouraged me, to repeat a lie."
The repetition of lies as a Republican strategy is not a surprise, of course. There is a purposefulness with which outright fictions have flowed from the right’s propaganda mills. Obama is a Muslim. Hillary is a lesbian. And before McCain kissed and made up with the Rovian cohort, he reportedly fathered a daughter with a black prostitute.
What’s more intriguing is why the persistent fraudulence of the Republican machine remains so widely known yet so widely ignored. Bush’s obvious corruption has hardly diminished the ongoing power of the expert liars who continue to pump dirt into the drinking water of our democracy. Karl Rove, Richard Viguerie, Ralph Reed and Jesse Helms are all busily at work behind the scenes. We know this and yet the purchase–even among liberals–of Willie Horton-ized, xenophobic images is astonishing. If it’s not entirely surprising to see George "macaca" Allen standing behind McCain at every event, it’s more disturbing to hear Yale alumna Hillary Clinton deploy the term "elitist" against Barack Obama, in exactly the way Republicans deployed "liberal" as an insult against her.
Why do these bald manipulations work so well? Perhaps denial is a comfortable form of hypocrisy; but perhaps, too, the truth is more broadly indicting than the lies. Years ago I wrote about the case of a man who robbed a bank and was running down the street with the loot when he in turn was mugged by a second robber, who took the money and fled. The first robber went to the police and reported the mugging with great and sober indignation. Here’s what made the story less than funny: the first robber was white, innocently robbing his neighborhood bank. The second robber was black. The first robber seemed to have found that "invasion" of his neighborhood a greater indignity than even his self-interest could tolerate.
It feels as though this impulse is at work in voters who say they’d vote for Clinton, but if she doesn’t get the nomination, then for McCain rather than Obama. What would drive someone who endorses Clinton’s policies to reject so completely Obama, whose politics are so close to hers? What would make them embrace McCain, a man pledged to the Administration that has so incontestably burdened us with bankruptcy and eternal war? The explanations vary: They may not "like McCain," but they "trust" him. They don’t "hate" Obama, but they don’t "know" him well enough to vote for him. I worry about this oft reiterated investment in "not knowing" Obama, a persistent commitment to his remaining strange and unfamiliar. It seems to trump all else–the economy, the war, Republican incompetence, the lies. Highway robbery isn’t nearly so great a crime as a person of color who transgresses his race-specific "place."
Segregation by geographic place is, of course, a large part of the dynamic at work. But the unfamiliarity and distrust is not just the product of physical space. It is also a well-cultivated conceptual wall, designed to ignite personal insecurities and identity politics at the most insidious level. As Republican strategist Roger Stone said to The New Yorker, "Are you black? Are you Hispanic? Are you gay? [If not,] then why the fuck are you a Democrat? You should be with us." There’s an accusative, mocking condescension in that "you." It taunts with the damnation of outsider status. Join "Us." We are white. We are nativist. We are heterosexual. This barely concealed appeal to homophobic white manliness is often disguised as strength of character, a bragging point, a seductively militaristic model of duck hunting, fatherhood and testosterone. Being nerdish or wussy is a "Democrat thing." This is an appeal to affect, not issues, to Rambo rather than reality.
Yet there is violence at the core of these images, and recently many seem to be brimming with a Freudian muddle of assassination fantasies. In an op-ed in the New York Times, Edward Luttwak suggested that because Obama’s father was a Muslim, he risked being assassinated as a traitor to Islam for having embraced Christianity. The Times‘s appalling decision to publish this patently false proposition provoked widespread and outraged response from religious leaders of all faiths. Similarly, Clinton has apologized for saying that she’s hanging on in the race because lots can still happen–after all, Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June. That this sounded like a crude version of "hope springs eternal," I will leave psychiatrists to sort out. Less enigmatic was the statement by Fox’s Linda Trotta, who confused Osama with Obama and then airily concluded that somebody should "knock off…both if we could."
Contrary to "little guy," "populist" explanations, I think it is the prerogative of the very entrenched upper classes to orchestrate this nasty mockery–a mockery not just of all those who presume to rise above their station but also of all those who fail to accommodate their misery by working hard, and ever harder. The outcome of this election has less to do with how many boilermakers Clinton can toss back or how poorly Obama bowls. I believe it will require our excavating resurgent caricatures of both of them as Reconstruction-era "carpetbaggers"; our resisting the irrational Nixonian hatred of well-educated people; and most important, of bringing to an immediate halt the casually jocular, seemingly thoughtless and inexcusably dangerous call to smack down the few genuine icons of American mobility we have, who dare exceed their assigned place in the order of things by aspiring to share the power.