Sunday, October 12, 2008

Kooks 'r Us

In an essay posted recently on The Daily Beast, Christopher Buckley -of the Connecticut Buckleys - announced that he is voting for Barack Obama. The essay is engaging and, at a stretch, even thoughtful.

In the essay, Buckley fils quotes Buckley pere who once told him: “You know, I’ve spent my entire life time separating the Right from the kooks.” It's a good line, and it serves to encapsulate Buckley's change of electoral heart.

The problem with it, as a piece of political analysis, is that it is a classic example of creating a distinction without a real difference. Kooks - and by kooks I think we mean zealots, demogogues, fanatical true-believers etc - have been at the center of the Republican party for about half a century now.

In the 1950s, the Republican establishment, embodied by figures like Senators Robert Taft and Prescott Bush, found Joe McCarthy distasteful and vulgar. But they also found him very useful. They did little to stop the McCarthy phenomenon until McCarthy accused the Army of harboring communists and President (formerly General) Eisenhower decided enough was enough.

In the 1960s, as the Republican party wandered the electoral wilderness, the Southern racists, especially in the Senate, began their migration to the Republican party. By the 1970s the Republican party counted among its most powerful and senior leaders Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms. They don't come any kookier (or nastier and more bigoted) than that. In 1968, of course, Nixon chose the raving Spiro Agnew to be his Vice President. Spiro brought his own particular brand of hate-mongering to the national stage.

All the while, the Republican establishment - the Wills and the Buckleys - fooled themselves into believing that they could keep these attacks dogs on a short leash, that they could trot the kooks out when needed but otherwise keep them under control.

By the 1980s, however, that was no longer true. Dog and master had traded places. Reagan - a kook in his own right - cemented the deal that put the Religious Right at the heart of the Republican party. Jerry Falwell became a trusted White House advisor, and the Republican party became hopelessly addicted to the votes of the religious nutjobs. Reagan's geniality made it easy for some people to ignore that, like they ignored Reagan's reliance on Nancy's astrologer for foreign policy advice.

Reagan also chucked the core principles of the Right establishment, though they could never really bring themselves to admit it. Reagan turned out to be a buster of budgets, a ballooner of deficits, a big-time, big-government conservative.

Some of the Right breathed a sigh of relief when George I took over - how good it must have felt to those guys from Connecticut to have a guy named "Poppy" back in charge. But George I won that election largely because of Lee Atwater. Shortly after that election Atwater contracted some gruesome cancer and spent the last few months of his life on a mea-culpa tour, apologizing for all the terrible things he had done. George I, it should be noted, never apologized for Willie Horton.

And so it has gone. The Republican party is now the party where Rick Santorum can rise to be the #3 guy in the Senate, where James Dobson is regarded as a king-maker, and where Sarah Palin could be plucked from tundra obscurity by none other than William Kristol, another of those "up by your bootstraps lad!" conservatives who inherited it all from his dad.

The vicious Brown-shirt displays we have seen in the last week at the McShame/Moosehead rallies aren't the kooks; it is the Republican party - heart and soul - unabashed, unashamed, unhinged. It may make it easier for dyed-in-the-wool Republicans like Buckley to vote for Obama if they tell themselves that their party has been hijacked by the kooks. In fact, the Republican party has been the party of kooks for a long time.