There simply is no getting around the fact that the mentality of the modern grassroots conservative movement is in almost all particulars the spitting image of a 20th century totalitarian political party—an “epistemically closed” loop of self-reference and self-delusion. In other words: a cult.
The upshot is that one of America’s two main political parties has managed to turn itself into the proverbial insane asylum run by the inmates. And, unless the doctors want a quick trip to the electroshock table, they damned well better tell the patients that they, too, can see the same pink elephants (wink) tapdancing on the walls:
I’ve been more or less saying movement conservatism is a cult of crazy since I started this blog more than ten years ago. However, I have only recently appreciated how much the Bush regime was able to control Teh Crazy even as they fed it and grew it. Back when the Bush cult of personality was at its peak, Dubya, Turd Blossom et al. were able make the GOP appear to be a normal political party, at least enough so that the media establishment politely looked the other way when Teh Crazy was showing, the way you do when your elderly uncle forgets to zip his fly.
A lot of the media are still doing that, of course, but not all of them. Not any more.
Dubya can’t, or won’t, play the role of Respected Elder Statesman, a role that Big Bill fills so very well. And nobody has taken his place as the Big Giant Head of the cult. Yes, many of them gave their love to Sarah Palin four years ago, but Palin needed a Karl Rove to channel and manage her to keep her cult of personality going. She lacks the smarts and discipline to do it herself (so did Dubya, but he did have a Karl Rove).
(Looking back, it’s a bit surprising Karl didn’t have somebody groomed and ready to step into the role of Trilby to his Svengali when Dubya stepped down. Maybe he didn’t fully appreciate the importance of the cult of personality to manage the masses, either. We may have Dick Cheney to thank for that, though. If Dubya had had a veep with any charisma at all, that person likely would be POTUS now.)
Anyway, now nobody is in charge, and there’s nobody telling Teh Crazy when to zip its fly and behave correctly in public. And the question is, can the toothpaste be persuaded to crawl back into the tube?
Jonathan Bernstein writes that some on the Right may be stoking Teh crazy for personal gain –
Many of us argue that there’s something really wrong with the current GOP. It’s not that it’s conservative; it’s that, well, to be blunt, it’s nuts. Or, to put it more gently, it’s that there are strong incentives for being dysfunctional, such as the profit motive for those who stand to make a lot of money from the party being out of office (when talk show ratings go up and wacky conspiracy theory books about Democratic presidents sell like hotcakes).
In other words, he’s saying feeding Teh Crazy has become an end in itself, instead of just a means of gaining and hanging on to political power. So Teh crazy continues to grow, but no one Big Giant Head is controlling it. And this is not sustainable. No compounded thing remains in stasis for long; it either grows or it decays.
The result is a party more hospitable to, say, Sarah Palin than to Richard Lugar. And a party which takes presidential candidates such as Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain at least somewhat seriously. That is, it’s a party which frequently ignores reality and rejects the normal compromises of the U.S. political system. And every candidate the GOP nominates either shares in the crazy or is hostage to it – which is what we’ve seen from Mitt Romney throughout the campaign.
Bernstein thinks the only thing that might save the Republican Party from self-annihilation would be a leader who could have their loyalty and who would then work to marginalize Teh Crazy. His example is the way President Eisenhower, working partly behind the scenes, marginalized Joe McCarthy. But now the GOP has been infested with countless Joe McCarthys, and I don’t see anyone of the stature of Eisenhower who could both gain their trust and call a halt to it. And McCarthy wasn’t being funded by a 1950s equivalent of Sheldon Adelson and supported by a vast network of think tanks and dedicated media outlets; he was pretty much a one-man show.
Further — if we go back to the McCarthy example, we see that McCarthy was supported by the Republican establishment until he became a political liability, and then they dumped him rather abruptly. And that was the end of his public career. At least part of the current Republican establishment seems to understand their party is out of control, and I bet they would like to tone it down if they could, but Teh Crazy isn’t listening to them any more.
The 20th century totalitarian political parties were eventually defeated, but it took war to do it. Watching Soviet soldiers loot one’s house can help one wake up to the reality that maybe the war isn’t going well, and maybe some political leaders had one snookered.
However, I am inclined to think that Teh Crazy will fade slowly rather than go down in a blaze of inglory. The question is, will the GOP itself survive? Can this party be saved? Or will it break up and go the way of the Whigs? The original Republican party was made up mostly of ex-Whigs plus a contingent of anti-slavery Democrats, I believe, so you could argue that the original GOP was something like the Reformed Whigs. I could see a coalition of moderate Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats challenging the crazy-infested GOP someday. I think that’s at least as likely to happen, eventually — not right away, but in four to six years, maybe — as the GOP coming back to its senses.
And have we reached peak wingnut yet? I didn’t think so back in 2008, when the peak wingnut theory was first kicked around, but now I think wingnuttism is pretty close to maxing out, short of armed and violent insurrection.