More on the increasing irrelevancy of George W. Bush, which I discussed yesterday — in the November 2006 issue of Harper’s there’s a bone-chilling article by Wells Tower called “The Kids Are Far Right.” I very much regret that it isn’t online yet, and probably won’t be for a couple of months. If you want to look for it on newsstands, the cover art is a donkey head with a halter made of $100 bills.
Tower spent a week at the National Conservative Student Conference in Washington, DC, talking to the young folks. Among many striking passages was this one:
Despite all the jaunty blood thirst for liberals and hippies, it’s interesting to note that none of the students utters words of praise for George W. Bush, or goes in for any cuticle-nibbling over the daily media forecasts of the drubbing the G.O.P. is supposed to suffer at the polls fourteen weeks from now. The more than 400 attendees is a record for the conference, and although this is good news for the conservative movement, it is also an oblique sort of nose-thumbing at the Republican Party, whose frantic volunteer trenches these students have disdained to spend the week in Washington. Proud self-declared Republicans, in fact, are curiously hard to come by among the students , nearly all of whom identify themselves as libertarians or simply as “conservatives,” and who will later describe our president to me in the following terms: “embarrassing,” “stupid,” “arrogant,” “a halfway conservative,” “a puppet of lobbyists and special interests,” and “a liberal, basically.”
Our President is many things, but of course there’s nothing in him that remotely resembles “liberal.” I assume the young person was using liberal in the sense of “nyah nyah nyah.” In another passage, one not-conservative tatooed and black-garbed Goth, attending the conference at the behest of her father, described how she was snubbed by the other attendees:
She says she is still trying to make sense of an incident yesterday, when a group of conferees inside the dorms yelled “neocon” at her, evidently road-testing a new vulgarity they had not quite mastered.
If these young people are in any way a representative sampling of rightie youth, this suggests that young people are breaking from the Republican Party establishment and populism generally. And this reminds me of the way the New Left dissed the Dems and ditched New Deal populism back in the 1970s. Young righties are working hard to marginalize themselves, in other words, which is good news, because this is one creepy bunch of kids. More on that later in this post.
As far as President Bush is concerned, I extrapolate from this that when he retires from the White House — and however he retires from the White House — he is unlikely to be the conservative icon that Ronald Reagan was and still is. The Washington Republican establishment may, or may not, continue to make excuses for Bush in the years to come, but the young folks intend to bury him alive so they can forget he ever lived. He’s not going to be invited to their parties. They aren’t going to buy his ghost-written books or cheer him at his public appearances. Bubble Boy is in for a hard fall.
Instead of remaining actively engaged in public issues as many former presidents do, I predict G.W. Bush (assuming he escapes prosecution for war crimes) will disappear into a ghost world for the rest of his sorry life, much as Lyndon Johnson did in his retirement.
Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, is an icon — nay, an idol. The cult of Reagan that permeated the conference was so strong it made a few attendees uncomfortable. “I know Reagan was amazing,” said one, “but I think it’s weird that we’re supposed to pretend he’s God.” That Alzheimer’s ate Reagan’s retirement (and, IMO, his second term) is not an issue, and I suspect it may have helped keep his almighty presidential image pure.
Lately much attention has been paid to the authoritarian tendencies of conservatism. On the surface these young people seem both authoritarian and anti-authoritarian at once. Their heroes — Dr. Walter E. Williams and Wayne La Pierre, for example — are treated with unquestioning adulation. Otherwise their attitude toward authority, particularly government, reflects that of a spoiled little boy told he’d better be nice to Grandma or he won’t get dessert. Come to think of it, that may be the most normal thing about them. But some seem to take anti-authoritarianism to extremes. Tower writes of a young man who has already abandoned political ambitions:
The conference has drawn, or perhaps cultivated more people like Jeff Scott, who would like to see government wholly destroyed (save for the military), than students with fantasies of ascending to the highest office in the land.
So what is it, authoritarian or anti-authoritarian? I think this bit from a panel on conservative literature provides a clue:
Majory Ross recommends the usual syllabus: Goldwater, Kirk, Buckley, Ayn Rand. At the mention of Rand, a current of ardor passes through the ballroom, and someone gives a low, deferential whistle.
I’ve long viewed Randians with astonishment and wonder. Here are people who have built a cult around someone whose message boils down to individuality is God; the hell with community. If you ever have the bad judgment to wander into an Objectivist forum, you’ll find one Randian after another quoting the same passages from The Fountainhead to demonstrate how individualistic they are. But as this fellow says, “Rand’s sacred word is unmistakably ‘EGO.'” Since most of the world’s philosophy, East and West, warns against the perils of egotism, if you’re looking for a philosophy that says ego-indulgence is good, Rand’s is an obvious choice. And I understand Randians hate neocons almost as much as they hate liberals, which accounts (sorta) for the epithet hurled at Goth girl, above.
Thus, the Reagan youth are less individualistic than they are self-centered little brats who mistake egotism with individualism. As such, it is striking how much they resemble George W. Bush — like him, they are spoiled, narcissistic, and badly socialized.
For example, one evening a young man from Oregon describes what he does for fun:
Bunny bashing, he explains, involves borrowing someone’s father’s pickup truck for an evening and filling the bed with young men armed with cudgels. Then you drive around the countryside until an unlucky jackrabbit freezes in the high beams, at which point somebody hops out and clubs the animal to death.
What becomes of the dead rabbit? I ask.
Chase Dannen turns bashful. “Do you really want to know?”
With a little prodding, he continues. If you’re keeping true to the spirit of the thing, what you do is rip the rabbit’s head off and then impale it through the throat and eye socket on the antenna of the borrowed truck. On a bountiful evening, he says, you can accumulate a totem pole sure to astound the truck’s owner when he sees it in the morning.
This reminded me of the charming story of Young George and the Exploding Frogs.
“We were terrible to animals,” recalled [Bush pal Terry] Throckmorton, laughing. A dip behind the Bush borne turned into a small lake after a good rain, and thousands of frogs would come out. “Everybody would get BB guns and shoot them,” Throckmorton said. “Or we’d put firecrackers in the frogs and throw them and blow them up.”
Kristof made plain that “we” explicitly included George W. Bush, and that George W., the Safari Club International Governor of the Year in 1999 for his support of trophy hunting, was the leader among the boys who did it.
There is a well-documented link between animal cruelty and Antisocial Personality Disorder.
That was just one kid, but the Reagan youth do seem to have a proclivity for romanticizing cruelty and violence. For example:
In her facebook bio, Samantha Soller listed among her hobbies “political science, philosophy, and hippie-hunting, enjoys foreclosing on poor people’s cardboard boxes, eating red meat, using her Sigarms P232 Stainless to shoot cute little bunny rabbits.”
We’re into the creepy part, by the way. Note that these same young people can work themselves into outrage over the “cruelty” of abortion.
Throughout the young folks display the easy arrogance of the privileged toward the poor. Sheltered and provided for from birth, they cannot imagine their life any other way. Thus they are eager to dismantle all “welfare,” including Social Security. They imagine that poor people would learn to fend for themselves if cut off from government assistance.
Bennett Rwicki, who has been in a quiet, reflective mood since the lecture, ponders the drug issue with a troubled brow. After a moment he brightens. “Hey, do you think — like what Walter Williams said — if you got rid of welfare, so that if families had to support themselves, that would lead to people doing less drugs?”
“Absolutely,” says Marianne Brennan.
“I think so,” says Samantha Soller.
“Definitely,” says Tom Samper of the College of New Jersey. “If it’s a choice between drugs or survival, they’re going to spend their money on survival.”
With the trouble birds of welfare reform and the drug problems of the American poor neatly felled with a single stone, an air of satisfaction settles over the table, and Samantha Soller makes a trip to the buffet table to fetch everybody some dessert.
Like I said — bone chilling.