Not Even Chuck Norris Can Save the GOP

Before the 2004 election, no small number of progressives were heard to say to their friends, "If George W. Bush gets re-elected, I'm moving to Canada." With but a few isolated exceptions, they weren't serious -- just expressing their exasperation that a majority of their fellow citizens could sign up for another four years of what was already a disastrous presidency. Conservatives saw the sentiment as yet more evidence of liberals' shaky loyalty to the Land of the Free.

Just a few months into Barack Obama's presidency, it's the conservatives who are talking about leaving. And not just in private conversations or on little-read blogs; a number of Republican state legislators have introduced "sovereignty resolutions" in an apparent attempt to re-enact the events leading up to the Civil War (Ed Kilgore explains here). And the state that seems to have the itchiest finger on the secession trigger is Texas, where Gov. Rick Perry has been hinting that the Lone Star State might have to go its own way (incredibly, when one poll asked whether the state should secede, Texas Republicans were evenly split). But if Perry is going to make his state an independent nation, he'll have to compete for leadership with a unique political figure: Chuck Norris.

In a recent column titled "I May Run for President of Texas," Norris writes that he might have no choice: "That need may be a reality sooner than we think. If not I, someone someday may again be running for president of the Lone Star State, if the state of the union continues to turn into the enemy of the state. … I'm not saying that other states won't muster the gumption to stand and secede, but Texas has the history to prove it."

I know what you're thinking: "Chuck Norris writes a column about politics?" Indeed he does (you can peruse the archive here). His columns are standard conservative fare, melding strict social conservatism and frontier libertarianism, with no acknowledgment of the contradictions between the two. While it would be a stretch to call Norris a good writer or find any particular insight in his work, there are dozens of conservative columnists out there who are no better.

His modest writing talents aside, Norris is a huge star on the political right. And I think he's just the guy to lead the conservative movement toward its destiny as a tiny band of outcasts, their love for America so powerful, they must shake their fists in impotent rage at its society and government until secession seems the only option.

Norris' latest book, Black Belt Patriotism, begins, "I love America: always have, always will. But even the most patriotic among us will confess that America seems to have lost its way." You can guess where it goes from there -- kids not respecting their elders, no prayer in schools, out-of-control government, insecure borders -- you've heard it before. In other words, this country has gone right to hell.

Many people first noticed that Norris was a political figure in late 2007, when the martial-arts star endorsed Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. Huckabee put up an ad in which shots of Norris praising Huckabee alternated with shots of Huckabee saying things like "When Chuck Norris does a pushup, he isn't lifting himself up, he's pushing the Earth down." The jokes were taken from a popular Web site, chucknorrisfacts.com, which features such facts as "Chuck Norris can kill two stones with one bird" and "Chuck Norris doesn't wear a watch, HE decides what time it is." (Unsurprisingly, the independently created site has Norris' blessing.)

One has to admit that Norris is a unique cultural figure. Despite an apparent inability to express any human emotions, he built a successful career "acting" in B-movies and on television, perhaps most notably as Walker, Texas Ranger. His ass-kicking days may be behind him, but Norris has become a kind of camp icon of stoic manliness. Recently a bakery in Split, Croatia, that had been burglarized multiple times put up a poster of Norris in its window, with the words "This shop is under the protection of Chuck Norris." The burglaries stopped. "Everyone around here has seen his films, and he's quite a popular character, perhaps even among criminals, so they've decided to leave us alone," said a clerk at the store.

It's that air of invincibility that is so appealing to the conservative men who read Norris' columns and take him seriously as a political thinker. The arc of a typical Norris movie (and innumerable other action films) parallels the way so many conservatives see their own story at this moment in history: An honorable man seeking only to serve others sees evil interlopers coming to victimize his community (or country -- in Invasion U.S.A. he saves the entire United States single-handedly). When no one else has the guts, he stands up against them. They try to take away everything he holds dear. While women weep and pantywaist men cower, he takes the bad guys down one by one, until in a final, redemptive spasm of violence, order is restored and light triumphs over darkness.

Of course, this is not a drama actual men get to enact in their actual lives. But the idea of a real man as someone who can perform acts of violence when necessary continues to have appeal, a century after the West was won. The flip side of this vision of manhood is, of course, a particular vision of womanhood. This vision doesn't portray women as servile and weak -- although they know their place, they are allowed to project strength in certain carefully circumscribed areas. Think about all those doughy, apple-cheeked Republicans quivering with joy at the site of Sarah Palin. What was it they loved so much about her? She hunts! She can field dress a moose! When in her convention speech she delivered that immortal joke ("What's the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick."), the response from the men in the hall brought to mind manic tweens at a Jonas Brothers show.

Palin embodies a kind of frontier -- or at least rural -- version of womanhood, in which ladies are tender but tough, comfortable in the outdoors, and handy with a rifle. In this world, female physical prowess is not viewed as a threat to manhood. Female intellectual prowess -- well, that's another story entirely. Palin could probably whip Hillary Clinton's butt in a fistfight, but it is Clinton who has always been called a bitch and a harpy, who is supposed to castrate men. It is Clinton about whom one heard endless jokes built on the premise that she is actually not a woman at all but a man. (To take just one of the hundreds of examples from the last couple of decades, a Saturday Night Live skit from last year has Clinton saying, "I invite the media to grow a pair. And if you can't, I will lend you mine.") One can't help but think that a Norris-Palin ticket (not the other way around, of course -- there are limits to what can be tolerated) could win a few states in the South and Mountain West.

We shouldn't overstate things -- it isn't like Republican congressional staffers are asking Chuck Norris to offer them advice on legislative strategy (that they reserve for Joe the Plumber). I doubt the leading 2012 Republican presidential candidates will be staking their claims on a Norris endorsement. But unless the GOP's refashioning attempts actually come up with a fundamentally different identity for the party (something that seems unlikely so far), the spirit that looks to the star of Slaughter in San Francisco and Forced Vengeance for wisdom and guidance will continue to lie at the heart of the Republican Party's appeal. The GOP will continue to be the party that fetishizes the redemptive power of violence, sees the world divided into three groups (the good, the bad, and the weak), and is ready to bolt the United States at a moment's notice.

Chuck Norris is pushing 70, and for a guy his age, he looks darn good. There will always be a market for what he's selling. But unfortunately for those who share his outlook on the political world, that market is shrinking, slowly but surely.

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