The Politics of Contempt

When John McCain secured his party's nomination at the beginning of this year, many of his admirers in the media offered assurances that because the Republicans had chosen a man of such impeccable integrity, so different from every other politician, this campaign would not be like those we have gotten used to. It would be respectful, it would be substantive, it would be so high-minded and civil as to make Pericles himself weep with joy.

Oh well. "Cultural affinities," wrote the Los Angeles Times at the end of the Republican convention, "are now central to the campaign strategy of GOP presidential nominee John McCain." No kidding.

But it's more than just cultural affinity, the standard issue "Our candidate is one of you, their candidate isn't" routine (after all, John McCain's life, from being the son and grandson of admirals to dumping his first wife for the beer heiress with the $100 million fortune, isn't really "like" anyone's). The real focus of the Republican convention, and the Republican campaign from now to Election Day, is on contempt.

The Republican delegates, those button-bejeweled representatives of the party's social conservative wing, arrived in St. Paul in a near-frenzy, their ambivalence about John McCain swept away by his pick of one of their own to be his running mate. They love Sarah Palin for her "spunk," for her good looks, for her hardest of hard-right ideology. But mostly they loved her for the fact that she obviously hates the people they hate, and with just as much vigor.

On the convention's key penultimate night, the events leading up to Palin's speech declared open season on the "elite," whether located in the media (to whom John McCain used to refer as "my base"), in the cities, or just anywhere where you're not from. The speakers were apparently out to offer some sort of performance-art meditation on hypocrisy. You had the Harvard-educated former Massachusetts governor whose father was the governor of Michigan and who is himself worth hundreds of millions of dollars complaining about the "Eastern elite." You had the cross-dressing, globe-hopping, thrice-married former New York mayor castigating Barack Obama for being "cosmopolitan." Even the video tribute to Ronald Reagan included the line, "The media despised him," which would be news to anyone who was around during the 1980s. But no matter -- the scorn of the swells is a medal to be worn with more pride than a Navy Cross, even if that scorn exists nowhere but the imagination.

And nobody wore that medal with more pride than Palin herself. She railed at reporters, at those who supposedly look down on folks in small towns, and at the "Washington elite." She invoked Harry Reid, a political figure about whom few voters have strong opinions, saying Reid "said, quote, 'I can't stand John McCain.' Ladies and gentlemen, perhaps no accolade we hear this week is better proof that we've chosen the right man." McCain is the right man, because Democrats can't stand him.

Perhaps most oddly to some ears, Palin even mocked Barack Obama for having worked as a community organizer after graduating college: "This world of threats and dangers is not just a community, and it doesn't just need an organizer," she said to derisive laughter and cheers. One could respond that this world of threats and dangers is not just a small-market local TV station, and it doesn't just need a sports reporter, since that's what Palin did when she finished college.

About the only standard Republican target she left out was shiftless welfare recipients, although it might be because Palin and her fellow Alaskans could teach us all a thing or two about welfare dependency, suckling as they do so hungrily on the federal teat (according to the conservative Tax Foundation, in 2005 Alaska received nearly $14,000 in federal spending per capita, more than any other state).

Those who scratched their heads at the attacks on community organizers (Rudy Giuliani went after them too) should realize that Republicans will mock absolutely anyone, if that person can be linked to a Democrat. In 2004, don't forget, delegates at the GOP convention wore band-aids on their cheeks with little purple hearts drawn on them in magic marker (one of the many despicable lies Republicans were circulating about John Kerry was that he didn't really deserve the three Purple Hearts he was awarded in Vietnam). When asked by reporters about them, they said giggling that they had cut themselves shaving, so they awarded themselves a purple heart. At one point, Peter Jennings asked Newt Gingrich, "Did you squirm a little when you saw the guy wearing the purple heart?" Gingrich replied, "No. I think it's funny."

Of course he did. The point of this story isn't the fact that it would have been treated like the scandal of the century had it been Democrats displaying such open contempt for veterans, though of course it would have. What's important is what it demonstrates about Republicans: that their thirst for the sweet nectar of contempt is limitless, its targets potentially infinite. (The gag was the brainchild of Morton Blackwell, one of the most prominent activists in the conservative machine. Blackwell is president of the Leadership Institute, which has trained hundreds of young conservatives for careers in politics, advocacy, and media.)

What the nation learned about Sarah Palin last Wednesday, and what she has reinforced in all her public appearances since then, is that she is a master of the sarcastic, contemptuous sneer. It is extremely powerful to tell people that they are being ridiculed by someone else, that distant elite who live in cities sipping Chardonnay and eating brie as they look down their suspiciously long noses at you. And if you think that someone is looking down on you, the quickest way to feel better is to start looking down on them, which is just what Palin tells voters they must do.

And oh, did those Republican delegates swoon at their new tribune of down-home all-American virtue, their Hockey Mom from heaven. Meanwhile, up in the skyboxes ringing the arena, the people John McCain's hero Teddy Roosevelt called the "malefactors of great wealth" nodded approvingly at the scene below. The party's patrons could rest easy knowing that once again, corporate and upper-income tax cuts are at the top of the Republican nominee's agenda. The troops on the floor had no more than a passing concern about that, though. They had been appropriately prodded with talk of values and God and the flag and the virtues of small towns -- but most of all, talk of those despicable liberals. Those liberals hate you, they were told, and they hate everything you stand for. So work your little hearts out.

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