10.16.09

Patriot Games

Rush Limbaugh has been rooting for the president to fail since Obama took office. Lately, GOP leaders are trying harder to sound like statesmen. Lee Siegel on why liberals should be worried.

Here's a haunting thought just in time for Halloween. What if Rush Limbaugh and the rest of the foaming right-wing pundit crowd aren't the face of modern conservatism? What if that face is handsome, moderate, and sane? Something like this metamorphosis has been taking place over the last few months, as the Republicans have been striking rational poses against the helpful contrast of extremist cant. The pendular dynamic—a cross between vaudeville shtick and the one-two punch—goes like this:

Obama’s Olympics appeal fails; Chicago loses the Games; Limbaugh et al. shriek hosannas; the liberals cry “Unpatriotic!”—and a score of Republicans demonstrably restrain their criticisms of Obama’s Olympics push. Obama wins the Nobel Peace Prize; Limbaugh et al. seize on Obama’s European popularity to prove his American irrelevance; the liberals cry “Unpatriotic!”—and a score of Republicans demonstrably pull back from using the prize against Obama, with Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty actually taking pains to congratulate the president on his albatross. I mean, medal.

While the media and assorted liberal pundits have been busy waxing indignant over sensationalist right-wing pundits, cannier conservatives have been using these extreme positions to—carefully—cast themselves as sane moderates.

This effective political kinesis began its sly motion when, way back at the beginning of Obama’s administration, Rush Limbaugh said on his radio show that he wanted Obama to fail. Liberals, ecstatic at the prospect of stealing the patriotic thunder from the party that had long used it against them as a bludgeon, eagerly snapped up the bait. They turned themselves into extremists in response, arguing that Limbaugh and Limbaugh’s irrational sentiments now constituted the mainstream of American conservative thinking. Now both sides, as if in a cartoon, were red-faced, snorting, nose-to-nose.

In stepped John McCain. “I don’t want him to fail,” he said about Obama. Then Mitt Romney declared, "We want our country to succeed no matter who's in power ... The interests of the nation come first." Pawlenty shrewdly praised Limbaugh as a “gifted” figure, but just as shrewdly characterized Limbaugh as just one part of a conservative coalition that Pawlenty said he hoped would include “independents and Democrats.”

Voila! Rather than being contorted with rage and thick with bull-headed fanaticism, the face of American conservatism instantly becomes a sane, rational bulwark against same. These deft Republicans immediately appeal to moderate conservative and independent voters who have been alienated by Limbaugh & Co., but who have also been angered by liberals accusing all conservatives of sharing what they spitefully claim is Limbaugh’s anti-Americanism.

This is not to say that Republicans are explicitly rejecting Limbaugh and his ilk. No Republican politician has. They wouldn’t dare. But they have skillfully done nothing to alienate the Limbaughs and Becks at the same time as they have sent disapproving signals over Limbaugh & Co.'s heads.

The fact is that while the media and assorted liberal pundits have been busy waxing indignant over sensationalist right-wing pundits, cannier conservatives have been using these extreme positions to—carefully—cast themselves as sane moderates. Too stunned even to slightly distance themselves from Limbaugh and his colleagues after Obama’s triumph, they are realizing that it’s time to reposition their party for the midterm elections in 2010. And the issue they have been—once again, carefully—fashioning into an effective weapon to be used against Democrats in 2010 is old, but trusty.

Patriotism.

Though not on any ballot next year, Pawlenty, McCain, Romney, and the others are Republican politicians who actually win elections, not right-wing gasbags who keep left-wing gasbags in business. And they are beginning to shape a new political narrative that is very distinct—deliberately, purposefully distinct—from all the abusive sentiments hollered by Limbaugh, Beck et al. It is a narrative that will not only reposition the party for 2010, but perhaps advance the presidential ambitions of men like Pawlenty and Romney in 2012.

Call this new storyline neo-patriotism. It is very different from the patriotism of yore. The old patriotism still shouted by the right-wing TV and radio clowns is in fact the disreputable patriotism, the “last refuge of scoundrels” that exists as a ready-to-deploy cartoon in liberal minds.

Flag-waving, sentimental, drunk on symbols and rhetoric, the old patriotism has been caricatured and discredited in a thousand Hollywood movies. With the exception of the town-hall and tea-party crowd—big on cameras, small in numbers—it has no traction with most Americans, even those flag-waving, sentimental patriotic Americans. Like everyone else, they have internalized the cultural discrediting of hysterical patriotism, even as they might themselves feel hysterically patriotic. They would rather think of themselves as handsome, distinguished, cheerful and calm. They would rather think of themselves as a McCain, or a Pawlenty, or a Romney.

Neo-patriotism is going to be a powerful force in the 2010 midterm elections. The patriotic field is wide open. Liberals have never felt comfortable with it. They use it only as a negative taunt, to prove that hysterical right-wing patriots are no kind of patriot at all. They seem unable, or unwilling to use the concept in a positive, uplifting way.

Conservatives don’t have that problem. They have refashioned their image to the point that dapper, amiable neo-patriotism, not liberal cosmopolitanism, is the answer to the strident patriotism of old. As Obama sinks deeper into Afghanistan, and as the recession continues to take its toll, he will sooner or later lose the credibility he gained simply by being the anti-Bush. The conservatives, on the other hand, will gain credibility simply by delicately distancing themselves from Limbaugh & Co. Against liberal cries of anti-American conservatism, they will point away from the right-wing talking-heads to the war, and to the economy, and ask who the true patriots are now.

Liberals had better start thinking of an answer. They can start by turning off the TV and the radio, and turning toward Republicans who don’t just talk the talk, but are slowly starting to walk a new kind of electoral walk.

Lee Siegel has written about culture and politics and is the author of three books:Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently,Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.