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03.27.10

The New Republican War Room

Ground zero for the GOP’s health-care repeal movement is Erick Erickson's Redstate.com. He calls his site "right of center." It's a polite way of launching a conservative revolution.

No sooner had the House passed the health-care reform bill than conservatives were flocking to Redstate.com, conservatism's premier Web site, to call for repeal. “The passage of this phony health-care 'reform' is a tremendous blow to the cause of fiscal restraint, limited government, constitutional principles, and free enterprise. In short, it strikes directly at America’s core principles,” wrote “chuckdevore,” a contributor to the site. “It was brazen. It was arrogant. And, it was a thumb in the eye of democracy, liberty, and most of all, the American people,” opined “hogan.” And the site’s editor, Erick Erickson, declared: “Ladies and Gentlemen, I submit to you again that it is not enough to just throw out the Democrats in favor of Republicans. We must throw out the Democrats and replace them with the right kind of Republicans—conservatives who actually are conservative.” If you want a strong sense of what the opposition to Obama’s new health-care legislation is going to look like in the coming weeks and months, this “right of center” blog, as it characterizes itself, is the place to go.

I'd rather confront someone trying to impress me with a Latin phrase than someone trying to intimidate me with an AK-47 any day.

Politics is, to a great extent, the artful manipulation of the appearance of moral rectitude, and both liberals and conservatives have their styles of virtuous display. Among other things, each style is intended to contradict each ideology’s popular image. Liberals, for example, will prove their moral bona fides by railing against the certified villains of reactionary obstructionism with passionate intensity. The display of outrage and passion is meant to rebut the stereotype of the liberal as an elitist untouched by ordinary problems.

Conservatives have the opposite problem. They have to play down their outrage and passion lest they give the appearance of being driven by anger and bitterness. So the conservative style of virtuous display is at the other end of the spectrum from the liberal style of virtuous display. The conservative out of power can break windows, carry guns to rallies, scream “baby killer” and, in general, satisfy every liberal stereotype of the angry and bitter right-winger. But once in power, the conservative must look rational, even-tempered, and seem steeped in the conventions of an older, more graceful culture.

Go to Redstate and you might be forgiven for thinking Republicans were still in charge. There’s a calm, understated visual setting that expresses a fiery sentiment: a red map of America overlapping with white stars on a blue field. It projects the sense of rebellious feelings inspired yet also contained by patriotic piety. These are serious Americans out to rescue America from its enemies, the look of the Web site seems to say, but who would never destroy America in order to save it.

Erickson, a native Louisianan and former lawyer who lives in Macon, Georgia, sets the deceptively moderate tone. A Macon city councilman and a church deacon, he started the Web site in 2004, running it out of a coffee shop. Redstate has now become so big that Erickson, who is in his mid-thirties, was invited to the Bush White House in 2006. When Eric Cantor decided to run for Minority Whip, he announced it on Redstate. Obviously, Erickson has won their respect. It’s not hard to see why. Not long ago, on Morning Joe, Erickson criticized the big pharmaceutical companies for, in his eyes, virtually coercing teenaged girls into taking the HPV vaccine. In doing so, he made a conservative case against conservatives who give a free pass to anything big business does in the pursuit of profits. Watching him speak calmly and articulately, without pretension, and with a sort of everyday kitchen-table disgust for unethical conduct, it was hard not to like the guy.

Despite the fact that Redstate is in the forefront of the newly formed repeal movement and fighting the good fight against every one of Obama’s legislative initiatives, big and small, the main posters’ tone is mostly polite and relaxed. Responding to Mitch McConnell’s remark that conservative unhappiness with the GOP is “not relevant” to the elections in November because conservative voters will have no place else to go, Erickson writes that “McConnell is right. They will vote for the GOP. Third parties cannot win and will ensure the Democrats win.” He follows this moderate thought, calmly expressed, with an extreme, uncompromising thought, which is still calmly expressed:

“But here’s the thing on both counts: Conservative dissatisfaction is very relevant in the primaries. We can send an army of conservatives to the Senate who will push back against John Cornyn and Mitch McConnell. We can send solid conservatives who will side with people like Jim DeMint… Let’s fight and win. Make Mitch McConnell understand just how relevant we are…”

A lot of the commenters are the same unrestrained crew that you find on most political sites, left and right (“The left-wing media is evil, mendacious, malicious”—“E Pluribus Unum”) but the site’s main bloggers preserve the calm tone. One poster—“tabithahale”—describes being at the anti-Obamacare really in D.C. over the weekend, going out of her way to praise the “beautiful” weather. Gotcha videos, like one catching the barely articulate John Dingell (D-MI) saying that the object of legislation is to “control the people” appear side by side with more straightforward clips, like one of John Conyers asserting that the new health-care legislation is on unassailable constitutional ground. Below the video, you find the comment “Res ipsa loquitur,” made by “hogan,” a poster who is obviously proud of conservatism’s attachment to ancient principles. “Carthago delenda est” (“Carthage must be destroyed”) is another favorite Latin tag that appears on Redstate and other conservative sites. The ring of tranquil erudition expressing the most belligerent sentiment nicely captures even the angriest conservative’s genteel self-image.

And over in Redstate’s culture section, “Susannah” posts a video in which Karl Rove debates David Plouffe, concluding that “Rove ate his lunch—and that’s putting it politely.” In fact, Rove rants and raves, waves a clipboard cluttered with statistics that is not visible to the camera, and barely lets Plouffe get a word in edgewise, but Susannah goes on to colorfully say that “Plouffe was basically reduced to a rubble of transparent Obamaisms” and “when all is said and done, pixie dust and unicorn farts are no match for real knowledge, fact, and cojones.” That’s a jarring note on Redstate’s mostly genteel Web site, but Susannah appends to her post a calm, temperate smiley face. “Have a happy Sunday!” she signs off, as if to say that in the Redstate world, guns, a single religious creed, and the marketplace might rule, but not out of anger or bitterness, gosh darn it, and certainly not when the weather is so “beautiful.”

This vitriol with a human face might summon up unpleasant images from Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt to Arthur Miller's Joe Keller—dishonest businessmen who hide their venality behind a broad smile and a vigorous handshake. This is one version of Homo Americanus, who wreaks a havoc of self-interest on the world behind sunny platitudes and respectable appearance.

But the appearance of calm doesn't have to be a coward's camouflage. It can also mean a commitment to some kind of shared fate even with your adversaries. This is another version of Homo Americanus, who at his very worst, just wants to be liked. I'd rather confront someone trying to impress me with a Latin phrase than someone trying to intimidate me with an AK-47 any day.

Lee Siegel is The Daily Beast's senior columnist. He publishes widely on 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: How the Web Is Reshaping Culture And Commerce—And Why It Matters. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.