The Magazine

The Fantasy Life of American Liberals

From the November 25, 2002 issue: Three generations of left-wing idiocy are enough.

Nov 25, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 11 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

THE ELECTION RETURNS are in, and the high priest of American liberalism has spoken. "If you like God in government, get ready for the Rapture," warned Bill Moyers in his post-election PBS commentary. And not only will George Bush, right-wing radical, now attempt to impose a theocracy, he is preparing, among other depredations, "to force pregnant women to give up control over their own lives . . . to transfer wealth from working people to the rich . . . [and] to eviscerate the environment."

Odd. In a country where the great assault, such as it is, on "choice" consists of parental notification of teenage abortions, in a country where most people don't particularly enjoy having their wealth "transferred," where they support reasonable environmental regulation and believe in some separation between church and state, how could this conjunction of "piety, profits, and military power, all joined at the hip by ideology and money"--Moyers's summary of Republicanism--command such public support?

Moyers doesn't explain, it being perhaps imprudent to openly express contempt for a public whose tax money supports his show. Bob Herbert works for the New York Times and thus does not have the same dilemma. But as a prototypical paleoliberal, he offers the traditional explanation for the umpteenth defeat of liberalism at the polls: the beguiling smile. The GOP, you see, "wears a sunny mask, which conceals a reality that is far more ideological, far more extreme, than most Americans realize." The voters are therefore not the total idiots Moyers makes them out to be. They are simply seduced, done in by the genial smile.

Ah, the genial smile. There have been three successful Republican presidents in the modern era (i.e., since the New Deal), all of whose successes confounded the liberal elites. It began with their inability to fathom how Americans could prefer Eisenhower to Stevenson. The smile. Ike was a fool who (in Captain Renault's immortal phrase) blundered his way into Berlin, smiled his way into the presidency--and then whiled it away playing golf.

The next puzzle was Ronald Reagan, the "amiable dunce" (Clark Clifford's famously obtuse characterization) who somehow brought down the Soviet empire. It was a Hollywood conceit that "Being There," the Peter Sellers film about a retarded recluse who is taken for a mystical genius and becomes president, was a metaphor for Reagan. His genial smile concealed not just stupidity but evil intentions. No, not his evil intentions--he being too dimwitted even to merit moral opprobrium--but the evil intentions of those manipulating him behind the scenes.

Twenty years later, the liberal nightmare returns in the form of George W. Bush, another exemplar of the trinity of Republican success: geniality, empty-headedness, and evil. With him, there is a similar difficulty reconciling the apparent antitheticals: empty-headedness and evil. Once again this is explained by the Manchurian Candidate theory, Bush, the simpleton, being the puppet of a vast, dark, right-wing cabal.

This is a running theme, indeed an obsession, of Times columnist Paul Krugman, who wrote during the French election that the neofascist presidential candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen was a mirror image of American Republicanism. Except that things are worse in America because Le Pen lost and Bush won. "Le Pen is a political outsider. . . . So his hard-right ideas won't be put into practice anytime soon. . . . In this country people with views that are, in their way, as extreme as Mr. Le Pen's are in a position to put those views into practice."

In America, the fascists have achieved power, riding the smile of their front man "boy king," too dense perhaps even to know the interests he serves. This theme reached its comic apogee in Barbra Streisand's now famous, gloriously misspelled antiwar memo to Dick Gephardt, in which she explained that the reason Bush was dragging the nation to war with Iraq was to serve the "oil industry, the chemical companies, the logging industry." On to Baghdad--for the timber!

This is truly bizarre. George Bush, extremist? This is a president who passed an education bill essentially written by Ted Kennedy. His tax reform involves the most modest of rate cuts for the upper brackets and is what any Keynesian would have done in the face of a recession. It is, for example, more moderate than the (John) Kennedy tax cuts. The other alleged parts of his agenda--the environmental rape, the imposition of theocracy, the abolition of civil liberties (Moyers: "secrecy on a scale you cannot imagine")--are nothing but the delusion of liberals made quite mad by defeat.