The Magazine

The Birthplace of Bush Paranoia

From the October 25, 2004 issue: How the political culture of Austin, Texas, infected the presidential race.

Oct 25, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 07 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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IT DOES make sense, it does. One is tempted to dawdle at the Two Unemployed Democrats store because, if (like some people I could name) you have a journalistically desperate cast of mind, the place practically screams Metaphor! Disgorging from its pleasantly shabby surroundings a whole host of anti-Bush paraphernalia to all points of the country, the business serves as a tiny symbol of Austin itself. With its university-town origins, its large population of musicians and artists, its long tradition of political liberalism, Austin is, as Jeff says, the "anti-Texas," where "Texans who don't really like Texas" choose to live. More important, it has also, in a larger sense, exported its own peculiar brand of Bush hatred to Democrats from one coast to the other.

Austin has a lot to answer for, whether you're a Democrat or a Republican. Ponder for a moment the strange course the presidential campaign has followed these last 18 months. Judged by the simplest, crudest criterion--comparing the state of the world as it was the day he took office with the world as it will be on the day he stands for reelection--George W. Bush should be the most easily beatable presidential incumbent since Jimmy Carter. A frontal assault on Bush's record, repeated endlessly and packaged cleverly, might well have resulted in a walkaway win for whoever the Democrats had chosen to oppose him.

It hasn't worked out that way, as we know. Bush's opponents instead find themselves in a tight race they well might lose. There are lots of reasons why, but one surely is that instead of mounting a substantial critique of what the president has done and hasn't done, his Democratic adversaries have obsessed over piecing together odd, paranoid caricatures of the man who's driving them nuts--Bush as the agent of Halliburton, Bush as the idiot son of Robber Baron privilege, Bush the religious crank, the right-wing ideologue, the draft-dodger, the front man for Enron or Rove or the Saudi royals or J.R. Ewing. The caricatures are familiar now to the millions of moviegoers who saw Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, but they have an Austin pedigree; the fantasies were nurtured in the hothouse of Texas progressivism before they caught on nationwide. A large number of the most popular anti-Bush books--and many of those Moore used in assembling his movie--were written in Texas by veteran Texas activists who have grown bitter from the endless frustration and resentment that is their unhappy lot: Bush's Brain, Boy Genius, Cronies, The Politics of Deceit, The Dirty Truth, Unfit Commander, The Mafia, CIA, and George Bush, Immaculate Deception: The Bush Crime Family Exposed, Bushwhacked, Shrub . . . the list is very long. Surf the DNC website or or listen to one of Terry McAuliffe's press conferences, leaf through an issue of Vanity Fair or scan a columnist on the op-ed page of the New York Times, and you see at once how deeply the Austin fantasy has penetrated the Democratic mind.

Shrub, by the Texas journalists Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose, was granddaddy to them all. Published in 1999, it stands even now as the template for the Bush critique. In his great essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," the political scientist Richard Hofstadter remarked how political paranoids in early America--the anti-Masons, for example--were alarmed from decade to decade by the same chimera: They convinced themselves that they saw, operating just beneath the surface of the national life, "a libertine anti-Christian movement, given to the corruption of women, the cultivation of sensual pleasures, and the violation of property rights." Now, of course, the paranoids are bewitched by the mirror image: In Bush and his followers they detect, in place of a libertine anti-Christian movement, an uptight pro-Christian movement, given to the "virtue" of women rather than their corruption, the denial of sensual pleasures instead of their cultivation, and--perhaps most shocking of all--the preservation of property rights rather than their violation. Times do change. The earlier American paranoids imagined their enemies in drunken orgies and were horrified; today they see them at prayer--and they're still horrified.