The Magazine

Tangled Webb

Cognitive dissonance in Virginia.

Nov 6, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 08 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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It also underlies the economic populism that allows Webb to slide edgewise into the mainstream of today's Democratic party. He says he was moved to run for the Senate when he saw "the breakdown in our society along economic lines." He has come to rescue his people--the poor whites who (along with poor blacks) have been the chief victims of globalized turbocapitalism. In every speech he cites the same statistics: "Ten percent of Fortune 500 companies pay zero corporate income taxes," he says. "When I was 24, the average CEO earned 20 times what the average wage-earner did. Today my son is 24, and the average CEO earns 200 times what the average wage-earner does." He is vaguer on the subject of how to fix this unhappy state of affairs. He supports a higher minimum wage and an end to "corporate tax breaks which cost American jobs." At the same time, though, he says he supports a cut in the capital gains tax, in case a redneck wants to sell his stocks.

The vagueness doesn't bother his supporters, because the war is the true rationale for his campaign. And here too he has worked an amazing inversion--one that also could have been predicted from his books, particularly the impressive string of military novels that have made him well known. Webb is not only a gifted novelist but something rarer: a novelist of ideas. And all his ideas are reactionary. Together the books form a long, eloquent protest against the wussification of America, exemplified in the Washington world of slick pols, butt-covering bureaucrats, and the panty-waist, nancy-boy journalists who serve as their stenographers. Webb's complaints about modern politics are much sterner, and much more plausible, than the milk-and-water clichés of "anti-Washington" candidates out in flyover country. Webb hates Washington as only someone who works here can.

"Those monuments that permeated the nation's capital, and the lofty words that washed over the Congress every day, inundating its activities, became in a way artificial. They reminded Doc [a veteran congressman suddenly stirred to idealism] and the others that either the past was false, or the present was a disappointing mockery of what once was greatness."

The decadence of this nation of pussies shows itself most clearly in the relationship between the military and its civilian leadership. Out in the real world, military men "soldier on for the children still at home," knowing that "such a motivation seems medieval in modern America." Soldiers are atavists, grounded in reality, connected by blood to the soil of a place, and the farther one travels from the military life the more unreal America gets. Civilians live in a world of appearances and insincerity and false emotions, "going off to business school or playing Nintendo" while their betters take up arms to save their candy-butts. Politicians in Webb's telling are always "posturing . . . each of them possessed with the type of personality that could slap the back and shake the hand of a complete stranger [yuk!]. . . . Touch pat shake smile. The human tools of American politics."

Invariably in Webb's novels the soldiers erupt in frustration against the civilian leaders. "You can figure it out for yourself," says one fed-up military man in Something to Die For. "The legislation after World War Two that created the Department of Defense and supposedly ensured civilian control over the military has been a disaster. Do you think I'm kidding? Ask yourself why we won every war before 1947, and we haven't won one since . . . " Webb asks himself the question in nearly every novel, and he has a ready answer: The country is run by people like "Chicken Hawk," the secretary of defense in Something to Die For. "They call him Chicken Hawk because he didn't have the guts to serve when there was a war on and now every time there's a crisis he wants to send them in."

Webb makes the same case in arguing against the Iraq war. George W. Bush "has no feel for military culture," Webb says. Instead the president is surrounded by "theorists who have never been on a battlefield, who have never put a uniform on, and who are looking at this thing in a totally different way from people who have had to worry about their troops." Webb seldom misses a chance to point out the military record, or lack of it, of Dick Cheney. If Cheney and the theorists had some military experience, he says, they would never have tried "putting a Judeo-Christian military system in the cradle of Muslim culture." This is Webb's second ingenious bit of jujitsu: By his logic, the war in Iraq isn't an assertion of American power, but another disastrous symptom of a country gone soft, the feckless gesture of a superpower brought low by wusses.

Both of these inversions--the use of multiculturalism to advance the ethnic interests of white people, and the use of warrior rhetoric to discredit the Bush administration's war--might be extremely valuable to Demo crats, if they knew what they were doing.

But that's never a safe bet. Webb's right-wing populism and the liberalism of today's Democratic party make for an abrasive fit, and hints of it showed the other morning at Cecilia's, a Latin restaurant on Columbia Pike, in Arlington. Walter Tejada, Arlington's leading Hispanic politician and the man responsible for making Democrats of the county's growing immigrant population, arranged for Webb to attend a small rally with what Tejada calls "the community."

Webb's views of immigration, like many of his positions on questions of domestic policy, are unformed. It's not hard to imagine where his populism and ethnic allegiance would lead him, though. One thing that all economists agree on--those who favor the present influx of immigrants and those who don't--is that mass immigration lowers the wages of unskilled, uneducated native-born workers; "my people," as Webb calls them. A quick way to raise those wages would be to cut off the future flow of unskilled immigration. Yet this step toward "economic fairness" is not available to a Democratic candidate these days (or to many Republicans either).

In a brief and uncomfortable stump speech, Webb told the Hispanic crowd that he was against a guest-worker program. "We must first define our borders," he said. "And then we must ensure corporate responsibility, because a lot of this is going to come down to the employers."

The crowd seemed puzzled. Later reporters asked Webb to clarify his position. With Tejada next to him, he said he favored some path to legalization and citizenship for the illegals already here. Tejada nodded solemnly. But what about the future? a reporter asked. Would Webb favor tough economic sanctions against businesses that employ illegals, as a way of drying up the tide of immigrants?

"Yes," Webb said, "there needs to be corporate enforcement. We've had no corporate enforcement for six years! There's got to be employer sanctions, otherwise you're going to keep wages down. We have got to get a handle on this."

Tejada glanced at the ceiling. Punishing employers who hire illegals is not, needless to say, part of the game plan for the community, or for Arlington Democrats.

After Webb was gone, I asked Tejada about this. "Does Webb really want to punish employers who hire members of the community?"

"The devil is in the details," Tejada said. "Jim is a very complex thinker. We as a country need to have a long debate about these things."

"But wouldn't punishing employers reduce the opportunities for workers coming across the border?" I said.

"We will continue to work with Jim on this," Tejada said. "We will consult with him, advise him going forward. Educate him."

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.