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.
The last time the Republicans enjoyed unexpected political victory, the Gingrich revolution of 1994, the liberal consensus was dumbfounded. How to explain history going so wrong? Hence, a legend was born, the legend of the "angry white male." In fact, that term had no empirical basis whatsoever. I did a search and found only three polls that even asked about anger. In all three, 70-80 percent of white male respondents denied being angry. In contrast, the Democrats' victory two years earlier was sweetly dubbed "Year of the Woman."
Why? Because it is an article of liberal faith that conservatism is not just wrong but stone coldhearted to the core. When Robert Nozick died earlier this year, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote in his New York Times obituary, "The implications of 'Anarchy, State, and Utopia' are strongly libertarian and proved comforting to the right, which was grateful for what it embraced as philosophical justification."
Liberalism needs no philosophical justification because it only wants to do good. Conservatives are grateful to find a thinker who can spin logic well enough to cover their tracks, providing "philosophical justification" for their rape and pillage.
And when this sleight of hand, this transmutation of evil into good, is accomplished not by a philosophical genius like Nozick but by yet another amiable dunce in the presidency, liberals become unhinged. The 2000 election they could attribute to simple theft; the 2002 election they could only attribute to a kind of cosmic false consciousness. Yet the voters seem to have known precisely what they were doing. It was not George Bush's genial smile that got the most liberal state in the union, Massachusetts, not only to elect a conservative Mormon businessman as governor but to overwhelmingly approve the abolition of bilingual education, that totem of liberal social engineering. It was a triumph of experience over hope, the very definition of conservatism.
Such ideas cannot possibly be admitted. Hence the rage at Bush, the contempt for the electorate, and the spinning of deeply disturbed and highly entertaining conspiracy theories. Judging by their wild and crazy reaction to their defeat on November 5, one can only conclude that this election has left liberal elites further out of touch with reality than at any time in recent memory. As a former psychiatrist, I can confidently predict that logic and empirical evidence will have no therapeutic effect. It's time for the Thorazine.
Charles Krauthammer is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.