Mr. Carpenter is working on a book about American demagoguery. He is a columnist for HNN.
In their seemingly hysterical rush to militarily confront an enemy who poses no imminent threat to U.S. national security, ultraconservatives once again are demonstrating that the real war in which they see themselves engaged is a domestic-not foreign-one. The old bugaboo of liberalism, born in the 1930s and nurtured publicly until the mid-1970s, may only draw a shallow breath every now and then, but the Right wants it dead, dead definitely dead. Nothing less will do. This proposition, and only this, explains the otherwise inexplicable: the sudden urgency of a fighting war in the absence of a fight. Despite appearances, the Right's rush to confrontation isn't hysterical at all; it's methodical, premeditated, simply another chapter in its playbook of ever-escalating warfare against domestic opponents.
Although it has won virtually every major political battle during the last 30 years, total victory still eludes ultraconservatism. Right-wing ideology dominates the White House, Congress, Supreme Court, news media, corporate world, and the Boy Scouts. Yet as long as even one college professor professes a progressive thought in the classroom or print, as long as Ted Kennedy survives as the corporeal target he is, as long as there remains even a straggling band of anti-Right journalist-commentators, the seeds of a disagreeably persuasive opposition loom as an incubating threat.
Conservative extremists, modern conservatives, right wingers, The Right, hardcore Republicans--call them what you will--cannot and will not tolerate so much as an inkling of dissent because theirs is a fundamentally paranoid and authoritarian ideology. These appellations rest far from any fresh interpretation; they were once commonplace coins of the terminological realm. Critical theorist Theordor Adorno et al first popularized the latter--authoritarianism--in the 1950s, in a nearly 1000-page tome, The Authoritarian Personality. Not many years later came historian Richard Hofstadter's essays, "The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt" and "The Paranoid Style."
None of these works receives much attention by historians these days. Adorno's volume was, it's true, methodologically flawed; its conclusions tended to support premises; and, in time, Hofstadter's insights went the way of most "status-anxiety" theories: straight south. In addition, upon discovering and then doggedly promoting personal "agency," historians became suspicious of mass-movement theories in general and, perhaps most of all, there's always been a professional instinct to discount anything not published in the last six hours. Nevertheless, the twosome's key contentions remain demonstrably valid. Those of a marked rightward bent fawn over authority and authority figures, love to exhibit their manly "toughness," view conformity of thought as a sure sign of social stability, and hawk patriotism not just as a civic virtue, but something they purport to have invented themselves.
All of which leads back to the initial proposition. The right-wing crowd no more believes Iraq is an immediate threat to the United States than does Noam Chomsky, and its utter lack of damning evidence to the contrary is proof positive. The cooked-up conflict is, however, a marvelous opportunity to bash the hell out of anyone who surfaces to question the administration's designs and further solidify its ideological domestic chokehold. The calculated strategy is akin to Mao's glorious Cultural Revolution: Come, all ye dissenters, announced Mao, and we shall reason together. When they came he then chopped them off at the knees--and neck. They had shown their true colors, "antiChinesism."
Ultraconservative think tanks and foundations that regularly feed raw political meat via fax machines each day to the likes of propagandists such as Rush Limbaugh are in ideological overdrive and loving every blessed minute of it. Is Saddam Hussein their main target? Hardly. It is, rather, the Al Gores, public intellectuals, academics, and probing journalists--those who might have accepted Mao's invitation to help purify through independent thought the cultural heights of communist perfection. Vocal opponents of today's concocted war are the enemy: culprits of domestic discord; disloyal, unAmerican types who for reasons never quite delineated would, as the Right advertises, prefer to invite Saddam to tea parties at Harvard than disarm the schmuck. They, like Mao's opponents, must be ridiculed, despised, and ultimately silenced. The Right holds no truck with the stubbornly unindoctrinated.
What Hofstadter labeled a "pseudoconservative" (because of the True Believer's radicalism--a wild departure from reasoned, traditional, and authentic conservatism) has by now evolved into your garden-variety conservative. The internal party revolution--the process of ideological cleansing--is complete. The Far Right controls the party's ideas, ideology, and agenda. Yet Hofstadter's principal contribution to the literature on then-fringe pseudoconservatism augurs more pertinent and ominous than ever. It was that of a paradox. The pseudoconservative of muscular Americanism, he argued, is in fact the living antithesis of true American ideals. He is "a man who, in the name of upholding traditional American values and institutions and defending them against more or less fictitious dangers, consciously or unconsciously aims at their destruction." To reiterate, these are folks of spooky paranoia and disturbing authoritarian tendencies.
Indeed, on how many occasions have we witnessed these political pathologies of antiAmerican ideals under Bush II alone? The Oval Office has perfected the creation of fictitious dangers only to detract from real problems which it has no answers to, and no interest in (exploding deficits, an ICU economy, a certifiably insane destructive tax policy, increasing poverty, swelling ranks of the uninsured need I go on?). It reacts with maniacal anger and unprecedented authoritarianism at those who dare question its insularly derived policies on both foreign and fiscal matters. It defies the coequal branch of Congress. It "disses" federal courts as obtrusive, irrelevant snoopers. The vice president arrogantly disdains outsiders who believe they have a right to know who's dictating national energy policies. Attorney General John Ashcroft almost daily whittles away at yet another American constitutional guarantee.
These are not the exploits of what made America great and vibrant. Our greatness was, and still is--though hanging by a slim thread--the tolerance, if not grudging encouragement of, dissent from on-high governmental dictates and hubris.
In endless streams of rapid-response diatribes by self-appointed right-wing
censors against any who publicly question Bush II's divine right to do what
it damn well pleases at home or abroad, a favored tactic is to paint the opposition
as spineless, closet Marxists who lack the Right's admirable Rambo-American
"toughness." To boot, it is claimed the opposition is full of America-haters.
Yet it's those still residing in the increasingly impotent and dwindling camp
of the Left who ardently believe in "tough love" when it comes to
dubious American ventures. Those on the Left don't pat the power elite on the
head and tell them everything's OK. We demand reasonable answers in the face
of impetuous behavior. We demand honest accountability. That's not blaming America.
That's the genuine American Way.