An American friend of mine visiting from South America walked away from one of last month’s parties around the L.A. Times Books Festival rather shaken and bewildered. “I felt like I was in a loony bin,” he said as we emerged from a chic book-launch party in the Hollywood Hills. “If one more crazy person came up to me with some crackpot theory, I swear I would have thrown him off the balcony,” he said.
I know what he meant. With the 2004 presidential campaign now under way, it seems clear that as whacked out as George W. Bush may be, he’s driving his opponents even crazier. Nothing short of some sort of mass hysteria has gripped everyone to the left of Condi Rice.
Within one 30-minute period during that book gathering, my friend and I logged the following revelations offered us by some of our fellow partygoers: Bush will steal the 2004 election because “It’s all in the voting machines — keep your eye on those machines.” There will be no next election because Bush will stage an auto-coup. Bush’s 70 percent approval rating for the war isn’t real — it’s a made-up number. American, not Iraqi, troops set the oil wells on fire in 1991. U.S. Marines directed and orchestrated the looting of Baghdad. Fidel Castro didn’t really want to lock up all those writers and execute those three hijackers without a proper trial, but the Bush administration forced him to do it. We’ve entered a period of cultural repression worse than McCarthyism. And, my current favorite, Michael Moore wasn’t really booed at the Oscars — instead, the network ran an amplified and prerecorded loop to discredit him. (I know this one is crazy because I alone booed loudly enough from my Woodland Hills living room to be clearly heard in the Kodak’s upper deck.)
Where does all this paranoia come from? Fluoride in the water? And these hyperbolic views are hardly confined to the political amateurs drawn to Sunday-evening gatherings by finger food and Chardonnay. In the current edition of The Nation, Princeton professor emeritus of politics Sheldon Wolin argues that the Bush administration has embarked on building a regime akin to that of Nazi Germany and that ordinary GOP voters might be no less than the “mass base” needed for totalitarian rule (wait till my poor blue-rinsed Aunt Gertie finds out she actually joined up with the Sturmabteilung when she voted last March for that nice-looking Billy Simon).
Even this month’s liberal American Prospect proclaims George W. Bush as “The Most Dangerous President Ever.” I can buy the notion that Dubya might be the worst president ever. But the most dangerous? More dangerous than nuke-slinging Harry Truman, who also set up the CIA, helped spawn the Cold War and opened the doors to Senator Joe from Wisconsin? More dangerous than LBJ, who murdered a couple of million Vietnamese? What about a drunken and pilled-out Dick Nixon playing atomic roulette during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War?
I’ll be the first to admit that it’s galling to watch a smirking C-minus daddy’s boy like George W. Bush get away with so much. But let’s not lose our grip on reality. Things are bad enough that we need not exaggerate or fabricate. What really worries me is that by magnifying the damage Bush wreaks, we pave the way to settling for some really, truly sorry alternative — like, say, Dick Gephardt. We also make it much harder to beat him.
Those who deny Bush’s popularity and his appeal aren’t so much living in Nuremberg as in la-la land. To millions of Americans still traumatized after September 11, watching Bush strut onto the flight deck of that aircraft carrier in his TV-friendly pilot’s suit last week was a much more reassuring image than that of Big Bill getting his weenie waxed under the desk while taking congressional phone calls about Bosnia.
So let’s do a quick reality check. No, Mr. Wolin, we are not living in Nazi Germany nor anything vaguely resembling it. And arguing that Bush is some sort of Nazi isn’t going to win over a single undecided vote. Bush has shown more or less the same zeal to roll back civil liberties as Clinton did after Oklahoma City. And you can be sure John Ashcroft has a soft spot in his heart for Janet Reno, who didn’t flinch on extending the death penalty.
Tim Robbins, Janeane Garofalo and the Dixie Chicks are going to continue to make millions of dollars, thank you very much. And some deluded right-wingers pushing commercial boycotts and attack Web sites are a far cry from the blacklists, loyalty oaths and mass firings of teachers of a half century ago.
What we are instead confronted with is a highly ideological conservative administration that wants to go even further than the Democrats in lavishing tax giveaways and regulatory benefits on the corporate elite. We’ve seen this before in American history, and we have survived, without having to learn German.
With unemployment at an eight-year high, consumer confidence stalled, and even some moderate Republicans bailing on the most insidious tax-cut measures, the administration’s domestic program is in tatters. Plans for privatizing Medicare and Social Security have been scuttled by the soured stock market. Dreams of endless war seem to be crashing on the hard beach of Iraqi Shia intransigence and decaying security in Afghanistan. With the unexpected demotion of Occupation Proconsul Jay Garner this week, there are even suggestions that the balance of power in the administration might be tipping away from the neoconservative Jacobins and back toward the corporate types.
Bush can be beaten. But not if we speak in a language that is alien and offensive to those we wish to convince. Their fears are real and legitimate and should not be dismissed as solely effects of watching too much Fox TV.
As a teenager, I was attracted to the left because of its commitment to rational and cool-headed analysis. It was amusing to watch the Birchers and the extreme right twist themselves up into feverish rants against secret U.N. cabals, one-world government and, yes, water fluoridation. Let’s not become like them.