Illustration by Ryan Ward
I am a traitor. I’m not sure exactly when I first knew it. Of course for a long time I resisted it; I had always thought of myself as a patriot. But sometime over the last 15 years I came to sense it, and certainly I understood it by the afternoon last October when the president officially launched his re-election campaign. That was the day he gave two speeches in New Hampshire on behalf of a war he thought he had won five months earlier; over the next 24 hours, Iraqi guerrillas in Baghdad killed three American soldiers and wounded four, assassinated a Spanish diplomat in the street, and drove a car into a police station, blowing up eight people. This moment wasn’t just the hinge of George W. Bush’s presidency, with the gales of the past and future blowing it open and shut. It wasn’t just the moment that his presidency became the hinge of modern American history. It was the hinge of my very Americanism, between patriotism and treachery.
Some are loath to bestow upon this president any sort of momentousness. Whatever he does or however dire the moment, some can’t bring themselves to believe George Bush deserves such import, given what they regard as the flukishness of his election or what they perceive to be the limits of his capabilities. Among the erudite, ridicule attends his every mispronunciation of this word, his every mangling of that sentence — mistakes that only endear him to a nation of word mispronouncers and sentence manglers. Among those who fret about the unfairness of life, there’s fury at the fortunate son who inherited his power from his presidential father and the Supreme Court, as though Al Gore would have been any less an inheritor from his own senatorial father and the president who made him vice president (none of which is to even mention what Hillary Clinton has inherited, or may inherit still).
To snicker at Bush’s luck and stupidity not only confirms Bush’s gleeful assertions that he’s underestimated, but misreads everything about both the moment and the man. The fortunate son has more natural political skill than his father ever did, and as he proved in his interview on Meet the Press this past weekend, the president is as able to absorb and command the facts of something as anyone else. As was also clear in the same interview, and given the ways in which his reasons for the Iraq invasion have changed from those that he presented to the country a year ago, what’s important about George Bush’s intelligence isn’t its magnitude but its nature. This is to say it’s a perfectly adequate intellect that chooses what it prefers to know, what it prefers to think, what it prefers to believe. Which is to say that the nature of Bush’s intelligence hasn’t anything to do with intelligence at all. Rather it has to do with — here’s a word we haven’t heard in a while — character.
Bush’s presidency may be more fraught with significance than any since Franklin Roosevelt’s. If you believe in any sort of fate, if you believe things happen according to any sort of Scheme, there was nothing flukish about Bush’s election; to the contrary, there was no way he could not have become president when he did. Gore may have had a better résumé, but manifestly Bush was better suited to the dark poetry of 2000. George W. Bush is the Millennial President, and not simply according to the arithmetic of calendars. He’s the president of all the millennium’s metaphors, a commander in chief for the End Days, collecting RSVPs for the Rapture.
By all accounts the president believes the 11th of September, 2001, was his hour of destiny, the great event with which he was born to contend. Uniquely in recent history, the al Qaeda attack had about it an unalloyed evil that didn’t simply conform to George Bush’s worldview but validated it. Beyond that, radical Islam is an enemy to which Bush relates not on a historical or sociological level but rather one deeply intuitive; at heart the president embraces the same kind of absolutes, and the same promise of eternity and yearning for self-obliteration in which such absolutes are rooted. To a lesser degree, he’s also temperamentally grounded in the same suspicion of the modern world and its complications. For about five weeks this made Bush the perfect president for September 11. When those weeks passed, increasingly he found himself first checked by the mechanisms of democracy that routinely check presidential power — beginning with questions by Congress and the press about secret military trials — and then outclassed by Osama bin Laden, whose vocabulary of obliteration exceeds Bush’s even if his means for achieving it doesn’t.
Notwithstanding Woodrow Wilson, the son of a Presbyterian minister, and Jimmy Carter, a Sunday-school teacher, Bush is more than just the most religious president the country has ever had. His most profound political impulses — of which he barely may be conscious himself, but which are the source of his political strength and bind him to his political base — are theocratic. This isn’t reflected simply by the well-documented bulletins he sends to his base in his speeches, with the evangelic references to “good news” and (from the 2003 State of the Union) “wonder-working power,” or by the fact that he’s expressed on occasions his conviction that his faith is the sole passport to eternity (such as when he told a Jewish reporter for an Austin newspaper that only Christians could enter heaven). The president believes himself to be God’s instrument, as do his most devoted followers — two of every five who voted for Bush in 2000 consider themselves evangelical Christians — and the absolute nature of his religious beliefs, and the way in which they demand that the values of secular democracy ultimately submit to Christian values, inevitably lead him to regard democracy with a latent distrust.
In what is still a secular democracy, the president’s theocratic values translate themselves into the language of secularism, which is ideology. Bill Clinton’s efforts to rip American politics free from ideology failed in part because, to ideologues of the right and even the left, in all his appetites Clinton embodied how an absence of ideology is an absence of morality. From virtues viceroy William Bennett to former Reagan/Bush speechwriter Peggy Noonan, the right persistently equates ideology with character, by which more often than not it means sexual behavior, citing Ronald Reagan as an exemplar and the Clintons as depraved. “They have made the political landscape,” Noonan has written of the Clintons, “a lower and lesser thing.” To Noonan, ideology is synonymous not only with principle but with a kind of faith. If ideology is theology secularized, then skepticism of ideology is agnosticism or worse.
Ideology for both right and left has become an irresistible way of viewing the truth through the prism of philosophical biases. By its nature, ideology not only is at ease with intellectual dishonesty but thrives on it. Liberals with an expansive view of the Bill of Rights suddenly become strict constructionists when it comes to the Second Amendment, citing the maintenance of militias over the amendment’s clear principal concern with protecting the individual from disarmament by the state. Conservatives with an abiding mistrust of civil liberties suddenly become champions of the First Amendment when it has to do with campaign-finance reform and the power of the very rich to influence how others vote. In a confused and weary America where the political center doesn’t have the energy to take control of the most troubling issues of the time, ideology is a power base not so much for ideas — because original thinking is anathema to ideology — but for the passion that electorally moves the great non-ideological unwashed. Thus a debate as ethically, even metaphysically disquieting as the one over abortion, which involves nothing less than the unknowable answer to when humanity begins, is dominated by polar positions that will defend every “life” from the moment of conception and every “choice” up to the moment of birth, and that finally will reject one notion of humanity for another, whether it be that of the mother in whose body the fetus grows, or that of the child whom medical science has proved can now exist after a five-month pregnancy.
What President Bush translates into ideology isn’t just religious conviction but something more majestic, which is a theocratic psyche. Although he does this because it’s the constitutional deference that must be paid to secularism if the president is to uphold his oath of office, the new right understands what’s really involved. Speaking to NBC’s Tim Russert last fall, one of the new right’s most prominent spokesmen, Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly, put it succinctly: There’s a culture war in America, he said, between the “secularists” and the “traditionalists.” Of course O’Reilly is correct, if not exactly as he defines the terms. As O’Reilly defines the terms, secularists are atheists who want to marry homosexuals and abort pregnancies and remove God and religion from American life. Traditionalists fight to protect the family and the unborn and God Himself, a remarkably vulnerable deity. This conflict has marked the American experience from the beginning, with the New World originally settled by Puritans who had a theocratic social vision, which gave way to an idea of “America” invented 150 years later by secularists who were products of the Enlightenment. Of all the Founding Fathers — who had varying degrees of religious interest — only Samuel Adams was distinctly devout. The two presidents most responsible for authoring the American Idea, Thomas Jefferson and, later, Abraham Lincoln, were not Christians in any sense of the word that they or anyone else understood it then or now.
This always has been a nation caught between Cotton Mather and Tom Paine. As the New World’s pre-eminent theologian, Mather wrote Memorable Providences and Wonders of the Invisible World, which marshaled passionate arguments in support of the mass executions of women for witchcraft. Paine, raised in England, where he watched starving children his own age hanged for stealing food, disavowed his Quaker religion; employing the language of the Old Testament (which he preferred to the New) in the writing of Common Sense, Paine chortled to John Adams that he had done so for reasons as perverse as they were strategic. Among others, Jefferson was impressed. Similarly impressed by Paine’s later book The Age of Reason, which included an outright attack on religion, was a young Lincoln, who as a congressional candidate in 1846 was hounded by rumors regarding his lack of religious affiliation until finally he issued a statement assuring voters that, while he didn’t belong to any church, he was nothing but respectful of those who did.
Over the centuries, one side or the other of the Mather/Paine divide hasn’t so much held sway as overplayed its hand, beginning with the traditionalists 300 years ago in Salem. Conversely and more recently, if to less spectacular effect, in 2002 the 9th District Court of Appeals ruled the words under God in the Pledge of Allegiance a violation of the First Amendment. First among the problems with this decision was its constitutional wrong-headedness: The First Amendment was never intended to strike from public life all reference to a supreme power. Jefferson, the amendment’s guiding spirit by way of his protégé James Madison, and as hostile to organized religion as Bush is committed, made such a reference in the country’s founding document. Rather the First Amendment was intended to ensure that one religion isn’t favored by the state over another, and that religious practice is neither restricted by the state nor imposed; however much public pressure occasionally is brought to bear on the issue, the Pledge of Allegiance isn’t compulsory, with or without God. But beyond constitutional considerations the 9th Court’s decision was a tactical disaster, the sort that gives the separation between church and state a bad name. It played into the traditionalists’ most inflammatory depiction of secularism and undercut a thousand more credible arguments of the future — so that when the day comes that Republican congressional leader Tom DeLay wants to change the pledge to read “one nation under Jesus Christ,” the moral authority of the First Amendment will have been squandered on judicial reasoning specious at best and elitist at worst.
When George W. Bush found Jesus in the mid-’80s as part of a struggle with alcoholism, he was most electrified by the story of Paul’s conversion en route to Damascus, as told in the Book of Acts. Formerly a persecutor of Christians, Paul had a vision and became a prosecutor for Christianity. As pointed out by essayist and novelist Michael Ventura, American Christian fundamentalism is based largely on Paul’s epistles and the books of Revelation and John, from which the president quoted in his address to the nation on the evening of September 11, 2001 (“And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it”). John offers a harsher, more unforgiving portrait of Jesus than is found in the other Gospels. While in the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus turns the other cheek and says on the Mount, “Judge not, that ye be not judged,” it’s in the Book of John that Jesus suggests that anyone who doesn’t believe in him is doomed. Most conspicuous about the letters of Paul that so affected Bush is that, in them, Jesus and his actual teachings barely appear at all. Almost exclusively Paul writes of how the soul’s deliverance or damnation resides purely with acceptance of the Resurrection. “Paul constantly insists on his own righteousness,” Ventura explains, “and constantly questions the righteousness of anyone who disagrees with him, as well as twisting the earlier scriptures to suit his views.”
Whether it’s Christian or Islamic, an uncompromising religious vision can’t recognize the legitimacy of democracy without betraying itself. Democracy insists on a pluralism that entertains the possibility that one’s religious beliefs might be wrong and another’s might be right, and that all religious beliefs may be varying degrees of wrong or right — what traditionalists despise as “relativism.” Almost by definition, democracy is at least a little bit blasphemous. It’s a breach of rigorous spiritual discipline, and its mechanisms are among the human works of the modern age, which itself is viewed by fundamentalism as an abomination. Doubt is a critical component of both democracy and its leadership. In the eyes of democracy, doubt is not just moral but necessary; the psychology of democracy must allow for doubt about the rightness of any given political position, because otherwise the position can never be questioned. The Bill of Rights and the First Amendment in particular are monuments to the right to doubt, and to the right of one person to doubt the rightness of 200 million. In contrast, the psychology of theocracy not only denies doubt but views it as a cancer on the congregation, prideful temerity in the face of divine righteousness as it’s communicated by God to the leaders of the state.
Nothing about Bush or his presidency makes sense without taking into account the theocratic psyche. Only once you consider the possibility that his administration means to “repeal the Enlightenment,” in the words of Greil Marcus, do Bush’s presidency and his conception of power, their ends and their means, become comprehensible. Doubt is personally abhorrent to Bush; otherwise he couldn’t have assumed the presidency in the manner he did, with decisions and policies that from the first dismissed out of hand the controversy that surrounded his very election. This isn’t to suggest that his presidency is invalid, or to dispute the constitutional and legal process that produced it. It is to try and explain how on the second day of his presidency — in what was his first major act as president — in such draconian fashion he could cut off money to any federally funded family-planning clinic that merely advised women that the option of abortion exists. This was more than just a message to the president’s evangelical constituency that he was undeterred by what happened in Florida in November and December 2000. It was more than just a message to the rest of the country of the president’s contempt for it (which in part accounts for so many people’s intensity of feeling about him). It was, from the second day of the Bush presidency, a frontal assault on doubt.
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that a first-class mind could entertain two conflicting ideas at the same time. In the same way, the first-class leader psychologically manages resolve and doubt at the same time. In American history the best example is Lincoln, whose resolve was informed by his doubt and vice versa during the country’s greatest crisis; forged by both doubt and resolve, he evolved into a visionary for the ages. Bush has based his view of leadership on his sense that God has chosen him for this moment. To doubt himself is to doubt God. For all the Bush administration’s efforts four months ago to distance itself from the evangelical Army general who is its deputy undersecretary of defense, William Boykin’s conviction that ours is “an army of God, in the house of God,” and that George Bush is in the White House “because God put him there,” is in no way at odds with either the president’s conduct of the office or the convictions of the president’s bedrock followers.
To secularists, including those who believe in God and attend church or synagogue or mosque on a more or less regular basis, the revelation of a CIA operative’s identity by someone in the government as a form of political retribution seems beyond the pale, particularly in an era of terror. It’s a deliberate violation of national security for partisan purposes. But in the theocratic view of power, national security and political self-interest are inseparable when both are factors in a presidential power that’s in the service of Divine Will. From the vantage point of the theocratic psyche, a divinely interpreted national interest overwhelms narrow ideas of security as held by secularists whose insight lacks a divine scope. The theocratic rationale for the Iraq war and the United States’ subsequent presence in Iraq exists far above petty secular anxieties about justifying either. If the president could barely conceal his impatience on last Sunday’s Meet the Press with distinctions between Iraq actually having weapons or having the capacity to make weapons, between imminent threats or threats that might become imminent, it’s because such distinctions couldn’t be more beside the point. It was never a matter of reasons justifying the war. Rather, the war justifies the reasoning. Some might suggest that the president’s case for the war was made in bad faith, but there is no “bad” in the president’s perception of faith, there’s only true faith that sometimes is confronted with hard tests posed by divine destiny, the hardest of which is whether the president can work his will on God’s behalf, however it must be done. That Iraq had nothing to do with those who attacked America almost two and a half years ago is only a distracting detour in moral reasoning, fine print for those whom God hasn’t called.
One night last October, two days before the president announced his re-election bid, Peggy Noonan and conservative commentator David Horowitz appeared with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews on the beaches of Venice where the Doors once wrote songs about American apocalypse. They were there to marvel at a new Republican governor’s ascendancy in the gomorrah of California. For months, Republicans had bemoaned how long it was since one of theirs held high office in the state, so now there was giddy talk about the national implications of such a watershed moment. When Republicans talk about how long it’s been since they held power in California, they mean the distant days of five years ago, when Pete Wilson left the governor’s mansion. Over the decades, California’s sun-addled sodomites have launched the careers of both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, as well as — with the passage in 1978 of the tax initiative Proposition 13 — the national conservative tidal wave that made Reagan president and gave Republicans control of the United States Senate. Before Clinton and Gore, whose administration, however much the right casts it in bolshevik terms, was the most conservative of any Democrat since Grover Cleveland, Californians went for Republicans in nine of 10 presidential elections, including the first George Bush, Reagan twice, Gerald Ford, Nixon three times and Dwight Eisenhower twice. Counting the term of the new incumbent, in 40 years Republicans will have held the governorship of California for 27.
The bastion of liberalism that supposedly is California isn’t the California in which real people have lived for half a century, but rather the California of a conservative siege mentality that loves to luxuriate in how beset it is. For so many years that it’s practically become part of genetic memory, conservative Republicans in the country consistently have spoken of their struggle in the face of the Liberal Monolith as manifested by all the established political and cultural organs. Conservatives continue to perish gorgeously in the Roman Coliseum of their fantasies, even though in 35 years Republicans have been president for 23, even though Republicans presently control both houses of Congress, even though they narrowly control the Supreme Court that delivered the White House to its current occupant, even though with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s victory they now hold the governorships of the nation’s four largest states. Perhaps it’s the still-lingering trauma of the ’60s when, for the better part of the decade, Republicans were a minority party that seemed to be on the wrong side of most major issues; perhaps it’s the more recent trauma of the last presidential campaign, when George W. Bush’s opponent was rude enough to get more votes. Perhaps it’s because over the last decade and a half, as the party is more driven by the evangelical right and becomes more the party of the theocratic psyche, there’s something too exquisite about martyrdom to let go of it. If traditionalists are the Christians and secularists the lions, devourment isn’t just validation but the Void, wherein the Saved finally transcend the Damned.
My first political hero was Barry Goldwater. I was 14 when he ran for president, and was crestfallen at his defeat. As time passed, there were things about his politics I found regrettable, none more so than his vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act; given his relative progressiveness on racial matters back in his early rough-and-tumble Phoenix days, I like to suppose he himself came to regret that one, but this may be wishful thinking. Some later found startling Goldwater’s positions on gay rights and the legalization of marijuana, and his growing antipathy to the evangelicals who took over both his party and his conservative cause; among those on the right there was a whispering campaign suggesting senility. Before he died, Goldwater himself liked to joke that he had become one of the party’s liberals.
Of course Goldwater hadn’t changed at all. It was conservatism that changed, largely in response to what were seen by many as the ’60s’ countercultural excesses. Libertarian championship of “individual freedom” became a Trojan horse in which lurked more ardently adored values of authority and order; and by the ’80s, the only individual freedoms that conservatives consistently cherished in the specific were the rights to own guns and to make a profit unhindered by government regulation. Wedded to the theocratic psyche, conservatism has upended Goldwaterist notions of how far the government should intrude in individual lives. The most theocratic of any State of the Union ever delivered, the president’s address to Congress three weeks ago not only devoted significant attention but committed public money to a growing governmental role in upholding social values, especially as they have to do with people’s sexuality. Forty years ago a true conservative would have found this repellent if not unthinkable. These are the values that historically have been championed and enforced by theocracies, notably fundamentalist ones. At the height of the terrorist danger in the United States, with a nation constantly teetering between yellow and orange alerts and the news filled with the prospects of a single person at the end of a runway idly blowing out of the sky a major airliner with a small ground-to-air missile, one of the highest priorities of John Ashcroft’s Justice Department has been a sweeping crackdown on the pornography industry of the San Fernando Valley.
In what still purports to be a secular democracy, all of this has taken the form of ideology at its most austere. While there are fair-minded exceptions such as David Brooks of The New York Times and William Kristol of the Weekly Standard, the more charismatic spokespeople of the right — from perennials O’Reilly and Bennett and Rush Limbaugh to new superstar Sean Hannity and wannabe Joe Scarborough, from grand mavens Phyllis Schlafly and Paul Weyrich to cult figures Michael Savage and Mona Charen, from apostolic fathers Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and Gary Bauer and Franklin Graham to congressional powers Tom DeLay and Rick Santorum — are hardly opaque about the American civil war of values that’s at hand. Ann Coulter’s recent Treason: Liberal Treachery From the Cold War to the War on Terrorism may be the most important American political tract of its generation, because it reveals what many on the right really think. Besides arguing that Islamic countries should be invaded and “Christianized,” Coulter contends that liberals haven’t been just wrong about every single foreign-policy issue of the last half-century but that they consciously wish to hurt America. Along with liberals who are traitors in a society where everyone is too corrupt or squeamish to say so, in the pages of Treason the greatest traitor is history itself. It’s incidental that Coulter willfully misunderstands the facts of the Vietnam War. The actual historical facts of the Vietnam War don’t matter; fact exists in opposition to conviction, as knowledge exists in opposition to faith. History is the heresy of ideology as science is the heresy of the church. The understanding of history as it actually happened is a secular pursuit, whereas the transfiguration of history is the pursuit of believers.
“Everyone says liberals love America, too,” writes Coulter. “No, they don’t,” and probably nothing is more indicative of the ineffectuality and incomprehension of secularists in this civil war than that they would argue. Because of course Coulter is right; it’s not her America that secularists love. Secularists love the America of Tom Paine, not Cotton Mather, but they keep trying to reconcile the two, since both are part of America’s story and since in fact such a reconciliation always has been the dream of America and those who invented it. The secular center won’t accept that there’s a culture war going on. In the desire to reach accommodation, secularists acquiesce to the right on the very meaning of Americanism, not to mention definitions of character. “At least he’s a decent man,” someone recently protested to me about George Bush, by which she meant in comparison to the last guy, of course, even when as a matter of public policy such “decency” means the abandonment of AmeriCorps programs, which allowed college students to pay off loans by teaching underprivileged children to read, in contrast with the expansion of the earned-income tax credit by the morally vitiated Clinton, who raised millions of people out of poverty as a result. It’s a decency that impeaches a president for lying about a sexual affair but not about a war. Whatever the many compelling reasons to question whether Howard Dean would ever actually make a good president, the former Vermont governor emerged from obscurity last year to galvanize the Democratic presidential race largely because he wouldn’t acquiesce.
If the president first expressed neither concern nor even dismay two weeks ago at the report of his former chief weapons inspector, David Kay, it was because by the president’s moral lights the Kay report was immaterial. What the public might consider the president’s misrepresentations regarding Iraqi weapons or Iraqi collusion with al Qaeda were only the scriptures that testify to a higher meaning, translated into secularese. It remains to be seen in the coming election whether Democrats have the imagination or courage to run against Bush on the issue of terrorism from the right, as John Kennedy did against Richard Nixon in 1960 on the issue of the Cold War. They would need to mount a major argument that secularism — not “liberalism” or atheism, but a Jeffersonian value system in which reason, proportion and the simplest assumptions of justice are brought to bear upon human judgment — is better suited to defeat radical theologism, given how the president’s theocratic psyche and the ways it articulates itself alienate those in and out of the Islamic world who might otherwise be on our side. To credibly make such an argument, the Democratic Party has to admit what the reflexively pacifist ideology of its own base ignores: that terrorism is not common revolutionary warfare simply seen from another perspective, that what distinguishes terrorism from other warfare is the targeting of people not in spite of their innocence but because of it, and that in practical terms the real problem with the Iraq war is that it hasn’t enhanced American security but diminished it. Gratifying as the capture of Saddam two months ago was, close to a thousand Special Operations forces were pulled out of Afghanistan and off the trail of those who committed the wholesale murders of Americans 29 months ago. Billions of dollars earmarked for the reconstruction of Afghanistan are being funneled into Iraq as the Taliban regroups. While money and resources and lives are poured into Iraq, the ports and harbors of the United States remain unprotected. The rails and infrastructure remain unprotected. The water sources remain unprotected. The nuclear-power plants remain unprotected. As the president and vice president and secretary of defense indulge their obsession with Iraq, and as the sympathy and good will of the world that existed on September 12, 2001, is shattered — somewhere down a cobbled French street blows that edition of Le Monde which ran the headline WE ARE ALL AMERICANS — agents of al Qaeda plot to simultaneously detonate three small nuclear devices in Washington, New York and Los Angeles. What we can imagine, they can as well. The idea of George W. Bush running in the upcoming election as the “national security” candidate would be laughable if it weren’t potentially so calamitous. If Bush were a Democrat, Ann Coulter would call it treason.
I’m a traitor. I’m not sure exactly when I first knew this. It may have been when James Watt, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of the interior, said there were two kinds of people in the country, Americans and liberals. It may have been when George W. Bush’s father based his entire 1988 presidential campaign on the premise that his opponent with the strange Greek name wasn’t American enough, something for which Bush’s campaign manager offered what was tantamount to deathbed repentance a few years later. It may have been when Rush Limbaugh suggested to 20 million listeners that the Clintons murdered White House aide Vince Foster.
Most likely it was when I was writing about the 1996 election for Rolling Stone and went to interview Gary Bauer in his Washington, D.C., office. At that time Bauer, who now directs an organization called American Values, was head of the Family Research Council. During my visit he was gracious and forthcoming — we even had a brief philosophical exchange about abortion without acrimony, perhaps because my own pro-choice position is conflicted with caveats — and since I feel confident he knew what Rolling Stone was, I gave him credit for seeing me at all. As even novice interviewers learn to do, I saved my big question for the end, when the welcome was feeling worn: “Do you think Bill Clinton is evil?” I asked, and he took a long time to answer before finally conceding that, no, he supposed he couldn’t really call Clinton evil. We both knew he didn’t believe it.
I was watching a late-night debate a few months ago between liberal comedian/writer Al Franken and conservative Crossfire co-host/writer Tucker Carlson, when Carlson complained about the liberal demonization of George W. Bush. Although it sounded odd after 20 years of Watt and Atwater and Limbaugh and Bauer and Coulter, it’s also true that for decades rational, conscientious conservatives have been stung by characterizations of them as greedy, racist warmongers. Carlson also allowed as to how the right similarly demonized Clinton. In case it needs to be said in such combustible times, to compare the theocratic psyches of the president and Osama bin Laden is not to make a moral corollary. While it had about it echoes of Dudley Do-Right denouncing Snidely Whiplash, Bush’s description of bin Laden as an “evildoer” was never so unreasonable; close to 3,000 people were killed in cold blood on American home soil in September 2001 — 3,000 people who rose from bed that morning with no idea this was the day they would die in circumstances that not only defied anything the imagination of horror might conceive but threatened to render irrelevant the legitimate grievances of Muslims and Palestinians in the Middle East. Gazing at the satanic terrain of the concentration camps after World War II, piled high with the rubble of bones that could barely be called corpses, no one shook his head and said, “Yes, but you know, Germany really did get a bad deal on that Treaty of Versailles thing.” Once again, for people on the left to protest the president’s language of good and evil plays into false dichotomies of moral “absolutism” and “relativism” as surely as liberal courts play into false dichotomies of traditionalism and secularism.
But that bin Laden and al Qaeda warrant the appellation of “evil” is exactly what throws the discussion into such stark relief. Once we’ve called Bill Clinton or George Bush evil, the moral glossary is bankrupt; and the more freely the president uses the word, the more precarious the value of moral language becomes. On its face, much of what the president says is not only unobjectionable but echoes some of the most exalted words in American history. When he declares, as he did in last year’s State of the Union, that “the liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to humanity,” it isn’t so far from Jefferson’s contention that it’s God who endows us with unalienable freedom. But when Jefferson wrote his words, the excesses of both the Church of England and American Puritanism were recent memories; as much as anything, at its heart Jefferson’s was a statement of secularism, implicitly disputing whether governments and kings and presidents and even preachers were legitimate intermediaries for God’s wishes. Lincoln, perhaps the most truly spiritual of presidents even though he was attached to no religion, firmly believed the Civil War was God’s test of him and the nation. But unlike George Bush, who seems to believe a policy is God’s will by virtue of its having entered his head, Lincoln ceaselessly wrestled with doubt; as someone once said, Lincoln seemed less concerned that God was on his side than that he was on God’s. “The purposes of the Almighty,” he wrote wearily, “are perfect, and must prevail, though we erring mortals may fail to accurately perceive them in advance . . . we must work earnestly in the best light He gives us, trusting that so working still conduces to the great ends He ordains.” Lincoln’s second inaugural address, the greatest speech ever given by an American president, is haunted by a sorrowful apprehension that the country offended God with the sin of slavery. It wasn’t a call to the country presuming to speak on God’s behalf, but a call to God, speaking for the country: Come back to us.
I am a traitor: When will we say it? As the gauntlet is hurled before us in the name of traditionalism, how often will we pick it up and offer it back, so we can be mugged with it? We should say that we are traitors of one America, patriots of another: We’re traitors of the America of the banged gavel, the Salem stench, the hate that hates in the name of God, the America that declares war on its founding ideas in the name of America; we are patriots of the America of Jefferson’s eternal pursuit, Madison’s manifesto, memory’s mystic chord, our nature’s better angels, malice toward none and charity for all, and the promise America still seeks to fulfill that no deity could help loving even when we break it. We’re traitors, we’re patriots, we’re secularists, we’re Americans: and we acquiesce nothing.
Steve Erickson has written about politics for The New York Times (“The End of Cynicism,” 1992), the Los Angeles Times Magazine (“American Weimar,” 1995) and Rolling Stone (“A Nation of Nomads,” 1995), as well as two books about American politics and culture. As an editor at the L.A. Weekly from 1989 until 1993, he covered such stories as Bill Clinton’s first inauguration (“The Last-Chance President,” January 1993). He’s the author of seven novels, including the forthcoming Our Ecstatic Days from Simon & Schuster, and is also the film critic for Los Angeles magazine and the editor of Black Clock, a literary journal published by CalArts, where he teaches writing.