Every president must establish a narrative of his presidency: this is who I am, this is what I stand for, and this is my plan for America. The Republican Party has sought – by and large unsuccessfully – to sell another narrative of Obama’s presidency, one that involves pretending President Bush never existed and pinning all his failures – and responsibility for where we are now – on Obama instead. Most Americans aren’t buying into this – they know who to blame. So do Republicans, which is why Bush is never ever mentioned by 2012’s Republican hopefuls.
It’s been said that the ever crucial independents aren’t buying into Obama’s narrative. But that doesn’t mean they are buying into the Republican narrative. And of course, it needs saying that there are actually two Republican narratives, the Tea Party narrative that revolves around taxes and size of government (which more often than not seems to cry for no government at all or a return to the weak Articles of Confederation), and the Evangelical narrative that revolves around social issues, a narrow view of morality and fear of divine wrath. The Evangelical narrative insists that America’s ills are moral, that if we just go back to Bronze Age-thinking and pretend the past 3,000 years never happened – and pray and repent, of course – their god will fix everything.
The problem with the Evangelical narrative is that outside of Evangelicals, nobody is going to buy it. By pushing thinking so divorced from what humans have come to understand of reality, you lose independents and even moderates within your own party. We saw the clash of narratives in the South Carolina Primary especially, where Republican Tea Party opponents voted for Romney, Tea Partier supporters voted for Gingrich, and Evangelicals voted for Santorum. This election, far from being only a clash of Democratic and Republican narratives, is a clash of Republican narratives.
It is also a clash of personalities. Because intertwined with every platform-focused narrative is a personal narrative. Republican politics especially seem to revolve around the Cults of Personality (what Marx called the cult of the individual), in other words, a heroic image established and maintained by use of media and propaganda. For Republicans, Max Weber’s characterization of “charismatic authority” seems to hold sway, the idea that it is the individual’s “sanctity, heroism or exemplary character” that makes them special, not their reasoning skills. It’s more of a belief over facts thing, and for Evangelicals – and no Republican hopeful in 2012 is free of this – that charismatic authority derives directly from God. Bachmann and Perry both made much of this, as did Cain. Santorum and Gingrich also appeal to divine authority and sanction and the “populist” Ron Paul has even tried to join his campaign to this mode of thinking. Romney is the odd man out: he will never quite manage to do so because his Mormon faith will always be an insurmountable roadblock for Evangelicals.
Rick Santorum has created a personal narrative that revolves around his “constituency of One” meaning that God himself personally supports a Santorum presidency and is trying to sell the idea that if we can only fix the family (and by extension, marriage), humanity’s most sacred institution, we can fix the economy. This demands, of course, the ostracizing and disenfranchisement of those elements of society of which “God” disapproves, including especially yucky gay people. Santorum has decided that instead of blaming the Jews for all America’s problems he will blame gay people. Gays even ruined the economy! And with Bush written out of history that job has been made easier for him. Religious zealots are more than happy to rally to fear of the other and to the ancient institution of scapegoating, which means a collective tar-and-feathering is in order.
Newt Gingrich seems to want us to accept that he is, as he says of himself, a grandiose thinker. Of course, we have another name for that – megalomania. There are some rather unique characteristics to his personal narrative. Newt has led, let’s say, a checkered past. He wants that Evangelical vote but some Evangelicals can’t wrap their minds around serial adultery as a selling point. So all Newt’s vices become virtues – even some Evangelicals have talked themselves into this – and he has repurposed his life of sin into a story of personal redemption. In this story, he has apparently turned his life around like the never-to-be-mentioned George .W. Bush, who swore off drinking like Gingrich has supposedly swore off dropping trou for God and country. Here again this is a hard sell for moderates of any sort. Gingrich is hypocritically selling a Taliban-like moral code, one he proposes to force on the rest of the country, while violating it himself, apparently, at every opportunity. Gingrich, more than any other, has made of himself a sort of political rock star and has fallen into the trap of believing his own press about himself, his own mythologized legend.
Mitt Romney has a very difficult task in establishing a personal narrative because we live in the information age and everything a person does, especially a public person like a politician, becomes part of the public record. It’s all there, easy to find and access, and to publicize. And Mitt’s problem is that he has been all over the board on issues. Worse, he won’t admit it. To hear Romney talk, he is a life-long, committed conservative, the “all spectrum” type of conservative Santorum claims to be. But his record says otherwise. Rather than making this a strength, as Gingrich did with his adulteries, and perhaps saying he was wrong before but had since learned what was right, and corrected his mistakes, he persists in maintaining his innocence, like the proverbial boy with his hand caught in the cookie jar. To use another metaphor, the deer in headlights look is not a convincing one to voters. Combined with his Mormonism, this has ensured that Romney is the default candidate for those who don’t swing Evangelical or Tea Party, and that is not a broad-based constituency. Nor is there any way, really, for Romney to bridge that gap. His politics as Governor of Massachusetts guarantees the Tea Party will never accept him and his religion sets him hopelessly apart from the Evangelical “straight and narrow” path to God.
Ron Paul long ago established his narrative as the crusty old man of principals, the man who says what he says no matter how unpopular that may make him with those in authority. That he has sold out to the Evangelical demographic, especially in Iowa, tarnishes this image, as does his sudden claim to like war as much as the next Republican (hard to jibe with his supposedly isolationalist beliefs). Ron Paul’s narrative is further marred by the emergence of some very racist material penned by him or in his name and either way, not disavowed, which doesn’t jibe well with his narrative of being a supporter of strong individual freedoms: how does, “We’re all equal except for you yucky brown-skinned people” sound as a campaign slogan? Like Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul has a very serious race problem. Will blacks really vote for a guy who says they only want to steal from white folks? And then there is the bizarre economic policy which seems to depend not on economic, but on biblical principals. What is a libertarian to make of this? Now of course, Paul has been around long enough to really establish a good solid cult of personality, and his supporters have that ability possessed by Evangelicals (who see four completely different Gospels as saying the exact same thing) to disregard any damaging material about their hero with a blind insistence that the rest of us just don’t understand him. No, perhaps we don’t. But we can read.
Max Weber said of his charismatic that he is defined by “a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader […] How the quality in question would be ultimately judged from an ethical, aesthetic, or other such point of view is naturally indifferent for the purpose of definition.” This comes perilously close to the idea of the Divine Right of Kings, one our Founding Fathers did their best to eradicate through the Constitution and its separation and balancing of powers. Our leaders are not chosen by God and do not depend on any divine authority, because the only authority recognized by the Constitution is the authority of the people.
It is one thing to establish a narrative, or even a mythology about you, a sort of public version of one’s self image. It is another thing entirely to claim divine authority for everything you say and do. That sort of authority rests most comfortably under the auspices of a theocracy, which is what the Vatican is and has always been, but not at all on a democracy, which is what the Constitution establishes. In a very real sense, all these Republican candidates stand for the establishment of religion, which will have the inevitable result of dis-establishing that democracy. If disestablishment is the process of depriving the church of its status as an organ of government then perhaps the Republican narrative should be understood to represent a process of reestablishment, a return to the idea that God sanctions all government. They had admitted this after all, either the candidates themselves or the fundamentalist “power brokers” the candidates have accepted endorsements from.
Making no excuses, there is a lot less to fear from a president who likes to have sex outside of marriage, than from a man who has sex outside of marriage but insists the rest of us can’t, or who says gay people shouldn’t have sex for the good of their heterosexual counterparts because God’s disapproving wrath will fall on all equally. A narcissistic rock star is not much of a threat to the rest of us but one who thinks he has been appointed by God to make like an Old Testament judge is a very different kettle of fish, and one American’s should rightly reject. It’s part of politics to create myths for your actions and even to fall prey to them; it is quite another to say that you don’t require the authority of the people because you have God’s. We have twenty centuries of bitter lessons we can learn from and though Americans don’t have much time to learn them they will have plenty of time to rue them if they make the wrong decision on Election Day 2012. Because, as Maureen Dowd suggests, what lies at the root of Obama’s narrative may well be naiveté but what lies at the heart of the Republican narratives is just plain sinister.
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