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Unconscious of a Conservative

How conservative pundits smear the Democrats

Faggot. Nigger. Bitch.

Please excuse the blunt language. From here forward, to avoid the ugly words, I'll refer to it as "FNB politics." With little to show the electorate in 2008--after six years of uninterrupted control--besides sub-standard care from a privatized workforce at Walter Reed Hospital, thrice-married "family values" presidential candidates, and a boom in home foreclosures, the conservative base's 2008 strategy has begun to emerge: Weaken the major Democratic opponents by making their image unpalatable to the public.

Ann Coulter might have been the one to use the precise word aloud. But the effort to discredit John Edwards as not really a man began soon after he came to national prominence as John Kerry's running mate. And the endeavor fits into a running conservative pattern--one Ann Coulter's most important patron, Roger Ailes of Fox News, knows perfectly well. In The Selling of the President, Joe McGinniss relates an episode where Richard Nixon's set dressers had the candidate in front of a turquoise curtain. Ailes, Nixon's detail-obsessed TV guru, had a conniption. "Nixon wouldn't look right unless he was carrying a pocketbook," he grumbled, ordering the curtains replaced by wood panels with "clean, solid, masculine lines."

Along similar lines, Rush Limbaugh calls the insufficiently martial Iraq Study Group "James Baker's Fruit Salad." To those with good memories who pay very close attention, this is a reference to the former secretary of state's preference that the report be considered in its entirety rather than picked over like a fruit salad. But, to right-wingers who've forgotten that (the lion's share, no doubt), the nickname made just as much sense. The report recommended diplomacy. Isn't that kind of ... fruity? And, in a nod to Ailes, Limbaugh has taken to calling Fox News's chief competitor "PMSNBC."

The only Democratic leaders who aren't feminized, of course, are the women. With them, it's just the opposite. Limbaugh has a phrase he uses to explain why, supposedly, Hillary Clinton is never questioned aggressively: She produces a "testicle lockbox" into which male reporters must deposit their manhood. Nancy Pelosi, in Rush-speak, is "Bella Pelosi," a nice two-for-the-price-of-one slur: For Dittoheads nostalgic for the 1970s, it suggests the mannishness of the loudmouthed New York liberal congresswoman Bella Abzug; for the rest, the homophonology is to Bella Lugosi--the Democratic leader is Dracula.

The message--these pushy women are taking over--never needs to be uttered outright, because it's clear enough. But occasionally someone cuts to the quick; Glenn Beck--a conservative CNN host--finally used the precise word to refer to Clinton on his March 15 radio program: "Excuse the expression, but ... she's the stereotypical bitch, you know what I mean?"

FNB politics can be tricky to write about, and to pin down, because it relies on surfacing deep-seated anxieties and archetypes that, when revealed to the light of day, appear ridiculous. It's even trickier to fashion indictments--in a bottom-up media ecology where Karl Rove need never say "show Edwards carrying a purse" (like the Johnson aide caught on tape in July 1964 suggesting that his campaign cast Barry Goldwater as radioactive by using images of "kids being born with two heads") to start the evolution in motion.

Take the saga of Trinity United Church of Christ and its "black value system"--a crucial building block in the absurd smear that Barack Obama is a Manchurian black nationalist. The first mention I could find of it via the blog search engine Technorati came in July, on a site called PollywogCreekPorch. The next was December 8, on the site Faith and Action, which reports that an "exclusive commitment to a cultural and national identity played a major role in Obama's decision to identify himself with Christianity." You find the claim proliferating around the time the madrassa smear refused to stick; a key driver was a column titled "Barack Hussein Obama: Who Is He?" by none other than Ted Sampley, the pioneering swift boater who invented the charge that John McCain was brainwashed by communists. By February, Tucker Carlson was quoting the Trinity document, noting it "calls for congregants to be 'soldiers for Black freedom.'"

Handily, he dropped the second part of the clause, "... and the dignity of all humankind." That message--looking after your own ethnic group is complementary, not incompatible, with aspirations to universal justice--is less controversial; it's the lesson every Diaspora Jew is taught from the cradle. But is Barack Obama only out to help blacks? The doubt has been planted in the public mind.

Doesn't this contradict another Limbaugh slur--that Obama is "Halfrican" (the implication being that he was only pretending to be black, sneaking in the affirmative action back door)? It's another tricky facet of writing about FNB politics: In a discourse that plays on half-conscious archetypes, opposites can cohabit comfortably--as in dreams. John Dower, for example, in his brilliant War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, shows the simultaneous stereotypes of Japanese as pathetically weak midgets and indomitable giant monsters. Surrogates need only throw various archetypes "out there," as they say; the dungeon that is the human subconscious can be counted on to do the rest.

It gets downright gothic in the case of Obama. One of Limbaugh's ongoing jabs is that white female reporters find him sexually irresistible. "Snerdley is convinced Maureen [Dowd] wants Barack Obama," he sighs. "I don't even want to go there." He depicted Time's Ana Marie Cox as helpless before Obama's overpowering sexuality, putting the following thoughts into her head: "Well, there's no question the power is crackling through his jeans!"

It reminds me of a Nixon masterpiece. The visuals for the Republican presidential candidate's most pathbreaking commercials in 1968 featured only mood-setting stills. The one that began with Nixon intoning, "It is time for an honest look at the problem of order in the United States," flashed pictures of burned out buildings--no black rioters, just the consequences of what rampaging blacks did. Then, finally, on a rubble-strewn street, a close-up of a mannequin that, if you weren't paying attention, could scan subconsciously as a naked white woman lying helpless in the middle of the street: Birth of a Nation time.

The genius of FNB politics is that it can make those who diagnose it sound like barking moonbats. Sometimes you have a case. Sometimes, you're just being paranoid (Matt Drudge says "Dems rumble in Hollywood jungle; Clinton-Obama throwdown"--Aha! Jungle!--and "Obama team takes a 'Lincoln Bedroom' shot"). And it's often only in retrospect that the game seems truly deliberate. In 1952, Nixon used the word "traitor" to describe Dean Acheson, Adlai Stevenson, and Harry Truman. Outrageous!, Democrats responded. Whatever do you mean?, Nixon said in wounded tones, claiming he'd been misunderstood; he only meant they were "traitors to the high principles in which many of the nation's Democrats believe." Today, it's obvious that he meant to suggest, you know, the crime of treason.

The bonus: His charge also revealed liberals as shrieking and hypersensitive. That's the problem with FNB politics, and Reagan showed it better than anyone. He used to make jokes: About Africans, "When they have a man for lunch, they really have him for lunch." So, when gubernatorial candidate Pat Brown distributed a pamphlet ("Ronald Reagan, Extremist Collaborator--An Exposé") of such quotations in 1966, it backfired. Reagan was making a joke! Why are these liberals so humorless?

Ann Coulter would probably call herself a Ronald Reagan conservative, and she is. FNB politics, in its gentler, embryonic form, was part of Reagan's conservatism. Now that everything noble in conservative has been travestied, it's all they have left.

By Rick Perlstein