Features » September 15, 2004
Uncivil civility, unfunny comedy, and the search for self at the RNC
Steven Gustave has a shaved head, Vin Diesel muscles and a black-leather biker outfit, and is waving a red flag emblazoned with the defiant Che Guevara. Gustave is, in short, your typical Kerry voter at the big August 29 march protesting the Republican Convention. Republicans had hoped, and Democrats had feared, that such an apparition would herald 1968-style convention violence, with attendant conservative backlash. But Gustave, a fashion designer from Manhattan, turns out to be a genial, thoughtful man, ready to lay aside his “red anarchism” and “proudly march with soccer moms from Connecticut” for the benefit of a pro-war liberal.
The march is a sign both of the unifying power of anti-Bush animus and the strange contortions of politics and culture in an era when the left organizes pissed-off radio talk shows and the right spits on a Vietnam veteran’s medals. It’s now commonplace that, from Reagan Democrats to Hollywood liberals, the electorate votes its cultural affinities, not its pocketbook, and party conventions occupy center stage in the effort to repackage political interests as tribal and demographic allegiances. This year the Republicans even trotted out the Bush twins. Like a distaff Beavis and Butthead, they chuckled moronically at their grandmother’s sexual stodginess, as if they feared estate-tax repeal was not hip enough to make the Paris Hiltons of the world feel at home in the party.
A motley tribe
Protest marches, of course, are nothing if not chanting, drumming cultural bonding rituals, which is probably why so many clashing placards can peacefully coexist. Kerry/Edwards supporters march shoulder-to-shoulder with the Nader/Camejo contingent and the “Oppose Bush, Kerry, Nader and all capitalist politicians” stalwart. The blissful “Make Love Not War” floats alongside the pitiless “Destroy All Forms of Classism.” And the consensus that we should “Support Our Troops—Bring Them Home” makes room for the International Bolshevik Tendency’s (sic) “Military Victory to the Iraqi Resistance.”
The only inassimilable idea surfaces amid a knot of Republican counter-demonstrators on the sidewalk. Their sign says “Support President Bush—Trust Jesus!” below which are black silhouettes of weapons—an M-16 rifle, an attack helicopter, a bomb—along with the line from Hebrews 9:22: “And almost all things are by the law purged with blood.” Irate leftists converge on the sign, chanting “What would Jesus bomb?”, a slogan that used to sound like glib sarcasm but suddenly seems an incisive and troubling question. I ask the bronzed fireplug of a man holding the sign what message he’s trying to send. He considers it self-evident: “Don’t be such a leftist commie pinko!” As he is speaking, a woman holds up two fingers behind his head to make rabbit ears. Catching her, the man turns to her husband and barks, “Control your woman!” The husband sputters in a British accent and the counter-demonstrator taunts, “Most men control their women in this country. Or maybe you’re the more female!” A cop comes over and tells the woman to stop making rabbit ears.
No, funny strange
After the march I head to a comedy show sponsored by Americans for Tax Reform, featuring a lineup of Republican congressmen, journalists and operatives doing stand-up. The show promises another tableau of dissonant political culture. Since Mort Sahl’s heyday, stand-up has been a left-liberal preserve—its hip, ironic, sexually provocative tone anathema to the GOP tradition of stentorian squareness. But with “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” recently winning a Television Critics Association Prize for news commentary, the line between public affairs and comedy seems obsolete, and Republicans can no longer do without killer material.
There are a lot of tax-relief punch lines (“If 10 percent is good enough for God, it’s good enough for government!”) but some acts are smoother. GOP mastermind Grover Norquist takes on Americans’ fabled inability to find other countries on the map. “Have you ever needed to find France?” he asks the audience, getting a raucous “No!” in response. Only airline pilots do, says Norquist, and he does a bit about a clueless pilot asking his passengers where France is, finally segueing from geography to riffs on other useless school subjects like algebra and the metric system. Norquist’s timing and delivery are excellent and the France-bashing goes over big. If he seems to be advancing an Every Child Left Behind agenda, with learning parceled out on a strict need-to-know basis, that view sits well with a libertarian crowd used to thinking of education as a prosaic human-capital investment.
Norquist is followed by Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), whose routine features doctored photo slides of Kerry and Bush. Childhood photos portray Kerry the effete Fauntleroy—playing the piano, reading a history of France—while Bush wears a goofy grin and rides a cow. Slides of Kerry’s Vietnam service follow: His barracks is a mansion, his Swift boat a luxury yacht. The photos send the audience into hysterics. Kingston doesn’t show any slides of Bush from the Vietnam era.
GOPAC’s brass tacks
To probe the authentic culture of the Republican Party, and not what’s portrayed on TV, there’s no better place to go than a training seminar run by GOPAC, the political consulting organization charged with building the party from the grassroots level. Here, two strikingly different messages compete. One is the “party of ideas” theme sounded by headliners like Newt Gingrich. He paints the GOP as the vanguard of history itself, ready to deal with the blinding “pace of change,” the demographic crisis of retiring baby boomers, a 70-year war on terror and the looming four-century struggle with the surging economies of India and China. The other is a markedly less high-minded take on Republican praxis offered by a slew of second-tier operatives. After paying lip service to ideas, GOPAC field trainer Rick Tyler reminds the audience that “campaigns are never the time to educate the public; your job is to win.” And winning, he makes clear, requires full immersion in the sleaze, spin and sophistry of Republican gutter politics. Ideas can be anything—Tyler once ran a winning campaign solely on the removal of local speed-bumps—as long as they are framed in “good vs. bad” terms: “Their vision is pimps and prostitutes and people dealing drugs in the park; my vision is people taking their families to the park.” He recommends introducing Gen Y-ers to conservatism by pointing to the FICA tax deducted from their paycheck and telling them “You’ll never see that money again.” And because “people will never read your brochure, ever,” you must “use pictures to tell stories”—pictures of your smiling family and, above all, your dog.
As the seminar proceeds, profound differences between Republicans and the left emerge that go beyond cultural trappings. Take their diverging attitudes to the Constitution. Among the left-liberal protest gatherings are a reading of the Constitution by Hollywood stars and a revival meeting led by anti-consumerism crusader Reverend Billy that climaxed in a group recitation of the First Amendment. The left loves the Constitution’s glories, but the right loves its warts—its jury-rigged machinery of divided government, labyrinthine federalism and electoral indirection, which GOPAC exploits in its climb to power. GOPAC Director John Morgan lays out a four-stage process for taking Republican state caucuses from “laughable minority” to “sustainable majority.” These machinations have paid off with a comfortable Republican lead in state legislatures and governorships. In turn, the gerrymandering of congressional districts by Republican statehouses has leveraged the party’s majority in Congress. The presidency also is tied in, Morgan asserts, as Florida’s Republican legislature would have returned a slate of Bush electors in the 2000 election had the Supreme Court not squelched the battle. GOPAC’s party-building embodies a vast and subtle teleology linking the humblest county board race to the Oval Office, an astonishing fulfillment of the left chestnut about acting locally and thinking globally.
It also bespeaks a right-wing absorption in the nitty-gritty of politics that the left simply can’t match. “It’s not normal, it’s a sickness,” Tyler says of GOPAC activists’ obsession with politics that goes well beyond that of the electorate. By contrast, leftists dream of a revolutionary catharsis that will end politics forever by abolishing class divisions. The anarchists hand out leaflets extolling an essentially apolitical future with “a new form of democracy that makes voting irrelevant.” Republicans don’t expect a cathartic end to politics—at least not until the Rapture. Like the business class they serve, for whom life is the daily wringing out of marginal profits that may someday amount to a fortune, they embrace a politics of endless clawing for tiny advantages that may one day add up to a big fat tax cut. That attitude gives the right extraordinary fortitude in its creeping takeover of government.
I go straight from the GOPAC meeting to Herald Square. There protest groups have promised a night of “direct action” as a cathartic alternative to the electoral politics at which GOPAC excels. The police already have shut down the intersection, but restless crowds are gathering on the corners, among them a handful of college kids who link arms and mutter conspiratorially. I ask them what their game plan is, since I can’t imagine how they’ll retake the streets from the enormous police cordon, but they remain tight-lipped. A moment later, when the cops start pushing back the crowd from the curb, their game plan turns out to consist of vaulting the police barriers and dashing into the intersection, where the cops instantly tackle them and haul them off.
These kids have guts, for the police are fearsome and their holding pens foul, but it’s all a far cry from the golden age of direct action during the civil rights movement. Then, activists invaded the public space of lunch counters and voter registration offices simply to eat lunch and register to vote. The repression they provoked indelibly marked Jim Crow as a violent and illegitimate disruption of any civilized moral order. Now, direct action has degenerated into blocking traffic and fighting meaningless turf battles with the cops.
One of its few dubious triumphs occurred when a grouplet used mountaineering techniques to hang a giant anti-Bush banner from a Midtown hotel. This enthusiasm for politics as Xtreme sport is a particularly baffling cultural tic of the protest left. The perpetrators proudly told reporters they had spent months dangling in a Brooklyn loft practicing the action, and it did make a splash for half an hour until police tore down the banner. Their success will doubtless inspire many campus leftists, convinced that rock-climbing has something to do with political organizing, to sharpen their rappelling skills at the next Ruckus Society camp. Meanwhile, college Republicans will join the debate team.
Down and dirty
Why don’t Republicans hold huge protest marches? I put the question to a small, subdued crowd at yet another GOP comedy show, this one by professional conservative comics at the Laugh Factory. “Republicans are too civilized,” harrumphs a middle-aged man. A college Republican concurs. He has just come from a demo, where his sign—“Help Keep America SHIT-FREE Please Flush the Johns” [i.e., Kerry and Edwards]—provoked the expected incivility from protesters.
Republican civility is something conservative comics wrestle with, given it inhibits their use of the shock effects that modern stand-up relies on. Headliner Jeff Wayne, a florid man with a jolly, beefy face, drops a few F-bombs right off the bat, to modest laughter. Then he tries an edgy gay marriage riff. “If I found some [man] to take care of me, went to work while I stayed home, bought me things”—he grows so nervous that he flubs the punch line (“and all I had to do was let him blow me once a week”) and backs off with an embarrassed “Maybe I’ve gone too far for you.” He returns to safer ground with a reminiscence about the 1968 Chicago convention: “Oh, they beat the hell out of those people!” Wayne tells me that the demands of convention week wore him down, especially that morning’s listless, squeaky-clean breakfast performance for the Minnesota delegation.
Comic Chris Warren, standing on a stage flanked by red velvet curtains that evoke the club’s previous incarnation as a 42nd Street porno palace, is determined to shatter civility constraints. He launches into a midnight-blue routine that wanders from Iraqi “piss-holes” to the promise and pitfalls of entering Paradise with 72 virgins. And the Republicans laugh.
He closes with a lengthy riff about liberal hypocrites who ride bikes and refuse to eat meat but don’t admit that bikes indirectly use up oil and that plants have a right to live. The truly consistent liberal, he contends, would end up naked and starving, shivering in a cave so squalid that no animal wants it, while the conservative, at peace with his position atop the food chain, happily drives his SUV and savors a thick, juicy sirloin. The bit drips with Nietzchean irony, underscoring that prissy liberal efforts to mitigate the world’s cruelty merely displace that cruelty to less conspicuous locales. And it offers a glimpse into a certain variant of the Republican id, one that believes freedom, at some irreducible level, is always and everywhere the freedom to exploit.
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Will Boisvert is an In These Times contributing editor.