© 2016 Gage Skidmore, used under a Creative Commons license
“The cruelty is the point” — title of a big Adam Serwer essay and subsequent book about MAGA politics — has become for many of us a truism about conservatism in general. It’s weird, right? I mean, it is for those of us who’ve been around a couple of election cycles and remember a time before “owning the libs” was a Wikipedia entry, and the relationship between left and right was presumed to be, not an existential struggle, but professional and courteous, like that of the Democrats and Whigs in old American History textbooks or parliamentary rivals Pitt the Younger and Charles James Fox as described by Sir Walter Scott: “Drop upon Fox’s grave the tear,/’Twill trickle to his rival’s bier;/O’er Pitt’s the mournful requiem sound,/And Fox’s shall the notes rebound.”
What happened? Besides the obvious.
It’s not as if we hadn’t seen conservatism as “cruel” way before this. We knew about what another liberal critic long ago called the paranoid style in American politics, and how paranoiacs tend to act when they have their hands on levers of power. Those of us who were around when Reagan took over saw how his looting of the public treasury fed a new, voracious kind of capitalism that came with, indeed seemed to require, a concomitant contempt for the poor and disadvantaged, and an outright hostility toward the civil rights movement. (John Roberts, one of Reagan’s major sleeper agents, continued the assault after the Gipper’s death with the Shelby decision.)
Until recently there had still been plenty of cover for conservative cruelty. Reagan dyed his hair and grinned his grin, and talked about a shining city on a hill (as Bill Clinton, his neo-liberal acolyte, talked about a place called Hope). George W. Bush sold himself as a compassionate conservative. Their policies were still cruel, and increasingly so not just toward the poor anymore, but also toward everyone who had to work for a living, as was evident to anyone who noticed the growing disconnect between the weak growth of wages and the robust growth of productivity and corporate profit.
Yet nearly everyone pretended it wasn’t so. It was obvious why conservatives did — they knew that the independents and “Reagan Democrats” they needed to win elections didn’t want to think of themselves as racist or greedy, let alone as potential victims of their racism and greed, so they acted as if they were actually giving the indigent and working classes a break, and sometimes quoted Martin Luther King, Jr., at least that one conscience-character bit, on the day that Reagan tried to keep from becoming a national holiday.
But liberals pretended, too — at least, the most visible ones did: Obama, big liberal columnists, et alia. (This of course excludes old-school bloggers such as Yours Truly, who have always been Very Rude and thus have No Credibility.)
Why did liberals pretend? Maybe because they still believed those old social studies curricula, with their vision of loyal opposition and worthy contention.
Or maybe they were just cowards. Maybe a lot of them just happened to be white, and since the magic formula for conservatives is America minus Black America equals Real America — meaning you could always assemble a majority with tax breaks and other cheap advantages that you paid for by redlining and under-resourcing and feeding brown water to the non-real Americans — they saw little sense in getting all hot and bothered about differences that actually seemed kind of minor when they thought about how little they affected them, personally.
Under Trump, however, a lot of things happened to shatter at least the shell of that consensus: The Muslim Ban, the caging of immigrant children, the tear-gassing of protestors in Lafayette Park, the open thuggery and graft, and of course the attempted overthrow of America’s democratic government. Serwer sniffed it early, but even duller Democrats picked up on it, leaving only some committed trimmers, bothsiders, and Matthew Yglesias to believe in the dream.
As for conservatives, nearly all of them, great or small, have acknowledged the end of the consensus as well — and cheerfully embraced it; hell, yeah, they’re cruel, and you liberal sissies better get used to it! Fuck democracy, what’s it ever done for us! Since their lumpen have been revealed by polls to be even more vicious than they are (“4 In 10 Republicans Say Political Violence May Be Necessary”), they hardly have a choice.
Who’s left on the right to pretend otherwise? Some legacy conservative dinosaurs — slow-moving, long-winded, locked into rich contracts by major media properties. Case in point: Pulitzer winner Peggy Noonan.
Yet even Noonan has found herself forced to pick up the pro-cruelty message of her movement, albeit under cover of moderation.
The old Reagan speechwriter has been a finger-wagging irrelevance for years. But until recently she could at least speak to a vanishing breed of polite MOR conservatives who thought (or seemed to think) the Trump thing had just been an accidental detour through a muddy patch that could be dismissed as an error — “He is not a good man who became not a good president,” Noonan sniffed shortly before the last election.
Now the 2020 election is over, and most Republicans think it was stolen and oppose President Biden, not on anything resembling coherent policy grounds, but based on a crackpot conspiracy theory that he is not actually president, which theory increasingly requires them to believe all their enemies are Deep State pedophile communist lizard people.
Where does that leave Noonan? In the rather awkward position of having to brush off all that bullshit and denounce Biden on old-fashioned conservative small-government grounds — during a pandemic that has, for most of us at least, made the idea of an activist government that actually does things for its citizens sound pretty good. (And conservatives who aren’t mugging for the Sunday morning talk show cameras don’t really care about it.)
In her new column Noonan tries to portray Biden as a cat’s-paw of the “far left” — I know! Joe Biden! — who is there-you-go-again taxing and spending us out of house and home, and all under false pretenses, for she assures us this Omicron thing is no big deal, and even predicts it will end the whole pandemic by blessing us with herd immunity:
In its dying frenzy it will reach everyone; in the end we’ll all have had some variant. And then it will give up and slink away. Because while it got weaker, we, with vaccines, boosters, therapeutics and natural immunity, got stronger.
Considering her lack of epidemiological expertise, this is quite an assertion — and one that, if you think about it (Noonan clearly hopes you won’t), suggests that Biden is bringing the crisis to a satisfactory conclusion. (In reality it’s largely out of Biden’s hands, thanks to the absurd recalcitrance of the pro-COVID Right and the courts that defend their absurdity.)
In any event Noonan can’t give Biden any credit; instead she spits on his extraordinary economic numbers (it’s all inflation!) and bitches that, by giving COVID-wracked Americans some relief with his stimulus bills, Biden is actually indulging their tendency to be a bunch of lazy moochers.
Do you think this doesn’t quite sound like Peggy Noonan, who usually goes out of her way to celebrate the ordinary American as just as outraged by Democratic largesse as she is? She senses this, apparently, which is why she starts this remarkable passage with a gassy “I wonder if a lot of people aren’t worrying” — positing a saving remnant who share her concerns, which the reader may join if they agree with her that everyone else is a work-shy welfare cheat spending their Biden bucks on T-bone steaks:
And I wonder if a lot of people aren’t worrying that there’s been some quiet but fundamental shift in expectations set in place during the pandemic — that you don’t really have to work anymore, or if you don’t like your job you don’t have to stay until you get a better one; you can just leave and one way or another get the support you need through benefits, programs and government assistance. People are wondering right now about the implications of the Great Resignation. More freedom, more enjoyment of life, less scrambling in a rat race — maybe that’s the right direction. But is it sustainable in the long term? Will it have some effect on what used to be called the national character? As a people we’ve always known how to grit through and suffer when history takes a turn. What will we be like when we don’t, and history gets more demanding?
Dame Noonington loved the American People once upon a time, when they were working their asses off for a non-rising wage while billionaires fattened off their labor; but now that all of them (except the saving remnant, who will send in laudatory Letters to her Editor) are accepting Biden’s pittances to tide them over a worldwide social and financial disruption, they’re just a bunch of bums.
She says it nicely, of course; one cannot be cruel while butter lay unmelted in one’s mouth, can one? Well, obviously one can and one does; and those of us who have been affected by the general disaster, but who are not nuts enough to explain it away with rightwing conspiracy theories — that is to say, and I cannot stress this enough, the majority of Americans — must now accept that even rightwingers who have established reputations as reasonable people have either gone nuts or have found a percentage in pretending to have gone nuts. In either event, it is clear that there are no good conservatives — absolutely none — and we must proceed from that proposition.