The Resentment Strategy
Can the super-rich former governor of Massachusetts — the son of a Fortune 500 C.E.O. who made a vast fortune in the leveraged-buyout business — really keep a straight face while denouncing “Eastern elites”?
Can the former mayor of New York City, a man who, as USA Today put it, “marched in gay pride parades, dressed up in drag and lived temporarily with a gay couple and their Shih Tzu” — that was between his second and third marriages — really get away with saying that Barack Obama doesn’t think small towns are sufficiently “cosmopolitan”?
Can the vice-presidential candidate of a party that has controlled the White House, Congress or both for 26 of the past 28 years, a party that, Borg-like, assimilated much of the D.C. lobbying industry into itself — until Congress changed hands, high-paying lobbying jobs were reserved for loyal Republicans — really portray herself as running against the “Washington elite”?
Yes, they can.
On Tuesday, He Who Must Not Be Named — mentioned him just once, Rudy Giuliani and not at all — gave a video address to the . John McCain, promised President Bush, would stand up to the “angry left.” That’s no doubt true. But don’t be fooled either by Mr. McCain’s long-ago reputation as a maverick or by Ms. Palin’s appealing persona: the Republican Party, now more than ever, is firmly in the hands of the angry right, which has always been much bigger, much more influential and much angrier than its counterpart on the other side.
What’s the source of all that anger?
Some of it, of course, is driven by cultural and religious conflict: fundamentalist Christians are sincerely dismayed by Roe v. Wade and evolution in the curriculum. What struck me as I watched the convention speeches, however, is how much of the anger on the right is based not on the claim that Democrats have done bad things, but on the perception — generally based on no evidence whatsoever — that Democrats look down their noses at regular people.
Thus Mr. Giuliani asserted that Wasilla, Alaska, isn’t “flashy enough” for Mr. Obama, who never said any such thing. And Ms. Palin asserted that Democrats “look down” on small-town mayors — again, without any evidence.
What the G.O.P. is selling, in other words, is the pure politics of resentment; you’re supposed to vote Republican to stick it to an elite that thinks it’s better than you. Or to put it another way, the G.O.P. is still the party of Nixon.
One of the key insights in “Nixonland,” the new book by the historian Rick Perlstein, is that Nixon’s political strategy throughout his career was inspired by his college experience, in which he got himself elected student body president by exploiting his classmates’ resentment against the Franklins, the school’s elite social club. There’s a direct line from that student election to Spiro Agnew’s attacks on the “nattering nabobs of negativism” as “an effete corps of impudent snobs,” and from there to the peculiar cult of personality that not long ago surrounded — a cult that celebrated his anti-intellectualism and made much of the supposed fact that the “misunderestimated” C-average student had proved himself smarter than all the fancy-pants experts.
And when Mr. Bush turned out not to be that smart after all, and his presidency crashed and burned, the angry right — the raging rajas of resentment? — became, if anything, even angrier. Humiliation will do that.
Can Mr. McCain and Ms. Palin really ride Nixonian resentment into an upset election victory in what should be an overwhelmingly Democratic year? The answer is a definite maybe.
By selecting Barack Obama as their nominee, the Democrats may have given Republicans an opening: the very qualities that inspire many fervent Obama supporters — the candidate’s high-flown eloquence, his coolness factor — have also laid him open to a Nixonian backlash. Unlike many observers, I wasn’t surprised at the effectiveness of the McCain “celebrity” ad. It didn’t make much sense intellectually, but it skillfully exploited the resentment some voters feel toward Mr. Obama’s star quality.
That said, the experience of the years since 2000 — the memory of what happened to working Americans when faux-populist Republicans controlled the government — is still fairly fresh in voters’ minds. Furthermore, while Democrats’ supposed contempt for ordinary people is mainly a figment of Republican imagination, the G.O.P. really is the Gramm Old Party — it really does believe that the economy is just fine, and the fact that most Americans disagree just shows that we’re a nation of whiners.
But the Democrats can’t afford to be complacent. Resentment, no matter how contrived, is a powerful force, and it’s one that Republicans are very, very good at exploiting.