I'm not talking about the
mere existence of these people; of course both parties have their nut-wings. I'm talking about the willingness of the party's establishment to
pander to them, to embrace and utilize them. Upright, respectable Republicans have often,
in the past, privately recoiled from the pitchfork brigade in their
midst; Eisenhower found McCarthy despicable and Nixon distasteful, for
example, and Nixon himself, during his presidential years, held Agnew
in contempt. George H. W. Bush restricted Atwater's machinations to
the times he regarded himself as being in "campaign mode," an implicitly unsavory state of
existence from which he tried to distance himself when no election was in
the immediate offing.
But with the arguable exception of
Lyndon Johnson's "Daisy" ad, I can't think of
anything comparable to the ad hominem red meat the Republicans have
been willing to throw to their base as an integral component of their political strategy. They may have disdained these people when they were in their sitting rooms and salons, but they found them invaluable in the arena.
The current birther nonsense is the latest manifestation. It isn't so much
that this mindless drivel, repeatedly disproved with incontrovertible
documentation and rendered implausible by the promptings of simple common sense, persists
in the nutosphere. One expects lunacy from guys who live in their
parents' basements and spend their days staring at computer
screens. What's distressing is the unwillingness of respectable or at least influential public figures, the Sean Hannitys and Rush Limbaughs and Liz Cheneys and G. Gordon Liddys, not to mention twelve sitting members of Congress, to disavow it. They must know better. They do know better. They often phrase their suspicions in coy ways that prove they know better but are trying to squeeze a few drops of political advantage out of it just the same.
Something troubling has happened to the Republican Party in the last twenty years or so, and it demonstrates why these tactics are always a bad idea, even if they win you the occasional election. The respectable, responsible wing of the Republican Party, the wing that for decades thought it could use its crazies but still control them, has been unhorsed. The crazies are in the saddle. The sorry spectacle of the noble John McCain forced continually to kowtow to the religious right wing honchos of his party during last year's presidential campaign, and his evident although only intermittent pain at being confronted with what he had thereby unleashed; the transparent and pusillanimous eagerness of Mitt Romney in pursuit of his party's approval to disavow almost everything he has ever stood for in public life; the willingness of putatively serious conservative pundits to defend and even laud the indefensible and incoherent Sarah Palin; the reduction of a once-proud political philosophy to a set of simple-minded bromides and shibboleths, combined with vitriolic, dishonest, and irrelevant personal attacks on the other side...these bespeak a party that has lost not only its way, but its soul. If you're willing to keep on telling your supporters that the other side fucks pigs, at some point they may actually believe it, and beyond that, they may think pig-fucking is what elections are about.