Thursday, February 02, 2012

The GOP's Drunk-Dad Primary

cross-posted from Dagblog

There's been a lot of punditty chatter about what the Romney vs. Gingrich struggles means: insiders vs. outsiders, establishment vs. Tea Party, elite vs. non-elite, whatever. But listening to that clip of Gingrich attacking John King, listening the open, undiluted pleasure that Gingrich takes in his own rage, made it clear to me what this is really about. The Republican primary voters are electing their political family a new Drunk Dad. And they want to be sure they get the right kind.

Of course, none of the Republican contenders are alcoholics. (Romney abstains from alcohol completely.) They're not literal drunks. But the Republican Party is now like a family headed by an alcoholic or otherwise dysfunctional parent. There are huge problems that no one can bring themselves to face. And although the parent figure actively prevents the real problems from getting better, they also lead the family in the crucial effort to deny those problems. The Drunk Dad sets the tone and direction for family's most important shared effort: covering over the fact that dad's a drunk.

Make no mistake: the Republican Party's current approach to this nation's problems is stone-cold denial. This is true whether they end up nominating Romney, Gingrich, Ron Paul or the Man in the Moon. And in policy terms, the differences between Romney, Gingrich, Santorum, Perry, etc., are trivial. The two Republican plans for dealing with America's serious economic problems are to stick with the policies that created the problems or to make them worse.  Republican energy policy is to drill for more domestic oil, ignoring the basic fact that the don't have even half as much oil as we use, and to cut research on renewable energy so that when the oil does run out we won't have any other options. Republican military policy is Not To Do Things Like Obama Does, meaning effectively and with minimal American casualties, but to go back to the way George W. Bush did it, meaning colossal failed military adventures that leave the country weaker. The only question is whether to try to get back into the quicksand of Iraq, or to stake out a new quagmire in Iran, or both. In every case, for every Republican candidate, the plan is to do things more like George W. Bush, although no one says that because doing things that way was a colossal failure.

And that's the Republican plan in a nutshell: to go back to the Bush Era while simultaneously disowning it because every knows Bush was a big failure. Doing that takes mighty acts of denial. The leader of their party needs to be the Denier in Chief, and lead the faithful through the minefield of cognitive dissonance to the Promised Land, where you do everything the way you always do but everything is somehow better. This kind of profound group self-deception requires a dysfunctional father figure for the faithful to believe in, someone to be the voice of rationalization and convenient self-delusion: a Drunk Dad.

Romney is like the Nice Drunk Dad, the kind that holds his liquor well and speaks politely and can only be recognized as an alcoholic if you know him. Generally, this kind of Drunk Dad seems like the best of the bad deals: he looks basically respectable, he doesn't fly into drunken rages, and he can even find socially-acceptable excuses for all the drinking, so that to casual visitors he just seems to be enjoying a few social cocktails instead of ruthlessly pickling his own brain. When the Nice Drunk Dad lies to you he sounds all calm and easy-going and sincere. He's actually excellent at selling the lie, even when circumstances make it implausible. He'll look you right in the eye and tell you everything's going to be better, and the family's just had a bit of inexplicable bad luck, and he's starting tomorrow he's going to turn over a new leaf because you kids are the most important thing in his life. And it all sounds really believable when he says it, especially the first time. He might, out of prevaricator's necessity, have to throw some personal slanders in with his lies, blaming the supervisor who fired him or the electric company that keeps "losing his checks," but that's not his strong suit, and even then he often affects a kind of more-in-sorrow-than-anger vibe about it.

Gingrich, however, is like the Angry Drunk Dad, who powers his denial with deep, quick-rising rage. The Angry Drunk Dad will often insult you and hurt your feelings, but he has an easy explanation for why things keep going wrong for the family: those no-good bastards are out to get him. He's surrounded by enemies wherever he goes, enemies who steal his job or cut off his electricity, and the family's task is to make common cause against those enemies. The enemies, of course, are out to get him because he's better then they are, because he's a bigger person and better at things and because he's got principles and they can't deal with that. And you can trust the Angry Drunk Dad not to back down. Whenever he feels wronged, which is nearly always, he goes on the attack: after all, those bastards have it coming.

(Rick Santorum, of course, is the Magical Thinking Drunk Dad, who tries basically the same bullshit on you that he used when you were three years old. And Ron Paul isn't so much a Drunk Dad as a Crank Uncle, who tells quirkily entertaining stories, warns you at length about the dangers of fluoridation and Freemasonry, and spends most of his time in the basement working on his perpetual-motion machine.)

On the face of it, the Nice Drunk Dad seems like the obvious go-to choice; for those of us who grew up with functional parents, the obvious move is to pick the one who seems closer to functional. That is basically the rationale for the Romney candidacy: he's less obviously embarrassing, and he looks like someone who could hold onto a job. But this turns out to be a mistake. The Nice Drunk Dad is still a drunk. There's no real benefit to the fact that he looks functional, and the fact that he looks so much like better dads whose families live better, more stable lives only drives home the fact that your family doesn't get to live like that. Candidate Romney doesn't have any actual programs to sell in the general election. He might not embarrass himself right out of the gate by talking about poor people on food stamps or raving about building a moon base, but anyone who's around him for longer than it takes to have two drinks is still going to figure out that he's got nothing. And President Romney has no plan to stop things in this country from going further and further into hell. If elected, he's just going to have a series of heart-to-heart talks with us about how things aren't really as bad as they seem and everything will get better, because he has our best interests at heart. Meanwhile, things are going to get worse and worse.

It's those heart-to-heart talks that are excruciating, and make the Nice Drunk Dad much worse, in lots of ways, than the Angry Drunk Dad. All he's got is bullshit, after all, and once you've heard the same bullshit a few times the fact that he sounds like he believes it doesn't make it better. In fact, it makes it worse. And you're forced to pretend that you don't see through him. It's terrible. The Angry Drunk Dad, on the other hand, doesn't ask you to believe his lies. He commands you to believe him, and attacks you the instant your faith wavers. You're not allowed to think for yourself, which is a relief; it keeps you from being able to notice how bad everything is. And the Angry Drunk Dad's talent for hate, his furious scapegoating and blame-shifting, not only helps you participate in the denial but actually gives you an outlet for all the hurt and rage and shame that comes from being in such a messed-up family. The Angry Drunk Dad has a convenient, consistent explanation for every setback, an explanation that helps you get through the day, and he offers you a place to unload all those terrible feelings you're carrying around, onto those convenient enemies. All these things that are going wrong aren't Dad's fault! ACORN did it! Saul Alinsky! Black people on food stamps! The liberal media!

Sure, your objective reality will be at least as bad as it would be with the Nice Drunk Dad, but face it: your objective reality was going to suck anyway. Things won't get better in the real world until/unless you break away from the family (the party) completely and start over. If you're not willing or able to do that, and lots of Republican primary voters aren't, the only question is how well you can keep your awareness of the ugly realities at bay. And at that game, the aggressively anti-reality Angry Drunk Dad beats the genteel, reasonable-sounding Nice Drunk Dad hands down. The Angry Drunk Dad helps you seal off the unpleasant truths that are always seeping through the Nice Drunk Dad's jive. And he gives you something to do when those truths unexpectedly confront you: get angry. In the Nice-Dad system of denial, the truth is something uncomfortable and embarrassing. In the Angry-Dad system, the truth is an enemy to be destroyed. It's not healthier than the Nice-Dad system, but it's a lot more emotionally satisfying. And it's what Newt Gingrich has to offer the voters.

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