Rick Perlstein’s The Long Con: Mail-order conservatism suggests that lying in part of the DNA of the right-wing political movement.
I have a knee-jerk distrust of arguments (especially around election time) that seem so nakedly calculated to reinforce liberal biases, but the source commands some respect, and it is based on some research. Perlstein is the author of Nixonland, one of the rare truly great books about Nixon and his times. (Two other great Nixon books I’ve read are William Safire’s Before the Fall and Garry Wills’s Nixon Agonisties.) His piece is worth a read, and I say that as someone who pretty much stopped reading Crooks & Liars a couple of weeks ago because the constant theme about how absolutely everything the GOP does is dishonest started feeling tiresome and shrill. (I wouldn’t go over 50%, see how moderate I am!) Perlstein, though, is plausible and palatable:
It’s time, in other words, to consider whether Romney’s fluidity with the truth is, in fact, a feature and not a bug: a constituent part of his appeal to conservatives. The point here is not just that he lies when he says conservative things, even if he believes something different in his heart of hearts—but that lying is what makes you sound the way a conservative is supposed to sound, in pretty much the same way that curlicuing all around the note makes you sound like a contestant on American Idol is supposed to sound.
In part the New York Times had it right, for as much as it’s worth: Romney’s prevarications are evidence of simple political hucksterism—“short, utterly false sound bites,” repeated “so often that millions of Americans believe them to be the truth.” But the Times misses the bigger picture. Each constituent lie is an instance pointing to a larger, elaborately constructed “truth,” the one central to the right-wing appeal for generations: that liberalism is a species of madness—an esoteric cult of out-of-touch, Europe-besotted ivory tower elites—and conservatism is the creed of regular Americans and vouchsafes the eternal prosperity, security, and moral excellence of God’s chosen nation, which was doing just fine before Bolsheviks started gumming up the works.
Perlstein makes a convincing case that lying is a core part of how the permanent campaign class of the GOP, from Richard Viguerie to NewsMax to Anne Coulter, milks its base. Where we may part company, though, is when he also argues that this is how the elite in the GOP rolls, pointing to what he calls a “curious fact”:
—for all the objections that conservatives have aired over Romney’s suspect purity in these last months, not one prominent conservative has made Romney’s dishonesty part of the brief against him.
Some of the right-wing spin machine are probably in it just for the money; but that’s probably the case with most long-running political movements. Some others are true believers, whether well-informed or prisoners of the self-referential epistemology that Perlstein points us to. Some of the billionaire funders may be operating on self-interest rightly understood. And some of the above are Straussians, actualizing the philosophy that the way to talk to — to lead — the masses is to lie to them. Romney doesn’t come off sounding like like a true believer, which is odd as his policies surely serve his self interest. That invites us to place him in another one of the categories. Perlstein says Romney is lying because that is what his backers expect. I suppose it could be, as Perlstein’s account would lead us to believe, that Romney’s lie parade is some dog-whistle style pitch to fellow Straussian would-be overlords, but if so it’s certainly not being done with much finesse, nor despite a generally stenographic mainstream press does it seem to have wowed the voters.
[Instant Update: fixed the title of Safire’s book!]