The Most Embarrassing Losers Ever?

Adele Stan takes a close look at fascinating new data out of the University of Washington’s Institute for the Study of Ethnicity, Race and Sexuality showing a rift between establishment (read: inside the Beltway, mainstream media types like David Brooks, George Will, and David Frum) conservatives and the Tea Party. 

The survey found that conservatives who don’t consider themselves aligned with the Tea Party are much less likely to agree with the movement’s conspiracy-minded tropes, like President Obama is a Muslim, wasn’t born in the United States, is a socialist, or is “destroying the country.”

Still, though, as Stan notes, the numbers of “mainstream” conservatives falling into those camps is significant. One example she pinpoints:

Despite the president’s well-documented Christian faith, 27 percent of Tea Party-identified conservatives said the president was a practicing Muslim, compared to 16 percent of mainstream conservatives. Among mainstream conservatives, 46 percent agreed that the president is a practicing Christian, while only 27 percent of Tea Party conservatives agreed.

Let that sink in for a moment. Less than half of mainstream conservatives believe Obama is a Christian. The Tea Party is 20 percentage points behind, but still. Really?

Suddenly there is some fretting that the Tea Party has overtaken the GOP of white shoes and golf courses, of well-mannered Episcopalians and Georgetown cocktail parties. Joe Klein, who has covered nine presidential campaigns, believes the candidates in this one to have gone completely off the rails in their efforts to appeal to the Tea Party fever swamp:

I have never before seen such a bunch of vile, desperate-to-please, shameless, embarrassing losers coagulated under a single party’s banner. They are the most compelling argument I’ve seen against American exceptionalism.

I hear what he’s saying, but is Tim Pawlenty more embarrassing than Mike Huckabee was in 2008, or Newt Gingrich has ever been? It’s true that the Islamophobic hysteria has reached new heights, and but it, too, hung dreadfully over the 2008 election. One 2008 hopeful, Rudy “9-11” Giuliani, found the threat of radical Islam so potent that he agreed to appear in a propaganda film (distributed to voters in swing states) that posited that a fifth column of Muslim extremists threaten America from within. Sound familiar?

After all, 2008 was when the Obama-is-a-crypto-Muslim-not-born-in-America memes were hatched, when the religious right was appalled by John McCain’s clumsy decision to court and then ditch the anti-Muslim Rod Parsley, and when Gingrich and Huckabee gave us the prequel to the Rediscovering God in America seminars that are making a comeback for the presidential hopefuls. And really, do new entrants Tim Pawlenty or Michele Bachmann offer something even more on the fringes than Sarah Palin? Don’t answer that.

Yes, the 2012 GOP prospects are trying to outdo each other, leading Herman Cain, the only African-American in the bunch, to come out with some of the most overtly bigoted statements against Muslims. (Perhaps the white candidates don’t have to try quite as strenuously.) But they’re all tapping into something that was already there: an evangelical base that buys John Hagee’s theodicy but not Jeremiah Wright’s, that looks to the Bible for guidance on foreign policy, and that believes that secularists, socialists, Muslims, and other assorted non-Christians are – yes – destroying America.

For anyone paying attention, Huckabee of 2008 was not the aw-shucks-country-preacher-turned-Main-Street-loving-populist; he was a committed theocrat who had a long history of bashing gays and demanding that women submit to their husbands; of comparing abortion to the Holocaust, and of suggesting that the Constitution could be improved by better alignment with God’s word. True, that last pitch wouldn’t fly in the Constitution-is-just-as-perfect-a-rendering-of-God’s-will-as-you-will-find-outside-the-King-James-version-of-the-Bible-America, but the point is that Huckabee has never made a secret of his affection for fusing church and state. And one of his favorite homages to being a Christian is how he still likes to watch a DVR’ed Razorbacks game, even if he knows the outcome, because it just like being a Christian. His reasoning: Christians know how the world is going to end because it’s all laid out in the Bible, and they still read the Bible. I’ve heard him give that sermon multiple times, and once in John Hagee’s church.

Remember that evangelical dude who ran for president in 1988? The one who operates a Christian television network? A television network on which virtually every presidential hopeful – including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton! – gladly appears? As Matt Duss observes in a spot-on post, Robertson’s national security correspondent, Erick Stakelback, is up in arms (and – don’t be shocked – completely wrong) about an Iranian end-times propaganda video produced by what Duss calls “the Iranian version of Glenn Beck or Frank Gaffney.” While he writes agitatedly about the terrors of the supposed Iranian end-timers, Stakelback is seemingly oblivious to his own boss’ and network’s longstanding commitment being on permanent standby for the Rapture.

Sure, Robertson lost to George H.W. Bush — but Bush beat him by recognizing the need to cultivate the very base that Robertson had done so much to mobilize.

A lot of conservatives find the latest iteration of their base – the one that thinks a centrist president has us on the road to socialism and that Muslim seditionists are poised to subvert the Constitution – embarrassing and distasteful. But they apparently lack the power to pull them back. Frum et al. might be embarrassed, and long for a different kind of Republican Party, but the party is still beholden to a base whose key commitments are to America as a Christian, capitalist nation under siege by liberalism (which they believe is socialism in disguise), secularism, and non-“Judeo-Christian” religions. This base might feel more emboldened now – and correspondingly appear more off-the-rails to observers – but that’s because the Tea Party’s patrons have given them approval and a very public space in which to feel so emboldened.