"Where did we go wrong?"

At STFU, Conservatives, I saw this editorial cartoon, featuring two "parent" elephants labeled "GOP Establishment," one looking angry and one looking worried, trailing after a "baby" elephant, masquerading as a teapot:

"Where did we go wrong?" asks the worried-looking parent.

As if that's a mystery.

The "GOP Establishment"—the people who flatter themselves by claiming to be the intellectual wing of a party that depends on the exploitation of an intractable streak of anti-intellectualism among its key demographic, the people sophisticated enough to not personally be offended by gays and people of color and feminists, but unethical enough to exploit such bigotries nonetheless—have lost control of their base. After decades of fear-mongering, scapegoating, and wedge issue politicking, they're left with a seething conglomeration of intolerant bullies whose stubborn refusal to evolve ideologically is matched in astonishing obduracy only by their unjustifiable hatred.

And now they have the unmitigated temerity to be surprised?! Snort.

For longer than I have been alive, the Republican Party has deliberately, cynically, and unapologetically fanned the flames of that hatred, which served as the fuel for the base's single-minded crusade to protect their privilege and thus the rationale for voting Republican—the party who promised to "protect tradition."

"Tradition" is the kind of word that appeals to people for whom the world is changing more rapidly than they can comfortably adjust, who are too busy to or socially discouraged from reading or thinking about things too much, who have heard some things about how feminism is responsible for the breakdown in the family and gays want to redefine marriage and immigrants are taking all the good jobs. "Tradition" is a word that plays well with people who can't be bothered to examine anything too closely, or were never taught how to properly think, how to analyze and assess information in a way that teases out the truth.

And it's an even better word for speaking to the unabashed bigots of the base, obliquely reassuring them that they're right to hate women and gays and brown people, those three separate monolithic groups of faceless enemies, and implicitly promising them they'll be protected from the onslaught of the radical hordes. America's great tradition of conferring undeserved privilege on you won't fail. Not on our watch.

That has been the sacred covenant between the Republican Party and its straight, white, patriarchal, Christian supremacist base for a generation: Vote for us, and we'll protect you.

And so they voted. And, in the process, they gave away their standard of living, their children's education, their jobs, their civil liberties, their national security, their environment, and their economy—all in exchange for the gossamer promise of a return to a time that never happened in a country that never really existed.

The Republican Party has traded again and again on the conjured idea of an American golden era, circa 1945 to 1960, after boys who were ripped from the arms of their virginal sweethearts and sent to another continent to fight a great war against tyranny and despair, had returned home as men, as heroes, and set to work, every last one of them, making babies with doting wives and grabbing the American Dream with both hands in the dawn of suburbia. Scientists in white lab coats and square, black-framed glasses toiled away to make American astronauts the first on the moon, and to fill all the pretty new homes behind perfect white picket fences with fancy, new-fangled household gadgets to make life easier and more fun. Teenagers hung out at sock hops and neon-lit diners, girls longing for lavaliers and boys wondering how to get laid. Elvis' pelvis was considered a scandal, and Marilyn Monroe a bombshell. Dad had a pension and the promise of a gold watch at the end of a long career with a single firm, and Mom had a Frigidaire. And everyone was happy.

Vote for us—and we'll give you that.

It's an empty promise built on an illusion, carefully constructed to conceal that America's so-called golden age was imperfect like any other, and perhaps even more so than most. Half a million of those boys who went off to war never came home—and some of them weren't boys at all, but men, who left wives and children with desperate struggles in the place where their husbands and fathers had been. Some who had come home were never the same, their bodies or minds damaged beyond real repair. Women who had been called to duty in factories were forcibly driven back into domesticity, segregation was a legal fact, every gay had a closet of hir very own, mental illness was treated with lobotomies, McCarthy was on his Communist witch hunt, and we fought an all-but-forgotten war in Korea for three years and lost over 35,000 soldiers. There were back-alley abortions, and the KKK, and Elvis and Marilyn both died of drugs.

The Republican promise has always had the very same flaw as their policies: It is contingent on pretending that the complexity and complications of human existence, and the flaws of humankind, don't exist.

The Republicans have held out this chimera to their base—this Leave It to Beaver bullshit—as if the typical family once was, and should be again, a model of white Christian perfection that never fought, never struggled, never suffered. And never had to be subjected to interactions with people of color, or gays, or any women besides Mom and maybe a nice lady to help sons take out books on the Boy Scouts from the local library. They have held it out as if it has actually been, and as if it could be again.

And they did so even knowing that the fantasy of this nonexistent perfect America is the very thing that created the beloved "traditions" of racism, sexism, and homophobia in the first place. It has been the dangling enticement of a happy family, supported by a single secure and well-paid job, in which no one is wracked with disillusionment, dispossession, or a lack of opportunity—an invitation to join for which most Americans are never given the chance to RSVP—which created the resentment and scapegoating that are the foundations of social conservative traditionalism.

Now the Republicans are stuck with the result—their revolting (in every sense of the word) base, who still believe, and must, lest they face their complicity in having been left with naught but their biases, that the responsible party for their struggles, their disaffection, their undefined but keenly-felt fury, is those people, not the Grand Old Party who promised them something better in exchange for their votes.

The political leadership taught their base too well whom to blame for what ails them, and thus cannot now move them from their fixed gaze and finger-pointing, even as it isn't helping the party anymore—and stands likely to hurt the party for the foreseeable future. They sowed the seeds of prejudice for decades, and now they reap nothing but the only crop such seeds can yield.

It would be amusing, if only the rest of us weren't stuck with the result, too.

And even as the conservative elites whinge grimly about the rabble whose greatest fear is liberals overrunning the perfect, lily-white, patriarchal Christian nation that only exists in their fever-dreams and RAISING THEIR TAXES, they're trying to rehabilitate George W. Bush, the Platonic Ideal of the Modern Conservative, the Golden Boy of the current incarnation of the Republican Party—a corporate shill with the demeanor of a country bumpkin, who could hold together the unholy alliance between Big Money and Big Religion, standing at the altar and giving the blessing to the grim marriage between the gullible bigots who pledged to march in lockstep with anyone who promised to protect the children from illegals and feminazis and kissing boys, and the business interests who sought to get rich off those rubes before sending their jobs overseas.

Even as they lament the radicalization of their increasingly extreme base, they foment it at every opportunity. Because it's the only way they know how to win.

Which is still the Most Important Thing.

And if the Mommy and Daddy Elephant find their Tea Partying spawn terrifying now, just wait until they see the monster it becomes once it has demonstrable, irrefutable proof of helping secure that win, but isn't getting the respect from Mommy and Daddy it feels like it deserves.

An empowered and rampaging elephant can do a fuckload of damage, even if it is a baby.

Despite their affected mystification, the Republican leadership knows precisely whence came the Tea Partying extremists. And they're going to keep exploiting that extreme and volatile rage as long as they can, even though a principled party would denounce this three-ring circus of unfettered bigotry before it's too late. If it isn't already.

"Where did we go wrong?" the philosophical sages of the Republican Party muse, shaking their heads gravely and publicly wringing their hands, before shuffling off to wash them of any responsibility.

[Some text originally appeared in "Rank (and File) Bigotry," published April 2009.]

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