Peter Daou tweeted this Frank Rich op-ed yesterday, and expressed suspicions that Rich is reading way too much into the fact that the right cut Mel Gibson loose when it became apparent that his private willingness to spew all sorts of anti-Semitic, racist, misogynist crap made him less an asset and more of an albatross. From this, Rich concludes that the scary evangelicals have had their day and it’s over:
Conservative America’s new signature movement, the Tea Party, has its own extremes, but it shuns culture-war battles. It even remained mum when a federal judge in Massachusetts struck down the anti-same-sex marriage Defense of Marriage Act this month. As the conservative commentator Kyle Smith recently wrote in The New York Post, the “demise of Reagan-era groups like the Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority is just as important” as the rise of the Tea Party. “The morality armies have failed to inspire their children to join the crusade,” he concluded, and not unhappily. The right, too, is subject to generational turnover.
Except that the Tea Partiers are also willing to cut someone loose if they commit the ultimate sin of making explicit what conservatives are only supposed to argue through implication. It’s simply understood in right wing circles that you have to couch your reactionary arguments in liberal-sounding language, and that you never just come right out with what you’re really thinking. Doing so is bad P.R., and yes, will get you cut loose. Gibson and his marketing campaign for “The Passion of the Christ” were a classic example of standard issue wingnut argumentation—he rather masterfully smuggled anti-Semitic arguments into the public discourse by recasting them as simply pro-Christian (and therefore anyone who argued with them was deemed anti-Christian, and you could fake umbrage at their “bigotry”). What happened with Gibson isn’t all that uncommon with wingnuts. One of them starts to get too big for his britches, and starts to think he doesn’t have to argue his prejudice through the pre-approved euphemisms. Once they go there, they become a burden and are in grave danger of getting cut loose.
In other words, it’s not a matter of what’s trendy or not, it’s just a matter of skills and patience. If you don’t have the basic skills to feign concern over women’s well-being while attacking women’s rights, to argue that you’re not against gay marriage so much as supporting “traditional marriage”, or to drop racial slurs you might use amongst friends for euphemisms involving welfare, rappers, or the word “thug” in public, you’re too stupid to be a spokesperson for them. It’s not like there’s a shortage of wannabes who have perfected the disingenuous smile and the mouthful of nonsense-language designed to give you plausible deniability. Mel Gibson isn’t out of style; he just broke the rules. Let’s face it; Mel Gibson’s over-the-top racism would make the Tea Party just as much his natural home as his seething hatred of women and his crazy religious beliefs makes the Jesus-and-fetus people his friends. This is a matter of tactics, not beliefs.
Still, it’s super-tempting to think that the other examples Rich gives of Tea Partiers taking a pass on “family values” (aka anti-feminism and homophobia) means something. In a sense, it does. But it’s not a generational shift—it couldn’t be, when the average age of a Tea Partier is well into middle age—so much as a cyclical thing. Just as hemlines go up and down in fashion, so does the importance of racism relative to sexism go up and down with conservatives. (For the purposes of this post, I’m going to assume that homophobia comes along for the ride along with other kinds of sexism.) Which isn’t to say that sexism isn’t important, but it’s put on the back burner a little bit in favor of whipping up racist hysteria. Most Tea Partiers are still anti-feminist culture warriors, but a few of them may be more moderate than others on that front, and so instead of fighting it out, they’re focusing their energies on race-baiting.
They haven’t really given up on sexism as a cultural force. It tends to come hand in hand with racism, and there’s no sign that conservatives have any plans to give an inch on abortion rights, start supporting gay marriage, or start voting for equal pay in any numbers worth noting. They may be downplaying it rhetorically in favor of race-baiting right now, but that has more to do with how many hours there are in a day rather than a fundamental change in their beliefs.
I wouldn’t make too much of it. Just because hemlines come down one season doesn’t mean we’ve seen the end of the miniskirt. Indeed, the notion that Rich hangs his essay on, which is that the Christian shit is being tossed aside for some other form of conservatism, doesn’t hold up in the slightest. For example, I went to Google and started typing in the word “mosque”, and the first suggestion that came up was “mosque at ground zero”, a reference to this controversy wingnuts created about a Muslim rec center that’s being built in downtown Manhattan somewhat near the World Trade Center. Even Sarah Palin has gotten in on it. The wingnut line is to pretend that there was some intentional provocation in putting this rec center near the WTC, but really this is about creating a space where you can, as per their usual methods, hint at a larger, unspoken argument against the right of Muslims to be treated as ordinary Americans. And you can tell because there’s an exaggeration going on about how close this rec center is going to be—it’s two blocks away, which probably puts more human beings between the rec center and the WTC than who live in the entire state of Montana. Well, I exaggerate some, but the arguments are based on an image of the area that isn’t accurate at all, and I suspect that if Republicans hadn’t decided to make an issue out of this, no one would have even noticed.
In other words, they haven’t given up one bit on the Christian supremacy that made Mel Gibson a hero, and they’re not giving up even slightly on their opposition to the human rights of women and gays. That racism is a lot louder now doesn’t mean the flame isn’t steady under issues that have been put on the back burner.