I recently read two interesting articles about the Republican presidential contenders. If the subject doesn’t completely nauseate you, please read on for my mythological perspective.
The first, by Robert Weiner and Jaime Ravenet, is “Why Do Conservatives Vote Against Their Own Interests?”
In this well-meaning article, the authors reveal the usual Democratic inability to perceive that most Republicans, and certainly most fundamentalists, do not perceive their “interests” in purely economic terms. Millions of these people make up the voting block of so-called “values” voters who are motivated by the anti-feminist, anti-gay and, yes, racist concerns of white males who fear the loss of their privilege and identify as victims. They are most certainly voting for their “values” (as they perceive them) when the demagogue du jour animates their fears and articulates his nostalgic and hateful vision of a return to an America of the 1950s.
I insist that these are mythic issues, wholly within my idea of the myth of American innocence. And mythic issues, as the Republican think tanks have understood perfectly well for forty years, requires the mythic language of simple images that bypass the head and go straight to the heart (and points further south as well). Sadly, all Democratic politicians and most progressive pundits (with the exception of George Lakoff) have shown that they have learned absolutely nothing about this. To imply that people are voting against their interests is to assume that the writer has the privilege of knowing those interests better than the people themselves. It is arrogant and patronizing. Worse: it is, mythologically speaking, profoundly stupid.
The second article, by Amanda Marcotte, is titled, “Why Evangelicals Don’t Care When Rich White Conservatives Defile Marriage”. Marcotte notes that Gingrich’s popularity continues to rise even as further revelations of his serial infidelities surface. She gets close to the truth when she writes:
…for the Republican base, “family values” don’t actually matter, but are just a gloss painted over what really motivates them: reactionary rage.
Gingrich “gets a pass” from quite a few of these people, who often seem to be motivated by exactly the values he flaunts in his personal life. What’s up with that? Here, we must leap from political analysis into mythic imagery.
Our political system is clearly broken. In its place, we have entertainer-politicians (including, I would argue, Barack Obama). They are not ideological warriors, but they play them on TV. Gingrich, perhaps the best trickster of them all, wears a series of interchangeable masks with which he plays to his base.
The Mask of Rage: Here, Marcotte gets it right: “They love Gingrich because he’s a flaming ball of rage they can wield against everyone they hate.” Rage is exciting, and, for now, it seems to trump puritanical “values.”
The Mask of the Outlaw: What else trumps those values? The notion that the lonely, libertarian hero (played by Gingrich) has the privilege of flaunting the values of the community (or the government, which he and they consider illegitimate), because he stands for rugged, self-creating individualism. In America, the outlaw is merely the mirror-image of the hero.
Here, I would add two more masks:
The Mask of Fallibility: Evangelicals love the spectacle of the fallen leader (through drugs or sex, or in Newt’s case, divorce and political corruption as well) who admits his failures, accepts Jesus and repents. Why? Because enacting the mask of imperfection, he shows that he’s just like us sinners! Under this mask, he has learned from the masters: Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush (who, according to insiders, speaks with perfect diction and no Texas accent when he’s away from the camera).
Finally, The Mask of the Victim: We saw this in a recent debate when a moderator asked about the infidelities and Gingrich responded by attacking him for degrading the process with “personal” innuendos. It was, said Newt, “despicable.” Here, he was shifting from hero to the most fundamental of all right-wing masks, that of the victim. He (and, by extension, his massively applauding supporters in the audience) was being victimized by an arrogant, intrusive – liberal – press.
This brings us full circle. The “values” voters have been told, repeatedly, every day, every hour, by their ministers, their politicians, their shock-jocks and their TV crime shows, that they are victims– of, take your pick: blacks, Latinos, women, liberals, professors, gays, abortionists, communists, pornographers, criminals, Muslims and terrorists – ever since the 1960s.
Gingrich’s supreme talent is to be able to play all these roles and wear all these masks, contradictory and hypocritical, as it may seem, because, as he knows very well, in American mythology, the only alternative to the hero is the victim. Below his and our national bravado and bluster is the rage of the insulted hero, and below that is the grief of the defeated victim.
It all fits into the story of our American tragedy. Over a century ago, Friedrich Nietzsche claimed that all tragic heroes represented the original sacrificial victims of early ritual; they were all “masks of Dionysus.”