Much of what we saw last night in Frontline’s “Boogey Man,” a documentary about Lee Atwater’s rise and fall as a Republican operative, was not new to a left-blogsphere audience. We are already familiar with the “flag burning” story and the race-baiting because we’ve seen it in every election since then. The talking points, in grainy twenty-year-old video, were utterly indistinguishable from the shit Republicans thought you were stupid enough to fall for only last week. The Republicans are still using the same playbook.

So I’m not going to write about that. Instead, take this as an observation from someone who grew up in Texas and who came of age during the period depicted in the documentary. The landscape inhabited by Atwater and his dupes is not as simple nor as monolithic as many are likely to assume. Just as bewildered Republicans are arguing with each other whether they should stick to their usual shtick or actually consider what Americans want, campaigns and policies do not happen in Euclidian space, they take place in a demographic environment. Politics succeeds or fails according to its adaptive advantages in that environment.

Lee Atwater didn’t succeed by appealing to the culture of the poor South. Lee Atwater succeeded by appealing to a state of denial that had seized a South in transition, satisfying its need to sustain a demographically unsustainable fairy tale of a rural, moral South, invictus and pure as the driven snow. Southerners ate it up not because they were confident, but because they were scared to death.

Likewise, the Great Society had attempted to create a society more equitable than American demographics could sustain. It was one thing for the political elite to cede that kind of humanity to our former untermenchen, but quite another to expect the rest of white America, particularly non-affluent white men, to give up the only thing they had going for them: their superior status as whites.

Why does this matter to you? Because, a week ago, White America overwhelmingly voted for the white candidate. Asian Americans, African Americans, and Latinos, however, even more overwhelmingly told White America to shut the fuck up.*

That is the change.

But let us now return to the decade that I regard with unmitigated revulsion and ennui, in which “Boogey Man” was set.

It would be too easy to portray the relationship between George H. W. Bush and Lee Atwater as a microcosm of the greater Republican party at the end of the 20th century. The aristocrat who played at being a Texan, shepherded and coached on folksiness by the rough-hewn cracker. Parasite policy made palatable by appeals to racial fears. A nation that embraced voodoo economics in order to protect the pledge of allegiance and other silly trinkets clutched in a bag of magic beans.

But that would be too simple.

Lee Atwater wasn’t scraped off the bottom of the barrel. He was a college boy. In South Carolina, that was a privileged minority, albeit in a province most Americans keep forgetting is there. But, most important, Lee Atwater saw his dupes more or less as I do. He even called the anti-abortion crowd the “extra chromosome” constituency, and mocked stereotypes of physically deformed, inbred hicks.

Atwater didn’t represent the base. As an intern of Strom Thurmond, Atwater represented a regional aristocracy that held onto power by exploiting their inferiors. Atwater wasn’t Bush’s pet cracker, he was a yeoman to the perfidious Bush clan’s nationless elitism. He taught them how to magnify the tiny footprint of American aristocracy into a bloc and a mandate.

That base extends beyond the actual South. Atwater’s message appealed to anyone outside the city in a nation that had come to fear its cities as breeding grounds for crime and blacks. There are hicks in rural Michigan and struggling Ohio towns, in Sacramento and Washington state, east of the mountains. Texas, as a part of the southwest, doesn’t see itself as part of the Deep South, and in fact looks down on the southeast in the same way that urban coastal elites look down on the south. We see them as ignorant, isolated, volatile, and inbred. And yet, Pavlov’s patriots in the Lone Star State still answer the same bell as the Bubbas farther east.

Atwater addressed those who had been left behind by America’s industrialization. Critically, he did so when the failure of that industrialization put pressure on us all. But even more important than that, Atwater was talking to men. The state of American masculinity is precarious. There are virtually no opportunities to live up to the superhero standards of American popular culture, which is little different from that of Turkey or the Philippines.

Our fiction is our socialization, and day after day, little white boys saw on screens both large and small a man on a horse with a hat and a gun. People either worshipped him or he killed them. The End.

The Man solves his problems with definitive acts of violence, which never backfire nor produce unintended results. The Man gets the girl. Lots of them. The Man tolerates other men who are not his enemies. Eunuchs, they serve his interests and ego, occasionally sacrificing their own lives to provide opportunities for the only licit displays of emotion by The Man. The Man always wins. The Man does not want for money. The Man is always from a mainstream identity, if not actually elite. The Man is envied, desired, and feared.

In reality, no one gets to be The Man, which is bad enough. But, when you don’t get to be The Man and you’re displaced by minority men, as sports heroes, as celebrities and entertainers, in so many of the venues where we simians display the vaunted status that draws reproductive opportunities, that’s too fucking much. The fear of being displaced by black men was never a uniquely Southern phenomenon. The South merely drew disproportionate attention for building monuments and institutions to that Fear, while racial fears and racial violence burned from sea to shining sea. Bussing riots in the northeast, segregation of Mexican-Americans in the southwest, institutionalized racism against Asians along the Pacific coast, this was all normal America.

When the sins of a discriminating society are laid at the feet of those who don’t see how they’ve benefitted from that order, that’s too much. You don’t get to be The Man, someone else does (and he doesn’t look like you). You don’t get the girl. The girl is busy laying the sins of your fathers at your feet. Far from being your trophy, she is your tormentor, as all the gendered stereotypes once piled on women (stupid, governed by their sex drives, animalistic) were now heaved on men as a sign of liberation in the political sphere and to the sound of laughter in popular culture.

So, if I had told you, O Alien from Mars, that the nation you wished to overthrow had within it a hinterland defeated in civil war, undeveloped, bitter and despised, living in terror of their former subordinates, and polishing their resentments in symbol, song and fire, you would know exactly which part of America was destined to be your Fifth Column. Land your saucers there, and the Southerners will cheer as your tripods march forth to lay waste to the country, ’tis for them, that they hate.

But you might just as well exploit a more widespread and similarly disaffected group: the white American male. Raised with more than comical expectations of opportunities for their Selfish Genes, suffering daily indignities merely for resembling the hegemon, they will do anything for one shot, just one shot, at wiping the smile off their face. Pollute my air, sicken my children, force me to subsidize the lifestyle of the already comfortable, send me off to die screaming in my own blood while fighting for tin or tungsten or oil or a hoax, and you can even laugh at me while you’re doing it, just so long as the nigger knows his place and that bitch shuts her face.

Spite. The Spite Caucus. They are natural-born traitors to themselves.

Even more sickening were the attempts by Baker, Eskew, and Matalin to rehabilitate Atwater the method, since Atwater the man was disposable to their ambition. Tucker Eskew scoffed at the notion that Atwater and his disciples trick rural Americans into voting against their own interests. There is a patriotism, he laughed, that is above all that, that is transcendent. Perhaps we need a new word for this species of patriotism that trades racial flattery for penury. Call it “Klanscendentalism.”

Mary Matalin claimed that the hagiography of Atwater the repentant was liberal revisionism. Liberals can’t kill the message, she said, so they have to kill the messenger. But the only message Atwater ever had was “NIGGER NIGGER NIGGER NIGGER NIGGER NIGGER NIGGER NIGGER NIGGER NIGGER NIGGER NIGGER,” and liberals didn’t kill Atwater. His brain did.

Finally, Baker spoke at Atwater’s funeral, saying that the deceased’s critics had labeled him a “Machiavellian,” but that Lee Atwater was a Machiavellian “in the best sense of that word.”

My better angels, restrain me now.

For an American, there is no good sense of the word “Machiavellian.” Anyone who has read The Prince knows that it is a manual for harnessing the forces of the populace for the benefit of a dictator. Scenario by scenario, Machiavelli shows by historical analogy when to be firm, when to be generous, and when to be a mass-murderer. The state that Machiavelli sought to enable is the utterly unreconcilable antithesis of our democratically-constituted Republic. To Eskew, Matalin, and Baker, American democracy is just another part of Short-Attention-Span Theater, used to distract their marks while they pick their pockets. It’s as disposable to them as racism, religion, and the flag. I do not doubt that Atwater was not a racist, he was just willing to use racism. In the same way, he was not an American. That was another tool, too.

These people are not Americans. They are, however, a completely natural political phenomenon. Oligarchies and aristocracy are default points in any society, even animal ones. They result from the failure of the greater mass of individuals to assert their own authority in the pursuit of their own interests. It is easy to revert to this pre-rational state. From time to time, these aristocrats creep into our government and subvert our Constitution. This alarming breakout reminds us of the responsibility we have to ourselves to exercise power.

America has Republicans in the same way that Neil Bush has herpes.

And now let me confess to you. Just as Lee Atwater and I see the GOP’s base the same way, I engage them in much the same way, only on my much more modest scale. Growing up among them, I know them, but being a college boy, I will never be received back as one of them. I know what they’re afraid of and I have spent most of my blogging baiting them. Well-intentioned liberals have faulted me for the language I use, but only because they do not know what it means in the cracker idiolect, and because said well-intentioned liberals, being well-intentioned, would never tweak the red raw tissue of a lesser animal’s wounds. I will. I do. I have. Lee Atwater didn’t just mobilize the GOP’s base, he demoralized ours. How could you call yourself a man, or a patriot, or a Christian if you were a Democrat? Those rhetorical questions have echoed for thirty years.

My objection to Obama’s high-road approach is that there are some people who are never going to vote for you, so you might as well make them useful as a boogey man to scare your own supporters enough to get their asses to the polls. The only difference between me and Lee Atwater is that it didn’t take a tumor for me to grow a soul.


*affluent and college-educated whites were the conspicuous exception to this racial divide, something that will surprise none of these people.