Expect a lot of Republican talk about the apocalypse

The results of the Iowa caucus yesterday — which Mitt Romney won by a grand total of eight votes over Rick Santorum (30,015 to 30,007) with Ron Paul a close third — perfectly illustrate the ideological incoherence of American conservatism that I wrote about before Iowa voting began.  It is worth reading that post in full because I made reference to the apocalyptic strand in Republican politics and even though the blandest candidate (Romney) won in Iowa, no matter who the nominee is I see the Republicans employing a fear-mongering, fire-and-brimstone strategy once this gets out of the primaries and into the general election.

For the record, that nominee will be Romney: he represents the business-friendly, whatever-I-can-take-is-rightfully-mine wing of the Republican base — this is the so-called establishment, the guys with cigars in smokey back rooms — and Romney, alone, has the money and campaign infrastructure in place to fight a fifty-state race.  Santorum is the social conservative darling, the last of many (after Bachmann, Perry, et al) to experience a brief surge in popularity though his was the best timed, coming, as it did, in the days just before Iowa.  Santorum could do well in South Carolina (on 21 January) but he is going to get demolished in New Hampshire (on 10 January) and, I expect, Iowa may turn out to be his high water mark.  Ron Paul represents the liberty wing of the Republican base, which shelters many kooks, misanthropes, and well-armed lunatics amid its freedom-loving ranks.  Paul’s support has been remarkably durable during this volatile campaign season but Paul himself is so ideologically inflexible that he has no ability whatsoever to expand that support beyond the reflexive contrarians and malcontents who adore him for his supposed truth telling.  So Paul will hang around in the race, pulling in shrinking minorities in every state, and then have to figure out a way to throw those delegates behind Romney without appearing to be a total sellout.

So how do we end up in the general election talking of Armageddon?  It is ironic that John McCain just announced today that he is endorsing Romney because McCain, too, was unloved by the religious types who are the heaviest fire-breathers about the coming apocalypse.  McCain solved this problem in 2008 by inflicting Sarah Palin on us, to the inexplicable delight  of the religious right; one can expect Romney will follow this lead and pick a Young Earther or Tea Partier to run as vice president.  That didn’t succeed in 2008 and might not be enough in 2012.  So working the electorate up into a lather of take-back-your-country fury at Obama’s fictional threat to the American way of life as we know it is the only way I see to unify the factions of the Republican party behind a candidate no one outside the smokey back rooms really wants.  This won’t be easy.  Fear and fervor is so not Romney’s style that if you are having trouble sleeping one night you might try watching a video of Romney’s stump speech,which is a marvel of airy, vapid, uninspiring confection.  Romney simply doesn’t have it in him to do this end-of-days shtick himself, unless hell and damnation can be turned into a PowerPoint presentation and focus-grouped to death.

Mercifully for Romney, the Supreme Court’s controversial 2010 Citizens United decision opened the floodgates to largely anonymous corporate-sponsored political advertising on the grounds that corporations are ‘persons’ in the eyes of the law and thus are equally entitled to unconstrained free speech.  One need not have a law degree to see the peril in this, because corporations can now form so-called super-PACs and spend their massive resources in support of whichever candidate will do their bidding.  This used to be called bribery, but now it has been sanctified by the Supreme Court it as free speech.  In any case, these super-PACs are supposed to operate independently and not in coordination with the campaigns but, in practice, one can expect lots of ‘great minds, same channel’ coincidences in which the super-PACs spread fear or stoke rage while leaving the candidates plausible deniability.  The Democrats, too, will have their super-PAC supporters, of course, but the rallying cry on the left is not hatred but insecurity: jobs, health, the environment, and threats to civil liberties.  On the right, these super-PACs are the mechanism by which we can expect Obama to see demonized as a Sharia law-loving, Socialism-engineering, African colonial-hating menace who simply must be stopped — all while Romney pretends he has no hand in stirring the pot.  Romney probably doesn’t want to go this route, but most of his party doesn’t like him so he needs to find something to motivate the faithful.  At the end of the day, as Richard Nixon well understood, anger and resentment are the ties that bind American conservatism.

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Update (12 Jan): A week later, following Romney’s as-expected win in New Hampshire, Matt Bai had this to say in a New York Times magazine piece about the upcoming South Carolina primary:

on the whole, religious conservatives, who once dominated South Carolina politics through the intervention of powerful figures and institutions like Pat Robertson and Bob Jones University, are just less engaged this time and are wielding less influence over the process. Leaning back on the upholstered couch in his office, [the conservative Christian lobbyist, Oran] Smith, dressed in a cream turtleneck sweater and black-and-green-plaid pants, hypothesized that the lapse in political urgency might have something to do with a corresponding drop in millennial angst.

“There are a lot of folks who believe that we are really in the end times,” he told me, “and the election of Obama was a signal that the end times were here.” But after Republicans came roaring back in 2010, he said, a lot of those conservatives decided that maybe the apocalypse was still a way off, after all.

Well, this is just the same idea expressed with a lack of imagination.  The notion that the end times are near is an entirely fabricated phenomenon — that’s why so many earthly figures have declared them in the past only to be disappointed by our endurance — and so can be fabricated again, as needed.  Only two Republican candidates (Romney and Perry) have the campaign funding required to give the needed push to the idea that the apocalypse is an urgent and imminent concern: Perry’s campaign is too disorganized to have worked South Carolina up into an ecstasy of fear by now and Romney knows that, in the primaries, talk of the apocalypse works to his rivals’ advantage.  But come the general, just you wait.

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