“Rachel Maddow is no Glenn Beck,” Michael Kinsley recently observed. Kinsley is a journalist of deep experience and sharp intelligence, doubtless among the best in his craft. But this time his liberal outlook shows, for in truth Maddow and Beck are creatures of the new media, commentators who sprang from nowhere, their stock in trade is opinion pure and simple. A conservative, I hold no brief for Glenn Beck, a self-dramatizing man who pronounces on things he knows and things he doesn’t. Out of curiosity, I have tried to watch him, but not recently, I know the act, and its hucksterism and self-regard are alien to me. In the same vein, Rachel Maddow’s program is of no interest. Her presence on the tube, at that time in the evening, is no soothing thing, anger drives her program, the devotees who tune her in come to partake of that anger. Her certitude is of a different variety than Beck’s. The latter came to his worldview, so I understand, through trauma and self-improvement, Maddow had come to hers without equivocation, doubt had never broken into her worldview. Her viewers come to her not to be enlightened, but to be reassured of the righteousness of their rage. In the Bush years, those who turned to her and to Keith Olbermann came to proclaim that they were mad as hell and that they weren’t going to take it anymore. Thus Kingsley erred, Maddow and Beck are two sides of the same coin. There is an eerie quality to Olbermann calling for peace and self-restraint in the aftermath of the Tucson tragedy. He does so, but angrily. He better be accommodated – or else.
Liberal memory is unduly short, the years of George W. Bush’s presidency were years of unfettered liberal anger and incitement. Liberalism itself was defined by its animus toward George W. Bush. Bush-hatred gave liberal commentators and cultural-literary figures of every kind the material that sustained them. The hatred for the man from Texas made political pundits of Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn and the Dixie Chicks. Nobel Prizes were given, the sole requirement a belief that Mr. Bush was a war monger and a rube who offended high opinion at home and abroad – think of Harold Pinter, Jimmy Carter, and Al Gore. No one on the left called for civility, Gore dubbed Abu Ghraib the Bush Gulag. Liberalism was in a state of veritable insurrection, the man at the helm was seen as a usurper of power, who had tricked the nation into wars and military ventures abroad, who had sullied its honor and good name by trampling upon civil liberties with a war on terror that had made of 9/11 a warrant for a runaway regime of national security. There were individuals of high honor and public service – Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld – and liberal opinion sought nothing less than their banishment from our national life. It wasn’t an election that took place in 2008; for the liberal left, a decade of lawlessness, usurpation, had been overturned. Men and women who stood sentry on our behalf in the aftermath of that deadly challenge to our country in 2001 were turned into renegades and outlaws, and the liberal left called for massive witch hunts and inquiries into the national security policies of the Bush years.
There is nothing unprecedented, or illegitimate then, about the anger that spilled into the public square with the rise of the tea party. The liberals had sanctified dissent, when it was theirs, only to brand it as a riot of nativists after the ascendency of President Obama. No one needed race animus to oppose the presidency of a man bent on re-making the economy at home, and conciliating America’s enemies abroad. In the oddest of twists, the liberals now sought quiescence in the face of Barack Obama’s radical agenda.
In truth, our country has been sharply divided for nearly two decades now. Gone are the days when our presidents were unifying figures. We look back on Dwight Eisenhower, and those grainy photos of old are painful to behold, for the man was seen as a fair reflection of the country’s very identity, a country of moderate temperament that relegated the extreme left and the extreme right to the outer margins of our politics. True, we would know years of acrimony occasioned by Vietnam, but the country would recover its poise. Even those who took issue with Reaganism in the 1980s had a liking for the man himself. No such luck today, we have had three polarizing presidents in rapid succession. There had been the wars of the Clinton years. Bill Clinton had divided the country, not so much on policy or philosophical differences, but on matters of culture and mores and personal character. He had brought into the presidency the unfinished cultural wars of the Sixties, he was a talented but flawed man, and for every baby-boomer who saw himself or herself in Bill and Hillary Clinton, there were multitudes who believed that the man was unworthy of the office he had risen to. His close run with impeachment was the culmination of the unease with him. George W. Bush, too, had whipped up his own storm of opposition. To the liberals, he hailed from the wrong part of the country, his very election in 2000 had been an act of thievery. For a fleeting moment, after 9/11, his strident critics declared a cease-fire, but the peace was not destined to last. Then came Barack Obama, redeemer and avenger to his followers, unsettling to those who could not recognize in him the country and its mainstream, who were offended by his aloofness and by the cravenness with which he sought approval in foreign lands and circles that disapproved of America itself.
The air was charged when Jared L. Loughner set out to do his grim deed. It was sure as anything that a moment of personal derangement would be turned into a searing inquiry into our national life. As Dan Henninger so persuasively argued in the Wall Street Journal, the Tucson tragedy became a way that the left would recover from the debacle of the congressional elections behind us. Thus a deed of a man unhinged became a way of holding back a conservative tide. We’re in this kind of mood, and no call to “civility” will be anything more than a temporary truce.