Brainless on the Potomac


Stephen Colbert plays Bill O’Reilly on TV.

Day after day, Colbert parodies, mocks and otherwise imitates the dozens of Right-wing cable shock jocks who fill up hour after hour on Fox News. Every night on Comedy Central he hurts the Bush Administration and its media supporters.

Colbert’s a sharp comedian, who explodes the stereotype about Americans not ‘getting’ irony. Indeed, he’s almost America’s funniest and most vital voice right now.

On the first episode of his show, The Colbert Report, Colbert came up with the word ‘truthiness’. It sounds like something out of a candy advertisement, but it actually has a specifically political meaning.

‘Truthiness’ means to know ‘something from the gut, without regard to evidence, logic or even fact,’ according to Wikipedia.  

In other words, using spin and wedge politics to confirm what people already believe.

‘Truthiness’ is a word that has come to symbolise American politics in the age of Karl Rove.

Rove was more than a political strategist or confidant he was an integral part of the Bush package from the very start of Dubya’s career. Indeed, Rove’s first meeting with Bush, down in Texas, reads more like a crush than the beginning of a political partnership.

‘Huge amounts of charisma, swagger, cowboy boots, flight jacket, wonderful smile, just charisma you know, wow,’ Rove later trilled.

So Bush was the shiny face and Rove the brains that would get him elected first as Governor of Texas, and then as President.

Often they seemed like two bodies that shared the same mind. ‘Karl thinks X. Bush thinks X. Clearly, it’s a very complicated relationship,’ neo-conservative intellectual William Kristol told Esquire Magazine in 2003.

The arrangement resulted in a White House that was uniquely focussed on how policies would play on TV in Middle America or on how popular the White House’s stance on this or that issue would be with the Republican Party’s Christian Right supporters.

Rove had calculated that unlike in the past, only 8 per cent of Americans were ‘swinging voters’. That meant that it was more important to get out the base than come up with moderate proposals to win the undecided.

It’s unclear how Rove’s influence actually worked out in detail. But the few inside accounts of the White House in the Rove era available publicly suggest that policy was made solely through reading the polls.

Over the seven months that John J DiIulio Jr ran the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, for example, he ‘heard many, many staff discussions but not three meaningful, substantive policy discussions’.

‘There were no actual policy white papers on domestic issues,’ DeIulio told Esquire.

Often, this was because the White House determined its policy positions based on its ‘gut’ which meant the extensive use of ‘wedge’ or ‘hot button’ issues, calculated to push Christians to the polls.

Studying the demographics of the 2000 election, Karl Rove found that 4 million more conservative Christians would have voted if they’d been motivated by Republicans.

The result was the ‘citizens’ referenda’ on gay marriage, in Ohio and elsewhere. Many pundits claimed it was that issue that lead to Bush’s victory in the State, although others claimed that voter fraud was again the cause of Bush’s victory, citing a shortage of voting machines in minority districts.

Abroad, too, it often seemed like image and how things would play out politically ruled.

This led to a series of embarrassing incidents, when reality appeared to mug the White House’s carefully Rove-made images. In 2003, Bush posed for a photo-op aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in the Persian Gulf. At that stage, the US appeared to have won in Iraq. The banner behind Bush read: ‘Mission Accomplished’.

The scene was intimately planned and staged by former NBC, Fox and ABC television network staffers. The photo-op was meant to signify the end of a war, which still hasn’t ended, nearly half a decade later.

In effect, what was meant to be a world historical moment became an embarrassing gaffe, symbolising a President more interested in playing a swaggering cowboy than governing the world’s superpower.

Domestically, the Mission Accomplished moment came to seem to Americans like the triumph of truthiness that it was more important to seem like you were getting things done, than to actually achieve them.

Meanwhile, in one of his last influential strategic judgments, Rove managed to upset Latino/as and the Republican Right at once.

Karl and Dubya’s support for guest worker visa programs pleased neither Latinos, who want amnesty for undocumented immigrants (Latinos), nor the Hansonite types like Pat Buchanan and the White Southern Right, who want more fences and walls along the US border with Mexico.

Rove wanted to keep the Latinos in the Republican Party, calculating that the group’s strong Christian values would sway them Bush’s way. And their status as America’s largest (and quickest growing) minority would build a permanent Republican majority.

But only under the condition that Republicans made nice with Latino/as on immigration. With one in six Latinos in the United States undocumented, many know family members who are illegal.

But it’s figures like that which have White Americanists worried. Fox News led the Party leadership on the issue. Rove’s position was out. Conservatives wanted undocumented immigrants sent home.

Now Republicans are suggesting more and more tough immigration measures. GOP frontrunner Rudi Guiliani said the other day that he wanted all visitors to the US tagged biometrically, for anyone likely to abscond.

So it’s goodbye Latinos, and goodbye swing voters. The latter are upset with truthiness and incompetence, while Latinos get the feeling that Republicans are seemingly increasingly xenophobic.

Rove’s ‘New Republican Strategy’ model doesn’t seem to be working. Just under 50 per cent of Americans now identify as Democrats and the number of Republican supporters is heading below 35 per cent.

So it’s back to the ranch in Texas for Karl. Where, non-ironically, he plans to spend the Labor Day long-weekend shooting doves.

Sometimes, the truth is even funnier than Stephen Colbert’s truthiness.

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