In the blacklisting era, Sen. Joe McCarthy, the supreme hunter of embedded reds, blustered accusations like a fountain. During the Vietnam War, Vice President Spiro Agnew enjoyed talking tough when he aimed his remarks at the antiwar crowd. More recently, Vice President Dick Cheney followed suit by growling at microphones on a variety of topics.
Whatever the colorful trio’s flaws might have been in office, these red-blooded Republicans were much admired for their rhetorical style. Undiluted conservatives have adored bluster and tough talk for a long time.
Maybe the most adored Republican tough talker of the last 30 years has been President Ronald Reagan. No doubt, Reagan liked to toss his head while he invoked his favorite Clint Eastwood line of movie dialogue: “Make my day.”
Ever since the height of the Cold War, tough-talking conservatives have stood on the notion that they were naturally better at grasping hard-edged reality and dealing with it soberly. Popular conservative commentators have relished characterizing liberals as fuzzy thinkers and dreamers longing for utopia. The propaganda of the GOP consistently has promulgated the idea that they see threats to the nation’s security more clearly than do the Democrats.
True or not, in 2013 it’s the ultraconservative Republicans itching to give reality a radical makeover. The most determined seem hell-bent on force-feeding their favorite fantasies down society’s throat.
Now, if they like, Republicans simply choose not to believe in science — or certain aspects of it. Some see teaching evolution and geology in public schools as tantamount to blasphemy. Other see man’s role in climate change as having been invented by left-leaning scholars dishing out guilt to consumers.
The usual crackpots have been claiming to have proof that President Barack Obama was born anywhere but the United States of America. Or that he’s a socialist. Or a secret Muslim. Or all three. For mischief-makers, whose mission has been to perpetually undermine the president’s legitimacy, the truth has been beside the point.
An important part of the Republican brand used to be that the elephants were more careful with money than the donkeys. That was before new wave Republicans started suggesting that not paying the government’s debts would be OK for America’s financial future. And may be good for economies in other counties, too.
In recent weeks we’ve heard elected Republicans suggest the debt ceiling itself is just an old wives’ tale sort of thing. A myth. Theyassured whoever would listen that alarmist economists were exaggerating the debt ceiling’s importance.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, the national deficit numbers have been steadily improving for the last three years. Nonetheless, the Republicans of Oct. 1, 2013, insisted on shutting down the federal government because the deficit numbers worried them so much. Or was it Obamacare that worried them? Or entitlement spending or tax reform?
As a longtime film buff, the tough talk of Sen. Ted Cruz has a familiar ring to me. His style harkens to a memorable character in an old movie. No, not Eastwood as Dirty Harry Callahan in “Sudden Impact” (1983) saying, “Make my day.”
Instead, Cruz’s intense style reminds me of Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver” (1976), questioning the voice he hears in a mirror:“Are you talking to me?”
Of course, lots of tough-talking politicians have come and gone throughout America’s history. Both major parties have allowed such characters to be leaders at times. So, what’s different now? With a handful of tea party politicians now serving in Congress, rather than merely ranting at town hall gatherings, what’s changed?
For decades the elders in both parties understood that most Americans were moderates. They knew elections usually were won by appealing to voters who saw themselves as centrists. The propaganda game was to use good timing and crafty rhetoric to move the perceived center of the political spectrum your way.
By exploiting the issues of the day Republicans tried to push the center to the right. Likewise, Democrats tried to pull it to the left.
Upon becoming the 61st speaker of the House in January 2011, Rep. John Boehner branded compromise as a dirty word. His caucus has not been about making laws. Since 2011, the goal of tea party Republicans has been to deny victories to all enemies and to impose their extreme set of beliefs on the majority. By any means necessary.
Judging by their recent rhetoric those same my-way-or-no-way Republicans want to march us all back across an imaginary bridge over time to when the government was controlled by a muscular minority. Back to when everyone knew their place. Perhaps back to how it was when the votes of white, property-owning men were the only ones that counted.
Reality check: Obama won re-election in 2012. The 16-day government shutdown stunt won nothing for Republicans, but its cost to them is still adding up. Bluster doesn’t trump elections.
More tough talk always can start another war. It might yet ruin the world’s economy. But there’s hardly a more fruitless denial of reality than pretending tough talk can turn back the hands of time.
F.T. Rea is a freelance artist and writer based in the Fan District.Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.