Paul Waldman, at the American Prospect, warns metrosexual, urbanista liberals that those evil Republicans are up to it again, turning to a manly, rough-spoken representative of the American West, a cowboy type, to appeal to the anxiety-afflicted white male voter. Have they no shame?
Bush may not have been much for book learninâ€™, but he appreciated the power of political iconography. The cowboy, he knew, is perhaps the most potent American archetype, the hero whose story speaks to everything many Americans want to believe about themselves and their country. And today, the newest star of the Republican party has more cowboy in his little finger than Bush had in his whole beingâ€”for better and for worse. As a candidate, Texas governor Rick Perry will be enacting a particular performance of masculinity, one that will resonate powerfully with some peopleâ€”especially white menâ€”even as it alienates others.
Within a few days of announcing his candidacy, Perry was already displaying his particular flair for the provocative. Asked for his thoughts about Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke, Perry seemed to suggest a lynching, then asserted that if the Fed conducted another round of quantitative easing to boost the economy, it should be considered a crime punishable by execution. â€œIf this guy prints more money between now and the election,â€ Perry said, â€œI donâ€™t know what yâ€™all would do to him in Iowa, but â€¦ we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas. Printing more money, to play politics at this particular time in American history, is almost treacherousâ€”or treasonous, in my opinion.â€
It was colorful but not surprising to those familiar with Perry. As Texas journalist John Spong wrote, â€œâ€˜Treat him pretty uglyâ€™ is, in fact, the way we talk down here. Weâ€™re prone to violent imagery, typically without the intent to actually hurt anyone.â€ Perry has built his career on being more conservative than anyone else around, and in a particularly Texan fashion. If thereâ€™s one recent bit of heroism heâ€™s proud of, it would probably be the time last year when out jogging, he shot a coyote that he said was menacing his dog. (What, you donâ€™t pack your .380 Ruger when you go for a run?) Today, it seems that every other story about Perry (see here for an example) is illustrated with that photo of him hoisting a pistol in the air, mouth open in a whoop, as though he were Yosemite Sam in a suit.
The intimation of violence in Bushâ€™s rhetoric was always vicarious; he might say â€œbring â€™em onâ€ about Iraqi insurgents, but he wasnâ€™t the one facing the fire. With Perry, you get the feeling heâ€™s personally itching to fight. Perry also comes by his cowboy image more honestly than Bush; he actually did grow up on a farm in a tiny Texas town. He is confrontational and combative where Bush portrayed himself as a â€œuniter, not a divider.â€ This is enabled by the fact that unlike when Bush was governor, Texas under Perry is almost a one-party state, so appealing to Democrats isnâ€™t necessary. To get a sense of how Perryâ€™s swagger goes over with some folks, consider this illustrative anecdote. You may have heard the story of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted and executed for murdering his daughters by setting fire to their house, a crime of which he was almost certainly innocent. As Politico recently reported, when the campaign of Republican Senator Kay Baily Hutchinson, who was challenging Perry in a 2010 gubernatorial primary, considered raising the issue, they tested it with focus groups. One voter memorably told them, â€œIt takes balls to execute an innocent man.â€ Bred in the Southern culture of honor, where masculinity is forever tenuous and slights must be avenged quickly to save face, Perryâ€™s willingness to use violence, in rhetoric or reality, is close enough to the surface to be visible to all.
Violence and the culture of honor have always been key themes in cowboy mythology, which is less a construction of history than a production of the American entertainment industry. It was essentially invented by Buffalo Bill Cody, whose Wild West show toured the country and the world beginning in 1882. Actual cowboys may not have had duels at high noon, but the image of the lone gunslinger taming the lawless frontier was too compelling to worry about historical accuracy, and the popularity of Westerns only rose until its peak in the 1950s. â€œLast week eight of the top ten shows on TV were horse operas,â€ reported Time magazine in a cover story in March 1959, when there were no fewer than 30 prime-time Westerns airing on the three networks. Of the heroes of these shows, the magazine said, â€œTheir teeth were glittering, their biceps bulging, their pistols blazing right there in the living room; it was more fun, as they say in Texas, than raisinâ€™ hell and puttinâ€™ a chunk under it.â€
Why were cowboys so compelling at that moment in history? Consider the changing status of the American man in postwar America. As more and more breadwinners moved from the farm or factory into office work, upper-body strength no longer seemed so critical to personal or national success. If you were pushing papers all day, it wasnâ€™t so easy to feel like your job expressed and validated your masculinity. So dramas in which strong and brave gunslingers faced down villains while women swooned held a particular appeal. As one sociologist quoted in the Time article said, â€œHow long since you used your fists? How long since you called the boss an s.o.b.?â€ Whatâ€™s more, a Western hero â€œcannot be hagridden; if he wants to get away from women, there is all outdoors to hide in.â€
That appeal may not be quite as strong today, but it has never disappeared. And as a party that has long built its success on the votes of white men (44 percent of John McCainâ€™s votes in 2008 came from white men, compared to only 27 percent of Barack Obamaâ€™s), the GOP is drawn to arguments that play on male anxieties about strength and potency. Most recent campaigns have featured Republicans asserting that their candidate is manly and strong, while the Democratsâ€™ candidate is effeminate and weak.
Liberals sneered at Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush in just the same way for cheap exploitation of the simplistic cultural stereotype of the cowboy. Both won two terms. The problem from the liberal point of view is that the cowboy represents a highly positive image to most Americans, to pretty much all Americans not sitting in Starbucks reading The Nation.
Meanwhile John Ellis, at Business Insider, confirms that Paul Waldman is right to worry. Rick Perry has barely begun campaigning, and it looks very likely that Perry has already got the nomination sewn up.
The Republican “establishment,” such as it is, is quickly coming to the realization that the 2012 GOP presidential nomination is Texas Governor Rick Perry’s to lose.
He leads in Iowa and he hasn’t even really campaigned there yet. He’s running second in New Hampshire, which is all he needs to do. And he’s running comfortably ahead in South Carolina (again, without much campaigning), which is the gateway to the South.
The South is the base of the modern Republican Party. Perry has become, in less than a month, the Southern states’ de facto favorite son.