Going Off the Deep End

“You are not superior just because you see the world in an odious light.” — Vicomte de Chateaubriand. “If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself. What isn’t part of ourselves doesn’t disturb us.” — Hermann Hesse.

Jonathan Chait is now a senior editor for the New Republic, a left-of-center political magazine, but it’s not that far left. The magazine is on the 40-yard line of the left side of the political gridiron. Though Chait comes from background likely to breed political Liberals (He graduated from the University of Michigan and was an editor at the American Prospect magazine.), he is not known as being particularly rabid. It is, therefore, surprising that he writes in a New Republic article entitled “Mad About You:”

“I hate President George Bush…I hate the inequitable way he has come to his economic and political achievements and his utter lack of humility (disguised behind transparently false modesty) at having done so. I hate the way he walks — shoulders flexed, elbows splayed out from his sides like a teenage boy feigning machismo….I hate the way he talks — blustery self-assurance masked by a pseudo-populist twang… [W]hile most people who meet Bush claim to like him, I suspect that, if I got to know him personally, I would hate him even more.”

I may be easy to please, but I sort of like Jonathan Chait. I like his direct and colorful writing and his use of imagery. I like his lucidity of thought and his usual equanimity. Despite the fact that I disagree with much of what he says and that he writes columns inordinately preoccupied with personal rather than political critiques of President George Bush, if I got to know him personally, I would probably like him even more. It is possible to separate political from personal disagreements.

Now, no one suspects that Chait really hates Bush in the sense that he hopes some personal calamity befalls Bush, though he may wish for Bush’s political prospects to dim. However, Bush’s political fortunes are linked to the nation’s fortunes. If the economy does well and if by election time there is a consensus that the situation in Iraq is radically improving, Bush’s fortunes are enhanced. It must contribute to Chait’s frustration that for Bush to fail, other Americans must suffer. Chait’s political desires are tied to expectations (and we pray not hopes) of economic disaster and increased danger for American troops abroad.

Chait chronicles in his article a list of policy disagreements and reveals an abiding aggravation that Bush is perceived as a moderate conservative, while Chait and his friends at the New Republic and the American Prospect view Bush’s tax cuts as “radical.” However, these remain just policy disagreements. Why is there a growing visceral animosity on the Left for Bush? It is not matched by anything felt for Reagan, though by most reasonable measures, Reagan pulled the country to the Right far more than Bush.

Chait represents the conspicuous and visible tip of the Left-wing iceberg of anti-Bush enmity. They are beginning to appear like the anti-Clinton zealots who could not settle for his obvious and provable failings, but had to believe that he was responsible for murder and other nefarious deeds. Websites have emerged decrying the “Bush Family Evil Empire” or the “Bush-Cheney Drug Empire.” The Internet and the general lubrication of communications have made it possible for extremists on all sides of the political spectrum to advertise their perspectives. However, there is something more here than the usual rantings of extremists. Under normal circumstances, the New Republic would not feel comfortable advertising hatred, but anti-Bush animosity has become too much part of the mainstream Left. Under normal circumstances, you would not have Howard Dean in a recent Democratic debate refer to Bush as the “enemy” not simply as a political “opponent.” For the Democratic faithful, Bush is indeed viewed as the enemy.

Part of this intractable animosity may be linked to the 2000 presidential election where Bush eked out a victory over Al Gore. Despite the fact that subsequent recounts have indicated that using reasonable counting rules, Bush would have won Florida and then the election even without the Supreme Court intervention, the mythology of the Left continues to hold dogmatically that they were cheated out of the election. The Left has largely ignored the advice in Al Gore’s concession speech that “what remains of partisan rancor must now be put aside.”

More than that, however, the problem may be cultural. Chait hints at it in his piece when he writes “I hate the inequitable way he has come to his economic and political achievements.” Chait goes on to complain that Bush reminds him of, “of a certain type I knew in high school — the kid who was given a fancy sports car for his sixteenth birthday and believed that he had somehow earned it.” To some on the Left, Bush represents the party frat brother who makes it big and gets the girl while all the smart serious students remain in the dorms, unacknowledged and dateless.

Moreover, Bush takes his Christianity seriously and personally and comes from the supposedly unsophisticated Midwest. To some on the Left, Bush is the embodiment of the “family values” that might constrain the gay rights or pro-abortion agenda. Bush remains the “enemy” because he represents the traditional values side of the “culture wars.”

Ironically, Conservatives are in a similar position as Liberals. Those on the Left are torn between wishing for the best for the country and realizing that if the best happens, Bush’s political star will rise. Those on the Right might be content to complacently stand aside as those on the Left forgo their chance to win next year’s presidential election, consumed in their hatred of a president whom many genuinely like and admire. Even those who are sympathetic to the Left are repulsed by mean-spirited whining. There may not be much that the Right can do about it, but serious people on the Right should not desire such a self-destructive outcome. Bush hatred will undoubtedly polarize the electorate unnecessarily raising the political temperature at a time when we should soberly consider difference approaches to dealing with our real enemies: those who are willing to use violence to reject modernity and spread illiberal theocracy around the world.

Chait, I am sure, knows this. He has a legitimate claim to the excuse of temporary insanity.

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