El Amrani on the Tea Party & Casserolestan

Issandr El Amrani has a column at The National on the rise of the Tea Party in the Republican primary campaign and what it might mean for America’s middle east policy. The whole thing is worth reading.

in mid-August, I saw the Republican party’s slate of presidential hopefuls gather in Iowa, at a state fair where they enjoy delicacies such as deep-fried butter. The run-up to America’s party primary elections usually involves a lot of pandering to candidates’ bases, and a few colourful characters. But in this case, a good half of the candidates appeared to qualify as loons. And those elitist types who do not seemed to be taking their cues from the others.

All are conservatives in the pro-business and “family values” sense that the Republican Party has offered for several decades now. But they are all also akin to religious fundamentalists. I wondered for a moment if I was not catching a glimpse of the future of democracy in the Middle East: populist, religiously loaded and all about one-upmanship.

But then I realised that even in the fledging post-revolution Arab countries few politicians, no matter how radical or conservative, seem to be as willing as these Republicans to sacrifice national harmony and stability for the sake of partisan scoring. And that the US does not have the excuse of being a recovering dictatorship, since – despite its many flaws – it is supposed to be the most advanced democracy in the world. Whether the Tea Party represents a brief surge of extremism or a rising long-term trend, it appears to be in part an epiphenomenon of relative American decline clashing with still a undaunted idea of American exceptionalism.

This sounds about right. The Republican presidential field is indeed quite bizarre. America, or at least its political class, appears increasing neurotic — obsessed as parts of it are with accusations of crypto-Marxism-socialism-Islamism and Know Nothing economics. One suspects this is a result of how increasingly  difficult it is for Americans to reconcile the national creed of American exceptionalism (often used as a kind of American response to historical materialism) with the reality of the country’s economic and political position domestically and internationally. Anxiety about relative socio-economic decline is rampant in the self-identified American middle class; xenophobia and religious fanaticism is increasingly widespread especially where jobs are scarce. The political class is seen as rudderless and without many new ideas, broadly speaking. The progress of the Obama presidency, with its symbolism (The first black president; progress!), backlash (Where was he born? Give me my country back!) and recent floundering (Why is he such a terrible negotiator? Grow some balls! Challenge him in the primary!) seems to symbolize this crisis an almost literary and tragic way. The American narrative is up in the air. Hence the monstrosity that is the Tea Party.

Now for a tangent. Issandr is incorrect to describe “all” of the Republican hopefuls as “akin to religious fundamentalists”. There is at least one, Jon Huntsman, who does not fit the mold of the fried Twinkie crowd this year. Huntsman, the Obama administration’s former Ambassador to China, is a middle of the road Mormon from Utah (where he was governor). By virtually any measure he has many fewer remarks about Islam or Muslims than his opponents and none of those one can find reflect the cruel recycled anti-Semitic tropes where “Hebrew” or “Jew” is replaced with “Islamist” or “[crypto-] Muslim” heard on the House floor and at Tea Party rallies. His family appears to fit the stereotype of the western Mormon family: big, happy and wholesome. He has virtually all of the substantive foreign policy experience in the Republican primary field. While wiry, he is convincingly presidential in appearance and speaks responsibly and deliberately. If he were a garment, he would be a size medium.

But Mr. Huntsman polls in the single digits. Some blame his Mormonism, which for many in the American religious tendency is nearly as bad as being a Muslim: this is probably part of it but not wholly satisfying, Mitt Romney is after all more conspicuously Mormon and has managed to become the front runner (Rick Perry might change that, though; the Republican primary voters on the whole seem distrustful of religious minorities in any case). Others blame his lack of rah-rah; this would make sense but Ron Paul is about as exciting to listen to as a life size Grandpa Simpson and turns out the crowds and keeps himself afloat (but he will not win). This blogger believes his butt-ugly campaign site might contribute to his malaise, too. Others say it’s to do with his having been Barack Obama’s ambassador. This is probably a big part of it. And then there is his unapologetic moderation (and this is of course in relative terms). He defended gay rights in a public debate. He is too big city and cosmopolitan. Too boardroom. Substantively he does not appeal to the midwestern, heavily evangelical backcountry that is determining the Republican conversation right now. Mr. Huntsman might do better in California, New Hampshire and other more temperate places outside of Casserolestan. But there is a lot of fried food standing between the former Utah governor and the Republican nomination, an indicator of just the sort of rut America is stuck in today.

It was suggested jovially on Twitter that Huntsman might be “running for Secretary of State”. Here would be a stroke of strategic genius — if he indeed wound up in Foggy Bottom. In any case, Mr. Huntsman and Mr. Romney seem the most normal of the lot looking to unseat President Obama. One can think of either of them showing up at a G-8 summit or appearing at the United Nations without cringing. Huntsman appears less interested in continuing wasting time and money in a place like Afghanistan. Neither of them are likely to pursue the sort sectarian agenda that the likes of Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry promote and exploit, Huntsman and Romney both being from a religious minority; but Mr. Huntsman is very unlikely to be nominated. And in light of the events of the last decade, another Republican administration can only be justified by means of painful rationalization.

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