Political Asylum — November 8, 2012, 6:03 pm

Angry White Men

Can the G.O.P. genuinely change its attitude toward minorities and women?

Today was a good day. Any day you get to vote as a free man in a free country is a good day.

My polling place—the Alfred E. Smith School, named for the original Happy Warrior of politics, the one man ever to truly rise from our city slums to win a major-party nomination—was jammed again, just as it was four years ago. People stood patiently in line for an hour or more on the soft, stained, ancient parquet floor of the gym, waiting to give their names and get their ballots, then fill them out in the silly “privacy booths” with the special pencils, then scan them on the machines where the poll watchers stare quite openly at your ballots.

But it was wonderful to see the turnout, amid all the familiar trappings that have been there for at least the past thirty-two years: The translators standing by to help anyone who might need them; the ponderously slow but meticulous election volunteers; the parents’ organization outside, seizing the opportunity to raise money for the school by peddling homemade cupcakes and coffee.

Most of all, it was good to stand around with my neighbors and appreciate once again just what an amazingly diverse, patient, and tolerant mix of people they are. About the only exception was a short, fastidious, white-haired man who seemed enraged by the very idea of Barack Obama. He was arguing furiously with a woman from his building, scoffing at all of her arguments with the peculiar logic the right-wing blogosphere has come to generate.

“Obama never ran so much as a Dairy Queen before he was president!” he raged, tilting his head up as if to appeal to the heavens. Those of us around him looked away and pretended not to hear, with the forbearance born of years of ignoring the domestic squabbles, toddler meltdowns, and couple break-ups every New Yorker sees played out our streets.

Our patience reached a breaking point, though, when his sparring partner pointed out, “But Obama killed bin Laden!” and he replied with the same, seething anger, “Yeah, but did he get rid of all terrorism?”  

Whereupon one of our number pointed up at the mostly blue sky and announced, “Look, there’s a cloud! Wasn’t Obama supposed to get rid of all the clouds?”

Angry aging white men seemed unable to contain themselves in the days leading up to the election (not that such restraint has ever been their stock-in-trade). A couple of days earlier, I watched another such individual emerge from a local market, spy a sidewalk stand filled with Obama buttons, and bark, “Leading from behind!” before scuttling rapidly off down the sidewalk.

Such sentiments were amplified in the media, and with no more sense or logic. As the race progressed, Fox and friends seemed to careen through Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief:

First, there was the denial, usually in the form of secret knowledge, of special polls and subterranean data-gathering. While scores of right-wing commentators mocked and taunted pollsters such as Nate Silver—sometimes in the crudest, most homophobic terms—the likes of Dick Morris, and the Washington Examiner‘s Michael Barone predicted a Romney landslide.

Peggy Noonan confided the day before the election, in her usual pseudomystical, pseudofascist style, that “something old is roaring back.” Evoking the volk, she told us that she thought “the American people were quietly cooking something up, something we don’t know about . . . a Romney win.”

The real story, a “former political figure who’s been in Ohio” told her, was that “church-going Protestants and religious Catholics” were on the move, though “what’s happening with them is quiet, unreported, and spreading: They really want Romney now, they’ll go out and vote, the election has taken on a new importance to them.”

“Is it possible this whole thing is playing out before our eyes and we’re not really noticing because we’re too busy looking at data on paper instead of what’s really in front of us?” she gushed. “Maybe that’s the real distortion of the polls this year: They left us discounting the world around us.”

Just in case the march of Noonan’s phantom churchgoers wasn’t what was happening, George Will preemptively attributed President Obama’s re-election to the naive, overly generous spirit of a nation that “seems especially reluctant to give up on the first African-American president.”

Come election night, Karl Rove, of course, threw the Fox newsroom into disarray by refusing to accept the idea that Obama had won at all. Eventually it got to the point where Charles Krauthammer had to be brought in to bluster consolingly that Obama “did not campaign on any ideas.” (Romney, by contrast, campaigned on all the ideas.)  

And Bill O’Reilly keened, “It’s a changing country, the demographics are changing, it’s not a traditional America anymore. And there are fifty percent of the voting public who want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama. The white establishment is now the minority.”

Contained therein were all the same old dog whistles, the same ridiculous, no-longer-so-coded racial appeals. The usual “affirmative action of the mind” through which the right has convinced itself that minorities are always given an advantage in any contest—and that they cannot succeed without it. (Romney himself, in a joke that wasn’t really a joke, mused about how much better off he’d be if he were Mexican-American.) The insistence that all those people of color “want stuff”—unlike the selfless ascetics who populate white America. (In fact, 72 percent of the electorate was white this year.) The simultaneous assertion that, waiting somewhere, like the lost king under the mountain, lies a white, old-timey America, just waiting for its moment to march.

Sadly, this toxic mix of rage and delusion, and its concomitant sense of oppression, have become the defining political features of much of white America today, and particularly white men. Neither group has voted for a Democrat for president since 1964, no matter how conservative the national Democratic Party has become in order to accommodate them—or how unqualified, extremist, or just plain daffy their Republican opponents become.  

This year, whites appear to have given President Obama no more than 40 percent of their vote, which is disgraceful. They have frequently been just as intransigent—and just as irresponsible—in state and local races. Talk about invisible empires—not so many years ago, a majority of whites even voted for a Klan chieftain as governor of Louisiana, saved from this truly shameful choice only by the intervention of people of color.

For almost fifty years now, confronted with the challenges of a complex and rapidly changing world, most American whites, including too many working-class whites, have chosen to vote their worst fears and prejudices—even when it meant undermining their own economic interests.  

They voted, and continue to vote, for the party and the individuals who most avidly support business’s “right” to break their unions, ship their jobs overseas, lower their wages, and diminish the mass buying power of America. They failed to notice even when their sainted Ronald Reagan actually raised the overall tax rate for most working people by hiking Social Security and Medicare taxes.

They continue to fear people of color no matter how many of their predictions about them are proved wrong. Over the past twenty years, crime has plummeted throughout the United States, most inner cities have revived and flourished, middle-class blacks and Latinos have filled suburban neighborhoods without setting off a crime wave or a race war, and a black president with a Muslim name took office and promptly started knocking off Islamic terrorists and deporting illegal immigrants.  

The proof of decades now is that, having won their equal rights under the law, American citizens of color—old and new—aspire to nothing so much as the very same values and goals of most white Americans. And nowhere is this more true than with those who have felt the need to enter the country without our permission, such as that father, gunned down at the border the other day by some trigger-happy Texas chopper cop—a poor man trying to sneak into the United States to pay for an operation for his son. Far and away, these people work harder, for less money and under worse conditions, than most of “us” have since the nineteenth century.

Yet the reaction of right-wing whites has been to fill their gun shelves with automatic weapons, their ears with radio rants, and their heads with absurd conspiracy theories.

So cosseted are they now within their own fears and inanities that they haven’t even been able to figure out that Mr. O’Reilly’s “50 percent of the voting public who want stuff”—just like the “47 percent” of the country who Mitt Romney feels are “victims and dependents”—includes many of them.

In the wake of Romney’s loss, a few scattered Republican politicians and commentators are talking about how they have to appeal more to black and Latino voters; to women and maybe even to gays. But the trouble with any such strategy is that the modern “conservative” message is all about divide-and-conquer. No doubt these new ideas of outreach would simply be designed to slice and dice segments the Democratic coalition. Hispanics and even some blacks, for instance, will probably be courted on issues of “cultural conservatism,” such as opposition to gay marriage and abortion rights. But this will only further alienate gays, lesbians, and women in general.

The aging white men who make up the G.O.P.’s spine have become so accustomed to talking in terms of “the other,” and they’ve spent so much time mentally dehumanizing anybody who might disagree with them on anything, that they’re now almost congenitally incapable of forming a coalition with the rest of America. This won’t change until they finally feel able to make an argument that consists of more than spouting a slogan and running away.

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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

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Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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