Reading a little of Charles Pierce's fine blog posts on his trip "up the river" to confront Colonel R-Money in Tampa this week, I have found myself reflecting on my own quest into the Heart of Darkness back in 1996, and the portents I brought home from that venture.
In my now adoptive home of San Diego in July 1996, the GOP put up their grand olde statesman Bob Dole and his mouth breathing flying monkey Jack Kemp to be their standard bearing warriors (or ritual sacrfices in the Thunderdome -- pick your metaphor) to battle the Bill Clinton reelection juggernaut.
One of the memorable things I remember from that convention was Ted Kopple and many other of the media elite complaining bitterly that there was nothing "newsworthy" happening at the convention; that the whole thing was little more than a four-day self-congratulatory circle-jerk.
They were mad because the big headlines weren't being hand-fed to them like peeled grapes and that to find the "real news" from the convention, they would have to do some actual reporting.
What our national chatting class elite could not seem to grasp was that their frustration was being shared by a large portion of the delegates and other GOP party faithful on the floor and outside the hall. And that was the story.
Talk of open revolution from the rank and file on the floor; terrible butt-hurt from realizing they were simply unpaid extras in a Bob Dole infomercial for the Party Bosses. Remember, this was still in the time of St. Reagan's famous admonition "thou shalt not hack thy fellow Republican!"
Mr. Pierce writes about the "invasive species" that seem to have flourished in the Republican Party and are currently threatening to make it into something unrecognizable to most Americans.
Well, to carry on with that analogy, I have two very distinct memories of watching the overgrown pets slip their leashes and get loose on the American body politic. I was doing a story on the Anti-Choice plank in the party platform that year; really the only thing that had generated much mainstream media heat, but I wanted to talk to delegates and others, not the Party Bosses, who would only schplort the same talking points at me that they had spooging all over the dais for the last day and a half.
First was the scene in a park in suburban San Diego, where a hardened Xtian culture warrior from Ohio named Joe Slovenec was holding court with his gang of anti-woman thugs. Strychnine and I had been chasing him around the city for a good part of the morning as they hit women's health care clinics in an attempt to intimidate doctors and patients and get their grills on National TeeVee News...
At the park, they were having a late lunch and Joe was pumping up the troops. We approached and after being escorted to Commandante Joe by a couple of his Blackguards, he deigned to speak with me and my "editorial assistant." I asked him a question based on my (now understood to be naive) concept on the Christian Fundamentalist place in the Republican establishment at that time: "If this is partly, as you say, to gather attention for your cause, then haven't you already succeeded, I mean the Christian Coalition has a place at the table; Ralph Reed and Pat Robertson have seen to that..."
His answer was as blunt as it was chilling: "We don't want a seat at that table. We want to tip that table over."
It would be the better part of a decade before I came to realize the real implications of that statement, however... not merely a desire to seize the American political apparatus, but a fundamentally different view of how the American political system should be organized and used.
Next, I was on the floor of the convention and I was in the heartland section, right in amongst the Iowa and Oklahoma folks, many of whom were still wearing Pat Buchanan paraphrenalia.
As I made rounds with the delegates, speakers on the dais were discussing the Anti-Choice language in a merely speechifyin' pro-forma manner. I asked delegates the same question: "You got what you wanted in this platform plank, that has to be some comfort I would imagine, even if some of you are not as strident about Bob Dole as some of the others who ran..."
Now I can't remember what they all said verbatim, but it can be summed up in the words of a middle-age couple from Tulsa who stated unequivocally that they knew the platform plank was a sham, the party would take no real action to implement it and that it was just cosmetics to make people like them vote and get out their wallets when the candiate passes around the hat.
"And one day, we're gonna get fed up with this crap... hell, we're already fed up," the man said looking me dead in the eye, serious as the proverbial heart attack. "The party is gonna hafta learn the hard way that they have to take regular folks like us seriously, and that day is comin' faster than they know..."
That day of reckoning for the party bosses is comin' faster than they know... This was the message I took from the floor of the convention. Party loyalty was all well and good, but a lot of these folks were just tired of being the establishment's collective bitch.
They had the anger, just no real experience with expressing those kinds of feelings within the structure of the GOP. But no amount of cheap perfume from the speaker's dais, no quantity of free Coors Light and foot-longs, red, white and blue balloons and Lee Greenwood's "Proud to be an American", was going to mask the rising stench resentment and genuine anger from a lot of those people on the floor.
Now, I'm a life-long Democrat, so I know all about the auto-canabalistic circular firing squad. Hell, for the Democrats, that's just what we call Tuesday, for crying out loud... But this was from the loyal rank and file of the GOP's heartland and just about every other place I stopped to question delegates and others on the floor.
An internal revolt in the GOP? Inconceivable!
But the seeds of discontent and internal rebelliion had been planted. When? I can't say, for certain. There had been a mutant strand on the GOP chromasome since the early 50s, at least, and that allele began to express even stronger through the turbulent 1960s, but here in San Diego in 1996, the seeds born of that mutation were clearly germinating and starting to throw off shoots.
I remember a few months later, Strychnine, Biz and I were hunkered down somewhere in San Francisco talking about this experience and what we thought It-All-Meant. I think that was the point we realized that we possibly witnessed the start of a nascent splintering of the GOP; something was in the wind, we just couldn't put a finger on it, but it was like watching dark clouds mass up off-shore and that first twinge of a cold breeze starts... storm's comin'...
The anti-establishement anger many of these people had was ameliorated a bit in the wake of Bush v. Gore and the 9/11 attack, but only for a bit. Many felt they finally got their guy when Maximum Leader came to power in 2000.
But I have since spoken to Tea Party activists who tell me their break with the party finally came on W's watch, and the election of Barack Obama was the final bit of conspiratorial noise that just finally crashed whole wave form for them. Their cognitive dissonance had just become too much to bear and it was time to head to the bunker.
Whipped up into an hysterical stew of fear and loathing during the early years of the 21st Century, those party malcontents finally decided they had had enough. This nearly psychotic break with reality we're seeing in segments of the traditional Republican Party and the establishment's inability to come to grips with them; this is the penultimate desitnation of where those first hints were leading.
This post is not about "I told you so" or bragging about the Mojowire's editors' awesome powers of observation or prognostication; it's simply an acknowledgement that we were there at what we thought looked like a beginning of something, and that this current moment in American history and political culture did not just spring up out of the ground fully formed overnight.
Animus and discontent in the GOP has been growing and organizing itself for many years now and we have been expectantly awaiting its arrival.
But I said "penultimate destination." What Charles Pierce has been pointing too (remember Charles Pierce, this a blog post about Charles Pierce) has been a transformation of the Republican rank and file from a political party participating in the American electoral process to an organism that has a radically different view of what American government, it's electoral process and, indeed, society should be.
That transformation has started at the bottom, with a significant amount of seed money and organizational help from a few interested individuals, pushed along by Right Wing media and finally is filtering up to the upper echelon's of the party.
To use Charles' metaphor again, the invasive species have not only taken over a particular segment of that eco-system, they have become the top predators and are breeding this mutation into older and less adaptable portions of the ecosystem.
It is turning into something fundamentally un-American. Something that fears and rejects the Enlightenment era ideals that the nation was founded upon, the pluralistic standards of equality and justice, seeking instead something else entirely, even if they haven't yet really defined it themselves.
But like the man said: "That day's comin' faster than they know..."