by Andrew Ferguson
The Weekly Standard
November 15 2004
“Always give your best, never get discouraged, never be petty; always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”
WAIT. I’m wrong. Michael Moore didn’t say that. (Where’s that fact-checker?) No, it was Richard Nixon who said that, 30 years and 3 months ago, on the day he left the White House a few steps ahead of the sheriff. Nixon knew all about hatred–as does Moore. Except Nixon realized, a bit too late, the price that haters pay in the end.
Bush-haters hate it when you call them Bush-haters. You should see my email. “Who are you to call anyone a hater, you filthy piece of [hate-filled expletive] ?????” wrote one baffled correspondent not long ago. Others, trying to dissuade me from using the term, take a more anecdotal approach. “Perhaps you will let me share a story,” wrote another correspondent. “In the check-out line I met a young man wearing his Bush-Cheney button and I tried to engage him in dialogue. I told him I could not believe the venom that’s been spewing forth from Republicans. He said, ‘You don’t like Bush?’ I told him, no I did not, I did not have my head far enough up my ass to be a Republican. I suppose by your definition, then, you would consider me a Bush-hater?”
Well, yeah, I guess I would. Some things are just unavoidable. To hear Bush-haters tell it, though, the Bush-hater is a figment of the right-wing imagination, like the Cadillac-driving welfare queen who, as Ronald Reagan taught us, bought vodka with her food stamps. (Right-wing, by the way, is the Bush-hater’s essential epithet, more crucial even than asshole; whole paragraphs, entire lines of argument would collapse were the Bush-hater deprived of right-wing. Not everybody who uses the epithet is a Bush-hater, of course, but everybody who’s a Bush-hater uses the epithet.)
The problem for people who claim there’s no such thing as a Bush-hater is the evidence, of which there is a great deal, most of it pretty straightforward. I don’t think you need to be a clinical psychologist to conclude that someone who pays $13.95 for The Bush-Hater’s Handbook or $14.95 for a Dubya Piñata (“a great way to rid yourself of some of that ‘frustration’ when you see him on TV!”) has crossed the line from “Bush disliker” to something rather more intense. For further confirmation, read the I Hate George W. Bush Reader or order a CD recording of the popular ditty, “I Hate Republicans.” Read an issue of Vanity Fair or Rolling Stone or Esquire. Go to a screening of Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 or, next spring, watch the Academy Awards ceremony on TV, when Fahrenheit 9/11 will win the Oscar for Best Picture.
It is remarkable, in hindsight, how thoroughly Moore’s movie infiltrated the election, and how receptive the popular Democratic mind was to its sly intimations, its gaping elisions and crude misdirections. Moore became standard-bearer of the anti-Bush army and its chief propagandist. When his movie was treated to a gala premiere at a Washington theater–klieg lights raking the sky, local scam-artists striding the red carpet–Moore was greeted curbside by the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Terry McAuliffe, who tried, unsuccessfully, to throw his arms around the tubby tycoon’s body mass. Among the happy crowd, according to Sen. Bob Graham, himself a lunatic Bush-hater, were “half the Democratic Senate.” The movie received a standing ovation.
Moore himself is merely a popularizer. His movie’s incoherent, scattershot caricature of Bush–as, simultaneously, a feckless party boy and insidious Caesar bent on world domination–derived from exposés written by professional polemicists like Molly Ivins and Paul Krugman. Many of those books proved popular, too, but for people whose sensibility inclines towards images and sounds rather than words on paper, Moore made the caricature stick. His obsession with Bush’s National Guard service soon became general among Democrats, suckering in Dan Rather and the crew at 60 Minutes, to Rather’s everlasting regret. Democratic moneymen made expensive media buys repeating Moore’s insinuations about Bush’s favored treatment of the bin Laden family after 9/11. The movie’s famous sequence of a dithering president reading My Pet Goat in a Florida schoolroom on the morning of 9/11 was transformed into a standard Democratic talking point. Eventually it became a laugh line in speeches by John Kerry and John Edwards, and then, in a final grotesque metastasis, into a jape echoed by Osama bin Laden himself.
HATERS DEAL IN AGITPROP, being impatient with the more deliberate forms of persuasion. The practical problem with agitprop, when it enters the political conversation, is that it isn’t argument. Often it doesn’t even rise to the level of assertion. Moore bragged that fact-checkers from the New Yorker magazine had vetted his script, proving, he said, that it was without factual error. He had a point, in a way. The movie contained relatively few straightforward factual assertions. There was very little for the fact-checkers to check, and very little to argue with. Moore’s method was not to present evidence but to assemble insinuations, piling one on top of another. The method may be suitable for propaganda and entertainment; it is disastrous in a nationwide political campaign aimed at unseating a well-known incumbent. It means you will gain the serious attention of only those who already agree with you. Everyone else–which is to say, a large chunk of the electorate–is left out; puzzled at first, and then turned off altogether.
Meanwhile, Bush himself remained vulnerable (Moore wasn’t the only fat target on offer this year). There was a serious critique of his presidency to be made, and occasionally more sophisticated Democrats–such as the suave editorial writers at the New Yorker, or even, sometimes, Kerry himself–would make it. But it was the Moore caricature that got the true believers’ hearts started every morning and that came to define the Democratic attacks on Bush. And the caricature, unlike the substantive critique, was absurd, and was understood as absurd by anyone not already consumed with hatred for the object of the caricature.
Hate is nothing new in American politics, needless to say. It’s probably unavoidable as a leaven in the loaf. But its dangers have seldom been so evident as they were this year. Democrats might want to reacquaint themselves with Nixon’s farewell. Michael Moore is too clever and cynical a showman to destroy himself, as Nixon did. Democrats who succumbed to Moore’s showmanship may not be so fortunate.
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard. This article originally appeared there.