The list of credits for the Republican victory in 2004 would be incomplete without a line for Michael Moorenot Michael Moore the filmmaker and activist so much as Michael Moore the phenomenon. Fahrenheit 911 was the ultimate expression of the hatred and contempt for George W. Bush that existed long before this election year. The popularity of the film both reflected that hatred and intensified it.
President Bush benefited in two ways from being not only misunderestimated but misoverdespised. First, the volume level inside the liberal echo chamber drowned out all other voices, ruining the political judgment of the inhabitants. It has been 32 years since Pauline Kael expressed amazement that Richard Nixon could have defeated George McGovern when absolutely everyone she knew had voted for the Democrat. Over the past eight elections the Upper East Sidelike sociologically similar precincts around the countryhas become even more self-referential.
Only a hearing-impaired political class, for example, could have convinced itself that the hatred of George Bush was so widely shared that it would suffice for a Democratic candidate to defeat him by merely not being him. John Kerry spent most of the weeks between securing the nomination in March and Election Day in the grip of that illusion. As a result, it was always much easier to interpret his campaign as a long list of reasons to elect Kerry than it was to come away from it clear about the reason. Devoting his most important moment in the spotlight, the Boston Democratic convention, to the non sequitur that Kerry would be a good president in 2005 because he had been a brave Navy lieutenant in 1969 was the pinnacle of that failure.
The president was mocked and reviled in dinner parties, faculty lounges, and media coverage. The cumulative effect was strong enough that an intermittently sensible columnist, Richard Cohen, was able to diagnose the affliction in an article in September, then succumb to it six weeks later. First, he wrote that he could not bring himself to hate Bush, and criticized "anti-Bush alarmists" who "compulsively blame their own country." He warned that the "demonization of Bush is going to cost John Kerry plenty if it hasn't already. It so overstates the case against Bush that a levelheaded listener would be excused for thinking that there isn't one in the first place." By October, Cohen had completely forgotten his own argument; his last Washington Post column before the election called for impeaching the president. The names of the Americans killed in Iraq "would make up every one of my articles of impeachment. I would read every name from the well of the House."
As Cohen predicted, this kind of stridency put off voters who were not already invested in reviling President Bush. It is the second way Bush benefited from being loathed. Tom Wolfe said just before the election that "support for Bush is about not wanting to be led by East Coast pretensions....That is constantly done, and there is real resentment."
It is, for example, no mystery that Bush overwhelmed Kerry among voters who go to church at least once a week, considering that the role of religious faith in Bush's life was one of the favorite objects of derision for his critics. Red state voters understood that things they had in common with George Bush were just the things his harshest critics were sneering at, and it made choosing sides in that fight a lot easier. "Airheads are going to be the definitive swing voters on Nov. 2," Tina Brown helpfully explained, reminding her fellow citizens that Bush-haters who believe the president is an idiot also think anyone who can't see such an obvious fact must be an idiot, too.
Will the Bush-haters back off? Conservatives, as patriots, must wish for a change in the political climate. In his first inaugural address Lincoln said, "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies." The inevitable post-election blather about unity fails to make the crucial distinction. A healthy democracy does not require blurring political differences. But it must find a way to express those differences forcefully without anathematizing people who hold different views.
If the reelection of George Bush causes the people who hate him to express that hatred even more venomously, conservatives can lament the further damage done to the tone of national discourse, but have no means to interfere with the delivery of this political gift, the assisted suicide of the Democratic Party. The early indications argue that the Bush-haters are indeed going to double their losing bet. The day after the election, Michael Moore's website displayed a computer-generated mosaic of the president. Every "tile" was the face of an American soldier killed in Iraq.
Four Moore years.