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Why Does the GOP Base Embrace Wacky Intellectual Lightweights Like Herman Cain?

Rightwing populism is an integral part of the conservative project, and it requires "outsider" figures of various sorts, no matter how wacky they may be.

This year's Republican presidential primary campaign has been comedy gold, although no candidate has pushed the comic envelope more than Herman Cain—both intentionally and not. Perhaps as he's begun to fade we can catch our collective breath long enough to ask ourselves—why? Why has the right been so profoundly infatuated with a whole series of potential candidates—Palin, Trump, Bachmann, Perry, Cain—who furnish material for late-night comedians and then flame out as soon as anyone takes a serious look at them?  

Corey Robin, author of the just-published book,  The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, has a theory that might sound strange at first, but the more he explains it, the more sense it makes. Robin sees rightwing populism as an integral part of the conservative project, with outsider figures of various sorts as key players—in part because preserving the decaying old order requires repeated infusions of new blood. Edmund Burke, a bourgeois Irishman of Catholic descent, typifies what Robin is getting at in the very beginning of the modern conservative tradition. Burke, of course, knew how to put sentences together. But as Robin explained to me, there's another more primitive strain of outsider heroes who can't necessarily do that. 

“Joan of Arc plays a very important role in French conservatism, because she was the most improbable of heroes,” Robin said. “You know, a peasant girl with nothing going for her, at all, except her kind of indomitable will.” Burke's French contemporary, Joseph De Maistre, was the founding father of French conservatism, and he was the first to write about her in specifically ideological terms—not just as a national hero, but as a conservative one. 

But before we dive into Robin's theory in depth, let's take another look at what he needs to explain. As cultural commentator Toure pointed out on MSNBC's "The Last Word," there's an element of "constant minstrelsy," in a campaign with joke proposals and singing at press conferences, that is quite reassuring to some. As a candidate, Toure explained, Cain “does not exist without Obama preceding him,” a comic figure to undercut the deep anxiety that Obama's gravitas brings out in some quarters. “Cain sort of reasserts the scales the way people want it to be, in a lot of ways,” Toure said. “He`s charismatic, but he`s a lightweight. His ideas are not serious. They`re not well thought out.”   

Cain's “999” plan—his ticket to top-tier candidate status—was typical of Cain's unserious ideas, as could be seen in his fumbling response, once real economists took even a cursory glance at it. He could not keep his stories straight, either about where the plan came from—a secret team of top economists; no, a single “wealth-management adviser" without a degree in economics—or how it was supposed to work, as attested to by a flurry of adjustments in response to the sudden scrutiny.  Cain had plenty of time campaigning in relative obscurity to work these things out, and prepare supporting documentation. Any really serious candidate would have done so—but not Cain. Which is why it still seems plausible to some that his plan really did come from the computer game Sim City—or from Cain's numerological obsessions, particularly with the number “45."

Indeed, it's hard to tell the difference between Cain's serious ideas like his “999 plan” and his jokes, like the electrified border fence. Although he quickly turned around and claimed it was a joke, the video of Cain discussing the fence shows him acting deadly serious, with a rising undertone of anger in his voice. He even mocks those who would question him--"Mr. Cain, that's insensitive," he portrays them saying, setting himself up to lash back, "No. It's insensitive for them to be killing our citizens, killing our border agents, that's what's insensitive, and that mess has to stop." 

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