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

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." 

Of course, it's well-established that immigrants are much more law-abiding than native-born citizens, and that illegal immigration has gone up in recent decades, even as crime rates have gone down.  

But as usual on the right, the facts are irrelevant. What matters is the skill in telling lies, and Cain's use of humor (or claims of humor) to muddy the waters is a major asset on this score. And that's what Toure's “minstrel” comment seems to miss. Yes, Cain plays the fool, but there's more going on than that—as should be obvious from his campaign ad that boldly features his campaign manager literally blowing smoke at America. Cain has undisguised contempt for liberal America—although he can always pretend to be joking. 

So what kind of light does Robin cast on all this? To really get the full flavor, we first need a grasp on his overall perspective. This in turn will help explain how the superficial jokieness of Cain's campaign turned deeply sinister as the accusations of sexual harassment emerged, and his supporters even went so far as to claim that sexual harassment doesn't even really exist. 

Two points are key to grasp Robin's point of view: First is the true nature of conservatism. It's often portrayed as a philosophy of continuity and moderation, with sharp contrasts drawn between that image and the evident extremism of leading conservatives today. But Robin argues that what you see is what you get: conservatism has always had a dark underbelly from the very beginning, and his book has the quotes to prove it. Yes, it can speak in soothing tones as well as alarmed and excited ones. But at bottom, conservatism is “a movement in defense of privilege and hierarchy, and in reaction to a democratic movement of emancipation that's trying to overturn privilege and hierarchy.”   

That's a pretty tough sell, once people have had a taste of freedom. Tough, but not impossible. Which brings us to the second key point: that rightwing populism is key to defending privilege, and thus is an integral part of conservatism. Robin identifies three forms such populism takes. 

“The first way is to create what I call democratic feudalism,” Robin explained. “In other words, give more than a small group of individuals, more than a small circle of aristocrats the opportunity to have a flavor of the kind of the kind of power that feudal aristocrats had back in the day.” Male privilege in everyday life, and the power that bosses have over subordinates—common factors in workplace sexual harassment—are typical examples of this. So are imperialist foreign policies. Any practice raising one group above all others fits this pattern.   

If anything, Cain's candidacy initially appeared to contradict this. After all, he is black. And like most black Republicans, he tried to turn the tables by accusing liberals and Democrats of keeping blacks down—although calling most blacks “brainwashed” along the way sort of gave the game away. But once the accusations of sexual harassment came out, the pattern of democratic feudalism reasserted itself—particularly with Cain's most zealous defenders.   

“We have seen this movie before and we know how it ends. It always ends up being an employee who can’t perform or who under-performs and is looking for a little green,” said rightwing talk-radio host Laura Ingrahm on her show, reinforcing two everyday workplace hierarchies at once.  

The second way that rightwing populism defends privilege is what Robin calls “upside-down populism.” It involves portraying the ruling class as victim, and using a vocabulary of loss as a universal language. “Slaveholders did experience a real loss—of material privilege, when the slaves were emancipated, of political privilege, of social privilege, and so on,” Robin pointed out. “And the reason that this is important to rightwing populism is that it's a way of making a similarity, creating a sense of commonality between people who are on the bottom, who have experienced loss, and people who are on the top.” Gone With the Wind, anyone? Or Birth of a Nation?  Or great man unfairly accused of sexual harassment? 

The third way, Robin said, “where Cain really does come in, is outsider politics. From the very beginning, the conservative has understood, or had a theory that one of the reasons why the old regime, broadly defined, has fallen apart, is that the existing ruling classes have gotten soft.”  They need new blood, people who have had to fight their way in, he explained. “You have to kind of reinvent the ruling class. You have to reinvent the arguments for hierarchy and privilege. And the ones who are often times the best situated to do that--either in a more substantive intellectual sense or a more politically symbolic sense—are the outsiders.” 

This perspective allows us to get inside the heads of conservatives, and understand—perhaps better than they do themselves—how and why conservatives see the contrast between Obama and Cain in a very different way than Toure does.  

“I think to the right-wing, Obama's rise to power was a little too, in a weird way, too traditional,” Robin said. “He did all the right things. He worked hard, he studied hard, he went to the right schools. And he kind of did the march through the institutions. And I know there are some conservatives who credit that to affirmative action, and all the rest of it. But I think there's actually a deeper suspicion of it, which is that he's actually mimicking too much the ways of power.” 

This may help to explain the persistence of exotic paranoid fantasies about Obama on the right—birtherism, claims that he's a secret Muslim, a socialist, a terrorist, some sort of “sleeper,” etc.  The more Obama conforms to traditional prescriptions, the more they suspect him, seeking for the “real truth”, the “real birth certificate”, and so on. 

“Someone like Cain is actually more appealing to them because he's outside of—he doesn't have a traditional path to power. He's a self-made man.” Robin explained. “He comes up through the marketplace, which is the only thing—the marketplace and the battlefield—is the only places that they really trust as being the sorting mechanisms of greatness.”  

We all know that right and left see things differently, but seldom is the picture so sharp: “All the things that people on left think of as Obama's assets are to the right wing liabilities. Oddly enough, they think that Obama is not enough of an outsider as he ought to be.” And for Cain as well: “The things that to many of us on the left seem like this guy is just off his rocker and not serious, I think to the rightwinger it plays to a very deep sensibility. It's what I call sometimes 'the romance of the extraordinary.'” 

Cain may not seem very extraordinary, especially given the dubious quality of his pizza. (It came in last in a recent TV taste test.) But it's less about Cain, the man, than it is about conservative preconceptions, which Robin traced back to De Maistre writing about Joan of Arc.  

“I know this is going to sound far-fetched,” Robin said, “but I think the conservatives for instance, used to look at Sarah Palin as a modern sort of Joan of Arc. And all the things that people on the left thought disqualified her—right—her clear lack of qualifications, her lack of credentials, the fact that she was selected in what seems to have been a kind of moment of thoughtlessness on the part of McCain—to the conservative all suggests something like a miracle.”   

Palin was not the only one to be seen this way in the conservatives' post-Bush era. Over the past three years, Robin noted, “There's been a search on the right for that Joan of Arc figure. And it was Sarah Palin, and then it was Michelle Bachmann, for a little bit of a moment it was Rick Perry. And now it's Herman Cain.”  

And so, as conservatives see it, “All those gaffes on the part of Cain, it's the mark of Joan of Arc. It's the man who is laughed at. And there's probably a real religious component to this,” Robin said. “Jesus Christ was laughed at, and all the rest of it. So I just think that mark of scorn of the liberal elites, so to speak, makes him all the more appealing.”

Coincidentally, the same day I interviewed Robin, Rick Joyner, a dominionist religious right leader, and self-proclaimed "prophet" of the New Apostolic Reformation, sent a "special bulletin" to his followers, saying that Satan was behind the sexual harassment allegations against Cain, and comparing Cain to Jesus.  

For the right, elevating a single “extraordinary” individual is easily done without doing anything for the group they are part of. To the contrary, as already noted, Cain is elevated while saying that most blacks are “brainwashed.”   

In contrast, Robin noted, “The attitude of the left is that everybody has the capacity for extraordinariness, but that it's not a romantic attitude, that this is just somebody, you know, a diamond in the rough who's just going to rise. It's that you have to have a very comprehensive set of social and political institutions –you know, from good schools to health care, to unions and good jobs, and all the rest of it. That is what enables people from a wide variety of walks of life to come into their own. But it requires institutions and structure.”   

Of course conservatives don't want to redistribute opportunity and power that way, he went to say, but “There's also an ideological apprehension or disgust at what they would view as the routinization of extraordinariness, the notion that something as bureaucratic as a public school in a city could produce something like that is really anathema to them.” 

Likewise, what they are looking for is not the sort of meritocracy produced by doing well on SAT tests. For all their talk of law and order, when it comes to leadership, Robin said, “They have in mind somebody who's a little more transgressive. Somebody who is actually a rule-breaker. And that it is, of course, the original sphere for that was the battlefield, right? And so there's always been a long fascination with Napoleon for instance, on the right. Somebody who changes the rules, not somebody who follows the rules. Somebody who changes them.”

Over time, the marketplace came to be seen similarly to the battlefield, so “the entrepreneur is really depicted as like a great general. You know, somebody who really breaks the rules and acts transgressively. And so I think that is very fundamental and again so, the fact that Cain doesn't play by the rules, [he has] that kind of ability and talent they're looking for.” 

Buffoonery is part of that package, and conservatives treat it quite differently coming from a designated “extraordinary” man than they would from anyone else. 

With all that in mind, we're in a much better position to make sense of what's happened since accusations of sexual harassment again Cain first surfaced two weeks ago. As already mentioned, once these charges emerged, the first two prongs of rightwing populism were activated as well—not just in Cain, but throughout the rightwing noise machine. 

As for Cain himself, when the allegations broke, his earlier patterns of behavior did not go away. They only turned darker. There was, for example, a striking similarity to how he handled questions raised about his 999 plan. He lead with repeated categorical statements, rather than responding directly to detailed questions. He revised his story repeatedly, while simultaneously denying any inconsistencies, and he treated those who questioned him with contempt. Of course there were new elements as well—Cain's continual search for people to point the finger at, for example, was not a prominent part of his 999 plan defense. But he had long been a habitual finger-pointer more generally, most notably in telling people to “blame yourself” if you're not rich. And blaming the victim soon emerged as the central strategy for defending Cain against sexual harassment charges.  

But Cain's conservative supporters went even further, brashly ignoring, denying, even inverting virtually everything that's actually known about sexual harassment. Some even ridiculed the whole concept, treating it as a joke. As Dahlia Lithwack put it in Slate, “The very same people who insist that we don’t know what actually happened all those years ago seem to know exactly what happened: nothing. Sexual harassment is now nothing. Welcome to the era of gender harassment denialism. The harassment skeptics claim that harassment, like racism, used to exist but is now over.” 

Except, of course, racism does exist after all: Just look at poor Herman Cain! (Though as Cain himself explained, it's only a problem on the left.) 

In her article, Lithwack cited statements by John DerbyshireLaura IngrahamKurt SchlichterSen. Rand PaulRep. Steve King, and former Sen. Fred Thompson. While they all have their own memorable quirks, Derbyshire set the terms well enough for all: “Is there anyone who thinks sexual harassment is a real thing? Is there anyone who doesn’t know it’s all a lawyers’ ramp, like ‘racial discrimination'? You pay a girl a compliment nowadays, she runs off and gets lawyered up.”  

So, in short, nothing happened because nothing could happen. It's in the very nature of the hierarchies involved: women are crazy and workers are lazy. Working women are double-trouble and rational boss-men are never to blame—even when they're black! And that's why Herman Cain didn't have to actually respond to any allegations: by their very nature, they simply had to be false. Blanket denials were good enough—even if they turned out to be false, and his stories shifted as new facts emerged. 

Lithwack's piece appeared on Friday, Nov. 4. The next Monday, Nov. 7, the American Association of University Women released "Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School," a detailed survey covering grades 7-12. Although focused on middle- and high-school, its findings about actions and attitudes clearly come from an entirely different universe than the one where Cain's defenders live—the notorious empirically based universe, where the “empirically based community” lives. 

The survey found that sexual harassment in one form or another was extremely widespread, poorly handled, and seldom reported to authorities. Nearly half of all students (48%) reporting being harassed in the previous year, and only 12% felt their schools were doing a good job addressing sexual harassment. But harassment typically went unreported to authorities, with only 9% of those harassed reporting the incident to an adult at school, although girls did report at a higher rate—12%, compared to just 5% among boys. There was much more reporting to friends (23%) or family (27%), but roughly half of all students did nothing at all to respond.   

“We hope that it will be a wake-up call,” the report co-author Holly Kearl told me, and given how Cain's supporters have been carrying on, it's all the more necessary. While bullying—still a problem—has gotten much more attention since the Columbine shootings, Kearl is hopeful that this detailed report will help bring new attention and commitment to addressing sexual harassment as well.   

When asked about other findings in the report that highlight the extent of the problem, Kearl said, “Nearly half of student harassers thought it was just part of student life, or really no big deal. Most of the student harassers have been harassed themselves, so that really suggests there's a culture of acceptance around harassment at the schools. And so that's clearly showing that there's a problem.” 

The parallel between these attitudes and those of Cain's supporters is difficult to ignore. “It was interesting that the study came out the same week as the allegations [against Herman Cain] being headline news,” said Kearl. “It really speaks to this culture of sexual harassment happening and where it's fairly acceptable and sort of treated as a joke, or something people need to get a thicker skin about. That's problematic when that's the attitude at the school level and the workplace level.” 

In short, the conservative stance of belittling or denying the existence of sexual harassment is actually part of the problem itself, an amplification, reinforcement and justification of the attitudes that contribute to continued harassment. 

It's particularly problematic to have a major political party in denial about such a widespread problem facing their own children, as well as everyone else's. “People, especially men, worry that there are just people who are falsely accusing. And while of course that happens, it's so rare,” Kearl said. “At the school level, we saw that only 9% of students even reported the harassment that happened to them. So it's a hugely under-reported problem when it's actually happening.” 

Then there's the long-term consequences, she noted, “If you're a would-be harasser and you're harassing in middle school and high school and you get away with it, and the teachers aren't doing anything, and no one's really  standing up to you, what's to stop you from continuing that as an adult?”  

There are things that can be done to combat harassment, both common-sense things that students have asked for, and innovative ideas that can empower students individually and help change the school culture. But, of course, none of them make sense if sexual harassment is dismissed out of hand as some Cain supporters would do. When I asked Kearl about preventative measures, she began simply, with education, and getting serious about already-existing policy: “Talking about sexual harassment in the classrooms--that was something that about 30% of all students wanted to see happen, as well as workshops at the schools. Publicizing and enforcing a sexual harassment policy is really important, students really, really wanted to see that happen.”   

The survey allowed for voluntary comments, and some of these were deeply revealing about authorities' lack of leadership.

“A lot of them talked about how harassment would happen in front of teachers and they wouldn't do anything, or they wouldn't be believed when they went and told a teacher, or someone else at school.” Of course many educators do take it very seriously, Kearl went on to say, “But it there needs to be more consistency across the board where students can go and get help at the school.” 

Beyond simply educating about sexual harassment as a standalone topic, the report cites as a “Promising Practice” the establishment of women's studies programs, based on the pioneering work of Jennifer Martin, head of the English department at a high school for at-risk students in Michigan.

“In 2003,” the report notes, “Martin created and taught an 18-week, single-sex, women’s studies course to help the girls. The course covered a variety of topics, including gender roles, notable women, gender equity, sexual harassment, and female friendship. Students heard guest speakers from places such as the local domestic violence shelter and received assertiveness and self-defense training.” 

This more general women's studies approach proved effective on multiple levels: “Surveys taken before and after the course showed that girls’ knowledge of sexual harassment increased. Measurements of the girls’ locus of control—their beliefs about whether they can control and respond to events in their lives—before and after the course also increased and showed that the girls felt more self-empowered to respond to incidents of sexual harassment.”  

Immediate benefits were seen at a school-wide level: “The change in how the girls handled sexual harassment led to its decrease, with one-third fewer incidents occurring at the school the following semester.” Although it began as a single-sex course, Martin subsequently opened it to boys as well, and has taught the course every year since 2003. 

One reason such a broad-based women's studies approach is successful can be seen in the studies' evidence that sexual harassment works to enforce standard gender hierarchies, so it's only natural that questioning those hierarchies would empower students to fight back. For example, the study found that girls and boys are harassed at roughly equal levels in the lower grades. “But then in the high school grades it was really girls who were experiencing a lot more harassment,” Kearl said. They also experienced more frequent harassment and more severe forms, “like unwanted sexual touching and physical intimidation,” she added. They were also more likely to suffer more negative impacts and to suffer “for quite a while as opposed to a short time.”  In short, measured on a number of different dimensions, the harassment problem grows increasingly more severe for girls as they advance in high school, and the gap between girls' and boys' experience grows larger—clear signs of gender subordination.   

There's also a difference in who gets targeted, reflecting the nature of the gender norms being enforced. As the report notes, “For girls, those who stand out as “too sexual” or “too masculine” are at risk for sexual harassment, according to their peers.” Good-looking boys were the only group asked about who were notably low-risk, while pretty girls were high-risk. Finally, “While girls and boys reported equal cases of being called gay in a negative way, boys were much more likely than girls to say that that negatively impated them and was upsetting to them.” 

All the above are evidence that while anyone can be a target, harassment overall serves to enforce gender hierarchies—a key element in the system of democratic feudalism described by Robin. The fact that Cain's accusers have become subject to vilification and personal attacks—by people with no special knowledge at all—is further evidence that what we're witnessing is precisely what Robin describes: a battle by conservatives to preserve privilege, hierarchy and power in the face of democratic challenges demanding equal treatment and dignity for all.   

Herman Cain may be a comical figure, but in the context of such a struggle, humor is often a weapon, as in Cain's continued joking about Anita Hill endorsing him, or calling Speaker Nancy Pelosi, “Princess Nancy,” as if she herself had nothing to do with becoming the first female Speaker in American history.   

The fact that Cain freely continues trash-talking women like this, while flatly denying ever harassing them is in itself a classic performance of hierarchical male power. It speaks loud and clear in language anyone can understand: “Nyah! Nyah! Nyah! Nyah! Nyah!” 

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