Yes, you read that right. Seems really stupid doesn’t it, that something so … stupid … could suck all the air out of an election campaign. Yet that’s exactly what happened in 2004, with the swiftboatage of John Kerry. Stupid; and so very effective.
For Perlstein, the Kerry part of the story — the analogy that sets up the Romney prediction — started with a stupid little self-published booklet he discovered in 2004 floating around the fringes of a right-wing event.
Here’s his intro (my emphasis and paragraphing):
Once upon a time, in early 2004, I attended one of hundreds of “Parties for the President” organized nationwide for grassroots volunteers who wanted to help reelected George W. Bush, at a modest middle class home in Portland, Oregon.
At one point, a nice old lady politely pressed into my hand a grubby little self-published pamphlet she had come upon, purporting to prove that Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry had faked the heroics that had won him three purple hearts in Vietnam. I added it to my mental store of the night’s absurdities that I expected to hear rattling across the wingnutosphere the entire fall: “I still believe there are weapons of mass destruction”; “There is an agenda—to get rid of God in this country”; “John Kerry attended a party in which there was bad language!”
What I didn’t expect was to see Kerry’s war-hero cred earnestly debated night after night on CNN. Then came August and “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” — and that little old lady’s fever dream began dominating the media discussion of the campaign, and the rest, as they say, is history.
That’s the way, in my experience, the ecology of right-wing smears works: Insane horror stories – Clinton is running cocaine out of an Arkansas airport! Barack Obama had gay sex in the back of a limo! – bubble up from the collective conservative Id at the outset of an election year; professional conservatives in Washington identify the ones that seem most promising and launder them through the suckers in the “balance”-hungry mainstream media; and presto, before you know it, it’s death-panel-palooza, 24/7.
Presto; yet this is not magic, but art. These are professionals. Watch and learn — here’s how the process breaks down. They:
- Figure out how the rubes want to be lied to
- Figure out which lies have “legs”
- Figure out which lies also advance the Movement Conservative Project
- Focus-test all of the swamp-meat prose they come up with
- Deliver the stinkiest rot to the eager flies using the fly-seeking “professional” press
- Count the money (note to students: the MoveCon Project pays extremely well)
This is how it’s done when the pros do it. There is nothing uncalculated about advertising. (Hint: Ask yourself why there are so many black men in the “can’t get hard” ads. Go ahead, ask. There’s an answer, and it’s perfectly thought through.)
Perlstein has much more. He traces the history of this particular fantasia — from a 1961 Supreme Court decision footnote; to a 1974 near-miss court challenge to the “religion of Secular Humanism”; to its demonization in a 1984 right-wing classic; to … well, read on. It’s Perlstein doing what Perlstein does quite well — tell a great story.
I can’t close without giving you this, the current season’s seed, from the Rolling Stone article I’ve been quoting and Crooks and Liars. (If by chance you listen to this vid twice, ask yourself if the questioner isn’t a shill, a ringer.To my ear she sounds way too focused on asking the question from a very precise angle.)
Romney in Wisconsin (that’s Paul Ryan on stage with him):
In defense of Perlstein’s prediction, the Catholic Bishops PAC is all over this one. I agree with Perlstein — it’s not going away on its own.
(To follow on Twitter or to send links: @Gaius_Publius)