Skip to main content

I'm embarrassed by Ted Nugent

By Timothy Stanley
February 25, 2014 -- Updated 1246 GMT (2046 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tim Stanley: Conservatives mostly let Ted Nugent's outrageous remarks slide
  • It's shocking they seem afraid to dissociate themselves from Nugent, he says
  • He asks: What happened to the intellectual tradition of conservatism?
  • Stanley: The pursuit of the party base leads to a surrender of rationality

Editor's note: Timothy Stanley is a historian at Oxford University and blogs for Britain's The Daily Telegraph. He is the author of "The Crusader: The Life and Times of Pat Buchanan."

(CNN) -- When did conservatives become prisoners to idiotic vulgarity? I ask that question as someone who self-defines as conservative and who is sick and tired of being embarrassed by Ted Nugent.

Last month the aged rocker called President Barack Obama a "subhuman mongrel" in an interview with Guns.com. That was bad enough, but what was just as shocking was the willingness of Texas GOP gubernatorial nominee Greg Abbott to keep him aboard his campaign.

Rick Perry and Ted Cruz also failed to rule out appearing with him. Only Rand Paul took to Twitter to demand an apology, which Nugent eventually gave. He downgraded Obama to a "liar," which is, at least, a more colorblind insult.

Timothy Stanley
Timothy Stanley

There is a view that Nugent simply "speaks his mind," and, yes, he has every constitutionally guaranteed right to do so. Maybe what he says appeals to some people, those for whom good manners are a bourgeois affectation and correct spelling the preserve of Harvard pointy-heads.

Nugent insists comments not racist, promises to stop 'calling people names'

Either way, what is disturbing is that some serious Republican politicians think that he matters and are happy to count him among their endorsements -- as though selling records and getting angry make him a spokesman for the masses. Animal from the Muppets also speaks his mind, but we've yet to see him headlining a rally for Chris Christie.

This isn't what conservatism is supposed to be about. Conservatism is the rejection of ideology in favor of common sense and anger in favor of cool rationalism.

'Inside Politics' panel on Paul, Nugent

Of course, there have always been intemperate voices on the American right -- from Joe McCarthy to the John Birch Society. (I'm not including Southern Democratic racists such as George C. Wallace because their place on the political compass is impossible to plot.) But the American right has an intellectual tradition that has all been forgotten by the media in recent years.

There were the Progressive Republicans (Irving Babbitt), the anti-communists (Whittaker Chambers), the libertarians (Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman), the traditionalists (Russell Kirk), the neo-conservatives (Leo Strauss), and the sages of the National Review (James Burnham, L. Brent Bozell, Willmoore Kendall) -- the latter embodied by the urbane, cosmopolitan wit of William F. Buckley.

Most of these groups quietly linger around today, largely ignored in the noisy mess of 21st-century politics but still patiently taught at some colleges and think tanks. In modern-day Washington, you'll find all the Catholic Republican interns spending Sunday at St. Stephens on Pennsylvania Avenue and weekday nights at lectures by bishops on the nature of good and evil. Not at the assault weapon firing range.

Sometime in the 1970s, the intellectual right made common cause with populism, and historians such as Rick Perlstein tell us that this is when they surrendered their brains to cultural conservatism. But Ronald Reagan was neither inarticulate nor rude. He was happy, sunny, funny, and his speeches so dense with philosophy and history that they make Obama sound like a high school student.

Crucially, he had a faith in the intelligence of the average American, which meant he didn't resort to meanness or bad syntax to win their vote. Reagan would never call an opponent "subhuman."

So how do we explain the rudeness of contemporary politics? Nugent's followers might insist that his language reflects the desperate seriousness of his cause, that any conversation about fundamental issues such as guns or Obamacare is bound to cause a loss of temper. But in the 1960s the Republicans were debating urban riots, sex, drugs and Vietnam -- and yet the GOP sold itself as a party that could resolve these challenges with calm sensibleness. Nixon ran as an antidote to the chaos caused by the left, offering order over anarchy.

"This pursuit of the base ends with basically intelligent men deferring to those who are rightly socially unacceptable."
Timothy Stanley

What has changed is that back then conservative politicians had faith in themselves and their own philosophy, that it would win out because it was right and middle-class Americans could see that.

Today's breed are all too often chasing a "base" that, they imagine, includes yahoos, survivalists and people who think the world is both flat and about to come to an end. This pursuit of the base ends with basically intelligent men deferring to those who are rightly socially unacceptable.

Cue John McCain in 2008 being told by supporters that Obama is an Arab, or Mitt Romney nearly paralyzed with socially awkwardness as he courted the Joe Six-Packs in 2012. And it ends in politicians failing to call Nugent out for being a Neanderthal.

As the midterms approach, conservative presidential aspirants face this challenge: Can they elevate rather than reduce the political debate? Rand Paul has made a good start, and it's probably because he is driven by philosophy and all the self-assurance that brings. For the rest, I'd like to see them defy a few stereotypes. Rather than being photographed shooting bears or doing pushups with Chuck Norris, let journalists catch them reading a book. Russell Kirk is a good place to start.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Timothy Stanley.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 0857 GMT (1657 HKT)
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2151 GMT (0551 HKT)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT