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
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT