Editor’s Note: Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992 and was counselor to Clinton in the White House. He is a consultant to the pro-Hillary Clinton super-PAC Priorities USA Action. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Paul Begala: GOP base is made crazy by its anger, many embracing eccentric political expression
He says Houston vote on civil rights, Kentucky governor's race are examples from this week's election. In coming months, it'll get worse
Back in July, when Donald Trump was first insulting his way to the top of the polls, I told CNN’s Anderson Cooper, “He speaks for a lot of people. The Republican base: the technical term [is] they’re crazy. And he speaks to the crazy base voters.”
That description of the GOP base has been borne out. I believe what’s driving the GOP base crazy is anger. Anger at stagnant wages, anger at immigration and the changing demography of the U.S., anger at losing the culture wars, at seeing gay marriage enshrined in the Constitution. These people are ticked off.
They are, as Howard Beale said in Network “as mad as hell, and … not going to take this anymore.” For some, this anger crosses into despair: Hence the study released this week about the spike in mortality rates for middle-aged white people, primarily those with a high school degree or less. The study showed a spike in diseases of despair: alcoholism and alcohol-related liver disease, drug addiction and poisoning and suicide. When a sizeable chunk of America is driven to deadly despair, attention must be paid.
Some of those not driven to the point of drugs and death are driven to, umm, eccentric political expression:
– Matt Bevin was a fringe nut a few years ago, getting creamed by Mitch McConnell (whose spokesman called him an “East Coast con man”). Now he’s governor-elect of the great Commonwealth of Kentucky after a campaign in which he embraced Kim Davis, the controversial anti-gay-marriage county clerk, and promised to eliminate the expanded Medicaid program under Obamacare. Bevin once spoke at a rally in support of – get this – cockfighting. He later apologized, but the message was sent: If you’re into cockfighting, I’m your man.
– Ben Carson compares pretty much everything he doesn’t like to slavery and Hitler. He’s leading in the national polls.
– Donald Trump says America is “crippled,” has asserted that many Mexican migrants are murderers and rapists, and that John McCain is not a war hero because he was a POW. And he has led in the polls for months, now basically tied with Carson. I am old enough to remember when Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, was a right-wing crackpot leading the charge to impeach my boss, President Bill Clinton. Today he isn’t even crazy enough to make it onto the main stage at the debates.
– In my beloved hometown of Houston, anti-gay, anti-transgender zealots prevailed in a referendum to repeal the city’s equal rights ordinance. Never mind that most major cities have such an ordinance. The conspiratorial right told Houstonians that equal rights would mean men could pee in the ladies room. I am not kidding. Worse, a sizeable majority of Houston voters fell for it. They could have called their cousin in, say, Dallas (hardly a hotbed of PC excess) and asked him, “Hey, Buford, y’all got any guys peein’ in front of your daughters? No? OK. Just wonderin’.”
I know it is fashionable – actually, required – to pretend that both parties’ bases are equally crazy. But that is simply not the case. Sure, there are some loopy lefties out there, but even Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders is not, for example, calling for nationalizing the oil companies or socializing the banks.
No Democratic presidential candidate is saying Ted Cruz can’t be president because he was born in Canada. No progressive is attacking Ben Carson’s profound faith. That is why both Hillary Clinton and Sanders are succeeding by addressing some pretty mainstream issues: raising the minimum wage, equal pay protections for women, paid family leave, making college affordable, and universal background checks for gun purchases.
The Democrats are not insulting each other and they are not spinning fantastic conspiracy theories. They also aren’t getting their voters out. The impressive – stunning, really – victory of Bevin in Kentucky, paired with the overwhelming victory of the anti-gay forces in Houston teaches Republicans a sobering lesson: crazy sells.
So here’s my prediction: It’s about to get a whole lot crazier. How crazy? Consider this:
• 44% of Republicans believe the President was not born in the USA;
• 54% think our President is a Muslim. (Never mind the fact that they were freaking out about his Christian minister back during the 2008 campaign – only 14% of Republicans think the President is a Christian.)
• And, perhaps most ominous: According to a September YouGov poll, 43% of Republicans could imagine supporting a military coup in the United States.
Keep in mind that we’re still 89 days from the Iowa caucuses and 98 days from the New Hampshire primary. We have not even begun to see the full blooming of right-wing crazy. We may look back on November 2015 as the calm before the storm.