The XX Factor

The Right Wing Object Problem

Lisa Miller’s entertaining profile of the “mama grizzly” candidates touches on their incoherence, their extremism, and their marketing-over-substance strategy, all aspects that as you noted, Jessica , may only be manageable through comedy. But above all, Miller kicks off with the question more in the media should be asking: For all the talk about mama grizzlies protecting “cubs” from harm, why is the exact nature of the harm never really explained? This is far from a mama-grizzly-only problem, but endemic to movement conservatives as of late, no matter what cutesy nickname they have. Mama grizzlies want to protect their cubs … from what? Tea Partiers want to take their country back … from who? Call it the right-wing sentence object problem. I suppose they figure those in the know can finish the sentences in their heads, and the rest of us don’t get to be privy to this information.

The closest we’ve gotten to a solid understanding of the threat that is being so angrily rejected is Christine O’Donnell’s speech at the Values Voters Summit, where she said, “There’s more of us than there are of them.” “Them”: the amorphous threat to cubs. “Them”: the group of people who’ve taken over the country from the rightful owners, who have to take it back. “Them”: the violent threat that caused such a right-wing panic after the Obama election that there was a run on guns and ammunition that blew the prices sky high. This right-wing fear of “them” is hardly something new, of course. After spending time running around with and documenting mostly right-wing conspiracy-theorist paranoids, Jon Ronson simply titled his book about the experience Them , because “them” neatly sums up what all these paranoids are so afraid of. If the threat you organize behind resisting is so vague to begin with, it makes sense to simply drop the word altogether. Mama grizzlies protect their cubs … fill in the “from them” for yourself.

What’s great about a battle pitched between Real Americans and “them” is this very lack of specificity. Whoever you, disgruntled tea bagger, want to think of as “them,” go for it. Maybe it’s Mexican immigrants, mosque-building Muslims, gay people, smarty-pants college professors, or willful feminism-empowered ex-wives and female colleagues. Maybe one of these groups bothers you less than others. Maybe you’re a Log Cabin Republican who hates the idea of community centers with real-live Muslims taking knitting classes in them. You can still convince yourself that you’re on the side of Real Americans versus “them.” “Them” is a shifting storm cloud of threat. Whatever you believe it is, Glenn Beck will assure you that the Founders didn’t like it. And neither did Jesus.

The most significant trait of “them,” besides the vagueness of who “them” is, is that the threat of “them” has very little relationship to actual material threats to real people in the real world. As Lisa Miller notes, mama grizzlies talk up the vague threat the unnamed objects present to cubs, but they’re not very interested in the threats actual cubs in the real world face: lack of health care, lack of decent education, lack of good food and physical activity, lack of opportunities when they grow up. The problem with specificity is that it’s hard to market, of course. The more you try to pin down actual threats, the fewer people you get who just want a vague and scary cloud to project all their scattered fears upon.