Don’t disagree with Rick Perry. Because if you do, he’s liable to treat you pretty ugly .
Of the better-known politicians on the Tea Party right, Perry is perhaps among the most willing to exploit a nasty politics of suspicion and accusation. He hasn’t been running for president a week, and the strategy is already as familiar as it is shallow.
The latest example came on Wednesday, when Perry attacked climate scientists
“I think there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling in to their — to their projects.”
Not all scientists are bad, though. Just the ones who believe in man-made global warming:
“And I think we're seeing almost weekly or even daily scientists who are coming forward and questioning the original idea that man-made global warming is what is causing the climate to change.”
Those who continue to warn about man-made climate change, he argues implicitly, aren’t just wrong; they are corrupt, on the hunt for gullible taxpayers to dupe out of money. Sounds almost treasonous.
Even if Perry had used that language explicitly, of course, it wouldn’t have been his first time. On Monday, the Texas governor made his jaw-dropping accusation that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke would be “treasonous” to engage in expansionary monetary policy (which isn’t illegal), and that helping President Obama win reelection is the only reason Bernanke would do so. Never mind that there is not a shred of evidence to back the claim that Bernanke has any motive but the best interests of the economy at heart. Bernanke’s actions to date have been so obviously wrong, Perry implies, there can be no other explanation.
Perry has since refused to walk back his claims about Bernanke, and he has told reporters that they would have to ask the president if he really loves the country. Who can tell, when, like Bernanke and climate scientists, Obama is just so wrong all the time?
Perry, of course, isn’t the first on the right — or on the left, for that matter — to inflate voters’ sense of grievance. Sarah Palin has blamed the “lamestream media” among plenty of others for pretty much everything she doesn’t like, her tone so often not just challenging others’ views, but questioning the moral competence of any who might disagree with her. Politicians who favor such tactics seem to be increasingly prominent on the right, but there are irresponsible ideologues everywhere: It was former Florida congressman Alan Grayson who famously accused Republicans of wanting Americans to “die quickly.”
Yet Perry has somehow out-Palined Palin.
Doing so has obvious appeal, in part because it is so intellectually dishonest: Perry makes claims that you can’t prove — who knows what anyone is thinking when they decide to expand the money supply? — but that you also can’t disprove, either.
This works for a certain type of right-winger. For the ideologue, it’s all too easy to presume the worst about people with whom you disagree. It helps one to avoid examining one’s own beliefs. Preaching to the choir makes the choir feel pretty righteous. Which is why attacking the motives of your opponents, particularly with such vehemence, is not only uncivil, and it’s not just likely to misconstrue the motivations of others. It also hinders a government based on checks and balances from functioning. How can one compromise with traitors?
But, as long as substantial numbers of Americans respond to politicians who indulge in the politics of suspicion, there will be men and women such as Perry who benefit from providing it. The 2012 GOP primaries have become a test of how many such Americans there are on the right — and whether there are now enough of them to determine the presidential nominee of a major political party.
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