Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Death Race  Headshot

You're Either Santorum or You're Against Him

Posted: Updated:

By Walter Kirn, GQ

"I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon," the movie critic Pauline Kael once said, "Where they are I don't know. They're outside my ken. But sometimes when I'm in a theater I can feel them.'" (The way she's misquoted is more famous: "I can't believe Nixon won. I don't know anyone who voted for him.") This anecdote has been tossed around for decades as evidence of the liberal intelligentsia's alleged detachment from everyday life. To me, though, it demonstrates nothing of the sort, since Americans of all stripes, in my experience, like to curl up inside sealed opinion bubbles. (I'm sure that plenty of Nixon voters back then didn't know many McGovern lovers, either.) That's why I'm not embarrassed to admit that Rick Santorum baffles me, as does the success of his campaign. Despite living in a rural Montana county filled with conservative ranchers and small merchants, I've met only two individuals who back him, neither of whom went much further when we spoke than to laud their man for being "real" and disparage Romney as a slick phony. I'm sure that if I go out hunting this Sunday I can track down others of their persuasion. But even if they're better able to explain themselves I'll have a hard time believing they're not kidding.

Get the Latest Death Race Updates From the Campaign Trail Here

If this amounts to snobbery, then fine: The mind can't grasp what the mind can't grasp. Whenever I watch Santorum address a crowd, I'm struck anew by his brute ineptitude both as a speaker of ordinary English and an orchestrator of mass emotion. (Let's ignore his ideas for the time being.) Populist demagogues should strive for a certain music when they rave. But his cadences careen and strain and wander, randomly stressing words and clauses that can't take the pressure and break on impact. He's never more than a phrase away, it seems, from utterly losing track of his own point, forcing him to reach above his head and claw around for the next rung of his fraying rhetorical rope ladder. Again and again, he fails to gain a handhold and ends up tumbling through space ("A third of all the young people in America are not in America today because of abortion, because one in three pregnancies end in abortion." Gay marriage "is an issue just like 9/11." No wonder his candidacy confounds the experts. It confounds a lot of amateurs, too.


Santorum's appeal seems to demonstrate the success of Republican class-warfare, which has sliced up society to an extent that the Democrats have never managed, even though they're perpetually accused of trying. By pushing, and sometimes inventing, cultural controversies that correspond with economic divisions, the GOP's right wing has cordoned off a substantial number of white folks, many of them working-class believers valiantly struggling to raise young children, in a ghetto without walls. It's a voluntary exclusion zone whose occupants only seldom venture outside and which strangers have little reason to visit (unless they're slumming political reporters seeking to interview climate-change deniers and other fundamentalist exotics). Its boundaries are marked in the red paint of contempt. Those who've shut themselves up inside the compound are told that they're sneered at by the 'elites,' who are defined as pretty much everyone with more education or more efficient cars. The elites, who are secretly thrilled to be regarded as such, human vanity being what it is, are taught that those they supposedly despise find them doubly despicable in turn, primarily on moral grounds. Over the years and the course of many elections (as well as thousands of hours of grinding commentary by moonlighting party propagandists), this imputed contempt has turned into the real thing. Groups that might sometimes choose to live and let live, or even to unite around shared interests, have grown convinced that the country and the culture are too small and precarious to share. Yes, in the commercial world there's room for both McDonald's and Whole Foods, but in the realm of politics, we're told, it's either Filet-o-Fish or line-caught salmon, only one can prevail -- and which is up to you.


One result of this process of estrangement is that the other side's candidates -- even, sometimes, inside a single party -- may not only be objectionable but unknowable. It wasn't always like this. Years ago, when the two Pats were seeking the Republican nomination (Robertson and Buchanan), I found their pronouncements as loathsome as Santorum's, but their persons were relatively comprehensible, familiar both from literature and from life. Pat R. was either a cunning Elmer Gantry -- a fake-folksy salesman of spiritual soap -- or a Pentecostal epileptic who'd lapsed into an angel-haunted trance once and mistaken himself for Jeremiah. Pat B. was some sort of chuckling crypto-fascist riddled with eroticized racist fears and cured in oak barrels of bourbon-flavored nostalgia. Both men struck me as in on their own acts, especially when they were speaking most passionately. Prudence demanded that they be taken seriously, but instinct suggested that one was watching vaudeville.


But Rick Santorum, for me, comes out of nowhere. Our American roads don't intersect. He's a mall-store-attired chauvinist whose chuckleheadedness seems to confirm his authenticity for those who can imagine him being president, which I remain convinced they find impossible but are acting as if they don't as a kind of perverse performance art piece. Frankly, I don't understand his platform, either, mostly because to listen to him describe it seems like more attention than he deserves. He's against everything but war, correct? And smiting the wicked, of course, who we'll have more of thanks to a broader definition of evil.


Then again, a lot of Santorum's rosy-cheeked new followers aren't the pugnacious, combative Christian warriors who fell into line behind General Jerry Farwell and sought to purge Washington with a flaming sword. They're a gentler, more earnest, and optimistic contingent concerned with insulating their vulnerable families from insensitive secular exploitation, whether by carnal, grisly Hollywood or smug, self-serving teachers unions drilled in the latest feel-good conventional wisdom. It's safety they're after more than confrontation, and chiefly safety from casual cultural insults to a faith and a set of hopeful, constructive credos that have proved helpful to them in holding down their embattled, besieged domestic forts. They want to surround themselves with a zone of light that will push back against the creeping assault of consumerist narcissism and addictive, indebting, impulsive self-indulgence.

I do find it puzzling that Santorum Nation is so very afraid of having to bear the consequences of other people's sins. The Bible that he and his followers revere offers precious few examples of righteous folks being punished for neighbors' misdeeds (to the contrary: Noah was warned to build an Ark, Lot was told by an angel to flee Sodom, and Jesus, who temporarily bore the brunt of all the wrongdoing that ever was, was amply compensated with resurrection). Yet he and his followers seem terrified of strangers' sex acts, contraception practices, and other ostensibly unclean behaviors. One would think that the lesson they'd take from scripture is to continue in their holy ways and let corrupt America fall around them so they can have dominion over what's left. Or is it moral contagion that scares these people? Maybe, despite their efforts at homeschooling, firearms-education, and college-avoidance, Santorum and his constituents lack confidence in their ability to fend off Satan. As a matter of fact, it's clear they lack such confidence, or why would they look to legislation, to laws, to clear the national landscape of temptation, including, according to a recent Santorum speech, Internet pornography? It turns out they're fans of government after all. Indeed, they look to it for their salvation. In politics, ironically, they trust, but in God they merely believe.


They're not who they seem to be, Santorum's people. I honestly don't know who they are.


Do they?


Walter Kirn is the author, most recently, of a memoir, "Lost in the Meritocracy." His 2001 novel "Up in the Air" is the basis for the film of the same name. His column appears every Friday.

More from GQ:
The 10 Best New Restaurants in America
The 25 Greatest Philanderers in American Political History
A Guide to Republican Candidate Style