Whatever Happened to the Famous American Ability to Say "Nuts" to Charlatans, Crazies, and Fear-Mongers?

Shortly after the onset of the Battle of the Bulge, one of World War II's hardest-fought campaigns, with the Americans surrounded by German troops, when the American commander General Anthony McAuliffe was given the enemy's ultimatum to surrender or face annihilation, he famously replied: "NUTS!"
01/14/2016 02:06 pm ET Updated Jan 13, 2017

Shortly after the onset of the Battle of the Bulge, one of World War II's hardest-fought campaigns, with the Americans surrounded by German troops, when the American commander General Anthony McAuliffe was given the enemy's ultimatum to surrender or face annihilation, he famously replied: "NUTS!" The general put that in writing -- a one-word message, all capital letters, with exclamation point.

Why famous? Not only because it remains one of history's most succinct utterances in battle, but also because "Nuts!" seems -- or seemed at the time -- to convey a quintessential American capacity, burnished as a cherished aspect of our self-image, to call a spade a spade, dispense with nonsense and niceties, get to the meat of things, and, especially vital before going into battle, forcefully draw the brightest of red lines, push back at the malign use of power, and rally courage.

Two postwar films reflect that capacity. In Battleground, an American officer further down the line is asked by a German envoy to clarify the meaning of Gen. McAuliffe's reply: Is it affirmative or negative? "'Nuts!' is strictly negative," the American says, concluding with a verbal shove, "On your way, bud." Contrasted with European sophistication, a bracing expression of American directness.

And in The Best Years of Our Lives, a veteran who lost both hands in the war, now come home, confronts a man peddling a revisionist view that the wrong enemy was fought. To whom the vet, after asking if 400 of his buddies who died when their ship was sunk were fighting the wrong enemy, finally says "Nuts!" in another way, with equally bracing clarity: "Look here, mister, what are you selling anyway?"

Since forever, the American character in both life and art has prided itself on its down-to-earth vantage point and, from there, calling out "Nuts!" -- or words to that challenging effect -- on all phonies, charlatans, confidence men, snake-oil salesmen, film-flam artists, anyone trying to "pull a fast one" or put over something "slick." In sum: Gen. McAuliffe's "Nuts!" was a response that would resonate instantly with his troops and the American public alike.

Where oh where is that famous ability these days?

Of the cavalcade of bilge meriting a collective and full-throated "Nuts!" in recent years, where to start? There's the "birther" faux-controversy. There's the extreme anti-government ranting. There's the never-ending effort by a Republican-held Congress to repeal Obamacare. There is the gun mania -- and carnage -- that belies our claim to civilization. Readers will no doubt have their own nominations.

Because there was a dearth of "Nuts!" cast at these noxious trends at their outset, they have become entrenched and churn more noxiousness. The attempts to repeal Obamacare now number 62, despite the Supreme Court twice upholding the Affordable Care Act (ACA) as the law of the land. Anti-government ranting, accelerated by the Tea Party to the proposed ACA, now infects the entire GOP, with all the Republican presidential candidates railing against Big Bad Government. The recent takeover of a federal wildlife installation in Oregon by renegade ranchers is only the latest manifestation of this anti-government hatred. It's just nuts, however, to think the American behemoth can be run without central control.

As to the "birther" claims, which persist despite Mr. Obama providing his birth certificate confirming his Hawaiian birthplace and American mother: Among all Republicans, 44% still falsely believe Mr. Obama is foreign-born, while 54% believe he is Muslim (he is Christian). Among those supporting Donald Trump, the current Republican presidential front-runner, those numbers jump to 61% and 66%, respectively, thanks in big part to the misinformation campaign spearheaded by Trump himself for years now. Yet where are the Democrats, or even the Republican statesman, putting it to Mr. Trump: "Nuts to you, mister, what are you selling?"

Of course, with today's extreme partisan polarization, when it comes to the "Nuts!" challenge, one person's pecan is another's macadamia.

Even so, the Republican presidential candidates as a lot are especially deserving of the "Nuts!" challenge that, once upon a time, Americans hurled at charlatans, crazies, and fear-mongers. All of them -- Trump, Cruz, Rubio, Carson, Bush, Christie, Fiorina, Paul, Huckabee (Kasich excepted) -- take standard GOP positions and crank them up to the extreme, whether on immigration (Deport the 11 million undocumented!), refugees (Keep out the ISIS-loving Syrians!), Obamacare (Repeal first day in office!), guns (Hands off our Second Amendment!).

And what was that craziness from Ben Carson about ancient Egyptians using their pyramids as granaries? In normal times, eyes would roll and the candidate would get the net.

To date, the GOP presidential debates have served as springboard for candidates to outdo each other in the hyperbole of fear. But hyperbole, absent a moderating temperament, becomes dangerous, volatile. Ted Cruz' vow to "carpet bomb" parts of the Middle East so thoroughly that we'll see "if sand can glow in the dark" should, in its bald threat both to use nuclear weapons and to kill civilians, disqualify him as a potential Commander-in-Chief. Trump's remark to an Alabama crowd, that a protester in their midst (who happened to be African-American) maybe "should have been roughed up," should -- along with his zeal for internment camps, group registries, and deportation, combined with an apparent lack of moral compass -- raise the fear, the well-founded fear this time, of Trump's jack-boot tendencies.

And all around, we hear Trump supporters gush that the main reason they support their man is because "He tells it like it is." Really? What Trump tells is, well, nuts, from his opening announcement that Mexico sends us "rapists" and "murderers" to every crude remark onward. People confuse the audacity to say "politically incorrect" things with the audacity of the entertainer who'll do anything to keep the spotlight.

By contrast, the Democratic candidates come off so sane they risk seeming boring -- which only reflects the corrosive effect Republican charlatanry, craziness, and fear-mongering have had on our political discourse.

Extreme political polarization notwithstanding, one still hopes that the more egregious cases meriting a collective and full-throated "Nuts!" would pierce through, especially those cases calling on "the well known American humanity" which the above-cited German ultimatum at the Battle of the Bulge appealed to.

Guns, for one. If the horror of -- the following is not a typo -- over 406,000 gun deaths in the U.S. since 2001 cannot pierce American humanity and provoke not just "Nuts!" but "For the love of God, this must stop," what can? At the moment, with the ISIS-fomented massacres in Paris and San Bernardino, we have near-mass hysteria over refugees-who-might-be-terrorists coming into the country, yet there is nothing at all like hysteria over almost half-a-million gun deaths here since 2001.

How can this be? How can the National Rifle Association, contorting itself into ever more bizarre defenses against even elementary gun safety measures, not be called out as the supreme flim-flam artists they are? If domestic terrorism is now such a threat, then how can the NRA, and Congressional Republicans in its thrall, not even support blocking gun sales to terrorist suspects on the federal watch-list? Truly nuts. Instead, conservatives mocked the tears President Obama shed when he recently announced his (modest) executive actions on gun safety, tears that fell when he touched on the children cut down by guns. "Nuts!" doesn't suffice, "For shame" does.

It is possible we are now so deep in charlatanry, craziness, and fear-mongering that we are past the point where a simple "Nuts!" can even penetrate, much less signify. Complicating the picture is the public's rising anger: A recent "rage survey" shows Americans all along the political spectrum -- three-quarters of Republicans and two-thirds of Democrats -- are, as a New York Times editorial puts it, "spitting mad" that "they're living in a less-powerful America, that life hasn't turned out the way they had hoped, and that for them, the American dream has died." Beware, my fellow Americans: Angry people are manipulable by demagogues.

Meanwhile, sadly, our culture's creative artists don't help much, being in thrall with "breaking bad" and defining humanity downward to pathology.

None other than Abraham Lincoln may point the way forward. Speaking of the need to abolish slavery, he said, with profound wisdom: "We must disenthrall our selves, and then we shall save our country." One way to disenthrall starts by recapturing our once-famous ability -- air-clearing, humanity-restoring, nation-saving -- to say "Nuts!"

Carla Seaquist's latest book, "Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality," is now out. An earlier book of commentary is titled "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character." Also a playwright, she published "Two Plays of Life and Death," which include "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks" and "Kate and Kafka," and is at work on a play titled "Prodigal."