Karl Rove’s Scheherazade Strategy

Here’s how a Washington Post piece soon after the Supreme Court’s smack-down of the Bush administration’s Guantanamo policies began:

“Republicans yesterday looked to wrest a political victory from a legal defeat in the Supreme Court, serving notice to Democrats that they must back President Bush on how to try suspects at Guantanamo Bay or risk being branded as weak on terrorism… As the White House and lawmakers weighed next steps, House GOP leaders signaled they are ready to use this week’s turn of events as a political weapon.”

So what’s new? The single greatest skill of the Bush administration – and especially of its presiding political strategist Karl Rove – has been turning potential disasters (of which there have been so many) into successful attacks on the Democrats, while, against all odds, briefly elevating the president’s approval ratings. This talent for fashioning tall tales and going for the political jugular has, as in the presidential race of 2004 (aided and abetted by the Democrats), proven just enough to get the Republicans past the voters in reasonable shape. The ever-devolving catastrophe in Iraq has been but the latest candidate for such treatment – as, in the wake of the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the president announced that “the tide” was again turning in that country, congressional Republicans launched fierce attacks on Democratic cut-and-runners, and the already astronomical numbers of dead bodies flooding into Baghdad’s central morgue rose, post-Zarqawi, by 16%.

As religion professor Ira Chernus suggests below, Rove regularly manages to do his work in part by calling on that oldest of American stories, the one about fighting the savages on a distant frontier in order to make the world safe for settlers. Chernus, a professor of religion, canny guy, and regular Tomdispatch contributor, explains just how this process works (over and over and over again).

Of course, sooner or later, all good (and bad) things must end. We know that. The question is: Will November 2006 be the start of that moment or simply more of the same old, same old?

Karl Rove’s Scheherazade Strategy

By Ira Chernus

Karl Rove has a simple rule, they say: When you are falling behind, attack your opponents at their strongest point. In the upcoming election, the Democrats’ strongest point should obviously be Iraq. With the spotlight eternally focused on the disastrous war there, Rove has to figure out how to turn its dazzling beam to his party’s advantage.

So he’s borrowing a page from an ancient Iranian storybook and imitating Scheherazade, the maiden whose husband’s policy was “wed ’em, bed ’em, and kill ’em at dawn.” Rove is telling Republican candidates to follow Scheherazade’s rule: When policy dooms you, start telling stories – stories so fabulous, so gripping, so spellbinding that the king (or, in this case, the American citizen who theoretically rules our country) forgets all about a lethal policy.

The GOP stories are the same ones white people have been telling each other ever since they first set foot on North American shores: If you want to be safe, go to the frontier and wipe out the Indians. As former State Department official John Brown has noted, our Indian wars are not over yet.

Now Rove and his president are trying to sell the Iraq war as a frontier conflict, too. They want us to see U.S. troops as the cavalry putting down the “Injuns.” Or better yet, as pioneers creating small enclaves of civilization (in Iraq they’re called Green Zones) in the midst of a vast wilderness full of savages. What strength, what courage it takes to survive. But they have a job to do: They must teach the savages how to be free. And above all, like their pioneering forebears, they must have the guts to stick it out until the job is done.

How do we know our military in Iraq has such beneficent motives? The answer is simple – they are Americans, by definition the heroes, the good guys. Every time they kill a bad guy like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, they only prove once again what good guys they are. (In a recent Washington Post-ABC poll, 68% of Americans said that the U.S. war against Iraq has “helped to improve the lives of the Iraqi people.”)

Naturally they hope, one day, to be able to go home to their loved ones and live the peaceable lives they long for. But they aren’t quitters like those (Democratic) schoolmarms back East in the halls of Congress. They are real frontiersmen, with the will and the resolve to stay the course. They won’t be scared off by suffering or bloodshed; sometimes – let’s be honest – it takes bloodshed for life to get better.

Republican Fairy Tales of Heroic Masculinity

George W. Bush is already out on the congressional campaign trail riffing on this old yarn. At a fundraiser for one Senate candidate he laid it out in all its marvelous simplicity: “There’s an Almighty; a great gift of the Almighty is freedom for every man, woman, and child. … The American people expect the government to protect them. It’s our most important job. … Iraq is now the central front, and we’ve got a plan to succeed. … There’s a group in the opposition party who are willing to retreat before the mission is done. They’re willing to wave the white flag of surrender.”

And there, my friends, is the real choice we’re being offered by Rovian rhetoric: weak-willed cowardly Democrats against Republicans who tough it out, whatever the cost, because – above all – they are real men.

The urge to prove manhood is central to the story. It may be what got us into Iraq in the first place. For four decades now, neoconservatives have bewailed the feminization of America. A nation where women can wear suits and men can have long flowing hair, even in corporate suites, drives them crazy. Since the 1970s they’ve touted belligerent policies, swaggering talk, and massive military budgets as the only way to stop liberals from imposing spinelessness on the nation.

The neocons want to turn a nation of soft, lazy, mall-shopping, morally squishy “relativists” back to the manly “strenuous life” that Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan preached. That’s one big reason they worked so hard to send “our boys” (and “girls”) off to the battlefields of Iraq. Karl Rove himself may not be a neocon, but he’s betting that the voters will be mesmerized by John Wayne-style tales of “real men” fighting evil on the frontier – at least enough Americans to avoid the death sentence that the voters might otherwise pronounce on the party that brought us the disaster in Iraq.

The frontier tales may sound trite and hackneyed to some, but they won’t go away. You probably know them by heart. In fact, without a second thought, you probably put them together intuitively and unconsciously to form a single unified narrative, doing the Republicans’ work for them. Many of your fellow Americans still take that grand narrative as the tried-and-true tale about the virtues that made America great.

Will women as well as men fall for these fairy tales of heroic masculinity? There is still a gender gap in U.S. politics. But since 9/11 it has narrowed considerably. Plenty of female voters now choose the candidate who best embodies the “manly virtues,” because it isn’t really about sex or gender. It’s about an age-old cultural bias that says males make clear distinctions between good and evil and then do whatever it takes to destroy evil, while females offer dangerously tender-hearted understanding to everyone.

This gets us to the heart of the Scheherazade strategy. It plays on the insecurity of Americans who feel that their lives are out of control. Karl Rove knows that (as Gary Bauer, a religious right politico, once put it) “Joe Six-Pack doesn’t understand why the world and his culture are changing and why he doesn’t have a say in it.” So Rove constantly invents simplistic good-against-evil stories for his candidates to tell. He tries to turn every election into a moral drama, a contest of Republican moral clarity versus Democratic moral confusion.

Rove wants every vote for a Republican to be a symbolic statement: I am not merely a feather blown around by what George W. Bush has called “the winds of change.” My vote anchors me in the Republican Party – solid as a rock, tough as the toughest pioneer, willing and able to bring the savage wilderness of this terroristic planet under firm American control.

The Scheherazade strategy is a great scam, built on the illusion that simple moralistic tales can make us feel secure, no matter what’s actually going on out there in the world. Though it never fulfills its promise, too many Americans keep on falling for it. Why? Here are some clues from scholars who trace it back to its roots in American Christianity. Catherine Albanese of the University of California at Santa Barbara writes: “Ordered conduct of foreign policy will, according to the conservative ethic, keep evil at bay and erect the safeguards that protect Christian life. Thus, containment for conservatives means the management of evil.” But the management of evil is a lifetime task. Far from relieving anxiety, it is bound to create more of it – and, Rove assumedly hopes, more people who crave the manly certitude that is supposed to relieve anxiety.

Princeton’s John F. Wilson explains why. The obsession with managing evil comes from “a concern, often exaggerated, to achieve control over those aspects of life experienced as uncertain.” From the Puritans to the present, people bent on controlling their lives have been haunted by the inescapable fear that they might lose that very control. When they find that they can’t control themselves or their lives or surroundings as completely as they might fervently wish, they feel like failures; and, Albanese adds, if they happen to think they are part of God’s chosen people, they may also feel a powerful obligation to live up to God’s expectation of perfect self-control. So they end up feeling not just like failures but like guilty sinners.

Who wants to shoulder such a heavy burden? “To admit that too much was wrong could jeopardize America’s belief in its status as a chosen nation,” Albanese says. “Americans could not admit the deepest sources of their guilt without destroying their sense of who they were.” So, instead, they went (and still go) looking for other people to control and blame them for their troubles. Our most recent candidates are, of course, the terrorists.

Before you know it, you have, in Wilson’s scholarly words, “essentially bipolar frameworks for conceiving of the world: good versus bad, us versus them. The puritan American while tightly disciplined is prone to be uncritical of self and hypercritical of others… [This] presupposes a fundamentally authoritarian pattern of relationships within the world and reinforces that pattern.” In other words, when the U.S. military tries to impose a made-in-America order upon Iraq (or anywhere else), it lets us avoid facing up to the abundant ills, evils, and insecurities here at home.

Scheherazade Fantasies and Frontier Realities

These are certainly deeply rooted, complex, and real feelings. Rove’s scam works because the bipolar framework seems so believable. There is always more American insecurity to feed our appetite for “staying the course” in Iraq. The U.S. presence there spawns more Iraqi “insurgents,” who make the whole story look all too believable on the evening news. The cycle is endless, because the old frontier story that is supposed to ease our insecurity actually fuels it.

It’s certainly making the public insecure about the war. In that Washington Post-ABC poll, only 37% of Americans approved of the way Bush is handling it. So Rove’s strategy may be an act of desperation. But it’s also a shrewd trick – some might call it genius – because it plays on the growing fear that Iraq represents something truly awry in the American universe. It links the Democratic party to the chaos of Iraq by turning both into symbols of American weakness, wilderness, and instability.

The Republican Scheherazades say, in effect, “Things may seem out of control now, but they’re bound to be far worse under the Democrats, who are completely incapable of keeping our fragile lives sheltered from the winds of violent change.” They tell the old familiar tales to plant seeds of doubt, to send the voter into the booth asking one big question: “Even if the Republicans are obviously not in control of this perilous world, do I dare to take a chance on those weak-willed flip-flop Democrats?” If a vote against the Democrats becomes a vote against uncontrollable change – then the Republicans are likely to have another election in their pockets.

Though the frontier story and its twisted offspring have deep roots in puritan Christianity, don’t just blame the Christians for them. Long ago these tales became the common property of secular American culture, too. And don’t just blame the Republicans. These are the same stories that led Democrats from Woodrow Wilson to Bill Clinton to places like The Somme, My Lai, and Mogadishu, promising wars to end war or communism or terrorism.

Yet ever since Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter, the Republicans have managed to make the old stories their own private property. When Democrats try to tell them, they just don’t sound believable any more. Right now, in fact, nothing that most mainstream Democrats have to say seems to have the ring of believability – or the Scheherazade strategy wouldn’t have a chance of saving the Republicans’ political life in November. So what’s a Democrat to do?

A Dem can start by seeing the risks in the Scheherazade strategy. For one thing, Rove’s story depends on believable images of American strength. If U.S. forces in Iraq keep suffering disasters between now and election day, voters going into the booth will have a harder time hanging on to the image of Republicans as their manly saviors.

It also depends on voters letting fairy tales, not logical thinking about policies, determine their vote. The Democrats should not assume that most voters will fall prey to alluring but absurd tales, as the king in Scheherazade did. They can tell the voters – and themselves – a frontier story about another traditional American virtue: the courage to trust that ordinary people will use hard-headed common sense to separate fact from fiction.

The old stories tell us that the actual pioneers, not the ones who so long inhabited our movie screens, had to confront life honestly. They couldn’t afford to “stay the course” just for the sake of saving face. And they couldn’t afford to play politics with matters of life or death. When things went wrong, they were brave enough to admit it and use good old American ingenuity to set things right. They were true democrats, expecting everyone to shoulder their share of responsibility and giving their neighbors the right to express their own opinions. They didn’t call disagreement “disloyalty.” They knew that even the humblest guy or gal might have the best idea for fixing things.

Out on the frontier, pioneers needed that kind of courage and common sense to make sure they and their families survived. It may be just what the Democrats need to survive, too – trusting ordinary people, even Iraqis, to find practical solutions to practical problems. If the Republican candidates want to play Scheherazade, they have to recognize that the Democrats might have a more honest, compelling story to tell. And we, the voters, are the king. We get to decide who remains alive at dawn on November 9 and who ends up a political corpse.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of the forthcoming book Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin. He can be contacted at chernus@colorado.edu

Copyright 2006 Ira Chernus

Author: Tom Engelhardt

An editor in publishing for the last 25 years, Tom Engelhardt is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War era, now out in a revised edition with a new preface and afterword, and Mission Unaccomplished, TomDispatch Interviews With American Iconoclasts and Dissenters. He is at present consulting editor for Metropolitan Books, a fellow of the Nation Institute, and a teaching fellow at the journalism school of the University of California, Berkeley. Visit his Web site. This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.