The Republican Paper Moon


It isn’t the worst movie ever. But it is painful to watch. I can stand it for about 10 minutes at a time, I think.

I used to be a little tougher. I may have gotten almost all the way through it once, 40 years or so ago. But age takes its toll.

Paper Moon is a depression era comedy about an adult/child pair of swindlers who accidentally get involved in the movie business.

Tatum O’Neal starred with her dad Ryan, and she was extraordinary. She would have walked away with the film, if there had been enough film to justify the walk. She did win an Oscar. I like to think it was for heroic effort against all odds.

The acting was not what you’d call subtle. The broad slapstick was tired and predictable. Early on, Ryan hides from an angry client and falls on his face after getting his foot stuck in a pail. If Ace Ventura is just too sophisticated for you, this might be your movie choice.

Not everyone in the mid-1970s felt the same way. The late Roger Ebert gave it a thumbs up. Even reviewers for Rotten Tomatoes were positive.

Insane. All of them.


I confess to a bias that may color my thinking a bit.

The character played by Ryan O’Neal falls in love with the new art of filmmaking and it changes the direction of his life. He has found his calling.

It starts, for him, when he sees a break-through film: The Birth of a Nation. D. W. Griffith is a genius, he declares, and he is committed to the wonderful path technology has created for him.

That the silent movie he loves seriously advanced the vicious racism of the times, contributing to the revival of the Klan, is not mentioned even tangentially. The attack on the very idea that black people could handle the right to vote was passed over. The film coincided with a dramatic increase in the number of lynchings throughout the former confederacy. None of that actually hit the cutting room floor. It was never there to be cut. It did not fit with the film’s comic intent.

I have similar uncomfortable moments as I occasionally come across old episodes of The Honeymooners. Jackie Gleason’s bombast comes perilously close to physical abuse, and continually exposes us to the 1950s assumption that violence is a natural part of marriage.

That Audrey Meadows stands, firm and calm and strong, in the face of those threats is a saving grace of sorts. And the show actually has funny moments at Ralph Kramden’s expense.

I thought about Paper Moon as I read a recent piece on the role played by Steve Bannon in Roy Moore’s near win in Alabama.

Bannon had a goal. Leni Riefenstahl had produced propaganda films for Hitler’s Nazis in the 1930s. Bannon told an associate he wanted to become the Riefenstahl of the Republican Party. Whether he is horrified by those German efforts may remain undefined for those associates. That he is enthralled by the craftsmanship is apparent.

That is an important step away from demonstrating any Nazi sympathy on the part of Steve Bannon. And it is more than a few steps away from any characterization of Republicans, many of whom do not crave the warm embrace of Bannon.

And yet. It is an illustration of, well, something. There are enough incidents to form a pattern:

When Steve Bannon was reported to boast to friends about his ability to “get into the heads” of liberals, it struck a chord in my dim, aging, memory. Over the years, that theme has been echoed in countless discussions with conservative acquaintances. Policies are advocated or opposed, not on their merits, but because liberals are on the opposite side. Policies, politics, even borderline illegality become subordinate to annoying those on the left.

I recall the outrage of conservatives in 2003 when former Ambassador Joe Wilson surveyed his contacts, those he knew would know, and declared that President Bush and Vice President Cheney were wrong about Saddam Hussein getting nuclear materials. In retaliation, Bush operative Karl Rove declared that Wilson’s wife was fair game. Valarie Plame was, at the time, a secret CIA operative – one operating in foreign countries without diplomatic immunity. Blowing that cover ended her career and exposed confidential sources to serious danger.

More important to the administration, outing Plame got Bush folks into the heads of CIA intelligence people. If you find facts that contradict our view of National Security, you may find your career ended and your sources put into mortal danger. We, wouldn’t want that to happen, now would we?

Rather than outrage, at the time, conservatives searched for loopholes. Who was technically guilty for outing her? Had enough time elapsed since Plame was overseas to make espionage laws technically inoperative?

The party of national security had become the party of excuses about exposing an American spy. Besides, it worked, didn’t it?

American political theorists hold serious debates about adding newer, more restrictive, ID requirements for voting. Conservatives have been able to document several cases of voter fraud. Taken in total, the number is small. One recent finding is typical of all legitimate studies:

… most reported incidents of voter fraud are actually traceable to other sources, such as clerical errors or bad data matching practices. The report reviewed elections that had been meticulously studied for voter fraud, and found incident rates between 0.0003 percent and 0.0025 percent.

The Brennan Center for Justice, January 31, 2017

Other studies have projected over 5 million voters, legitimate voters, will be denied the right to vote by those restrictive requirements.

For conservatives, the incidental blocking of millions of voters is not a problem. It represents an advantage. Whether it is wrong is measured by a single standard. It works in winning elections.

And so the party of Lincoln, the Party of Emancipation, has become the party of voter suppression.

In the 2000 election, an envelope arrived at Democratic headquarters. It contained debate preparation notes for the Republican candidate, then Texas Governor George W. Bush. Democrats called the FBI and turned over the materials. They would not use stolen information. Whether it would have worked did not matter as much as the fact that it was illegal and wrong.

Note the contrast:

In the 2016 election, the FBI warned both campaigns that the Russian government would likely try to influence, perhaps even infiltrate. Sure enough, email messages from Russian operatives asked for meetings with Republicans about information stolen from Democrats. Investigators are exploring why Republicans eagerly agreed to those meetings.

One high ranking Trump official has already pleaded guilty to secretly being on the Russian payroll.

The conservative reaction? One response is simply that it worked.

A new tax bill is projected by economists across the political spectrum as an explosion of deficits for the foreseeable future. And so the party of fiscal responsibility declares deficits fair game. Republicans need a win and this will work nicely, thank you. So much for balanced budgets.

For all the faults of conservatism, the Republican Party was once known as the party of voting rights, the party of morality or at least of moralism, the party of National Security. The party of Fiscal Responsibility.

At some point, things changed. We now have a party of whatever works politically, whatever wins: the Party of What We Can get Away With.

If Alabama, and New Jersey, and Virginia, and a scattering of state and local elections, form a meaningful pattern, a lasting reputation has, at last, taken hold.

Jon Perr suggests that new popular view of the current state of contemporary conservatism is wide and getting wider:

You can fool some of the people all of the time, and that’s our target market.

The more recent version of the Honeymooners, a kinder, gentler version was filmed a dozen years or so ago. Gleason and Meadows were replaced by Cedric the Entertainer and Gabrielle Union. One scene was taken from the old series, shortened a bit, and redone. Alice tells Ralph he’s gone off the deep end.

“You are certifiable, you know that? You ought to have your head examined.”

“I’ll have my head examined anywhere in the United States. And, you know what they’ll find when they look in there? NOTHIN!”

That Bannon fell on his face in Alabama strikes me as emblematic of the GOP writ large. Getting into the heads of enough voters to win, no matter what, is becoming a losing proposition. A tipping point has been reached.

Enough voters may at last have caught on to what is in the conservative heads of Republicans.

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1 thought on “The Republican Paper Moon”

  1. Once again you’ve kindly presented accurate history and facts; all of which shall fall on dead ears of conservatives. Their cult dictates what they are to believe.

    The primary Big Lie is “liberal media” in their war on journalism. Journalism has always been seen as a threat to totalitarians and authoritarians.

    The German Nazis used the term “Lügenpresse”, or lying press, in their campaign to destroy journalism. Now American fascists cry “liberal media” and “fake news” when the truth threatens their agenda.

    These are the devoted authoritarian fanatics of the fascist Right that have risen to frightening levels of influence in their war on our Constitution’s regulation of commerce and provision for the general welfare. They actively suppress voter rights, democracy, a free press, science, education, unions and minorities.

    Enough voters may at last have caught on to what is in the conservative heads of Republicans.

    They are slowly catching on. What needs to be emphasized is their goal is nothing less than a one-party dictatorship.

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