During the 2000 presidential election, George W. Bush and Al Gore crisscrossed the nation with very similar campaigns. Both were Ivy League scions of wealthy Southern political dynasties, and maybe not coincidentally, both were pitching centrist platforms. Gore was attempting to continue the New Democrats’ rightward shift, and behind a haze of barbecue smoke, Bush was peddling the label of “compassionate conservatism.” (And surreptitiously planning an administration that would expand the reach of government more than his Democratic predecessor did.) Their ideologies were famously close.
While the candidates’ substance and charisma — or lack thereof — were about equal, Bush had one advantage not related to Florida’s Secretary of State. He became the candidate for whom they invented “the beer test,” a trope that has been a dispiriting staple of American politics ever since. The idea was that of the choice between him and Gore, it would have been more fun to tip a few cold ones with Georgie or Bushie or Spud or whatever the fuck he would have demanded you call him. He was a generation removed from the Connecticut gentry, of course, but still, you could just tell. He was a regular guy who had a belt buckle where his brain should have been, like a man’s aspozed ta.
Bush appealed to voters because he could dress up as the mythic American folk hero, the everyman. The Joe Six Pack. The post-industrial entrant in the lineage of American folk archetypes started by Thomas Jefferson’s yeoman farmer and perpetuated by pioneers, cowboys, and factory workers. George Bush’s everyman was purported to have a close relationship with tradition and honor, and most of all, common sense. He was the antidote to Washington equivocation.
The concept of the wise and deserving everyman pollinates many myths in political theory, from the proletariat in Marxism to the volk in Nazism. Sometimes he’s a mechanism for good government, as seen in the democracies of antiquity and the peer juries of our Constitution. More recently, in our country at least, he has become a foil to the elites who run the government; Zé Povinho in Portugal and the Aam Aadmi concept in India are similar characters.
The formula for determining the role of a national personification seems simple: when he represents a demographic with bright days ahead, he is honorable and intrepid. When his people are looking into the mouth of trouble, he gets cynical and insurgent.
In America’s present iteration of the everyman myth, we see something of a hybrid. He dates back to around the time of Bush’s first election, when the Republican handlers who invented him knew he would have to appeal to a whole bunch of dumb people — Christian fundamentalists, science deniers, social regressives. Banking on the likelihood that these people would never achieve any sort of preponderance in society, the everyman was made into someone who was both honorable and cynical, tradition-bound but dismissive of institutions.
Here was a guy who prayed all the dang time, worked his tail off while everybody else sat around, and voted hard Republican to protect little Susie.
At some point this fatass got a name: “the NASCAR Dad.” Remember him? 9 to 5 working stiff who hates taxes and can’t see his Dale Earnhardt Jr? Four years after Republicans invented the beer test and four years before they fabricated Joe the Plumber out of whole cloth (please, we all knew that guy was Mr. Clean) the NASCAR Dad was the most politically legitimate vote in America.
Here’s the problem though: NASCAR Dads don’t really like politicians that much. Given a choice between McCain and the black guy, well, sure, they’ll do what they’re supposed to. But you offer them a demagogue who uncorks the vitriol they’ve been accumulating towards the modern world, and... bam!
Suddenly the NASCAR Dad isn’t so hot on yet another grandson of old Prescott Bush. Suddenly he’s interested in making America great again.
Why don’t people like Paul Ryan and Reince Priebus talk about NASCAR Dad anymore? Has his dustblown wisdom abandoned him?
Actually, it’s that he never had any. Turns out that the guys who Republicans lacquered and polished into “NASCAR Dads” are even dumber than they look. These aren’t proletarian sages. They’re America’s uneducated cardboard filling, and they want red meat. They’re out for blood. That’s why, Donald Trump’s political freefall notwithstanding, millions of people formerly in hock to mainstream Republicans will be soon be casting votes for ochlocracy. And to do it, they’ll be lining up behind all those hateful, confused rubes in Daytona Speedway jackets.
It’s a remarkable moment of vindication for progressives — who, let us never forget, are the ones actually improving the fortunes of the working poor — still stinging from the embarrassment of having to appeal to NASCAR Dad when he was around. Back then, in those small, hard post-9/11 days, the Republicans turned the election into an America-off and took a head start. It was a time when everyone had to pretend to be jingoistic idiots; a time when progressives had no choice but to name their attempt at talk radio, “Air America.”
We always knew the NASCAR Dad wasn’t someone to be lauded for his politics. He had far more in common with Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy than with an honest representation of the American working class. But to Republicans, he was an engine. They used the vote of poor-ish white men as a Trojan horse for the neo-conservative, corporatist agenda they actually advanced.
But in delivering NASCAR Dad what they thought he wanted — fear of outsiders and unrealistic fiscal parsimony — they ended up scaring the bejeezus out of him. And promptly lost control of the resentment they had created. Now, no one controls NASCAR Dad. He, not Trump, is the real GOP Frankenstein.
What will NASCAR Dad do with all his many frustrations during the Clinton presidency? Fire off more email GIFs featuring Obama eating bananas? Shoot guns at the sky? Who knows.
No matter what happens, though, he stands a higher chance of surviving the next four years than the highly paid GOP operatives who had more data on NASCAR Dad than Donald Trump did, but nowhere near enough cajones to follow that demographic where it really wanted to go.