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The Day of the Locust



The mobs howled again in California, rattling windows on the Potomac. Are the barbarians marching eastward, as they did after the famous tax revolt of the late 1970s, or is this just another West Coast full-moon episode with little national consequence?


The larger meaning of Schwarzenegger’s triumph of the will, of course, depends on how you interpret the grievances that provided the recall’s extraordinary emotional fuel. But I must warn you that analyzing this election is an adventure in a realm of stupefying paradox and contradiction. All the same, it may tell us a great deal about the emerging landscape of American politics.


The hardcore ideologues of zero government and McKinley-era capitalism are trumpeting the recall as a new populist revolution in the spirit of Howard Jarvis’s Proposition 13 in 1978. They echo local Republican claims that a venal Democratic governor, in league with big unions and the welfare classes, was turning off the lights of free enterprise and driving the hardworking middle classes to Arizona with huge, unfair tax increases. Gray Davis, in a word, was the anti-Christ, wrecking California’s golden dream on behalf of his selfish constituencies of school teachers, illegal immigrants, and rich Indians. The Terminator, they assure us, has literally saved California from the yawning abyss of “tax, tax, tax; spend, spend, spend.”


From the outside, this seems rather ridiculous. Davis, to begin with, is an autistic centrist in the Democratic Leadership Council mode who has governed California for the last five years as a good Republican. In fiscal policy, as well as in prisons, education, and the lubrication of corporate interests, there has been no significant departure from the paradigm of his predecessor Republican Pete Wilson. Indeed, Davis has been such a raving executioner and prison-builder that crime-and-punishment has disappeared as a right-wing wedge issue.


Moreover, if California’s middle classes have any cause to feel raped and pillaged in recent years, clearly the culprits are Arnold’s eminence grise, Pete Wilson, who deregulated the utilities to begin with, and the Bushite power cartels like Enron which looted California’s consumers during the phony energy crisis of 2000-01. And it is the Bush administration that has told bankrupt state and municipal governments everywhere to “drop dead” while it shovels billions into the black hole it has created in Iraq. Fiscal crisis should be an issue owned by the Democrats.


Strange, then, that almost two-thirds of the voters in the mega-state that supposedly belongs lock, stock, and barrel to the Democrats either endorsed the stealth return of Pete Wilson — the mind whirring within Arnie’s brawn — or voted for a right-wing quack, Tom McClintock. These are the kinds of election returns you expect to see from GOP bedrock states like Idaho or Wyoming, not from the vaunted Left Coast.


When you peer at the dynamics of recall rage up close, the whole phenomenon becomes stranger still. Here in San Diego, where I live and the recall originated, the Schwarzenegger blitzkrieg seemed to suck anger out of the clear blue sky. This, after all, isn’t Youngstown or even Stockton or San Bernardino. Republican voters, as far as I know, are not being evicted en masse from their homes or forced to steal milk for their staving babies.


Far from it, the value of the median family home soared almost $100,000 last year and the area is once again awash with Pentagon dollars. The freeways are clogged with Hummers and other mega-SUVs, while those with luxury lifestyles, carefully tended by armies of brown-skinned laborers, bask in the afterglow of Bush’s tax cuts.


Enlistment in Arnie’s army of “hell no, we’re not going to take it anymore” tax protestors visibly bore little relationship to actual economic pain. Yet, for weeks, suburban San Diego has been contorted into visceral, self-righteous rage over the supposedly satanic regime in Sacramento. Indeed exit polls show that, in San Diego as well as statewide, support for Schwarzenegger increased with income and topped out at the country-club and gated-community level.


So are California’s fat cats merely impersonating populist anger? With so little correlation between actual economic hardship (greatest, of course, in pro-Bustamante Latino and Black inner-city neighborhoods and rural valleys), what explains this astonishing mobilization of voter emotion, particularly in affluent white suburbs?


In my microcosm, San Diego, part of the answer could be found at the lower end of the AM dial. At KOGO 600, “San Diego’s Radio Mayor,” Roger Hedgecock, presides over what, even before the official campaign began), was boastfully labeling itself “Recall Radio.” A defrocked former mayor accused of conspiracy and perjury in the 1970s, Hedgecock, who occasionally fills in for Rush Limbaugh on national hate radio, takes credit for the “heavy lifting” that put Arnold Schwarzenegger in the governor’s mansion in Sacramento. Republicans acknowledge that he has been the recall’s most influential voice in Southern California.


From 3 to 6 PM, “Roger,” as he is universally called by his more than 300,000 regular listeners, rules over afternoon freeway gridlock in a vast radio market that extends as far north as Santa Barbara. Southern California, of course, has the worst traffic congestion in the country and the ever lengthening commutes are a continuous, grinding source of free-floating anger. Hedgecock deftly plays off this afternoon, stuck-in-traffic frustration. He is the angry tribune of white guys in their 4X4 Dodge pickups and Ford Expeditions.


For almost two decades, his major rage has been the Brown Peril, the supposed “Mexican invasion” of California. He was a key instigator of anti-immigrant Proposition 187 in 1994 as well as local semi-vigilante protests against border-crossers. On the eve of the recall, he continually warned his listeners that the Mexican threat was now of apocalyptic proportions, given Gray Davis’s signing of a bill to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain drivers’ licenses.


“This is the end of American democracy, the end of fair elections,” he fulminated. “Vast numbers of operatives,” he warned, were enlisting newly-ID’d immigrants to cast hundreds of thousands of illegal ballots to keep Davis in power. San Diego, moreover, was facing an “invasion” of trade-unionists from alien Los Angeles who would “tear down pro-recall signs” and generally terrorize neighborhoods. Roger urged locals to defend their homes and resist the hoards of illegals and LA unionists “in the spirit of 1776.”


In several weeks of listening to Roger’s screeds, punctuated by hallelujahs and amen’s from the choir on their cellular phones, the only issue that came remotely close to the same decibel level as illegal immigrants (and “the so-called Chicano community”) was a hike in the registration tax on cars. Hedgecock ignored the fact that the automatic escalation of the car tax (2% of its value) had originated in Wilson-era legislation. Instead, he directly connected it to illegal immigrants “whose cost to the state of California is almost exactly the budget deficit.” “That’s how bad things are, ladies and gentlemen,” he intoned constantly. Car taxes and wetbacks were his incessant themes.


The mainstream media has done a poor job of documenting the organization of the recall at the grassroots level where AM voices like Roger’s, or his counterpart Eric Hogue’s in Sacramento, rouse thousands of mini-Terminators. As a result, there has been an overly respectful legitimation of economic populism in the recall dynamic and only a faint registration of the central role of traditional racist demagoguery and the revival of the Brown Peril rhetoric that made Pete Wilson the most hated figure in the state’s Latino neighborhoods. To adapt a rap phrase, “It’s all about fear of a brown planet.”


Yet, I don’t want to suggest that this is a simple repeat of anti-immigrant Proposition 187 in the context of a recession and a nationwide crisis of state financing. Arnold Schwarzenegger does add something genuinely novel to the mix. He is not just another actor in politics but an extraordinary lightning rod, both in his movie persona and in real life, for dark, sexualized fantasies about omnipotence.


Pleasure in the humiliation of others — Schwarzenegger’s lifelong compulsion — is the textbook definition of sadism. It is also the daily ration of right-wing hate radio. As governor he becomes the summation of all smaller sadisms, like those of Roger Hedgecock that in turn manipulate the “reptile within” of millions of outwardly affluent but inwardly tormented commuter-consumers. In their majesty, the predominantly white voters of California’s inland empires and gated suburbs have anointed a clinically Hitlerite personality as their personal savior.


The last word about all this should, of course, belong to Nathanael West. In his classic novel The Day of the Locust (1939), he clearly foresaw that fandom was an incipient version of fascism. On the edge of Hollywood’s neon plains, he envisioned the unassuageable hungers of California’s petty bourgeoisie.


“They were savage and bitter, especially the middle-aged and the old . . . Their boredom becomes more and more terrible. They realize they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment. .. Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies.”


Copyright C2003 Mike Davis


Mike Davis is the author of City of Quartz, Ecology of Fear, and most recently, Dead Cities: and Other Tales.


[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]

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