In Which the Author Delineates the Hidden Connection Between Presidential Politics and the Worst Aspects of Nerd Culture, and What Ensues
Our last presidential election had two candidates: Obama and Not-Obama. There's always hatred for the opposing candidate in a presidential race, but the venom directed at Obama over the last few years has been so intense that it literally defies reality: Socialist. Death panels. Birtherism. Secret Moslem. Jean Paul Ludwig. (No, seriously.)
It's certainly much deeper than anything warranted by his actions or legislation. In fact, he's done things that would have put the GOP base into orgasmic comas on the floors of their media rooms if it had been Chris Christie in the White House. ("Alex, what is 'killing a terrorist mastermind?'")
A lot of people say this is racism.
I've been thinking about for months now, and I have a different answer.
I say it's nerds.
I was a big old Star Trek nerd myself. I didn't go to conventions, and I sided more with "Evil Shatner" than the Trekkies he lambasted that one time he lost his cool, but I still loved that show. And when I heard Paramount was going to make Star Trek: The Next Generation, I was SO THERE.
Maybe you're old enough to remember what happened next. The show came out, and it was awful. The dialogue was as stilted as an Ed Wood B-movie; the plot points were clichés, there was no conflict, and every third episode ended with a deus ex machina. It made me cringe. My "normal" friends knew that I liked Trek. Now they were seeing this abortion on my say-so, and any pretensions to taste that I might have had were being tossed out the window.
But then a funny thing happened. I would wax sardonic about ST:TNG to other fans, expecting at least a nod of agreement, if not a grin at my razor-sharp wit. Instead, they defended the show. They liked it. Sure, the characters were wooden, but they had the potential for a lot more growth than the ones in the original Star Trek. The holodeck is tremendous, it's a great idea to put a mind-altering illusion chamber onto a ship capable of destroying planets. Robot sex? That's not creepy, it's daring, and hearing the crew explain the human experience to Data for the umpteenth time, that just never gets old.
I was baffled. Was I crazy? Couldn't they see how awful this thing was? So we would talk and talk – or they would, while my mind drifted – until we came to the subject of Wesley Crusher, the youngest character of the show. Here, the sentiment was unanimous: Wesley Crusher had to die.
This one made my brain hurt even worse. Sure, the character was annoying. He might even have been the most annoying of the regulars - but certainly not by much. (An unbiased viewer might have taken a long, hard look at Commander Ryker, the series' Kirk surrogate.) And my friends didn't just hate Wesley Crusher; they hated Wil Wheaton, the actor who played him, as if one sixteen-year old had destroyed the most precious thing in the universe.
To a psychologist – or an addict in recovery – this is a pretty familiar pattern. My fellow nerds couldn't admit that they were committed to crap. Their identity was tied to the show. Others might see them as losers, but they knew that they were more intelligent, more insightful, and more connected. If they liked something, it had to be objectively good. So, instead of abandoning ST:TNG altogether – my response – they recast it as a flawed but visionary series. All they had to do was get rid of that flaw, that Wesley, and everything would be wonderful.
In the end, the fans were triumphant. The show did improve, and Wesley was demoted from series regular to recurring guest. ST:TNG ran for seven seasons and developed three spin-offs, and Wheaton's career went into eclipse until he resurrected it as a blogger and, ironically, an icon to a new generation of nerds.
Like Trekkies, the GOP base is passionate. In fact, that's been the GOP trade-off for at least four election cycles – intensity at the cost of a broader voter appeal. Being the party of the angry white male has paid off pretty well, often allowing Republicans to win on issues that a majority of Americans oppose (restricting choice, tax cuts for the wealthy, etc.) But that's a problem for the country now, because the GOP base that loathes Obama is also the base that voted for George W. Bush, twice.
The problem isn't just that Bush was a bad president. It is that Bush and his administration damaged those things in the country that conservatives treasure most – military strength, financial stability, and limited government; and that he did it using the rhetoric and methods most beloved of the Right – talking loudly, and wielding a big stick. No one outside the right wing of American politics denies that it was George W. Bush, not Barack Obama, who allowed America's financial markets to collapse in a flood of unregulated chicanery; who wasted lives and treasure in an extended war that had nothing to do with bringing to justice the leaders of al-Qaeda; and who ballooned the US deficit into the trillions. George W. Bush stood for everything conservatives believed in. His style in leadership was exactly what they were looking for. And he failed.
Psychologically mature individuals may have a tough time dealing with a situation, but ultimately they absorb it, comprehend it, and move on. The American Right has yet to do that. Instead, they're participating in a classic case of mass denial. Obama is their Wesley. And after you deny one reality, it becomes easier to deny others, and that is the mulch for the quick-growing conspiracy theories about Obama's citizenship, political views, academic record, and so on. (And in denial, as in so much else, Karl Rove has literally become the face of the party; consider his on-air reaction to Obama's win on election night. It was, as my psychoanalyst cousin would say, "textbook.")
This denial is a genuinely scary thing. It means that a large minority of America's citizens are engaging in thinking that is literally pathological, in areas where the fate of the world hangs in the balance. It can lead to behavior that is profoundly damaging – like the Tea Party debt-ceiling tactics last year, or Ambassador John Bolton's behavior at the United Nations.
And even worse, Red Staters, it might make you nerds. Just like me.