Karl Rove: America's Mullah

This election is about Rovism, and the outcome threatens to transform the U.S. into an ironfisted theocracy.

By Neal Gabler
Neal Gabler, a senior fellow at the Norman Lear Center at USC Annenberg, is author of "Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality."

Los Angeles Times

October 25, 2004

Even now, after Sen. John F. Kerry handily won his three debates with President Bush and after most polls show a dead heat, his supporters seem downbeat. Why? They believe that Karl Rove, Bush's top political operative, cannot be beaten. Rove the Impaler will do whatever it takes — anything — to make certain that Bush wins. This isn't just typical Democratic pessimism. It has been the master narrative of the 2004 presidential campaign in the mainstream media. Attacks on Kerry come and go — flip-flopper, Swift boats, Massachusetts liberal — but one constant remains, Rove, and everyone takes it for granted that he knows how to game the system.

Rove, however, is more than a political sharpie with a bulging bag of dirty tricks. His campaign shenanigans — past and future — go to the heart of what this election is about.

Democrats will tell you it is a referendum on Bush's incompetence or on his extremist right-wing agenda. Republicans will tell you it's about conservatism versus liberalism or who can better protect us from terrorists. They are both wrong. This election is about Rovism — the insinuation of Rove's electoral tactics into the conduct of the presidency and the fabric of the government. It's not an overstatement to say that on Nov. 2, the fate of traditional American democracy will hang in the balance.

Rovism is not simply a function of Rove the political conniver sitting in the counsels of power and making decisions, though he does. No recent presidency has put policy in the service of politics as has Bush's. Because tactics can change institutions, Rovism is much more. It is a philosophy and practice of governing that pervades the administration and even extends to the Republican-controlled Congress. As Robert Berdahl, chancellor of UC Berkeley, has said of Bush's foreign policy, a subset of Rovism, it constitutes a fundamental change in "the fabric of constitutional government as we have known it in this country."

Rovism begins, as one might suspect from the most merciless of political consiglieres, with Machiavelli's rule of force: "A prince is respected when he is either a true friend or a downright enemy." No administration since Warren Harding's has rewarded its friends so lavishly, and none has been as willing to bully anyone who strays from its message.

There is no dissent in the Rove White House without reprisal.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric K. Shinseki was retired after he disagreed with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's transformation of the Army and then testified that invading Iraq would require a U.S. deployment of 200,000 soldiers.

Chief Medicare actuary Richard Foster was threatened with termination if he revealed before the vote that the administration had seriously misrepresented the cost of its proposed prescription drug plan to get it through Congress.

Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill was peremptorily fired for questioning the wisdom of the administration's tax cuts, and former U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer III felt compelled to recant his statement that there were insufficient troops in Iraq.

Even accounting for the strong-arm tactics of Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon, this isn't government as we have known it. This is the Sopranos in the White House: "Cross us and you're road kill."

Naturally, the administration's treatment of the opposition is worse. Rove's mentor, political advisor Lee Atwater, has been quoted as saying: "What you do is rip the bark off liberals." That's how Bush has governed. There is a feeling, perhaps best expressed by Georgia Democratic Sen. Zell Miller's keynote address at the Republican convention, that anyone who has the temerity to question the president is undermining the country. At times, Miller came close to calling Democrats traitors for putting up a presidential candidate.

This may be standard campaign rhetoric. But it's one thing to excoriate your opponents in a campaign, and quite another to continue berating them after the votes are counted.

Rovism regards any form of compromise as weakness. Politics isn't a bus we all board together, it's a steamroller.

No recent administration has made less effort to reach across the aisle, and thanks to Rovism, the Republican majority in Congress often operates on a rule of exclusion. Republicans blocked Democrats from participating in the bill-drafting sessions on energy, prescription drugs and intelligence reform in the House. As Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) told the New Yorker, "They don't consult with the nations of the world, and they don't consult with Congress, especially the Democrats in Congress. They can do it all themselves."

Bush entered office promising to be a "uniter, not a divider." But Rovism is not about uniting. What Rove quickly grasped is that it's easier and more efficacious to exploit the cultural and social divide than to look for common ground. No recent administration has as eagerly played wedge issues — gay marriage, abortion, stem cell research, faith-based initiatives — to keep the nation roiling, in the pure Rovian belief that the president's conservative supporters will always be angrier and more energized than his opponents. Division, then, is not a side effect of policy; in Rovism, it is the purpose of policy.

The lack of political compromise has its correlate in the administration's stubborn insistence that it doesn't have to compromise with facts. All politicians operate within an Orwellian nimbus where words don't mean what they normally mean, but Rovism posits that there is no objective, verifiable reality at all. Reality is what you say it is, which explains why Bush can claim that postwar Iraq is going swimmingly or that a so-so economy is soaring. As one administration official told reporter Ron Suskind, "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality…. We're history's actors."

When neither dissent nor facts are recognized as constraining forces, one is infallible, which is the sum and foundation of Rovism. Cleverly invoking the power of faith to protect itself from accusations of stubbornness and insularity, this administration entertains no doubt, no adjustment, no negotiation, no competing point of view. As such, it eschews the essence of the American political system: flexibility and compromise.

In Rovism, toughness is the only virtue. The mere appearance of change is intolerable, which is why Bush apparently can't admit ever making a mistake. As Machiavelli put it, the prince must show that "his judgments are irrevocable."

Rovism is certainly not without its appeal. As political theorist Sheldon Wolin once characterized Machiavellian government, it promises the "economy of politics." Americans love toughness. They love swagger. In a world of complexity and uncertainty, especially after Sept. 11, they love the idea of a man who doesn't need anyone else. They even love the sense of mission, regardless of its wisdom.

These values run deep in the American soul, and Rovism consciously taps them. But they are not democratic. Unwavering discipline, demonization of foes, disdain for reality and a personal sense of infallibility based on faith are the stuff of a theocracy — the president as pope or mullah and policy as religious warfare.

Boiled down, Rovism is government by jihadis in the grip of unshakable self-righteousness — ironically the force the administration says it is fighting. It imposes rather than proposes.

Rovism surreptitiously and profoundly changes our form of government, a government that has been, since its founding by children of the Enlightenment, open, accommodating, moderate and generally reasonable.

All administrations try to work the system to their advantage, and some, like Nixon's, attempt to circumvent the system altogether. Rove and Bush neither use nor circumvent, which would require keeping the system intact. They instead are reconfiguring the system in extra-constitutional, theocratic terms.

The idea of the United States as an ironfisted theocracy is terrifying, and it should give everyone pause. This time, it's not about policy. This time, for the first time, it's about the nature of American government.

We all have reason to be very, very afraid.