Among the panoply of rightward-leaning politicians who are currently flirting with running for the presidency is one Mike Huckabee, a former pastor, governor, television host, and author who has of late been preparing for office by converting himself into Larry the Cable Guy. Huckabee is touring the breadth and width of the country in support of his new book — the alliteratively titled God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy — the purpose of which seems to be to establish its author as the unparalleled down-home candidate within the 2016 primary. Unlike so many in Washington, Huckabee claims, he is firmly on the side of “Bubbaville” rather than “Bubbleville”; of the “catfish and cornbread crowd” rather than “the crepes and caviar set”; and of those who “come home tired at the end of the day” rather than those who “burn tires in the street.” Are you tired of the incumbent set? he seems to ask. Then you know what to do.
By taking this approach, Huckabee is essentially attempting to become to the Right what the likes of Neil deGrasse Tyson have become to the Left: namely, a proxy figure who can be used as shorthand by the lazy and the lost to signify their allegiance to a set of cherished cultural values. “We like the simple life,” Huckabee announces in his book. “Status is a Ford 150 truck; luxury is crawfish étouffée and slaw on your pulled-pork sandwich; and privilege is front-row seats at a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert.” And unlike those “misfortunate” souls in “Manhattan, the Washington Beltway, or in Beverly Hills,” we know the joy that one can get from wading “in chest-deep water to hunt mallards.” Insofar as it goes, there is nothing wrong with this. Indeed, I like many of these things too. But the self-conscious spinning of local tradition into a national political aesthetic is invariably irritating, and, typically, electorally counterproductive. There are many wonderful things about the world Huckabee is attempting to represent. But surely, just surely, it is possible for a southerner to run for high office without dressing up as Forrest Gump?
There is a golden place in American life for preachers, authors, rabble-rousers, and loudmouths. And yet, because “entertainer” and “statesman” are discrete concepts, that place is rarely the White House. Unfortunately, today’s Republican party often seems incapable of grasping the difference between the two roles — which, I’d venture, is why so many conservatives demand talk-radio purity from their representatives and policy blueprints from their talk-radio hosts. It is also, I suspect, why their attacks on Barack Obama’s celebrity tend to fall painfully short. There is nothing inherently wrong with conservatives’ rolling their eyes at those voters who selected Barack Obama over Mitt Romney because they thought that Obama “cared more about them” or because he was “more like” them or because he received the endorsement of famous people that they admire. But it is difficult to take the detractors seriously when their own would-be representatives believe that they can achieve prominence simply by crowbarring the words “Guns” and “God” into a book title and then running around the country explaining which of the many people in Manhattan they think are a little la-de-da.
Now, none of this is to suggest that someone from a rural state should not be the Republican nominee. Nor, for that matter, is it to imply that there is anything inherently wrong with a public figure’s acknowledging his roots. In fact, it would be rather refreshing to welcome into the fold a presidential candidate who did not resemble Clint Webb. But it is to note that there is an awkwardly thin line between the man who is genuinely proud of where he is from and who doesn’t care who knows it, and the hectoring tell-don’t-show scold who has elected to sneer at the rest of the country because he thinks it will help his electoral fortunes. Lately, alas, Huckabee has begun to position himself on the wrong side of that divide. “In Iowa,” he told a Des Moines radio station last Friday, “you would not have people who would just throw the f-bomb and use gratuitous profanity in a professional setting.” “In New York,” by contrast, “not only do the men do it, but the women do it!” That, he concluded” is just “trashy!”
This was no aberration. A few days earlier, Huckabee had taken to Bill O’Reilly’s show to describe Beyoncé as nothing more than a “sex object” and to imply that, by permitting her to dance as she sees fit, her husband is a pimp. In his book, meanwhile, he describes Beyoncé’s music as “trash,” proposes that her “explicit moves” are “best left for the privacy of her bedroom,” and inquires derisively as to why the Obamas “let Sasha and Malia listen” to her at all.
One has to ask why exactly politicians feel the need to comment on these questions. The United States has a raft of problems that need addressing, not the least of which is that its supposedly limited government is at present threatening to devour the very liberty that it was instituted to protect. That a man who would ascend to the most powerful office in the country is meditating on the alleged shortcomings of a performer strikes me as being both politically unseemly and electorally counterproductive. Here on the right, we often complain that the political, media, and entertainment classes regard most of the country as rather irrelevant, and that, in consequence, they openly condescend to people who live in Alabama or who go to church or who have NRA stickers on their cars. There is much to this gripe. And yet one will not solve that problem by presenting as a countervailing force a person who sneers right back — especially when that person is seeking an extraordinary amount of power over his fellow citizens. Whatever cultural renaissance Mike Huckabee might believe is necessary in the United States, it will be up to civil society and not to the political classes to bring it about. Unless conservatives wish to join the Left in its Wilsonian quest to glue politics to absolutely everything, our would-be emissaries really need to make up their minds: Do they want to be Mark Levin, or do they want to be Calvin Coolidge?
This principle, I would venture, must obtain even more keenly when that emissary is being dull. One of the many reasons that I am not a progressive is that progressives tend to be inordinately boring and zealously puritanical — and, once they are afforded the chance to export their insipidity, unyieldingly evangelical to boot. Increasingly, there is almost nothing in our culture that is not “offensive” or “problematic” in one way or another. Jokes aren’t funny because they inevitably have a butt; music isn’t enjoyable because it’s too misogynistic or “appropriated”; history cannot be taught lest it “trigger” those with excessively sensitive souls; the open road is reactionary because it’s bad for the environment; smoking and drinking should be limited because they are bad for you and for the health-care system; guns and knives are too dangerous for adults to handle. All told, it seems to me that the Right will not be able to fight this if it is merely hoping to replace one set of taboos with another, and to install at the top of the pyramid a preacher-turned-politico whose first campaign move was to turn himself into a caricature.
Perusing the last century’s election returns, one is hard-pressed to find a winning campaign that has been built upon a contrived appeal to regional or cultural mores. For all the “hick” vitriol that was thrown at George W., his early popularity was in large part the product of a mixed upbringing and accomplished professional background that permitted him to put his finger into a good number of cultural pies at the same time. This same trick was pulled by both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton — and, arguably, by Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon, too.
Even in times of strife, Americans seem to be interested in neither recherché cultural proxies nor candidates who play up their particular culture mien. Despite the brief class-warfare that the Great Depression provoked, the country chose to trust a patrician who had risen to prominence in part because he enjoyed a famous name. The apotheoses of the anti-elitist Progressive era, meanwhile, were presided over by a man who had been the president of Princeton and, before him, a man whose last name was synonymous with the Gilded Age that he promised to bring to a close. In the post–World War II era — a time of burgeoning middle-class prosperity, of leveling neighborliness, and of the folksy televisual charms of Davy Crockett and Leave It to Beaver — the country was twice asked to choose between a five-star general and a bookish, intellectual diplomat. Do we honestly believe that Adlai Stevenson would have done better if he’d run on a promise of “Butter, Milkshakes, Drive-Ins, and Cars”?
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.