The bully is back in American politics. Intimidation, dismissal of majority opinion, denial of scientific facts and aggressive scapegoating -- these tactics have once again taken center stage. Blatant propaganda feeds fear and distrust, and the powerful and the privileged wallow in the spoils.
Though it never quite disappeared, the mean guy persona took a back seat in the Clinton era. Clinton's oft repeated "I feel your pain" message obscured some hard-hearted policies, like welfare reform and the relentless drug war. But the Clinton style was one of subtle triangulation, not public muscle. Clinton took enough principled stands to make him hugely popular in the African-American community and to reassure many that the barbarians had not yet reached the gate.
That feeling of reassurance has rapidly and dramatically evaporated. Yes, President Bush's policies are far more conservative than he articulated while running for office. But it's the in-your-face way his administration promotes a ferociously partisan agenda that has left many Americans gasping.
Think back to the bullying of junior high school, when intimidation ruled over reason; when kids were cruel for their selfish reasons; when power had a complete lack of empathy. In many ways, this is how conservatives and corporations behave in America and across the globe. Personal power, fortune and the bottom line run roughshod over democratic principles of justice and fairness.
Today's high-profile bullies in politics and business offer a rare opportunity. By taking inventory of their shared traits and tactics, we can put our finger on what makes these bullies tick ... and how they exercise "Scary Power."
Scary Power is bullying and brute strength exercised in the public sphere. It's the freedom to threaten millions of people's safety and well-being, say, by manipulating California's power supply. It's the ability to cheat hundreds of thousands out of large sums of money, as CitiGroup did with predatory lending practices. It's the clout to risk environmental disaster by blandly denying reams of scientific data, like ExxonMobil CEO Lee Raymond, who holds that global warming doesn't exist. It's an immense iron fist in a velvet glove, like the chemical industry simultaneously blocking safety tests for newly developed chemicals and convincing the public that such testing is routine.
In recent history, we saw flashes of Scary Power during the Gingrich revolution, when the Republicans controlled both wings of Congress and shut down the government. A meaner version surfaced when the conservatives went after Clinton's personal behavior, much against the will of the people. Now, with control of the White House, political bullies seem ready to use their Scary Power without fear of redress.
Why Scary White Guys?
OK, you're wondering about that title. Can't black guys in power be scary? Can't women be scary? Yes, sure they can -- but not real scary, not jaw-dropping scary.
To be truly scary, a person first needs a strong and unadulterated will to exercise power over others. Then add assets that not many can muster: ready access to a whole lot of money; equally ready access to the media; and a surrounding network of allies and talent -- lawyers, lobbyists, PR agents, political operatives, pollsters, etc. -- who can execute orders and get the dirty work done.
How many African-Americans have this combination at their disposal? Maybe Colin Powell, but he seems to be one of the least scary members of the Bush cabinet. What women can halt funding for family planning clinics around the world? Reality check: It's only the white guys (actually a certain breed of older, rich white guys) who have Scary Power.
Also, white guys with Scary Power are almost always supported by other white guys. A breakdown of voting by race in the last presidential election tells the story loud and clear. Fully 90 percent of Bush voters were white, as opposed to just 69 percent of Gore's. Gore carried the Latino vote 62 percent to 34 percent, the Asian vote 55 percent to 41 percent, and the black vote a whopping 90 percent to 8 percent. The gender gap was also significant: Gore won 54 percent of all women voters, 57 percent of women with college degrees and 64 percent of women with advanced degrees.
In other words, the only group that voted for Bush was white males. However, white guys supported him so overwhelmingly that, in the election fiasco, they managed to bring him -- and a whole crop of other scary white guys -- into power.
Characteristics of Scary White Guys (SWGs)
What are the characteristics of this rare breed, the scary white guy? At a minimum, the SWG has some or all of these characteristics:
He is a bully who uses intimidation as a regular tactic.
He is destructive, in that he kills possibilities and destroys human aspirations.
He is self-centered, egocentric and selfish.
He is an exploiter, employing his power to the greatest possible advantage.
He is greedy in that he seeks more than he could possibly need.
He is a denier who refuses to acknowledge disagreeable realities.
He is corrupt, dishonest, bending the rules for personal or political gain.
He is a scapegoater, adept at pitting people against each other and blaming victims for their suffering.
Ultimately, Scary Power is the ability to control the public narrative to frame messages: Globalization benefits all; environmentalists created the energy shortage; fair trade is a wishful dream. The scary guys' control of the narrative also discourages action, isolates people from one another and turns them off to engagement in public life. It breeds cynicism, hopelessness and apathy.
The characteristics above blend into various roles as SWGs form teams and alliances. Guys like Ronald Reagan carry the water for SWGs operating behind the scenes. George W. Bush, with his ah-shucks style, plays the enabler for friends like Kenneth Lay, chairman of the Houston-based Enron Corporation, as they make their financial killings. Some are the hit men, a role that Vice President Cheney plays to take the heat off of his partner. Others, like New Jersey Sen. Robert Torricelli, are just smart, aggressive bullies who steamroll the opposition through sheer ambition.
Below are the 13 Scariest White Guys wielding their bully power today, starting with the most obvious of them all ...
Bush-Cheney, Co-Presidents of the United States
It's impossible to separate these two SWGs. As the new joke goes, "Have you heard the one about the need to protect Bush? He's just a heartbeat away from the presidency."
On the campaign trail a year ago, George W. Bush said, "As we use nature's gifts, we must do so wisely. Prosperity will mean little if we leave future generations a world of polluted air, toxic lakes and rivers, and vanished forests." Texas, meanwhile, had the most toxic air emissions and cancer-causing pollution in the country. Can anyone say doubletalk?
Bush's environmental pledges exemplify a tool used very often by SWGs: the Big Lie. A clever rhetorical device, the Big Lie operates on the principle that if you make knowingly false assertions with enough conviction, and repeated them constantly, those with their hands on the truth are put on the defensive. Regulations about carbon dioxide emissions, worker's protection laws, drilling for oil in Alaska, building roads in the national forest -- these attacks on health and the environment all depend on Big Lies.
As Bush spouts doubletalk to the hoodwinked press, Cheney pulls the strings behind the scene. Cheney, who was paid $36 million by Halliburton oil company his last year working there, recently advocated for building a new power plant every week for 20 years in order to meet our energy needs. "Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue," he said, "but not a sufficient basis for sound comprehensive energy policy." Yeah, tell that to the scientists from five national science labs whose three-year study concluded that a "government-led conservation program could cut growth in energy consumption in half, using proven technology already in place."
As columnist Robert Scheer writes, "Why beat around the Bush? Surrogate president Dick Cheney is behaving like an oil-guzzling, intellectually irresponsible, anti-environmental oaf. To ignore scientific achievement on energy conservation is to lie to the American people about the dimensions of the problem. This is not leadership, it is fear-mongering that withholds ... sound scientific information in order to justify eviscerating conservation policy."
As for Dubya, well, we underestimate him as a moron at our peril. As Mark Crispin Miller writes in his new book The Bush Dyslexicon (W.W. Norton 2001), "Our president is not an imbecile, but an operator just as canny as he is hard-hearted. At the nasty kind of politics, he is extraordinarily shrewd."
Rupert Murdoch, Media Mogul
Choosing the scariest media mogul was not easy. But transplanted Aussie Rupert Murdoch, head of the global News Corporation, gets the nod. Murdoch's voracious empire-building, his right-wing agenda, and his use of his media properties to achieve political gain set him apart. His tabloids in London, New York and Australia have repeatedly supported or undermined candidates, and his conservative Fox News channel helped get Bush declared the winner on election night. Last year, News Corp. gave $800,000 to U.S. candidates, with 70 percent going to Republicans.
Already owner of the Fox Network, Murdoch now intends to gain control of U.S. satellite television to implement his vision of interactive television as the ultimate buying environment. The goal: to replace the Internet with high-speed satellite access to Murdoch's "walled garden," where subscribers would be limited to what his content machine has to offer.
Kenneth Lay, CEO of Enron
As head honcho of a leading Texas energy company, Kenneth Lay has aggressively championed the types of energy policies that have burdened California with rolling electrical blackouts. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Lay created a new kind of company as a result of deregulation victories, one that "essentially produces nothing, but makes money as a middle-man buying electricity from generators and selling it to consumers. During the first quarter of this year Enron revenues increased 281 percent to $50.1 billion."
Lay also represents the most extreme form of the pay-to-play corruption that dominates American politics. The largest of Bush's campaign contributors, his influence has reached unprecedented heights. According to The New York Times, he has even supplied Bush with candidates to regulate the power industry, and has threatened to have the head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission removed if he opposes deregulation.
Tom DeLay, House Majority Whip
Tom DeLay approaches regulations like the cockroaches he faced as an exterminator (his former career). It took Congress 10 years to pass legislation protecting the 600,000 workers who develop repetitive stress injuries each year. It took DeLay three months, and millions of big-business dollars, to repeal it.
DeLay has worked tirelessly to gut the Clean Air Act. He's called the EPA "the Gestapo of government," and he thinks volcanoes cause global warming. Described in Rolling Stone as Bush's legislative muscleman, DeLay leads by "killing or neutering anything that deviates from right wing orthodoxy. DeLay's vision of America looks like Houston on a bad day: ruled by corporate fat cats, polluted, gridlocked, a place where progress is measured by the size of your SUV and freedom is defined by a choice of tee-off times."
Sandy Weil, Chairman of Citigroup
Greed is maybe more understandable in the world of finance. But when legendary dealmaker Sanford I. Weil, chairman of Citigroup, bought Associates First Capital for $31 billion, he was basically saying there is no money too dirty for him. Associate First Capital is notorious in the field of predatory lending, which takes advantage of unsophisticated homeowners. It has been named in at least 700 lawsuits. As Martin Eakes, founder of Self-Help Credit Union, says, "It's simply unacceptable to have the largest bank in America take over the icon of predatory lending."
Citigroup engages in high-interest lending in low-income communities across the United States, and has long been a target of protest because of its redlining practices. Citigroup is also financing some of today's greatest environmental horrors, like the destruction of Indonesian rain forests, the Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline and China's Three Gorges dam, which will displace 2 million people. "Sandy Weil is responsible for immense ecological and human disasters because Citigroup, as a huge global lender, finances so much destruction," says Shannon Wright, communications director at the Rain Forest Action Network.
Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense
As the bellicose head of the Defense Department, Donald Rumsfeld is in the position to do massive harm, as he aggressively pushes for a National Missile Defense (NMD) system -- a redux of the Star Wars boondoggle discredited way back in the Reagan days.
Let's be clear here -- such a missile defense system won't work, isn't needed and is hugely expensive. However, Rumsfeld needs to push it because it makes his friends and funders at Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, Raytheon, TRW and the other defense companies very happy. (Those four have contributed $7 million to both political parties, spent $32.3 million lobbying, and -- surprise! -- have received NMD contracts to the tune of $2 billion per year. Nice return on the dollar.)
But Bush and Co. wants a huge new system, which would include a space-based, laser-firing satellite system. The cost: $240 billion. That's pretty expensive for something that won't make us safer but will make defense contractors rich, at the expense of seniors, education, health care, the whole nine yards.
Lee R. Raymond, CEO of ExxonMobil
Raymond heads the world's third-largest corporation, which earned more than $17 billion in profits in 2000, exceeding many nations' revenues. So when Raymond questions whether global warming exists or if fossil fuels play any role in it, people shudder. Because ExxonMobil's attitudes and policies impact virtually everyone.
ExxonMobil carries the big club for the Neanderthal wing of the fossil fuel lobby. According to author Ross Gelspan, it is the only major oil company to deny climate change, using outdated, manipulated and unqualified information. British Petroleum, by contrast, has become the largest producer of solar energy systems in the world. Even Shell and Texaco have also made progress. ExxonMobil hasn't.
John Walters, Drug Czar
With John Walters as our new Drug Czar (backed by arch-conservative John Ashcroft as attorney general), expect a marked escalation of the hugely unpopular drug war. While Canada is moving towards legalizing marijuana and six states have passed medical marijuana bills, Walters will likely head federal drug policy back into the Stone Age.
Walters thinks the racism of sentencing discrepency is an urban myth; is against drug treatment; advocates stiffer penalties against drug users; and despite untold billions of dollars spent achieving nothing, wholeheartedly supports the military wing of the drug war.
Joe Arpaio, Sheriff of Phoenix's Maricopa County Jail
Arpaio runs a jail for petty criminals with sentences of less than a year, many of whom have not yet gone to trial. Nevertheless, he boasts about heading one of most severe penal institutions in the United States. He started the country's first female chain gang, giving women the choice of burying bodies in Phoenix's pauper cemetery or having 23 hours of lockdown.
The Feds sued Arpaio for using excessive force in 1997. In 1998, a U.S. Department of Justice consultant condemned the use of restraint chairs, pepper spray, alleged hog-tying and the use of "unprovoked" and "unjustified" force. But Sheriff Joe keeps on escalating. Last June, the Arizona Republic reported that he was putting dogs in the jail's few air-conditioned cells. As he told the paper, "It's too hot for the dogs over in the tents with the inmates." Arpaio spends 66 cents a day on food for each inmate, twice that for a dog. He is a constant propagandist, averaging a speech a day, and many consider him the most popular person in Arizona.
Robert Torricelli, New Jersey Senator
Democratic Sen. Robert Torricelli demonstrates that moral bankruptcy and political corruption ignore party lines. Dubbed "The Torch" by his Washington colleagues, Torricelli has a reputation as a political hustler. He raised a record $103.5 million as head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. His bully rep among his colleagues was underscored when, in 1999, he exploded at his New Jersey Senate colleague Frank Lautenberg, "You're a fucking piece of shit. And I'm going to cut your balls off."
Hammered by a series of New York Times stories, and with Justice Department investigators breathing down his neck, the pugnacious senator maintains his innocence against mounting corruption charges. He allegedly received 10 custom-made Italian suits and an $8,100 Rolex watch, among other items, from a Chinese businessman who pled guilty to giving him $53,700 in illegal campaign contributions.
Rudy Giuliani, New York Mayor
Rudy Giuliani is the master scapegoater. His list of targets includes homeless people, graffiti artists, panhandlers and even guys who wash your windows at stoplights. But when Giuliani caught a whiff of pot after a political event, his wrath went into overdrive. "Bust those pot smokers!" he screamed, and arrests in New York went through the roof. By the end of 2000, 59,945 people had been arrested for pot, up 39 percent from 1999. In 1992, as DRCNet.org has reported, only 720 pot smokers were arrested in New York City. New York State decriminalized pot in the mid-1970s, a fact that Giuliani has ignored.
Giuliani's stop-and-frisk racial profiling approach has stirred up heat, with the Justice Department and the state attorney general documenting abuse. His Operation Condor, which swept through neighborhoods and locked up thousands of people, mostly of color, deepened the wedge between citizens and the police.
Giuliani's attacks on arts institutions for exhibits he finds offensive are infamous, including his attempts to deny museums government funds. Though the courts threw out these efforts, he recently formed an advisory committee to develop decency standards -- a move that talk show host Jay Leno immediately labeled as fascist.
Eminem, Rap Star
It's hip to cut Eminem a lot of First Amendment slack -- to suggest his lyrics of raping his mother and hating faggots are symbolic. If you don't get it, many say, you must not be down with the music.
Eminem may be a talented wordsmith, but the scary part of his success is that he needs the controversy around his misogony and his homophobia to sell his music. For Eminem, faggot is the "lowest degrading thing you can say to a man ... to me it doesn't necessarily mean gay people ... to me just means taking away your manhood." Since the word faggot pops up in 13 of the 18 tracks of his award-wining Marshall Mathers CD, the word and its meaning are at the centerpiece of his artistic expression.
That millions are flocking to this message is scary enough. But the guy can be scary in real life, too. Recently he was sentenced to two years probation for carrying a concealed weapon, stemming from a case where he allegedly pistol whipped a man he saw kissing his estranged wife.
Roger Clemens, New York Yankees Pitcher
Everything about Roger Clemens suggests excess. He drives a Chevy Suburban known as the Texas Cadillac. He lives in a 16,000-square-foot mini-castle. He has two or three big-screen televisions in every room.
"Clemens assumes everyone's pleasure revolves around him," writes Pat Jordan in The New York Times Magazine. "He gave his four sons first names beginning with K -- Koby, Kory, Kacy, and Kody -- because K is the baseball symbol for strikeouts." Says his wife, Debbie, "I would have liked to have had a little girl. But the boys keep me busy. Roger is my biggest child." Jordan continues, "Fans, the media and his opponents judge Clemens by adult standards and, not surprisingly, find him wanting. They tend to view his behavior on the mound as that of an overgrown, schoolyard bully."
Clemens has been baseball's premier pitcher for a decade. Long dubbed a headhunter -- a pitcher who throws at batters' heads to intimidate them -- Clemens beaned Mets star Mike Piazza last year, giving him a concussion. The next time they faced each other, Piazza's bat shattered and a chunk flew in front of Clemens, who hurled it back at Piazza. Clemens recently paid a fine of $50,000 for this incident.
Close to George Bush senior, whom he visited several times at the White House, Clemens is also pals with Neil Bush, best known for his involvement with the failed Silverado Savings and Loan.