By Mike Davis
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Letter from the US: The Day of the Locust

This article is over 18 years, 2 months old
Mike Davis uncovers the racist demagoguery at work in Arnie's campaign.
Issue 279

The larger meaning of Schwarzenegger’s triumph of the will depends on how you interpret the grievances that provided the recall’s extraordinary emotional fuel.

The hardcore ideologues of zero government are trumpeting the recall as a new populist revolution. 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 Antichrist, wrecking California’s golden dream on behalf of his selfish constituencies of school teachers, illegal immigrants and rich Indians.

From the outside, this seems rather ridiculous. Davis is a centrist 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 his predecessor Republican Pete Wilson.

If California’s middle classes have any cause to feel raped and pillaged in recent years, the culprits are Pete Wilson, who deregulated the utilities to begin with, and the Bushite power cartels like Enron which looted California’s consumers during the phoney 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.

Strange, then, that almost two thirds of the voters in the megastate that supposedly belongs 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.

Here in San Diego, where the recall originated, the Schwarzenegger blitzkrieg seemed to suck anger out of the clear blue sky. The value of the median family home soared almost $100,000 last year. The freeways are clogged with Hummers and other mega-SUVs, while those with luxury lifestyles, carefully tended by armies of brown-skinned labourers, bask in the afterglow of Bush’s tax cuts. Enlistment in Arnie’s army of tax protesters bore little relationship to actual economic pain. Exit polls show that 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? What explains this astonishing mobilisation 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 labelling itself ‘Recall Radio’. A defrocked former mayor accused of conspiracy and perjury in the 1980s, Hedgecock, who occasionally fills in for Rush Limbaugh on national hate radio, takes credit for the ‘heavy lifting’ that put Schwarzenegger in the governor’s mansion.

From 3pm to 6pm, ‘Roger’, as he is universally called by his more than 300,000 regular listeners, rules over afternoon freeway gridlock in a vast radio market. Southern California has the worst traffic congestion in the country. Hedgecock is the angry tribune of white guys in their 4X4 Dodge pickups.

His major rage is the Brown Peril, the supposed ‘Mexican invasion’ of California. He was a key instigator of the 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 driving licences.

‘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 terrorise neighbourhoods. Roger urged locals to defend their homes ‘in the spirit of 1776’.

The mainstream media has done a poor job of documenting the organisation of the recall at the grassroots level, where AM voices like Roger’s rouse thousands of mini-Terminators. As a result, there has been 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 neighbourhoods.

Yet Arnold Schwarzenegger does add something genuinely novel to the mix. He is an extraordinary lightning rod, both in his movie persona and in real life, for dark, sexualised 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.

The last word about all this should 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 realise they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment… Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies.’

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