The coronavirus pandemic led to many predictable shortages, including in toilet paper and hand sanitizer, but 2021 has produced a paucity no one saw coming: Lately, political parties are lacking good villains.
McKay Coppins raised the issue in The Atlantic, writing about the challenges facing conservative imprints in book publishing with President Joe Biden in the White House. Biden is too genial, too grandfatherly, to be seen as a villain in the vein of Bill and Hillary Clinton, publishing executives said. Former President Donald Trump tried to brand Biden as “Sleepy Joe,” which sometimes got a laugh, but isn’t a strategy for selling books.
“To gain literary traction on the right, a villain has to generate fear and outrage, not simply ridicule,” Coppins wrote. He quoted conservative talk show host Ben Shapiro as saying that Biden “has a deeply nonthreatening persona” and that “You kind of feel bad attacking him, honestly, because it feels like elder abuse.”
And it’s not just conservatives missing a bad guy who can energize their base.
The left recently lost two reliable villains with the passing of talk radio king Rush Limbaugh and the ousting of Trump from the White House. Limbaugh’s time slot has been filled and Trump is still strategizing in a war room at Mar-a-Lago, but without social media accounts, his capacity to outrage the left has diminished.
In the absence of a good human villain, Coppins said conservative publishers have found a market for villainous concepts, such as cancel culture and wokeness. Previously obscure academic constructs are working well, too: Witness the outrage over critical race theory, most effectively stoked by Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
Political villains are not a new phenomenon. H.L. Mencken wrote in 1918 that the aim of politics is to menace the public “with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.” Herbert Hoover, the Republican president during the Great Depression, was the subject of “smear books” written by his political opponents, according to his biographer George H. Nash. And Democrat Bill Clinton famously lamented “the politics of personal destruction.”
But villains and hobgoblins don’t endure just because they sell books.
“All campaigns rely on a dragon that needs slaying, and all candidates are just the knight errant to get it done,” said Peter Loge, a former Democratic strategist who is now associate director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University.
Who anoints villains?
In their 2019 book “The Power of Bad,” Roy Baumeister and John Tierney examined “the negativity effect,” also known as negativity bias, which is the idea that negative influences have a greater effect on us than positive or neutral ones.
This is true not only in our personal interactions with people (Baumeister and Tierney say it takes at least four good interactions to overcome one bad one) but also in politics, where strategists have found that it’s easier to get a mass audience’s attention with fear, worry and outrage than with good news.
“Despite the fact that on just about every objective measure, life continues to get better decade after decade, instead we are consumed with thoughts of doom. Politics finds it successful to play the game,” Baumeister said.
As a political strategy, it’s most effective when the villain is a person, he added. Not only is the negative more visceral, but it’s easier to attack a person like Sen. Ted Cruz or Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a “gotcha” post on social media than to delve into the yawn-inducing details of why their proposed policies are wrong.
“Ideally, it would be best to ignore the people and talk about the policies and ideas,” Baumeister said. “Attacking the person works because it’s effective and it’s easy.”
Loge noted that hyperbole creates villains, monsters and demons. In the election of 1800, the president of Yale, who supported John Adams, said that if Thomas Jefferson were elected, “we would see our wives and daughters the victims of legal prostitution.”
That said, it also often wins elections (although it didn’t help Adams against Jefferson).
“We vote for people, not policies, therefore policy threats need to be tied to people. Candidates and elected officials become embodiments of policies, political opponents are piñatas into which all sorts of ideas are poured,” Loge said.
While Trump was a reliable villain for Democrats over the course of his presidency, Baumeister notes that political villains don’t really exist. True villains do bad things for the purpose of doing harm; while in politics, people on both sides of the aisle believe they’re doing good.
“Villains are mostly constructed in our imagination,” said Baumeister, who also wrote “Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty.”
But that doesn’t stop ordinary, moral people from calling political opponents demons and monsters, in part because the language trickles down from political operatives and, according to people on both sides, the media.
Progressive writer Heather Digby Parton made that argument in Salon in 2016, saying that the media normalized Trump and demonized Clinton.
And Dan Gainor, vice president for TechWatch, business and culture at the conservative Media Research Center, also said traditional media — and social media — determine who political villains are, as in the case of Trump. “Unless the media decide to hate you, nothing else breaks through the noise,” Gainor said.
Advent of the ‘smear book’
Historian George H. Nash, author of “The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945,” among other books, and a biographer of President Herbert Hoover, said Hoover was the most vilified president in his lifetime.
“He was very much demonized for a long time,” Nash said, noting that in 1992, George H.W. Bush was disparaged as “George Herbert Hoover Walker Bush.” And because Hoover’s presidency coincided with the Great Depression, his surname became synonymous with hard times. (A “Hoover cart” was a horse-drawn car; homeless encampments were “Hoovervilles.”)
Moreover, Hoover haters wrote negative books about the 31st president. Six “anti-biographies” call to mind today’s opposition research, and Hoover himself called them “smear books,” Nash said.
Nash said that while conservatives may currently lack a singular villain on which to focus, he sees widespread anger and despair among them about where the country is headed under Biden. “But it’s manifesting itself in other ways than muck-racking biographies,” he said.
“I suspect that Tucker Carlson is more popular than ever and the clicks on conservative websites may be going up. The intensity is still there even though there may not be a ‘villain’ to focus on,” Nash said.
He expects that forthcoming books from Mark Levin (“American Marxism,” in July) and Victor Davis Hanson (“The Dying Citizen,” in October) will be bestsellers.
“Four or five months from now, there won’t be a missing villain problem, so to speak. There will be plenty of energizing literature out there on the right,” he said.
Nash added that, in previous decades, a new president was given a honeymoon period by the losing party, but that seems to no longer exist. Today, political opposition is “permanently mobilized.”
Although conservative publishers may be struggling to replace the Clintons and the Obamas as lucrative sources of outrage, smaller-scale villains — and villains-to-be proliferate. Vice President Kamala Harris is a villain-in-waiting for conservatives. And Joe Biden may not qualify as a villain but his son Hunter Biden does, Baumeister said.
Sure enough, conservative imprint Post Hill Press has a book scheduled for September called “Laptop from Hell: Hunter Biden, Big Tech and the Dirty Secrets the President Tried to Hide.” (On the cover shown on Amazon, the title is in red, positioned on a photo so that a small horn appears to protrude from Hunter Biden’s head.)
But it takes time to grow a good villain, Gainor said. In Hillary Clinton’s case, she had built up the animosity of the right throughout the eight years of her husband’s administration.
“People don’t dislike you overnight. You generally have to work at it,” Gainor said, adding that “the Squad” — a group of progressive members of the House that includes Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota — “is working on it.”
Paul Kendrick, a Democratic strategist, author and executive director of Rust Belt Rising, which trains Democratic candidates in six states, acknowledged that former President Trump was “a galvanizing figure to oppose.” And he believes it’s important to take names when people are doing harm (he counts Trump among them).
But he also said that with Trump having receded from much of the public’s consciousness, “I think there’s a great opportunity that Democrats have to focus on the ways that we’re materially improving people’s lives. ... It’s a moment where we can really talk about what we’re for, and how we’re helping people’s bottom line, and I would love to imagine that it would be a moment overall in politics where, yeah, let both parties put forth ideas, let’s not rely on sources of outrage that are not grounded in reality.”
Nash, meanwhile, says that while voters need to be motivated to go to the polls, they can be motivated by heroes, as well as villains.
“I don’t think we should look upon politics and scratch our heads and say we need to find a villain so our apathetic masses can get to the polls. The conservative masses are not so apathetic, and they’re looking with a lot of concern at things that are happening, and they will perhaps lionize (Florida Gov. Ron) DeSantis or somebody else if they think that person will do what in their view needs to be done,” he said.
“We need to look at the hero side of the picture as well. Conservatives need a hero figure to motivate, as well as well as an external foe to galvanize,” Nash added.