The Conservative Playbook -- A Romantic Fantasy

"I don't care!!!" she yelled. The woman was clearly pissed.

The occasion was a focus group for likely Republican primary voters and the subject was the topic de jour, Donald Trump. Her anger was directed at a young man who challenged her support for Trump by pointing out Trump's non-conservative history, including donations to Hillary Clinton and to the Clinton Foundation.

No, she doesn't care. She loves Trump and that's that. How rude to soil her infatuation with pesky little facts! Trump, after all, plans to "Make America Great Again."

In fact all the Republican candidates want to "make America great" again. During August 3rs candidate forum in Manchester, New Hampshire, one after another of the GOP hopefuls declared their love of country and the deepest commitment to return America to its rightful place atop the shining, exceptional hill. Jeb Bush will double the economy's growth rate. Rick Perry was positively giddy as he reiterated his campaign theme: "We survived wars, we survived the great depression, we survived Jimmy Carter and we will survive Barack Obama!" His grin, after getting all the words out successfully, was like a kid getting a word right in a spelling bee.

Watching the voters in this focus group and in the audience for the Manchester forum was fascinating - more so than watching the candidates themselves. The candidates all followed careful talking points, never soiled by pesky little facts either. The platitudes and promises were virtually indistinguishable, one candidate from another. They will all stop ISIS dead in its tracks. They will all repeal Obamacare. They will all unleash American enterprise by gutting regulations and cutting taxes. They will all make America great again! (Despite not being able to say it, since Trump has trademarked the slogan.)

The men in their veterans caps, the older women with fresh perms, the eager Young Republican club members . . . turned to one another after each bold pronouncement, nodding in earnest affirmation, eyes glistening with patriotism.

I don't believe that most of these candidates are deeply sincere. Political careers are not built on sincerity. But I do sense that these voters are completely sincere. Their support for Trump, Walker, Bush or any of the other 14 GOP candidates represents a real longing. A longing for the way things used to be; when America was great, when life was predictable, when the rules were clear, when family values were honored, when we knew good from evil, when people minded their manners and respected their elders.

This longing is the most profound dynamic in contemporary politics. The actual issues are secondary. This is why Republicans have been able to rail against Obamacare and every other Obama-era policy without proposing any viable alternatives. It is why the Trump supporter was angry to have her infatuation spoiled. It is why a glib huckster like Mike Huckabee has a career.

This is what all the Republican candidates exploit; a deep, nebulous longing to return to a simpler time - despite the pesky little fact that such a time never was. The idyllic time - to wherever and whenever the conservative voters' reminiscences wander - is heavily edited in the conservative playbook. The genteel South, the well-manicured suburbs, and the thriving metropolises of conservative mythology. . . all these places had dark shadows that have been excised from the myth of American Exceptionalism. Look, for example, at the recent, successful conservative campaign to revert to a more whitewashed version of Advanced Placement history in our schools. Howard Zinn must be rolling over in his grave.

Racism, child labor, poverty, gender inequality and homophobia are not phenomena of the 21st century. They are our history. Over the past 5 or 6 decades the doors to these parts of our reality were kicked open and folks like those in Monday's focus group and forum audience don't want to look. They're tired of hearing about it. They're tired of "political correctness," they're tired of folks "playing the race card," they're tired of the "gay agenda," and they're tired of the feminists. They are particularly angry that atheists have taken their God out of schools and public life, even though no such thing has happened. They're tired of foreigners taking their jobs, they're sick to death of China, and they hate the French for looking down on us after we saved their bacon in WWII.

They are sick and tired of everything and everybody that has assaulted their comfortable, predictable world.

And the crowd of GOP candidates is more than happy to play right into this longing, nostalgia and misplaced anger. This is the essence of conservative political strategy.