Today, we live in a time of threats like few others in recent memory. During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation.”
Those are the controversial sentences in Governor Nikki Haley’s response to the President’s State of the Union Address. (The full transcript of the response is here.)
I know several people who were irritated by the remarks for tactical reasons. They wonder why any Republican leaders, at this moment of prime time TV and after an address by a president who has derided their party over and over, should spend two seconds questioning Republican supporters. Do you want to win or not?
But that’s not the reason listeners to Rush Limbaugh, fans of Donald Trump, and conservative voters who are frustrated with the ineffectiveness of the Republican Congress were irritated. It was the metaphor she used.
The “siren call,” remember, comes most famously from Book XII of The Odyssey, where Circe warns Odysseus to stop up his sailors’ ears so that they may not be lured to their death.
Here, Haley equates the song of the Sirens to Donald Trump’s rhetoric, a base imputation about Trump’s motives. Even worse, Haley equates Trump’s supporters to unwitting sailors who undergo a mad desire leading to their destruction. In Haley’s version, the “anxious” people are intoxicated with an “angry” tempter, and they just can’t help but succumb.
The condescension is clear, but Governor Haley and so many in the Republican Establishment don’t seem to realize it. Few things are more infuriating than to be the object of a condescender who is blind to his condescension.
The truth is that Trump hasn’t induced anger in his followers. The anger was already there, and they have finally found a figure who answers it.
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.