By the time I was born, it seemed like all the badasses were gone. Bogart was a late-show ghost, scowling at monochrome shadows. Steve McQueen died before I was old enough to truly appreciate him. John Wayne made a valiant effort to corral the cancer that, in the Western tradition, was killin’ him slow, but it punched his card, anyway.
It was already endangered as I came of age. Most of my generation’s mythical heroes were fibered-up creeps pushing a Reagan agenda. Those who lacked the body mass compensated with an encyclopedic knowledge of martial arts — never to kill, unless it was really, really cool. Not to be outdone, old badasses were exhumed and scrubbed of their ’70s grit, as “Dirty” Harry Callahan and Paul Kersey returned to dispense justice in increasingly cartoonish realities.
Sometimes the cartoon was twisted into revenge-fantasy epilogues where Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone roared through Vietnam as one-man armies, achieving alone what two administrations could not. Action heroes destroyed with such automaton precision they eventually became machines in movies like The Terminator and RoboCop. Curiously, the only authentic badass of ’80s cinema remains fish-out-of-water detective John McClane, primarily for his humanity and vulnerability.
Offscreen, badasses were in scant supply. Our elected leader was a withered septuagenarian and former actor whose ability to distinguish between biography and filmography was so suspect he often forgot he never served during wartime or rode the lone prairie (or was aware of illegal arms trading, which was actually true).
Of course, that hasn’t stopped his supporters from retroactively wrapping his legacy in leather-chapped badass, reducing the long-gone Gipper to carefully selected sound bites. There he is, leveling enemies with a deadly “Well.” Fixing his gaze on quivering Democrats in 1985 and growling, “Go ahead — make my day” (cadging a catch phrase from “Dirty” Harry Callahan, while Callahan himself was in sourpuss hibernation between adventures). Barreling down satellites toward them yeller-bellied Russkies and intoning, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” (which, contrary to aggressive revisionism, did not directly result in the dismantling of the Berlin Wall; too much credit is given to Reagan and not enough to Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika).
Stripped from the narrative is Reagan’s gradual shift to the center and the fact that the man was hardly beloved when he left office in 1988. Most appraisals published in his administration’s the immediate wake were critical, and most Americans considered him benign as time went on. But the only visible Reagan these days is the cowboy Reagan, the make-believe buckaroo who set the phony standard for the current Republican party. Ain’t it tragic how the GOP seeks leadership from a corpse — and the wrong one, at that — whose political career conveniently ended so long ago it can be manipulated with no one being the wiser?
Conservatives went to work recasting themselves in the badass mold after losing the White House to Bill Clinton, a goddamn Democrat, who trounced haunted, impotent Reagan successor/wimp George H.W. Bush in 1992. It was during this period, precisely 1992-2000, that Counterfeit Badass reached its breathtaking nadir and allowed another eight years of unchecked Counterfeit Badass that owed much of its makeup to the Gipper-myth delusion.
Two of the movement’s most notorious figures were radio personality Rush Limbaugh and Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich. Limbaugh talked tough on-air, denouncing the Clinton administration and all of its policies, but seldom, if ever, engaged conflicting opinions. He also seemed uncomfortable outside of debates he couldn’t control. His frightening popularity heralded the ascent of talk radio (read: conservative puffery), FOX News, Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, and others who’ve adopted his “jabber-flabber” pose.
Gingrich, that infamous haranguer of empty rooms, packaged his bullshit as straight-from-the-hip bouquets and convinced a large segment of the population that the Republican party was the party of the silent oppressed whose time had finally come (never mind that Clinton was the first Democrat president in 12 years). It was a successful appeal to disenfranchised Americans with short memories, masterfully marketing the GOP as a subversive element, i.e., badass. The Young Republicans of the ’80s became even younger, and rallies were soon submerged in angry seas of eager twentysomethings in carefully trimmed Van Dykes and Dockers ready to fuck shit up, brah, thus setting the stage for the coming of the ultimate Counterfeit Badass.
George W. Bush was a thing of C.B. beauty. His devotion to its guidelines was near religious. Make proclamations, don’t defend them. Yell a lot, then yell some more. Exasperation is a perfectly acceptable substitute for engagement. If all else fails, play dress-up. Don the ten-gallon hat in an allusion to your cowboy king. Roll up your sleeves like you mean business. Let other people fight your battles. Don’t walk, strut. And most importantly, never let your enemies see there’s nothing behind your carefully erected tough-talk façade but confusion and fear. Reagan was bad enough; this flat Xerox descendant, however, was an out-and-out embarrassment, a clueless pussy in Hopalong Cassidy chaps “leading” an equally hollow administration of sniveling crybabies and craven hunchbacks sweating weasel grease.
To be fair, conservatives don’t hold the patent on Counterfeit Badass. We encounter them all our lives. The teenaged boy who deliberately steps into traffic to impress his friends. The bellicose joker who announces in crowds that he doesn’t give a fuck. The fat kid who reinvents himself in college as a binge-drinking douchebag. The anonymous Internet troll. Dennis Rodman.
Counterfeit Badass is everywhere, clad in West Coast Choppers tees cleaved at the sleeves. More than a few soccer moms still bear the ink-scars of their reckless ’90s “alternative” youth, roaming through middle age with the lyrics to Liz Phair’s “Fuck and Run” woven down their backs.
It’s also become an integral element of our larger culture. The Food Network lobs an endless procession of saucy sauciers, kitchen trollops with attitude, and outlaw cake-bakers. A few years ago Allstate began marketing their agents as, among other things, tattooed motorcycle enthusiasts who let the wind spit freedom through their hair when they weren’t shoving forms across their desks. CNBC is manned ’round the clock by manic dickheads desperate to present finance as an extreme sport. One, Rick Santelli, recently proved himself a textbook C.B. when he broadly dismissed homeowners suffering during this current economic crisis as “losers,” then declined an invitation to explain himself on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. (Make proclamations, don’t defend them.) Instead, the network sent a subdued Jim Cramer, who found himself no match for the host’s devastating, yet measured and rational attack.
And that’s the only way to effectively cripple the C.B., as John McCain discovered in the 2008 presidential election. The Republican nominee, who gave up authentic badass status to become a bought-and-sold “maverick,” was shocked to learn the old rules didn’t work anymore. The straight-talk hype was a figment of his party’s romantic past, exposed as empty bluster with limp hot-button words. He could cry for all the change he wanted, but thanks to the Internet, memories aren’t so short anymore. Volume doesn’t matter without substance and action, both of which render the Counterfeit Badass obsolete.
Which, if you think about it, is pretty badass, for real.