We have many terms to describe the politics of this administration and its supporters--neocon, right wing, wingnut, extremist, etc. But a fine old term has been neglected: reactionary. That's a shame, because it may be the best single term to bring together critical parts of the worldview that has brought this nation where it is today, at the same time as it presents this worldview in a negative light.
Let me explain...
First, a definition: a reactionary is an extreme conservative who is motivated in response to liberalization (safety regulations, wealth redistributions, etc.). The reactionary wants to undo past progress.
But the term also refers to a person with an outsized desire to strike back; one who is primarily backwards-looking (reactive, not proactive, as pop-psychologists would say).
These are not accidentally conjoined qualities of a reactionary. It is no secret that the current Republican party plays hardball. With its own members it reacts vindictively to dissent, and for constituents who are on the losing side of the political equation (roughly, those without the numbers or the dollars to sway elections) there is not much pretense of mercy or pity.
For American Christian reactionaries, Supply Side Jesus is in the driver's seat, and he is driving this car not just back to 1931 (before the New Deal) or 1898 (before the progressive reforms of Teddy Roosevelt), but all the way to around 1858 (before Darwin published On the Origin of Species) or even somewhere in the vicinity of 1600 (before the scientific method was developed by Bacon, Galileo, and others). Not that we'll ever get there, of course, or even very close.
One idea at the heart of reactionary thinking--secular or religious--is that one should take an eye for an eye (Supply Side Jesus is more Old Testament than New). Reactionaries have an intense anger at feeling that they or their tribe have been wronged or made to look weak.
This righteous anger seems to be connected to a tribal competitiveness so strong that it gets in the way of success in the global arena. It is not a tit-for-tat strategy geared towards optimal cooperative results, but an attidute that tends to interpret setbacks as humiliations that need to be avenged in order to appear strong and command respect.
Take the case of current tactical policy in Iraq. Current policy seems to be that we need to show strength by striking back hard at rebellion. But what does that come to mean for a reactionary? It means that when 4 American "contractors" who work for the installed political authority are brutally killed, American forces need to take revenge. It isn't simply that order must be maintained in Falluja and elsewhere, but that overwhelming force must be used to subdue the population. Apparently, over 600 Iraqis were killed the last few days in such a show of strength.
Putting aside questions of morality, the reactionary attitude blinds its adherents to many possibilities for compromise and to empathy for people who oppose the US because they feel wronged by it. Moreover, it creates utterly stupid tactical decisions when the political environment we operate in is not the kind of environment that would allow the hardball eye-for-an-eye strategy to work. If it had been politically possible to act as Rome would have done and kill or enslave the entire city of Falluja, then this may indeed have subdued others in Iraq for a time.
But that is not possible. If the U.S. engaged in the more ruthless reactionary tactic necessary to produce compliance, the U.S. would lose every last ally it had and gain a number of new enemies, including, more or less, the entire Muslim world. So instead, the marines went into Falluja and only destroyed buildings from which they were being fired upon. Killing 600 who were in combat zones and displacing a hundred thousand others who fled the fighting has created several more determined enemies for every person killed.
Confronted with this thought, a reactionary will often have nowhere to go but the thought--to Hell with the Geneva Convention and our so-called allies: bring it on! Global war is not too high a price to pay. It is a death spiral which we avoid only because reactionaries do not, yet, have full control of the decision-making process in the WH and congress.
I'm arguing here in a long tradition which blends conservative political beliefs with habits of mind that take on the cast of pathologies. I don't know if I've done a good job, but I hope I've reminded liberals that they should not shy away from this sort of analysis, and that the term "reactionary" captures much of what is worst in conservatism.