Joe the Plumber had that steely look for a while, too. Photographer: George Frey/Getty Images
Joe the Plumber had that steely look for a while, too. Photographer: George Frey/Getty Images

Samuel "Joe the Plumber" Wurzelbacher. Sarah Palin. George Zimmerman. "Bette in Spokane." Cliven Bundy. Every few months or so, conservatives elevate a new Everyman or Everywoman to embody their crusade. These are the "real Americans," to use the unsubtle in-group vernacular, who are invariably oppressed by someone or other with an unbending desire to crush all that conservatives believe is good and true and American and free.

No one keeps the Conservative Everyman job for long. Joe the Plumber's uncensored ignorance tested the tolerance of the political game until he broke it, prompting the Republican politicians who had embraced him to silently slink away. He is now a union employee of Chrysler Group LLC, a company that almost certainly owes its very existence to federal intervention. Yes, Joe the Plumber has a job because President Barack Obama used federal funds and muscle to rescue the auto industry.

If Sarah Palin has lost much of her currency as a punch line, it's only because her shamelessness long ago lost its shock (and humor) value. George Zimmerman, lionized by the right for pursuing a teenage boy walking home and shooting him dead under murky circumstances, has turned out to be a reckless hothead with a penchant for gunplay. What a shock. Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a member of the House leadership, prominently advertised "Bette in Spokane" as a tragic victim of Obamacare. It turned out that Bette indeed had received a raw deal on her health insurance. But only because she had refused to use the Obamacare exchange to get a better one.

Now comes the inevitable unraveling of the latest Everyman to animate the conservative base. Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy is in many ways the complete package, illegally grazing his cattle -- free of charge -- on restricted federal land while spouting the requisite drivel about tyranny. Like his predecessors, Bundy's unsteady tenure in the Everyman job will be short-lived. In comments reported by the New York Times, he peppers his rugged Western individualist cliches and armed defiance of the Man in Washington with musings about the sunnier days of black slavery. (Any pronouncement that begins “I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” is unlikely to end well.)

You would think, after worshipping so many false idols, that conservative leaders might temper their enthusiasm for the latest purveyor of right-wing melodrama. As my Bloomberg View colleague James Greiff wrote last week, "There is no grand principle here, just the ill-judgment of a man who has helped himself at the public trough while believing he has a right to pick and choose which laws to obey."

Yet conservatives are so desperate for heroes that they keep lunging at the most rancid bait. Here is Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a man renowned for his intellect as well as his presidential ambition, reimagining Bundy's chronic deadbeatism as a raised fist against Lenin, Stalin and . . . Obama: "We should have a federal government protecting the liberty of the citizens," Cruz said, "not using the jackboot of authoritarianism to come against the citizens. And I think this is the unfortunate and tragic culmination of the path that President Obama has set the federal government upon."

If Cruz believes that a lone rancher can do whatever he wants on land owned by someone else -- the federal government, in this case -- the senator has an interesting view of property rights, in addition to his expansive definitions of "jackboot" and "authoritarianism."

We have entered territory well beyond the reach of happenstance. It's no coincidence that the heroic vessels in which conservatives keep pouring their varied and convoluted grievances invariably sink, never to rise again. The culture is moving fast. Changing demographics, globalization, cosmopolitanism all pose threats of one sort or another to conservative complacency. Yet each successive clampdown -- against immigrants, minority voting, abortion -- yields only a minimal, uneasy respite.

The more conservatives are threatened, the more they delude themselves about the world they inhabit. (If "the jackboot of authoritarianism" is the "tragic culmination" of the Obama administration, then I am a giant invisible rabbit). We'll know the conservative movement is regaining its vigor when its everyday heroes are people who obey the law, respect others and advance the common good. It's not an especially high standard for a hero. But it beats inchoate rage.

To contact the writer of this article: Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net.