Friday, September 17, 2010

Fear and loathing in America

Book Review: The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, High Def Hucksters, and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama by Will Bunch

Before the 2008 election I wrote:

If a Democrat becomes president expect to have our public discourse overtaken and overwhelmed with the most extreme, insane, and rotten attacks and smears from the conservative movement that you can possibly imagine.


If either Obama or Clinton becomes president look for a resurgence in the patriot movement, with these folks going off into the woods, stockpiling weapons, and preparing to wage war with the anti-Christ.

But excluding some sort of national catastrophe, the real threat is not going to be them. (Although the families of those killed by Timothy McVeigh might beg to differ.) The bigger threat is the one Hofstadter recognized, that this kind of endless mindless drivel that comes from the Drudge-Hannity-Limbaugh axis of misinformation will create a political climate in which rational pursuit of our well-being and safety is impossible.
The Backlash presents author Will Bunch's first hand experience of that very rage and paranoia that was unleashed by the election of a Democrat, with the author traveling the country attempting to understand the fury of a right-wing populism which has pretty much made such predictions a reality. The book covers many of the same incidents that have been covered here on this blog, but with Bunch actually tracking down the involved parties and speaking with them. While Bunch provides humanizing portraits of such individuals, he also manages to provide sharp criticism of the predators who have preyed upon economic insecurity and cultural fears to fan the flames of hysteria for profit (both political and economic).

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with how often I have cited the work of Richard Hofstadter to explain movement conservatism and may recall my recent disclosure of how much I have been influenced by Neal Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death. Hofstadter and Postman are also strong influences on Bunch; with the book basically examining the way that the "paranoid style" that was fringe in Hofstadter's day has become mainstream thanks to the culture being amused to death by a vapid media that substitutes entertainment for information.

Working off of the central themes of the aforementioned authors, Bunch posits that what has fueled much of the backlash of right-wing populism in a time of economic insecurity has been conservative white fears of a changing American demographic in which whites will no longer be the majority. Conservatives of the backlash, as Hofstadter put it, feel they are "manning the barricades of civilization." (Bill O'Reilly has previously given explicit expression to this fear.)

This translates into a fear of "The Other" which turned generally powerless minorities into scapegoats. In this atmosphere, electing the first African-American president with a foreign sounding name made it almost an inevitability that the authoritarian base of the Republican party would not recognize the president's legitimacy (and implicit prejudice helped, too.). Bunch found this most on display in the state of Arizona, a state that not only took harsh anti-immigrant measures but introduced a "birther bill" designed to question President Obama's citizenship. As Bunch put it:

Republicans were asking the forty-fourth president of the United States the same question they were asking Mexicans with a busted taillight: "Your papers, please."
What's more

To modern conservatives, the elevation of a Democrat who was black and a product of the nation's most elite law school at Harvard was not just a political event; it represented the destruction of their elaborate if cheaply constructed conservative temple of belief. The only answer that made any sense to the true believers was total denial.
And here I pause the review to take a moment and note my own previous musing on the backlash, reality denial, and the paranoid style as I cannot resist the urge to add my own two cents:

It's difficult to understand how just 6 months into the presidency of Barack Obama, so many self-described "conservatives" have managed to work themselves into an hysterical furor and fear about living under an oppressive, American Nazi regime of Obama. But as I've said many times now on this blog, if you understand the core of these individuals and pundits as being authoritarians with a black/white Manichean world view, it becomes easier to make sense of their behavior.

When they lose an election, that means that Evil has come to power. Satan is in control (Figuratively for some, literally for the Christian nationalists.) It is Nazi Germany, Stalin's Russia ... 1984 come to life. This is why the movement's parallel reality seems to lag behind conservative ideology. Once the Other is in power, it is only a matter of time for the leaders of the movement to construct such a reality that fits to their preconceived notions of the evil characteristics of their eternal Enemy. (E.g. President Obama isn't even a citizen! says the Manichean minded psuedo-conservative.)

What is so destructive about this sort of mentality - and especially those who fuel the epistemic fire with non-stop paranoid propaganda - is that it is difficult for democracy to function if you have a core constituency of one of the two viable political parties in your nation which has the belief that either they win an election or it is time to wage a revolutionary war to win back their freedom. This is brand of "democracy" in which the only legitimate outcome is theirs; all of the rest of electorate cease to be Americans and fall into the category of the Other. This is why Glenn Beck can say in all sincerity (after pretending to be President Obama and then setting the American public on fire in effigy) that President Obama is not delivering the change that he and his 9/12 movement voted for, managing not to notice that there are millions of Americans who voted Obama and other Democrats into office precisely because they do want some public form of healthcare. The normal democratic process of election and policy making thus turn into the very definition of tyranny, and mobs of right-wing populist protesters, organized by conservative elites, show up to shut down the democractic process at town hall meetings. Borrowing the Adorno quote that Hofstadter used in his famous essay on the psuedo-conservative revolt, "The pseudo conservative is a man who, in the name of upholding traditional American values and institutions and defending them against more or less fictitious dangers, consciously or unconsciously aims at their abolition.”
Bunch notes that paranoid, conspiratorial beliefs and smears (e.g. that Obama is not a citizen, that Obama is going to confiscate guns, that FEMA concentration camps are being built, that Obama is a socialist, etc.) that once would have been obscure, fringe crank literature distributed locally as pamphlets now circulates widely on the internet, through the airwaves of talk radio and into the mainstream discourse almost effortlessly and instantly. (See here for an example of this idiot process in action.)

Traveling along with Bunch as he encounters right-wing hysteria given political expression in various forms you will notice one unifying thread: Glenn Beck. Beck looms throughout the book, sometimes in the background, or in sections devoted specifically to him, promoting fear and paranoia. This is not surprising; Beck has been busy for the last year and a half attempting to frighten his audience that white, fundamentalist Christian conservatives will soon be the victim of radical black socialist thugs and minorities who want to take their money as reparations and then maybe start killing them in a new Holocaust or turn them into second class citizens.

Bunch also leans on the work of Alexander Zaitchik, noting that Beck in addition to being the backlash's Fearmonger-in-Chief is also its Huckster-in-Chief, promoting not merely himself but a number of dubious to bogus products which make him richer and his audience poorer. Bunch devotes several chapters to exposing the hucksters up and down the movement who profit off of fear and paranoia with junk products and schemes. (Survival seeds, anyone?) Bunch writes of Beck:


It was almost as if Beck was the bizarro-world version of Franklin Roosevelt, who in an earlier economic meltdown in 1933 had not only railed against "fear itself" but spoke of "nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." But in 2010, Glenn Beck Incorporated thrived on "nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror," regardless of whether it helped to drive the body politic in the opposite direction of where FDR guided the "Greatest Generation" ... Beck was constantly straining to find the outer limits, exploring both the inner terrors of his audience and their hopes for restoration and a common purpose. And then he was brazen in taking hold of his public and using it to sell them things, with little care over the side effects.
Bunch's reporting took him across the country, from Delaware where he tracked down the "I want my country back!" Youtube birther sensation to Knob Creek where he witnessed first hand the bizarre phenomenon of people convinced that President Obama was going to confiscate their weapons and abridge their Second Amendment rights despite the reality that the president had relaxed gun restrictions with the trend across the nation towards making it easier to carry arms; from talks with devoted fans of Beck to a founder of the ultra-paranoid Oak Keepers; from rural Georgia where Congressman Paul Broun was able to rise from obscurity via extremist anti-Obama rhetoric to Pittburgh where Richard Poplawski, acting out on the conspiratorial, extremist rhetoric that has been normalized by the likes of Broun and Beck and others, killed three police officers out of fear that they were coming to take away his guns.

Although Bunch notes that the backlash and our politics-as-entertainment driven media has provided an atmosphere conducive to inspiring violence such as that of Poplawski, Jim Adkisson, Scott Roeder, or the Hutaree militia, the book is really a chronicle of the way that right-wing populism has severely inhibited the capacity for democracy in America to function. Perhaps expressed most concisely in this passage:

These [Repubican] representatives of 37 percent of teh country wielded unprecedented powers because of something the likes of which this nation had never seen before: their ability to stick together on every single issue with the sole purpose of obstructing Barack Obama and his Democratic allies. It was an "I Hope He Fails" strategy hatched in the ratings-driven studios of talk radio, but now rigid legislative fealty to the on-air musings of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck had ground Washington to a total halt.
I must confess that my one disappointment with The Backlash is that Bunch did not manage to work the following Richard Hofstadter quote in, as it seems to describe the Tea Party, 9/12 Beck/Limbaugh backlash so perfectly.

"[I]n a populistic culture like ours, which seems to lack a responsible elite with political and moral autonomy, and in which it is possible to exploit the wildest currents of public sentiment for private purposes, it is at least conceivable that a highly organized, vocal, active and well-financed minority could create a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety would become impossible." - Richard Hofstadter, "The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt"

Bunch's book is a chronicle of Hofstader's hypothetical possibility becoming a realized phrophesy.

Disclosure: I was fortunate enough to receive a review copy of this book from Harper and had hoped to have a review possible by the time of its launch two weeks ago, but time (and the difficulty associated with composing such a post on an iPad) got the best of me. Better late than never, I hope.

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