Q&A with the L.A. Times

My interview with the LA Times is up and can be viewed here. “At the state level” was incorrectly transcribed as “at the stake,” as if I was referring to a witch burning (I was interviewed in a loud cafe so it may have been hard to hear on the recorder). But the Times’ Lori Kozlowski had a clear understanding of the psychological themes that underpin the narrative of my book and asked some provocative questions, including about whether Obama has fulfilled the expectations of his most fervent liberal backers:

Why’d you write this book?
I’ve been covering the radical right — primarily the Christian right — for six years, particularly their role in national politics and how they took over the Republican Party. I covered the 2008 campaign intensely, and I covered the 2006 midterms. So, this book is really just a culmination of my reporting and my research and my analysis.

There have been a lot of books about this movement, but I wanted to write something unique that not only told people who the players are and what they do, but why they are the way they are. I think that’s what people want to know. Because that’s what really animates how the movement will behave in the future.

So, you’re in your early thirties.
I’m 31. Bar mitzvah age backwards.

Do you have any interest in running for political office?
None at all.

Do you want to continue to cover politics?
Yeah, I intend to do what I’m doing, but more. More intensely.

How did you vote in the presidential election?
I didn’t. I was completely unable to vote. I can’t believe that my plants in my apartment are even alive because I was never there — I was covering the campaign. I couldn’t even fill out an absentee ballot; I wasn’t in one place long enough.

Do you think Obama has lived up to liberals’ expectations of him?
Many liberals projected their own ambitions onto Barack Obama, as if he were a tabula rasa. Some had higher expectations of him than I’d seen of any politician from the Democratic Party.

Some of the followers of Barack Obama during the campaign reminded me of the Christian right, and he used evangelical language to appeal to them, with New Age themes like: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for” — which is a phrase introduced originally by Maria Shriver. It’s a Hopi end times prophecy actually. This became a theme of his campaign.  I saw his campaign as an illusion that brought together people from all different backgrounds, and actually did create a hopeful vehicle for change.

However, he’s become the centrist I always expected him to be. And in a different environment than when [President] Clinton was a centrist. Clinton was triangulating in response to a Republican Congress and a right-wing political environment.

Barack Obama is dealing with a progressive moment. He’s being pulled by various forces to the center and even to the right. Those that are disappointed with him should be disappointed with themselves because they’re not demonstrating the same energy that they displayed in propelling him into the White House and making him a historic figure. They’re not propelling his agenda and they’re not pushing him to fulfill any of the promises he made during the campaign. They have a faith in him, but no one should have faith in politicians. Politicians are there to be pressured.

My book shows how the Christian right operates, and the Christian right only comprises 12% of the population. They exert a disproportionate influence by affecting politics on the local level, by working through ballot initiatives and by seeing the big picture. For them it wasn’t about just having George W. Bush as president, it was about pressuring Bush through various means, pressuring the Republican Congress, and pressuring politicians at the stake to enact their radical agenda.

You’ve become a well-known videographer, particularly with the YouTube videos. Why did you start with video? How did you go from penning stories to actually putting people on camera?
I originally started doing it to show people what it was like covering this movement. When you read about it, it is almost unfathomable. But when you see it, it becomes undeniable. Seeing is believing.

Beyond that I wanted to distill my work to a younger audience that might even be more politically apathetic, but has intrinsic progressive tendencies.

What age were you aiming for?
Any age from zero to 25.

This sort of reporting appeals to them more. They’ve become attracted to my videos. They’ve become really popular among the young audience.

For example, I spoke at University of California Riverside and they created an events page for me on Facebook, titled “Remember the Chicken Hawk Guy?” — referring to my video about the College Republicans.

I showed my videos to the entire high school of Dalton High in New York, and they were cheering and asking provocative questions, even the ninth-graders.

People could be more engaged in politics, if the way it was reported was more interesting and entertaining. At the same time, I want to continue to operate within ethical journalistic parameters.

When I do my videos, I’m often accused of infiltrating, as if I were these right-wingers who did the ACORN videos. But I never provoke situations, and I apply for credentials everywhere I go, I tell people who I am and I say what publication I’m from, and I give them a business card. So what I’m doing is really just reporting on what’s actually happening. The fact that’s threatening to the right says a lot about how out of touch they are with mainstream America.

The Republican Party: Why do you think moderates have been edged out? Is that the course of the GOP for the next 8-10 years?
Moderates from the Republican Party have been permanently edged out because the movement of the Christian right has become the party.

They’ve run primary candidates against moderates. They called people like Chris Shays in Connecticut a RINO. They refused to support Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island, and he is now a former Republican who called Sarah Palin a “cocky wacko.” Olympia Snowe, one of the last Republican moderates in elected office, said: “It’s not my party anymore.”

Congressional Republican approval rating in the Northeastern United States is 6%. In the deep South, Congressional Republican approval rating is 60%. It’s become the party of birthers, deathers, and Civil War reenacters.


In the book you talk about a “culture of personal crisis” that is defining the radical right. Can you discuss?

This culture of personal crisis was impossible to deny in covering this movement. When you meet so many of the movement’s adherents, they’ll tell you that they had some terrible episode in their past which gave them a pessimistic view of themselves, of the self, and of their bodies even.

They sought transcendence from what they saw as a sinful past through their involvement in the culture war. They believed they had to do what God wanted them to do — the strict father archetype of God. Because when do what they want to do, they believe that they would inevitably do some really freaky stuff.

And they say as much. If you look at what Mark Sanford said. Mark Sanford’s an ordained Baptist minister and a darling of the Christian right who would have been a contender in the 2012 Republican primary. In his press conference announcing his affair with his Latin lover, he said: “We follow God’s law because it restrains the self from the self. The self is the most sinful part of us.”

They want to obliterate the self in a holy cause.

So there’s this culture of personal crisis, and it’s out there, and leaders have been exploiting it for a generation, particularly James Dobson, who is the most popular figure in the Christian right. Although he’s aging, he remains the most influential figure. I wrote about him because he cultivated the sensibility of the movement by exploiting the culture of personal crisis as a psychologist, who has no religious credentials and no theological training. His correspondence department in Colorado Springs is so large that it has its own ZIP Code. He just handles thousands and thousands…

10 thoughts on “Q&A with the L.A. Times

  1. Dessalines

    Excellent interview. A great deal of their power is a result of them moving below the radar. Unfortunately corporate media simply does not inform the public about the organized interests impacting politics and economics other then in a superficial manner.

  2. Everon

    I’m about halfway through your book and even though I know quite a bit about the wingnuts I never realized the deep phychological aspects of these people – very fascinating and quite scary (especially Dobson)!

    It’s one of the best books, so far, that I’ve ever read – thank you!

    Dale

  3. McFeric

    I can personally vouch for what Max is saying in his book: many of the people on the far right are seriously psychologically wounded. Growing up, I was disciplined under Dobsonesque principles, forced to go to a Moody affiliated bible school, and generally indoctrinated with “conservative” and (frankly) redneck ideology. The result was a vast amount of personal anger, fear, and anxiety that I am still dealing with at the age of (almost) 40. [The story is far too long to relate here]. In all events, I am glad that I got out (most don’t). And I proudly consider myself to be an open-minded, progressive person now.

    In all events, thanks for writing a very important and insightful book Max!

  4. Everon

    McFeric:

    I’m so sorry to hear that you had to experience that kind of abuse – especially at your age of 40. I’ll be 45 this December and still feel the effects of the virulent anti-gay hatred of the wingnuts. It only took me one year to see their hateful (and greedy) agenda when I was 19.

    We only have this life – this one life. Live it, and put the redneck history behind you. I have, and you’ll realize life is wonderful. We’re the ones who live life. The wingnuts are the miserable ones who will never get over their fight to make everyone else as miserable as they are.

    Take care!

    Dale

  5. hrazaa

    i can only think how very close their words are to the extreme muslims i have read. many extreme sheiks, and their books read just like dobson. very scary. it all does come down to money though doesn’t it, i mean, they want to rule the world so they can be rich and powerful, right

  6. Max Post author

    McFeric, you’d be amazed how many people have approached me with stories like yours while I was on book tours. I have also met so many therapists who work with former fundamentalists who are dealing with issues like the ones you named. While I don’t have the answers some therapists might, I think a central premise of my book — that the left and the right are divided by far more than political ideals — has been validated by these interactions. It all begins with differing perspectives on childrearing.

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