During a time of economic decline, persistent cultural strife, deepening American involvement in far-off military conflicts, and rapid environmental deterioration, is there any wonder that some have turned to apocalyptic salvation narratives promising both a transcendent, everlasting future and violent retribution against perceived evildoers? A 2002 CNN poll found that 59% of Americans believe that the prophecies in the Book of Revelations will come true. The startling number reflected the still-fresh trauma of the 9/11 attacks, but I suspect that it has held steady, if not risen. Indeed, mainstream American culture is permeated by apocalypticism; the blockbuster movie hit 2012 is but one recent example.
I spend several chapters in my book following the Christian right’s ascent to the mountain top with George W. Bush’s re-election, detailing how the movement shrouded science and reason in the shadow of the cross, then observing as it swiftly imploded during the Terri Schiavo charade. Because I completed my book days after Barack Obama’s inauguration, I was only able to foreshadow the right’s plan to undermine the new president. Having watched the right attempt to delegitimize and literally overthrow Bill Clinton for eight years, I did not harbor any illusions about Obama transcending partisan division by becoming the “liberal Reagan who can reunite America,” as many argued.
What I did not include in my book was any sense of where the Democratic left was going, or how this movement had developed its own salvation narrative during the Bush era. Only a presidency as destructive and radical as Bush’s could have produced such deep levels of anxiety and desperation among progressives. When the Democratic primary began, some progressives seemed to ache for a secular messiah to descend from the political heavens, reverse Bush’s disastrous legacy and save the country from itself.
In their quest for a savior, progressives discovered Barack Obama. “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views,” Obama proclaimed in his book, The Audacity of Hope. As Obama’s primary battle against Hillary Clinton intensified, his rhetoric and the language of his supporters grew increasingly messianic. At a rally in South Carolina, Oprah Winfrey referred to Obama as “The One,” a fusion of Jesus and Neo from The Matrix. When Obama defeated Clinton in Iowa, he quoted from a Hopi Indian End Times prophecy that had become popular among New Agers: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” Moved to the point of ecstasy by Obama’s victory speech, Ezra Klein declared the candidate, “not the Word made flesh, but the triumph of the word over flesh… Obama is, at his best, able to call us back to our higher selves.”
On December 7, neo-Nazi hate radio impresario Hal Turner walked out of a Brooklyn courtroom a free man. Charged by federal prosecutors with incitement for urging his listeners to kill three judges who issued rulings supporting gun control, Turnerescaped conviction when the jury deadlocked, forcing the judge to declare a mistrial. However, Turner will return to trial soon in Brooklyn and in Connecticut, where he faces state charges for telling his followers to “take up arms” against state lawmakers who voted to give Catholic lay members more control over church finances.
The trials of Turner might not have invited any media interest had he been another lone wolf howling into the night about the swarthy evildoers supposedly destroying America. After all, white supremacists across the country are persistently prosecuted for activities ranging from criminal littering to murder. But Turner has been an insider both in the New Jersey GOP and in a controversial federal anti-terror program designed to “flush out” violent far-right plots, making him a treasure trove of information on the many prominent Republicans he has associated with over the years. These characters include Turner’s former friend Sean Hannity, who allegedly counseled him on overcoming his cocaine habit and homosexual urges, and New Jersey Governor-elect Chris Christie, whose alleged involvement with Turner may result in the first scandal of his term.
A former moving company manager and real estate agent from North Bergen, NJ, Turner broke into radio when he purchased a time slot on an eclectic short wave station in 2003. He quickly cultivated a small but loyal following of white supremacists, making his show a key hub for an amorphous and violent movement guided by the philosophy of “leaderless resistance.” His formula was simple: discarding the racial code language familiar to mainstream conservative radio jocks in favor of hysterical diatribes against “bull dyke lesbians,” “hook-nosed Jews,” “savage Negroes,” and “filthy mongrels.” Turner’s official website described him as “so far to the right he makes Rush Limbaugh look like a liberal and Sean Hannity seem like a girlie-man!”
Talking Points Memo is hosting a discussion of Republican Gomorrah all week. The panel includes Todd Gitlin, Sarah Posner, Adele Stan and Frederick Clarkson — some of my favorite writers. You can join the discussion and read my opening post here.
BuzzFlash: Max, first of all, how did you come to the title of the book, which is obviously religious in nature,Republican Gomorrah?
Max Blumenthal: The title is a reference to the Gomorrah-like atmosphere that consumed the Republican Party and the movement that substantially controlled its grassroots base, the Christian right.
In advance of the 2006 midterms, the 2008 election, and even afterward, the party became consumed in a sea of bizarre sexual and criminal scandals, from Ted Haggard’s notorious affair with a male escort and amphetamines, to Larry Craig’s wide stance, to David Vitter’s peccadilloes with hookers in New Orleans, to Tom DeLay’s allegedly criminal fundraising schemes, to Mark Sanford’s Latina lover.
All of these scandals revealed the Republican Party not as a party of family values, but as the party that was slouching towards Gomorrah. And more than that, they highlighted the sensibility of the movement that controls the party and the political psychology of that movement.
BuzzFlash: You’ve applied some of Erich Fromm’s theories to the religious right in this new book. Did you find that the leadership of the religious right were driven ideologically by their personal crises to gain followers by tugging on the vulnerable emotions of similarly scarred Americans?
Max Blumenthal: Well, I don’t say that the leadership took advantage of the personal crises. A lot of the leaders had these crises themselves. There are exploiters as well. [Focus on the Family founder] James Dobson, who is a central figure in my book, is just someone who I think understands this culture and understands how to mobilize people who come from a background animated by private trauma.
I covered this movement for six years, and in covering it I met just dozens and dozens of followers, leaders and activists who told me that they had had some terrible thing happen to them in the past that they blamed themselves for. Junk — you know, alcoholism, some family crisis, sexual abuse, sex addiction, pornography addiction, drug addiction — you name it. And they confessed this to me unprompted, without me even asking about it. And I wanted to understand what it was that connected all these people together — why there seemed to be a common thread throughout the movement.
I came across Erich Fromm’s book, Escape From Freedom — which he wrote in 1941 as a warning to Americans after fleeing from Nazi Germany and watching the rise of an authoritarian movement in a democratic society. And what he said was the peril stems from people who can’t handle the pressures of freedom, who can’t handle the anxiety and pressure of exercising their free will in an open society. Often they will succumb to that pressure. They will become self-destructive, and they will seek what he calls the neurotic solutions, which is flocking to an authoritarian structure or an authoritarian leader to basically control them and help them reorder their lives.