Opinion: Q&A with Max Blumenthal, author of ‘Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party’
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Max Blumenthal is excavating secrets about the nation’s ultra-conservatives.
Showing us their text messages, exposing the psychology behind their actions, and getting behind the curtain to show us who holds the strings.
He’s taking investigative journalism to a more visual landscape -- not only telling, but showing readers (and viewers) what he sees out there. His viral videos from the 2008 presidential campaign trail have become popular hits, especially with young audiences.
In his first book ‘Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Party,’ the writer minces no words. He is clear that the GOP has seen its heyday and is left now with a radical right, Christian base that seeks to replace democracy with theocracy, and permanently keep moderates out.
Blumenthal talked about his book, the future of the Republican Party -- which he called the ‘party of birthers, deathers and Civil War reenacters’ -- and how he feels about being called a muckraker.
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...
...of pieces of mail and telephone calls from everyday Americans seeking help with mundane problems. But then he enters them into a data bank, and bombards them with political mailings about the homosexual agenda, about abortion, about liberalism, about federal judges, slowly converting them into Republican shock troops. And they become a loyal army that he levels against moderate Republicans and vulnerable Democrats. He’s used them to destroy the careers of moderates from Bob Dole to Colin Powell to even Newt Gingrich, who wasn’t conservative enough for him.
You describe the psychology of a people “willing to surrender their freedom” to authoritarian figures. Where is this coming from? Why would anyone want to give up their freedom?
This idea, which is central in my book, is inspired by the psychologist Erich Fromm, who wrote a book called ‘Escape from Freedom’ in 1941 after he fled from the Third Reich in Germany. He saw the rise of authoritarianism in a democratic society, and his book was a warning about the peril of authoritarianism in his new country -- the United States. He discussed the ways in which people are attracted to authoritarians and why they want to give up personal freedom, something that seems to go against their best interests.
I discovered this book while I was covering the Christian right because of all of the confessions people had made to me unprompted about why they joined the movement, why they converted to this Calvinistic brand of Christianity. [Fromm’s book] brought together so many of my observations.
Those who feel that the American Dream that they imagined -- which is a white, patriarchal America -- [they] feel under pressure. By joining in this glorious cause and this crusade, they experience this euphoria and a sense of security. By joining with like-minded believers, that helps them medicate the anxiety they feel in this rapidly changing country.
They’ll always be a force to be reckoned with in American politics because America never stays the same. America constantly moves forward.
Who are the people who follow this movement?
Many of the followers of this movement are well-meaning people who are seeking relief. They’re being exploited and used as human tools by the power-hungry and the pulpit pimps of our society.
You paint a portrait of the Republican Party in the grip of the right wing. You describe: “Exclusively white, overwhelmingly evangelical, fixated on abortion, homosexuality, and abstinence education; resentful and angry.” Will the GOP remain this way?
When you have a losing record, you tend to go through a rebuilding process. But the Republican Party appears to be doubling down on all its failed talent.
There’s no better example of this than the elevation of Sarah Palin to a national leader of the Republican Party. Or Rep. Joseph Wilson -- the neo-Confederate Congressman from South Carolina -- who with one rebel yell vaulted onto the national stage as the de facto communications director of the Republican Party.
The adulation that the Republican grass roots shows for people who have extremist tendencies and are incapable of mounting a viable national campaign shows how unable the party will be to go through a rebuilding process.
Who is the Republican Party’s future?
The Republican Party’s future is Sarah Palin. The big tent party of Dwight Eisenhower has become the one-ring circus of Sarah Palin. The 2012 campaign, of any potential candidate she’s the only one right now generating any media interest. Even if she doesn’t run, she’ll have an impact, and it will be a negative impact on the Republican Party. She has two constituencies: the Christian right and lovers of comedy.
I belong to that second constituency. I don’t know any liberal who doesn’t want her to run. The future of the party is vaudeville of gloom, doom, conflict and perpetual despair.
In exploring the radical right, you say you’ve interviewed hundreds of Christians and Christian leaders. What did you learn from them?
I learned so much. The psychological insight on human nature -- I had none of this before I began this journalistic project.
It’s not just learning about them, it’s learning about anyone who’s willing to give up their freedom. It’s prompted a lot of self-reflection as well.
You profile many right wing leaders in the book -- digging into their personal pasts. What made you explore this specifically?
I didn’t go into their personal lives for the salacious quality, or the tabloid quality of their personal histories. I did it to provide evidence of my concept of the culture of personal crisis that lies behind the right’s politics.
This is a journalistic observation of a movement. I’m making a pretty controversial observation, so I needed to provide evidence.
Do you mind that the book is called your “muckraking debut”?
It’s my first book. There was a lot of muckraking involved in writing it. I don’t paint a pretty picture. If I could liken it to any piece of art, it would Ivan Albright’s Picture of Dorian Gray.
When you probe beneath the flag-waving and the cross-bearing, it’s almost as though you’re Dorian Gray staring into the mirror, seeing this besotted and decadent, hideous soul.
-- Lori Kozlowski
Photos courtesy of Nation Books.