State of the Union? It's a state of panic, author says

Special to The Times

The Great Derangement

A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics, & Religion at the Twilight of the American Empire

Matt Taibbi

Spiegel & Grau: 274 pp., $24


MATT TAIBBI is worried about us. He may be a wiseguy journalist for Rolling Stone, that famous "degenerate liberal rag," but he fears a madness spreading across the American mind, and a new wave of paranoia and hunger for the End Times. He's watching as the masses retreat to the margins and suspects they're not coming back.

Witness the apocalyptic visions from the left and right, as many take comfort in the White House line that "they hate our freedoms," in 9/11 conspiracy theories, in the idea that the antichrist walks the Earth and he just might be a Muslim leader looking for a nuke. This is what Taibbi calls "The Great Derangement," his title for another election-year book, even if our 2008 presidential pretenders Hillary Rodham Clinton, John McCain and Barack Obama make only brief appearances. Taibbi's subject is bigger than that. He's obsessed with what he sees as an increasing state of panic and corruption in the era of Bush.

He tells the story through vignettes of his time spent reporting in Iraq, at Bible study meetings in the Texas Hill Country and by examining rampant cynicism in the halls of Congress in the days after Katrina in 2005. In his introduction, Taibbi admits to worrying that he will become infamous as nothing more than "a kind of lefty/alternative hatchet man -- a liberal Ann Coulter." Conservative activists will likely see him that way, but a crucial difference is Taibbi's nasty habit of actually reporting from the scene, and then hurling terrible insults at whatever guilty Republicans or Democrats he finds.

Not everyone is a fan of his cruel jokes and playful invective. Recently on the Huffington Post, Erica Jong suggested that Taibbi's physical descriptions of Hillary Clinton ("flabby" arms) represented some Oedipal perversion; he responded by listing some lines he's written about men in politics: Rudy Giuliani ("Draculoid"), Tom DeLay ("balding incubus"), Mike Huckabee ("an oversize Muppet").

This brutal treatment of his subjects, and the fact that he writes about politics for Rolling Stone, continues to inspire comparisons to the gonzo screeds of Hunter S. Thompson. But ruthless reportage may be closer to the tradition of H.L. Mencken. The best chapters of the book have Taibbi operating more as a participatory, George Plimpton-style journalist, even going undercover as a congregant of John Hagee's Cornerstone Church in San Antonio.

McCain suffered some recent grief for actively seeking Hagee's endorsement, especially after it emerged that the televangelist called the Catholic Church "the great whore." (Hagee says this was a misinterpretation of his words.) But the man claims 4.5 million viewers every Sunday, leading a congregation of "Christian Zionists" with staunch support of Israel as a means to speed along the End Times, climaxing with a war between Israel and the armies of Satan, as some claim is prophesied in the book of Ezekiel. Taibbi is sitting in the pews as Hagee claims knowledge of seven nukes ready to be set off in American cities by Al Qaeda -- sometime in 2005.

The journalist actually finds the Hagee faithful far less interested in Iran and the possibility that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the antichrist than they are in finding help for their own problems. He takes some comfort in that, even if one prayer meeting includes solemn requests for a presidential pardon for Lewis "Scooter" Libby: He also signs up for a three-day "Encounter Weekend." It seems like any other New Age self-help program, with a fresh box of Kleenex on every table, until the closing session of speaking in tongues and fainting as one minister casts out the demons of cancer, incest, philosophy and handwriting analysis in a "holy-vomitus/demon-exorcism deal."

In this episodic study of the alleged unhinging of our American empire, Taibbi turns to the 9/11 Truth Movement and a confrontational meeting with blogger Nico Haupt, described as the author of "masterpieces of conspiratorial paranoia and unintentional comedy." Taibbi understands it in the context of a society that has become accustomed to government lies, sending disheartened voters in search of heroes in the form of libertarian Republican Ron Paul, whose followers are largely "ex-Dittoheads and dropouts from the Republican revolution." This growing outsider phenomenon has created American extremists "defined primarily by the unshakable belief in the inhumanity of their enemies," while managing to ignore the true source of their frustrations: systematic political corruption.

The chapters on congressional malfeasance under former Republican House Majority Leader DeLay (a.k.a. "The Hammer") and inaction under the new Democratic leadership are the least surprising of all. Political positions continue to be bought and sold by industry. And hard political choices are avoided whenever possible. Even after an antiwar mandate in 2006, Democrats lacked the fortitude to stand up to White House demagoguing on Iraq and rubber-stamped Bush's war plans as before. The Democratic Party soon "viewed its end-the-war mandate as a burden," writes Taibbi, "not a privilege."

This book is no rant. At times, it's even a little sad. The connections between all these corners of madness and corruption are not always clear, and the reality of mass indifference is not part of his calculations. But it's a fascinating and usually hilarious study, fueled by Taibbi's own brand of paranoia, reflecting a cruel light on an America gone wild.


Steve Appleford is a journalist based in Los Angeles.

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