Friday, November 06, 2009

Book Review: "Republican Gomorrah" by Max Blumenthal

[This blog entry may appear more political than any I’ve posted. At the end of this post I will argue that appearances are deceiving.]

Four months and two days ago I had an experience that I’m still trying to make sense of. On that day – on July 4, 2009 – I walked down to the park by the J.C. Nichols Fountain on the Plaza in Kansas City and walked around amidst a “Tea Party” protest.

“Tea Party” protests began, if I am not mistaken, on April 15, 2009. The protesters used “Tax Day” to protest government spending by the Obama administration. The widespread Tea Party movement is an example of “Astroturfing.” In other words, it is a faux-grassroots movement. The protests present themselves as coming organically from the people but are organized, orchestrated, and funded by wealthy anti-tax activists.

In any event, when I decided to head to the Plaza on the Fourth of July I was curious about what the “tea partiers” would say to me face-to-face. I would estimate that about 100 “tea partiers” had come out on Independence Day. A lot of the signs called Barack Obama names, either directly or indirectly. The signs called him a communist, a socialist, a Marxist, a fascist, and “Hitler.” Signs also called him a Muslim, a terrorist, and an “illegal alien.” Signs carried slogans in opposition to government spending and health care reform. A number of signs were anti-immigrant. I would estimate that one out of every ten members of the crowd carried a copy of Glenn Beck’s Common Sense.

I decided to start some conversations. I asked people about health care. My questions really missed the mark. I approached these conversations as too much of a minister. I framed my questions using the language of moral obligation and love of neighbor. This was the wrong approach. I received several responses that amounted to, “Tough luck: If you can’t get health insurance, that’s your problem, not mine. You have no right to take my money to pay for health care for somebody else.”

When I used the word “neighbor” one young man took my question too literally. “All my neighbors have health insurance. I’ve never met anyone without health insurance.” Still others argued that taxation for the purposes of social programs was a form of coerced charity. The argument followed that taking care of each other was a matter of individual choice and that if taxes were abolished people would take care of each other.

Next I decided to speak with a man holding a sign with a derogatory comment about immigrants. I decided to ask him a charged question, “Looking around the crowd here, I notice everybody here is white. Do you think that sign makes people of color not want to come?” The man assured me that everybody was welcome. “Blacks would be here if they weren’t so lazy.” Later, another man informed me there weren’t any “blacks” here because “every black person in America has health insurance – they get it for free from the government.”

I cannot conclude this mention of the “tea party” rally in Kansas City without mentioning the grown man walking around in a costume that looked like something one of the founding fathers would have worn while signing the Declaration of Independence. He looked terribly silly. However, the symbolic linking of what this group was protesting to the Boston Tea Party and the Revolutionary War is ignorant, disingenuous, and dangerous. The ignorance comes from a basic misunderstanding of what the Boston Tea Party was about. It was not about taxes on tea. It was about the principle of taxation without representation. It was not about lower taxes. It was about the idea that those who levy taxes, as well as make every other policy decision, should be accountable. The cry was not, “We don’t want to pay taxes!” It was, “We want to choose our government.”

This historical revisionism on the part of the “Tea Partiers” is very subtle but very important. Every single person there gets to play a role in choosing a representative government. They also, of course, have the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances and the right to free assembly and I do not begrudge them those rights. But, by invoking the Revolutionary War, they are invoking a message of violence. Texas Governor Rick Perry spoke openly of secession at an April “Tea Party.” That type of rhetoric – like the invective uttered against racial and ethnic minorities – implies the threat of violence.

***

I found myself turning to Max Blumenthal in order to begin to make sense of the experience. Max Blumenthal has posted a series of videos in which he has captured scenes at Gun Shows and Tea Party protests. His video footage captures exactly the same thing I had witnessed here in Kansas City.

After watching Blumenthal’s videos I decided to pick up a copy of his book Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party. His book is not about “Tea Parties.” (It is still too early to have published a piece of investigative journalism about this movement.) Instead, Republican Gomorrah tells the story of the rise of Christian Dominionism as a prominent ideology within the Republican Party.

Blumenthal’s book combines history and psychology. Blumenthal’s research is deeply indebted to the work of psychologist Erich Fromm, especially Fromm’s book Escape from Freedom, a study of what attracts people to authoritarianism. According to Fromm people will willingly submit to authoritarian figures when they believe that authoritarian leaders have the magic power to resolve their personal crises. The corollary to this is that authoritarian leaders have an interest in manufacturing crisis and promoting fear, hysteria, panic, and anxiety.

Fromm adds that authoritarianism breeds sado-masochism. In masochism, one derives pleasure from being hurt. After all, it is only when you feel pain that you can turn to the magical healing that an authoritarian figure can provide. Sadism is the experience of pleasure that comes from hurting others. Sadistic acts cause others to experience crisis and therefore leads them to be willing to submit to authority. Taken to an extreme, authoritarian rule depends upon the cultivation of the necrophilious character, a person who is drawn “to all that is dead, decayed, putrid sickly… It is the passion to tear apart living structures.”

Analyzing the Christian Dominionist movement, Blumenthal finds it to be a perfect case-study of Fromm’s theories. James Dobson’s book Dare to Discipline, first published in the 1970s, is a manual on authoritarian family life that produces sado-masochistic, anti-social, and dysfunctional behavior. The book’s title might as well be, Domestic Violence for Dummies. Blumenthal also details Dobson’s attraction to serial killers like Ted Bundy and David Berkowitz.

Republican Gomorrah derives its title from the bizarre, troubled, and destructive lives of so many of those connected to Christian Dominionism. He looks at mega-church pastors such as Ted Haggard and Robert Moorehead; major politicians like Larry Craig, David Vitter, Mark Foley; minor politicians like Bob Allen, Glenn Murphy Jr., Richard Curtis, Jim West; and an enormous group of political operatives and big donors. The list above is just a small sampling.

Consider the career trajectory of Claude Allen, an African-American from inner-city Washington D.C., who cut his political teeth working as an aide for Senator Jesse Helms, perhaps one of the most racist individuals to be elected to political office in our times. Allen distinguished himself for his strident anti-gay and anti-contraception politics and had his nomination as a federal judge withdrawn after Democrats threatened to filibuster. In 2005 Allen became President Bush’s chief domestic policy advisor, a position that paid him an annual salary of $161,000 and allowed him to do things like order the CDC to remove all information about condoms from their web-site. Within a year Allen had resigned his post embroiled in scandal. One of Allen’s favorite pastimes involved going to big box stores, purchasing hundreds of dollars of electronics on his credit card, placing the purchased items in his car, returning to the store where he picked out identical items off the shelves, and then “returning” those items and having his credit card reimbursed. He repeated this scheme at least 25 times before he was caught. What bizarre psychological state fueled these self-destructive, masochistic acts?

I’ve only just scratched the surface of Blumenthal’s reporting, but what is interesting is that the developments mentioned in Blumenthal’s subtitle have not occurred although they may be occurring at this very moment. Blumenthal closes his book with an examination of the 2008 election, especially McCain’s uncomfortable selection of a spiritual advisor (John Hagee) and his selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate. Both choices, Blumenthal argues, were attempts to secure the support of Christian Dominionists. (Blumenthal claims that McCain wanted to select Lieberman as his running mate.)

The subtitle of Republican Gomorrah is "Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party." Blumenthal’s strong choice of words in his subtitle is bold. A couple of bad election cycles does not equal the shattering of a party, but there are some signs that ought to be worrisome for committed Republicans. 2006 and 2008 featured a purge of moderates such as Lincoln Chafee and Chris Shays. Arlen Specter decided to follow the Jim Jeffords path. Florida Senator Mel Martinez resigned from the Senate several months ago and a host of incumbent Republicans such as Kit Bond, Judd Gregg, and George Voinovich have announced that they will not seek re-election, perhaps because they do not want to face bruising primaries and the prospect of third-party spoilers in the general election.

There is a chance that in 2010 and beyond we may see a lot of races that resemble New York’s 23rd Congressional District. On Tuesday voters elected a Democrat to that seat, a seat that has been held by Republicans since 1871. The Republicans failed to field a candidate as the Republican in that race dropped out and endorsed the Democrat over a more conservative third party candidate.

***

At the beginning of this post I commented about the political nature of this post. I’ve often repeated the explanation that the word “political” comes from “polis,” the Greek word for city. Political activity therefore is any activity that takes into consideration the affairs of the city. (And, since the city-state is no longer the system of how people organize, it is fair to accept a broader meaning of the term “political.”)

I’ve also frequently clarified the rules that churches are expected to follow as an exchange for being granted 501(c)3 non-profit status. The simple version of those rules is that churches are entirely forbidden from endorsing either a candidate for public office or a political party. Churches are allowed to lobby on issues as long as those lobbying efforts do not exceed more than 5% of the operating budget of the congregation. (Did you know that UU congregations in several states have banded together to form Legislative Ministries? The one in California is among the more prominent examples.)

This post does not come even close to the danger zone involving IRS regulations. But, I do want to conclude this post by musing. I think it may be time to ask the question, “Do the current IRS regulations only work within the context of a de facto two party system where both parties – Republican and Democrat – are ideologically broad?” For better or for worse there has been no viable third party alternative on either the left or the right. A Jesse Ventura only comes along once in a blue moon. Independents tend to be either billionaires (Ross Perot, for instance) or centrist figures who hold an appeal that exceeds their popularity in either party (Joseph Lieberman.)

But, what if the subtitle of Max Blumenthal’s book (Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party) was to come true and one or both of the political parties were to shatter? Would synagogues really be expected to remain silent if the American Nazi Party fielded a candidate who had a shot at being elected? Would Catholic churches be gagged from protesting a politician who cobbled together an Anti-Catholic Party? What would be the proper response from liberal, moderate, and mainline churches if a Christian Dominionist Party fielded a slate of viable candidates?

In other words, what would happen to the IRS regulations if political parties were to become ideologically narrow or singular?