Right’s new radicals

My following book review appears today in Sydney’s Sun Herald newspaper:

Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Party
Max Blumenthal
(Nation Books, $49.95)
Reviewed by Antony Loewenstein

Christian fundamentalists have taken over the Republican Party. “It’s become the party of birthers, deathers and Civil War re-enacters,” Max Blumenthal told the Los Angeles Times last month. Last year’s vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin – anti-abortion, pro-war, pro-torture, anti-Islam and evangelical – epitomised the new, radical America: parochial, intolerant yet homely. “She’s bright and a blank page,” said a former White House official working at the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute. The world is aching to be ruled by Washington or at least controlled by it. This book explains the fears and power inherent in this ideology.

Blumenthal is known for making short films documenting the Christian Right and publishes regularly in The Huffington Post, The Nation and The Daily Beast. He’s an unconventional figure, largely allowing his subjects – gun nuts, anti-Semites and Barack Obama haters – to speak in their own words. George W. Bush and Karl Rove were just two of the most recent individuals to push this agenda on a national stage and gained considerable political power in the process. Fear is a rallying tool.

During last year’s Republican National Convention, the writer observes a hard truth about the party that nominated John McCain but almost forced him to select Palin to appease the radical base of the party: “Almost exclusively white, overwhelmingly evangelical, fixated on abortion, homosexuality and abstinence education; resentful and angry and unable to discuss how and why it has become this way.”

Fox News’s Glenn Beck today speaks for some of these people (despite his occasional criticism of the Republicans.) In mid-October, he again called for a return to a “simpler time” in America, a past that never existed except in the minds of those who conveniently ignore the fact that America was a society based on racial apartheid less than 50 years ago.

Blumenthal gives a potted history of the key cultural figures in the Christian Right – James Dobson founded Focus on the Family in the 1970s and shot to fame with a best-selling book that encouraged beating children into submission to restore respect for God – and explains how a “culture of personal crisis” thrives in its bowels. “This culture is the mortar that bonds leaders and followers together,” Blumenthal writes. A politician beat his wife, cheated on her or picked up a gigolo in a male toilet? Christian-oriented solutions can soothe the aches and pains of Middle America (and resurrect flailing careers).

Witness possible future Republican presidential nominee Newt Gingrich, who after failed marriages prostrated himself before Dobson in 2007 almost to ask for forgiveness and now enjoys considerable backing from the radical fringe. His conversion to Catholicism was a shameless attempt to use his own personal crisis to generate sympathy and power. Blumenthal’s book is littered with similar examples.

Perhaps the most striking element of this work is how prescient it has become (the book entered The New York Times bestseller list within weeks of its release). The bitter, sometimes racist campaign against Obama is symptomatic of the rot (though there are many reasons why one would oppose the Democratic Party, from the war in Afghanistan to its policy on the occupation of Palestine).

But appropriation of the most extreme segments of political thought now defines the Republicans. Take its moves last month to investigate America’s leading Muslim advocacy group for wanting to place Muslim interns as aides in congressional offices. Or a leader of the so-called Tea Party movement opposing Obama’s healthcare plan accusing the President of being an “Indonesian Muslim turned welfare thug and a racist in chief”.

The point isn’t that these views exist and always will; it’s that they are being amplified and supported by leading figures in America’s alternative ruling class. Blumenthal questions the moral code of a party that supports water-boarding but doesn’t tolerate a woman’s right to choose.

Republican Gomorrah is both new and old history, the trajectory of a vocal minority of Americans who both fear the world and want to control it.

It’s a sober warning that as most of the Western world moves towards a more tolerant, secular future, the United States may embrace a doctrine of radical exclusion.

Text and images ©2023 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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