A 'Shattered' Republican Party?

Max Blumenthal i i

Max Blumenthal is a fellow at The Nation Institute and Media Matters for America. Derek Ketella/The Nation Institute hide caption

itoggle caption Derek Ketella/The Nation Institute
Max Blumenthal

Max Blumenthal is a fellow at The Nation Institute and Media Matters for America.

Derek Ketella/The Nation Institute

In his new book Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party, investigative reporter Max Blumenthal theorizes that a culture of "personal crisis" has transformed the Grand Old Party — and threatened its future.

A documentary filmmaker and blogger, Blumenthal has written for The Nation, The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast.

Excerpt: Republican Gomorrah

Republican Gomorrah
Republican Gomorrah
By Max Blumenthal
Hardcover, 352 Pages
Nation Books
List Price: $25.00

"Home run! Home run! Home run! Home run!"

A phalanx of young men in red baseball caps and polo shirts ran up and down the aisles of St. Paul, Minnesota's Excel Center pumping their fists and chanting boisterously.

"Home run! Home run! Home run!"

The chant quickly spread throughout the crowd.

Suddenly, the floor of the 2008 Republican National Convention is in rapture, having just heard vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin taunt Barack Obama as an unqualified elitist, assail the liberal media, and bill herself as "an average hockey mom." The man at the top of the ticket, John McCain, would speak the following night, but Palin, a charismatic culture warrior, was the spark that ignited the party base.

When the chant finally died down, three country music stars stepped to the stage to perform a patriotic musical mash-up. John Rich and Gretchen Wilson stared deeply into one another's eyes, singing the national anthem, while Cowboy Troy, an African American singer known as the "king of hick-hop," stood off to the side, reciting lines from the pledge of allegiance. Gales of spontaneous cheers rose from the crowd when Cowboy Troy proclaimed, "One nation under God." From my position to the immediate left of the stage, standing next to the Pennsylvania delegation, Cowboy Troy was the only African American I could see among a sea of gray hair and white faces. After the pledge of allegiance, as Rich broke into "Raisin' McCain," a honky-tonk campaign anthem that extols McCain "goin' down in Vietnam town," a handsome middle-aged black man in a suit brushed by me, heading rapidly toward the arena exit. He was Lynn Swann, the Hall of Fame National Football League wide receiver and failed Republican gubernatorial candidate in Pennsylvania in 2006.

"Mr. Swann, where are the rest of the black people?" I asked him.

He paused, shrugged his shoulders, and kept walking. Then, before disappearing into the crowd, he turned and blurted out, "We need to do more."

Earlier that day, I milled around the convention floor and walked the arena hallways, chatting with party leaders and delegates. "These are the real people," Louisiana GOP chairman Roger Villere told me, echoing an emerging theme of the McCainPalin campaign. "This is real America." When I asked Villere the whereabouts of his state's junior senator, David Vitter, he said he did not know. And when I asked about Vitter's confession to hiring several high-priced prostitutes, Villere shot back, "David is a moral man, a great senator, and we support him totally." Vitter, still a religious right favorite, was planning to run for reelection in 2010.

Near the press box, I ran into Ralph Reed, a Christian right operative once hailed by Time magazine as "God's Right Hand." Reed had harbored presidential ambitions, but his campaign for Georgia lieutenant governor ended in humiliating defeat when his role was disclosed in lobbyist Jack Abramoff's scheme to trick evangelical leaders into pressuring the Bush administration's Department of Interior to shut down Indian casinos that Abramoff's clients considered business competitors. I asked Reed whether he still had a political future. "What do you mean? I never left politics!" he chirped, beaming at me with a pearly smile. Reed and Abramoff's former friend and ally, exHouse Majority Leader Tom DeLay, hosted a private party that evening for Republican bigwigs. DeLay, who stood accused by the Texas attorney general of money laundering, had charged McCain with "betraying" the conservative movement. (One of the DeLay party's high profile attendees, Representative John Mica, head-butted an ABC cameraman when a reporter asked him if he was happy to see his disgraced friend.)

Then I made my way to the far corner of the convention floor to mingle with the Idaho delegation. I asked delegates where the state's outgoing senior senator, Larry Craig, was. Craig, rated the third most conservative senator in Congress, had barely eluded criminal charges after soliciting sex with an undercover cop in an airport bathroom stall. "We'd rather not go back and revisit all that," Governor Jim Risch, running to replace Craig, told me. "I'm really here to talk about our party's plan for keeping the tax rate low."

From the Idaho delegation, I pushed through a gaggle of reporters and cameramen surrounding the Alaska delegation to meet some of Palin's constituents. When I approached a young man, the only delegate from the state who appeared to be under the age of fifty, he snapped, "You're not going to ask about Bristol, are you?" referring to Palin's pregnant sixteen-year-old daughter, who sat nearby with her fiance, eighteen-year-old self-proclaimed "fuckin' redneck" Levi Johnston. I asked about Palin's support for laws banning abortion even in cases of rape, incest, or when the mother's life is in danger. "There's no reason to kill a baby, whether you consider him unborn or born," the delegate replied. Another delegate, a middle-aged woman, explained to me how her husband took their two daughters on "dates" to "talk about keeping themselves pure until marriage." (Two days later, the same woman, dressed in a construction worker's outfit like one of the Village People, bellowed on the convention floor in favor of offshore drilling: "Drill, baby, drill!")

This was a portrait of the Republican Party fully in the grip of its right wing: almost exclusively white, overwhelmingly evangelical, fixated on abortion, homosexuality, and abstinence education; resentful and angry; and unable to discuss how and why it had become this way. Noticeably absent from the convention were moderate Republicans. Senator Lincoln Chafee, legatee of the moderate Republican tradition in Rhode Island, was defeated in the 2006 midterms, and he was endorsing Obama. The last Republican House member from New England, Representative Chris Shays of Connecticut, would lose his seat in two months. None of the great Republican families of the past, from the Rockefellers to the Eisenhowers, were there either. Both of Ronald Reagan's natural children, Ron and Patti, endorsed Obama. President Dwight Eisenhower's granddaughter, Susan, addressed the Democratic National Convention in Denver just moments before Barack Obama appeared to accept his party's nomination. How did a party once known for its "big tent" philosophy become a one-ring circus? How did a Republican Party that had dominated American politics for over twenty-five years become so marginalized?

During the 1952 presidential campaign, the Republican nominee and former Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe Dwight D. Eisenhower silently observed the attacks on the patriotism of a man he knew was a great American, General George C. Marshall, then serving as secretary of state. His assailant was Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, as opportunistic and sloppy as he was vicious. Eisenhower seethed while McCarthy smeared Marshall as "a man steeped in falsehood," who supposedly harbored at least fifty-seven active Communists within the State Department. Eisenhower loathed everything about McCarthy, regarding him as a dangerous and petty demagogue, but he shrank from attacking him or defending Marshall, fearing that McCarthy's influence among the Republican Party rightwing base might upset his campaign.

Only later, when McCarthy initiated a witch hunt of a phantom Communist Fifth Column within the top command of the U.S. Army in 1954, did Eisenhower strike back. He did so by sleight of hand. "I will not get into the gutter with this guy," he told aides. He instructed his staff to leak damaging information about the senator's ethical breaches and invoked executive privilege to stifle McCarthy's request for notes on the president's meetings with army officers. McCarthy's show trial quickly degenerated into a farce, leading to his rebuke by the army's attorney Joseph Welch ("Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?") and censure by the Senate for "vulgar and insulting" conduct. Eisenhower had guarded his party against the far right, defended its essentially moderate temper, and ensured the preservation of its national appeal.

By the time McCarthy drank himself to death in 1957, what the historian Richard Hofstadter had called "the paranoid style of politics" had spread into new and growing grassroots conservative groups that sought influence within the Republican Party. These groups cohered into the movement that enabled Barry Goldwater to seize the presidential nomination in 1964, would gain genuine power with the administration of President Ronald Reagan, and would reach their apotheosis under President George W. Bush.

Eisenhower observed the early development of the modern American right with anxiety. His experience in Europe had taught him that the rise of extreme movements could be explained only by the psychological yearnings and social needs of their supporters. He understood that these movements were not unique to any place or time. Authoritarianism could take root anywhere, even in America. Eisenhower did not believe that an American exceptionalism immunized the country against the spores of extremism.

Eisenhower, famous as a golfer and reader of Zane Grey western novels, was criticized for lacking an intellectual framework or even an interest in ideas. But throughout his presidency, Eisenhower clung to a short book that informed his view of the danger of extremist movements. He referred to this book in the first televised presidential press conference ever, distributed it to his friends and top aides, and cited its wisdom to a terminally ill World War II veteran, Robert Biggs, who had written him a letter saying he "felt from your recent speeches the feeling of hedging and a little uncertainty. We wait for someone to speak for us and back him completely if the statement is made in truth." Eisenhower could have tossed Biggs's missive in the heap of unread letters his secretary discarded each day, or he could have allowed a perfunctory and canned response, but he was eager for an opportunity to expound on his vision of the open society. "I doubt that citizens like yourself could ever, under our democratic system, be provided with the universal degree of certainty, the confidence in their understanding of our problems, and the clear guidance from higher authority that you believe needed," Eisenhower wrote Biggs on February 10, 1959. "Such unity is not only logical but indeed indispensable in a successful military organization, but in a democracy debate is the breath of life." The president then opined that free societies do not necessarily perpetuate freedom; many citizens would be far more comfortable under a structure that provides rigid order and certainty about all aspects of life. "The mental stress and burden which this form of government imposes has been particularly well recognized in a little book about which I have spoken on several occasions," Eisenhower wrote. "It is 'The True Believer,' by Eric Hoffer; you might find it of interest. In it, he points out that dictatorial systems make one contribution to their people which leads them to tend to support such systemsfreedom from the necessity of informing themselves and making up their own minds concerning these tremendous complex and difficult questions."

Eisenhower's tone was one of humility and responsibility. He blamed himself for "purely an error of an expression" if his purposes were misunderstood. And he pointed out that fears of national security during the Cold War were distorted and exploited for political advantage. "It is difficult indeed to maintain a reasoned and accurately informed understanding of our defense situation on the part of our citizenry when many prominent officials, possessing no standing or expertness except as they themselves claim it, attempt to further their own ideas or interests by resorting to statements more distinguished by stridency than by accuracy." Eisenhower closed his letter praising the dying man for his "fortitude in pondering these problems despite your deep personal adversity." He made no reference to God.

Hoffer seemed the most unlikely of figures to influence the president. A self-educated itinerant worker, Hoffer toiled on San Francisco's Embarcadero, earning the nickname "the stevedore-philosopher" for the voracious reading and writing he did away from the job. On the docks, Hoffer encountered droves of tramps drifting in search of work.

When the Great Depression set in, some of the most bedraggled misfits he knew morphed suddenly into loyal foot soldiers for strikes led by militant longshoreman union leader Harry Bridges and his allies in the Communist Party. At the same time, when Hoffer looked across the ocean to Germany, he saw a revolution led by failed artists and frustrated intellectuals stirring the rabble with dreams of a transcendent dictatorial order.

Hoffer's experiences at this historical fulcrum provided the basis for his seminal work The True Believer, published in 1951. "A rising mass movement attracts and holds a following not by its doctrine and promises," he wrote, "but by the refuge it offers from the anxieties, barrenness and meaninglessness of an individual existence." The true believer was at his core an ineffectual man with no capacity for self-fulfillment. Only the drama provided by a mass movement gave him purpose. "Faith in a holy cause," Hoffer wrote, "is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves."

Hoffer's analysis of the political fanatic earned him national cult status, gaining the approval not only of Eisenhower but also of serious intellectuals such as the British philosopher Bertrand Russell. Hoffer's analysis, however, was limited for the same reason it resonated so widely. By positioning himself as a non-ideological voice of the American everyman, the ultimate individual standing alone against a rising tide of extremism, Hoffer conflated the underlying motives of all mass movements together. According to Hoffer, fascists, Communists, black nationalists, fanatical "Mohammadens," and Southern racists equally shared an extreme sensibility, and therefore he insisted, "All mass movements are interchangeable." But were they really?

Ten years before Hoffer published his book, a social psychologist and psychoanalyst named Erich Fromm identified and analyzed the character structure of people "eager to surrender their freedom," who sought personal transcendence through authoritarian causes and figureheads. Unlike Hoffer, whose theories were inspired exclusively by his rollicking American adventures and didactic but distant perspective on world affairs, Fromm was able to draw on the psychological atmosphere of Nazi Germany, where millions of ordinary Germans "instead of wanting freedom . . . sought for ways of escape from it." Although Fromm reached many of the same conclusions as Hoffer about the nature of fanaticism, he limited his analysis to the behavior of those who adhered to right-wing authoritarian movements, which he pinpointed as hothouses of individual dysfunction.

Born in 1900 in Germany, Fromm descended from a long line of rabbis. After studying to be a rabbi himself, he switched to the law, sociology, and the new field of psychoanalysis. He joined the famed Frankfurt School for Social Research but fled the country after Hitler's assumption of power, eventually making his way to New York. In 1941, Fromm published Escape from Freedom, a book illuminating the danger of rising authoritarian movements with penetrating psychoanalytical insight.

Writing after the Nazis had overrun Europe but before the entrance of the United States into World War II, Fromm warned, "there is no greater mistake and no graver danger than not to see that in our own society we are faced with the same phenomenon that is fertile soil for the rise of Fascism anywhere: the insignificance and powerlessness of the individual." Those who could not endure the vertiginous new social, political, and personal freedoms of the modern age, those who craved "security and a feeling of belonging and of being rooted somewhere" might be susceptible to the siren song of fascism. For the fascist, the struggle for a utopian future was more than politics and even warit was an effort to attain salvation through selfmedication.

When radical extremists sought to cleanse society of sin and evil, what they really desired was the cleansing of their souls. Fromm's understanding of the psychological character of authoritarianism was not only penetrating but also prophetic. He described how submission to the authority of a higher power to escape the complexities of personal freedom would lead not to order and harmony but ultimately to destructiveness. Movements that evangelized among the crisis-stricken and desperate, promising redemption through a holy crusade, ultimately assumed the dysfunctional characteristics of their followers. After sowing destruction all around it, Fromm predicted that such a movement would turn on itself. Dramatic self-immolation was the inevitable fate of movements composed of conflicted individuals who sought above all the destruction of their blemished selves.

"The function of an authoritarian ideology and practice can be compared to the function of neurotic symptoms," Fromm wrote.

"Such symptoms result from unbearable psychological conditions and at the same time offer a solution that makes life possible. Yet they are not a solution that leads to happiness or growth of personality. They leave unchanged the conditions that necessitate the neurotic solution."

From the book Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Party by Max Blumenthal. Excerpted by arrangement with Nation Books (www.nationbooks.org), a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2009.

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