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Author Interview: Journalist Probes ‘Backlash’ Under Obama

After Barack Obama’s 2008 election as the nation’s 44th president, the Tea Party movement sprang up, as did increasingly shrill assertions that the president was a socialist, a communist, a Muslim and more. Gun-rights advocates fretted that the new administration would impose draconian gun controls, while others insisted that the president wasn’t born in America and therefore was in office unlawfully.

Philadelphia Daily News senior writer and Media Matters for America senior fellow Will Bunch decided to investigate what gave rise to this vociferous movement. He traveled throughout the country, attending Tea Party and other conservative gatherings and interviewing activists. He talked to people such as right-wing Georgia congressman Paul Broun and Oath Keepers founding member Celia Hyde. He went to the semi-annual Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot in Kentucky and to Phoenix, the epicenter of the nativist anti-immigration movement.

What Bunch learned is the subject of his third book, The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters, and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama, which goes on sale on Tuesday. He spoke to Hatewatch on the eve of the book’s release:

Why did you choose this topic for a book? Was there a particular event that was a catalyst?

In the waning days of the 2008 campaign, I was fascinated with the rise of Sarah Palin and the drift of the American conservative movement into a kind of blissful know-nothingness about everything from big issues like climate change to Barack Obama’s religion and where he was born. I thought Obama’s supporters of “change” were really calling out for a return to reason. Thus, it was stunning to see the angry and often irrational forces gain strength and influence in those first months of the Obama presidency. And as a career journalist, I thought this was a kind of a story of a lifetime that I wanted to hit the road and latch onto as this backlash was unfolding.

Have you seen anything in the past comparable to the accusations against President Obama, such as that he wasn’t born in the United States, he’s a socialist, and so on?

The first presidential race I covered was in 1984 as a reporter for The Birmingham News in Alabama, watching Jesse Jackson tilt at the windmills of the Reagan revolution before the first-ever “Super Tuesday.” Clearly, the increasing ideological polarization of the two parties — triggered by the shift of the Deep South to the GOP during the ’80s, when I worked there — has made over-the-top demonizing of the other party more of a reality. The seeds were planted with some of the crazier talk about Bill Clinton, things like accusing him of murdering his aide Vince Foster.

But one thing has changed dramatically since the early 1990s. The more insane Clinton allegations were things like underground VHS videos or pamphlets, while the allegations about Obama not only spread 100 times faster on the Internet, but are amplified by talk radio and a coast-to-coast cable powerhouse, Fox News, that gives these low ideas great power. The other difference with Obama is that he is viewed as a symbol of cultural upheaval and fear, of the projections that whites will become a minority in America by the year 2050. These fears are making partisans grasp at the most outlandish theory, that the president is in some way not American.

Should we be concerned by this rhetoric? Or is it merely democracy in action?

I’m a strong believer in unfettered free speech, and so that would include the ability of citizens to advocate any and all nature of conspiracy theories. What I find appalling is that supposed leaders — major media personalities like [Fox New host] Glenn Beck, of course, but also members of Congress and other top pols who are not only educated but employ large staffs — gladly help spread political claptrap in search of higher ratings or more votes in their heavily gerrymandered districts. While free speech certainly applies to a Beck or congressional extremists like Michele Bachmann [R-Minn.] or Georgia’s Paul Broun [R], they also have a responsibility to act like adults, and to not influence their most unhinged followers who may be drawn to violence.

As you note in your book, the radical right and conspiracy theories are not a new phenomenon. What factors have contributed to the rise of the Tea Party movement and the resurgence of right-wing politics?

Major elements of the Tea Party/9-12/Oath Keeper movements are 50- and 60-somethings who harbor resentments that date back to the Vietnam era and other 1960s upheavals, as well as “the paranoid style” so eloquently described by Richard Hofstadter in the era of the John Birch Society — which, as an aside, is undergoing a resurgence. On the other hand, I sensed that the recruitment pool for this movement is growing — in part because of the size of the boomer age population [cohort], but mainly because of the growing fear in this country both over the cultural changes taking place [and] the rising class of permanently unemployed, middle-class, middle-aged Americans.

How does the far right today differ from in the past?

[There are t]wo related factors. One is the existence of a media structure that didn’t exist until the late 1990s — the Internet, where conspiracy theories are easily promulgated and validated; social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, which are powerful tools that allow groups like the Oath Keepers to grow quickly; and the conservative bent of coast-to-coast talk radio, finally topped off with the rise of Fox. One thing I discovered about the anti-Obama backlash is that this is a class of people — retirees, middle-aged layoff victims, part-time workers, etc. — with more free time than other people, and many are immersed for hours a day in Beck and [radio host Rush] Limbaugh Land.

But it’s also important to note that as Beck and Limbaugh became the de facto leaders of the Republican Party, they created a new class of political “leaders” who kowtowed to talk radio and even developed sound-bite platforms lacking in constructive solutions or any potential for negotiation or compromise. This has led to gridlock on Capitol Hill for everything from energy and climate change to immigration reform.

What surprised you the most in researching this book?

The rank and file of the Tea Party — with little attention being paid by the rest of us — is actively engaged in a quest for a certain kind of knowledge and education, which in part explains the rise of Glenn Beck, who has been enormously successful in pandering to that by recommending books and devoting entire shows to “history.” It’s good when people are interested in learning, but the problems are: a) many Tea Party types aren’t seeking unbiased American history but tomes that sometimes validate narrow-minded views about America and our traditions; and, b) leaders like Beck are peddling phony ideas about our alleged founding as a Christian nation or [claiming] that the progressive reforms of the 20th Century were really a march to totalitarianism.

What disturbed you the most in researching this book?

The villains of the story are what I call “the high-def hucksters.” These are the kind of people who look out at a fearful populace and instead of promoting calm — remember FDR? — see an opportunity for big bucks. This includes Beck, who made $32 million last year by marketing to America’s worst fears, and Sarah Palin, who ditched her chance to make a difference as a governor to make $12 million as a media celebrity. But there are others — I profile a businessman named Bill Heid who openly brags of the money he earns selling “survival seed banks” and solar generators to fearful Americans.

You single Glenn Beck out for a good deal of attention.  How important is he in the emergence of the Tea Party and the far right’s revival?

Glenn Beck is huge, because with his background in entertainment — he is a student of Orson Welles and his fear-epic War of the Worlds — rather than raw politics, [he] has been able to tap into the raw emotions of an anxious middle America. As noted above, he also understands the desire for a kind of “education.” A recent poll showed that Beck is the most liked and most trusted figure in the Tea Party by far, and in my travels I met many who said they were moved to action by his broadcasts.

There has been debate as to whether or not the Tea Party movement is racist or contains racist elements. If voters in 2008 had elected a white man rather than Obama, would there still be a Tea Party?

There would certainly be anger and resentment from those long engaged in “the paranoid style” — one can look at some of the allegations about Bill Clinton and imagine that a President Hillary Clinton would have received, arguably, even worse treatment. That said, I think that Barack Obama — as the first black president, with an unusual life story and heritage and, of course, that infamous middle name — is a symbol for broader anxiety about major cultural change in America. This summer we’ve seen a powerful conflating of xenophobia about Mexican immigrants and Muslims and these notions that Obama is a Muslim or a Kenyan. That has helped to weaken the Obama presidency, and I don’t think it would have played out the same way with a white president.

A common refrain of the Tea Partiers and the far right is that they want to “take back America.” What do they want to take the country back to?

An America where they felt secure that the dominant culture would remain white, Christian and non-urban long after they are gone. Rapid change has overwhelmed many of these people in a way that futurist Alvin Toffler predicted with remarkable prescience in his 1970 book Future Shock. Some scientists even link these ideas to our broader fear of death, [arguing] that the kind of cultural unity and, arguably, purity sought by the “I want my country back” crowd is a form of immortality.

Do you think the Tea Party movement and the extreme right’s power have peaked, or will it continue to grow?

It’s complicated. In the short run, the Tea Party has been the tail wagging the American dog, exerting enough influence over the 41 [Republican] senators who represent just 37% of the population to block most meaningful legislation that would get the country moving forward. What’s more, the movement’s extreme rhetoric amid frustration over the march of a multicultural [society] raises the most unfortunate potential for more violent incidents like the killing of three Pittsburgh police officers by Beck fan Richard Poplawski, which I chronicle in The Backlash.

However, inexorably, the forces that rallied behind Obama in the 2008 election are still on the rise. While the 2010 election looks like an angry blip, over time America will continue to grow more racially diverse and also become more educated and most likely less religious, more tolerant on social issues like gay marriage. This would seem to not bode well for the Tea Party over time, but it’s still likely that the “last throes” of this movement may play over for a number of years.

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