Does the right wing have a persecution complex?
How contentious will the November elections be? Judging by an early look at one title scheduled for release around election time, you can bet the volume will be turned up full blast. There’s no doubting where Michael Wolraich stands on the issues. He is a contributor to the liberal blog Talking Points Memo and a founder of Dagblog which mixes politics, sports, business and humor. He swings at conservative extremists with a hammer blow that is also meant to entertain (at least his own constituency). His book due out in November from Da Capo Press is called “How Bill O’Reilly Saved Christmas: A Fair and Balanced Account of Right-Wing Persecution.” I asked him about it in an email exchange.
Why write this book now?
The far right has been spinning paranoid fantasies about the persecution of white Christian conservatives since the 1970s, but Fox News and Republican leaders began pushing these fringe views into the mainstream a few years ago. After Obama's election, they whipped the trend into an epidemic of paranoia that we haven't seen since the Red Scare. The result is a destruction of mutual trust that has paralyzed the government.
I started the book after watching Pat Buchanan shout at Rachel Maddow about the "affirmative action appointment" of Judge Sotomayor and the terrible discrimination suffered by white males. I began to see how integral the myth of persecution has been to the growing power of the right wing. Seemingly innocuous stories, like Bill O'Reilly's alleged "war on Christmas," are much darker than they appear at a glance. O'Reilly warned his viewers of a secret conspiracy between billionaire George Soros, liberal newspapers, and the ACLU to ban Christmas in order to pave the way for gay marriage, euthanasia, legalized drugs, and socialism. (He accused the New York Times and the L.A. Times but not the Washington Post, so I guess that you guys weren't in on the plot.)
After I started writing, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh went nuts and began trumpeting wacky conspiracy theories about villainous "czars" in the White House who were deliberately wrecking the economy in order to justify a military crackdown on conservatives and some kind of fascist-communist revolution with eugenics and bestiality sprinkled on top. But O'Reilly's war on Christmas was the launching pad that took persecution politics from fringe to mainstream, so I named the book in his honor.
Who will be shocked more: the right or the left?
Right-wing conservatives are well aware of the liberal-gay-black-socialist-secularist-fascist-feminist-immigrant conspiracy, so I think they'll take the news in stride. Politically engaged liberals have been following the right's persecution complex on the blogosphere, so I don't think they will be shocked, but they will likely be taken aback by the breadth and historical scale of the persecution narrative, and they'll be keen to learn what they can do about it.
But political moderates who don't regularly watch YouTube clips of Glenn Beck losing his mind will be shocked. When I share with people the paranoid messages that right-wing leaders have been propagating, the response I inevitably receive is, "I had no idea."
What is the single most resilient myth you will crush in the book?
Legalizing gay marriage would not mean that people could also marry ducks, goats, and dolphins.
Seriously, I don't see my book as a myth-crusher. The right-wing persecution mythology is so obviously absurd that it's self-crushing -- except to those who are under its spell, but they won't be convinced by logical remonstrations from a professed liberal. For moderate readers, just presenting the ideas should be sufficient to make them laugh, recoil, or laugh while recoiling (for which I'm not responsible in the case of injury).
The purpose of the book is not to disprove the persecution myths but to reveal their extent and their impact, understand why they have been so successful, and figure out how to chase them back into their undisclosed location. If readers get in a few laughs along the way, it's not my fault.
How will conservatives react to your analysis?
I expect them to praise me for showing them the evil of their ways, publicly apologize to the American people, ritually spank themselves, and vote Democrat in November.
Realistically, the right wing will dismiss me, ignore me, or reject and denounce me, but I do hope to get through to moderate conservatives. The Republican Party has encouraged right-wing demagoguery for years; the G.O.P.'s clumsy attempt to co-opt Tea Party populism is only the most recent and obvious example in a forty-year trend. The culture warriors are like the Visigoths that a Roman emperor once regarded a source of fresh recruits for his army. Just as the Visigoths proceeded to sack Rome, so have the right-wing recruits sacked the moderates within the Republican Party, leaving a paranoid core that is blinded by fear and rage. A strong effort by moderates to reject persecution politics and take back their party offers the best hope for repairing the partisan fissures that have effectively broken the American government.
Are liberals immune from some of the same instincts?
Not at all. The left wing buzzed with conspiracy theories related to the Iraq War and 9/11, and the JFK assassination is a perennial favorite on the left. Author Thomas Frank, in his book, “What's the Matter with Kansas,” observed that right-wing demagogues lifted their anti-elitist vocabulary almost verbatim from left-wing populists who raged at the end of the 19th century. The difference today between left and right is that Democratic leaders and popular liberal journalists reject left-wing paranoia, whereas many prominent Republicans and conservative media stars actively promote right-wing paranoia.
Do any conservatives in the book win praise from you?
A few lonely conservatives, like George Will and David Frum, have criticized the extremism within their own party. I applaud and admire their willingness to stand up to the Fox News juggernaut, and I offer my condolences for their dwindling popularity. In addition, I will probably infuriate liberals with a few kind words for John McCain. While his campaign tactics hardly merit the Integrity Man costume he pranced around in, he deserves some credit for avoiding the white-persecution narrative that his strategists were surely pressing on him. That's a bit like praising a shoplifter for not stealing cars, but in Republican Vice City, it's all relative.
How will this book play in the November elections?
I fear that it will be prophetic. Paranoid Tea Partiers and other right-wing extremists are gunning for Republican moderates, or at least people who now pass for moderate, like Charlie Crist of Florida. If the Republican primaries follow the pattern of New York District 23, where a third party Glenn Beck devotee knocked out the Republican candidate, the conservative slate of candidates will be the most paranoid and extremist in 50 years. And if the Democrats don't reverse their party's slide in popularity, most of those extremists will win in November. Then people can turn to “How Bill O'Reilly Saved Christmas” to find out what hit them.
Steven E. Levingston
March 3, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories: Whip It Up | Tags: republican persecution myths; wolraich on conservatives;
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