Sometimes, you admire someone before you meet him. Such was the case with Max Blumenthal.
A little more than a year ago, I came across a YouTube video called "Generation Chickenhawk," an eight-minute piece on the 2007 College Republican National Convention. In it, a whole cadre of young men and women, done up in business attire, wax philosophical about why the Iraq War is necessary ("We went there because al Qaeda is there.") and why they hadn't enlisted ("I can't because of medical reasons."), all the while, completely embarrassing themselves. It's pretty hysterical. Until you realize how disturbing it is.
These rightwing lads and lasses were confessing their opinions to a young, almost Republican-looking man who was interviewing them on camera. Who, I wondered, was he? Turned out his name was Max Blumenthal. I decided to see what else he'd done. That search didn't prove hard.
Basically, Blumenthal could be found just about everywhere a lefty might search out information: The Nation, NPR, Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show, The Huffington Post, salon.com, alternet.org. He provided both print and video journalism for these and other media outlets, often focusing on the impact of the conservative movement on the Republican Party. Not only was his work damning, but pretty damn witty.
Those investigative skills, that wit: They're all on display in his first book, "Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party" (Nation Books, $25), an enlightening -- and, at times, terrifying -- narrative recounting of how the Religious Right's emphasis on creating a theocracy based on a Christian G-O-D did a number on the G.O.P. The cast of characters is huge and their scandals legion. It reads like fiction. Too bad it's fact.
So when Blumenthal gave a talk on Sept. 24 at Town Hall, as part of book tour, I knew I wanted to meet him. And the stars, they aligned: We wound up having brunch earlier that day, in Belltown. And over omelets -- I had veggie sausage and Swiss, he had veggie sausage and broccoli -- we took a rightwing tour of Biblical proportions, with stops in the Swiss Alps, the White House, Kiambu, Kenya and, of course, Wasilla, Alaska.
"Republican Gomorrah:" You know, Gomorrah's a Biblical town that's linked to Sodom and, essentially, things didn't go so well. So why choose Gomorrah as part of the title?
And I managed to look into Gomorrah and not turn into a pillar of salt.
It's a reference to the Republican experiment -- from the Gingrich Revolution in '94 to the end of the Bush era -- and during that time, a Gomorrah-like sea of scandals exploded into the open, ranging from the bizarre sexual escapades of rightwing, supposed family-values Republicans from Ted Haggard [the evangelical preacher caught having sex with a male escort while using meth] to Larry Craig [the former Idaho Republican senator arrested for lewd conduct in an airport bathroom] to David Vitter [the Louisiana Republican senator who frequented a high-end prostitute called the "D.C. Madam"], to lesser known figures who did even more bizarre acts, to the wanton criminality of Tom DeLay, "The Hammer," who [was charged with money laundering and violating campaign finance laws and] was the majority leader of Congress. And these scandals, to me, while they're entertaining, they suggest a lot of hypocrisy. I wanted to go beyond that and show how they reflected an essential sensibility of the Christian Right, and how bringing that movement into that party brought the party down.
When did this movement begin? You mention Newt Gingrich.
The movement had been building capacity in the 1960s, and my narrative sort of starts in the Civil Rights struggle, and Jerry Falwell was inveighing against Martin Luther King from the pulpit: He's attacking King for being political and saying preachers shouldn't be. Falwell was primarily concerned with his private Christian schools being integrated and King was a threat to that. The irony of attacking King as political can't be lost -- [To me:] I don't know how long I can go with the answer.
As long as you want.
So moving from the Deep South with Falwell, I move to the Swiss Alps, to a hippie commune run by a guy named Francis Schaeffer, who was the quintessential Jesus freak. Timothy Leary, the LSD guru, came to visit him; Jimmy Page, from Led Zeppelin, was a fan.
After Roe v. Wade, Schaeffer became radicalized and believed the government had legalized infanticide and went to Washington, [D.C.]. And using his incredible oratory skills to evangelize the Republican leadership there, he became friends with Gerald Ford and helped Falwell start the Moral Majority. He told Falwell: Forget about this business with integration; what we need to do is use the tactics of Martin Luther King against abortion, and target abortion clinics and abortion doctors as a means, not just of stopping abortion, but of unraveling the underpinnings of secular society. But Schaeffer was a sophisticated guy and saw where Falwell and these characters were going. He saw Reagan tell Falwell and a group of evangelicals, "I know you can't endorse me, but I endorse you." He saw that it was really becoming all about power, and that they had this disgusting homophobic and racist strain. But Schaeffer died of cancer in 1985, before he could denounce the Christian Right.
They moved into Washington, and other figures took the reins of the movement and moved it into more of the Republican mainstream, to the point where they reached the mountaintop with the reelection of George W. Bush.
A rather unfortunate mountaintop.
Well, Martin Luther King reached the mountaintop and, like Moses, he saw the Promised Land. What these people saw is a theocratic dystopia that they wanted to create that would have made you and I second-class citizens. At best.
You were recently on MSNBC and you cited a poll that claims 58 percent of Republicans don't believe Obama was born in the U.S.? How can people believe that?
It's a Research 2000 Coast poll taken in, I think, August of this year.
They can believe that because their sources of media are telling them he has no birth certificate; that he was either born in a Kenyan salaam or Indonesia; he's a foreigner; he might even be a Muslim. It's a way to de-legitimize his presidency.
In my book, I talk about how it all started when Sarah Palin, without the permission of John McCain and his staffers, attacked Barack Obama as not one of us: He's friends with terrorists, he's friends of people who hate America. And that inspired, at these rallies, cries of "Traitor," and even worse: racial slurs. It's all on video.
And it didn't end when Obama was inaugurated: It just intensified, to the point where [Fox News TV host] Glenn Beck started going after the people that Palin had named, trying to oust them, people like [former special advisor to the White House Council on Environmental Quality] Van Jones, who I know, who's not really that radical. And unfortunately, the Obama administration has capitulated on this. [Van Jones resigned from his White House post on Sept. 5, months after Republicans started going after him; a video with Jones referring to Republicans as "assholes" can be seen on YouTube.]
It all stems from the same "know-nothing-ism" of the Right: The belief that Barack Obama can't be one of us, the only way to fix America is to get all the foreign elements out. Including Barack Obama. And they will not accept alternative forms of information. They demonize mainstream media: They call it secular or liberal media. Some of them believe it's run by the antichrist: 12 percent of Republicans in New Jersey, according to a recent Public Policy poll, believe Barack Obama is the antichrist. In other words: the son of Satan.
So I can't fully account for their mentality, but they're not coming up with these ideas on their own: It's being instilled in them from demagogues in the media, ranging from Glenn Beck to more obscure figures who are increasingly influential.
You mention a lot of names. So I thought maybe I could give you a name and you could talk a little bit about this person. Let's start with Sarah Palin. And your relationship. [Chuckles.]
Yeah, I'm going to Alaska on Saturday [Sept. 26]. It's my one-year anniversary.
Of going to her church, that she spent 20 years in -- the Wasilla Assembly of God -- which is a pretty extreme Pentecostal church. They're part of a movement that believes that places and people can be possessed by demons. And that those places and people need to be anointed and purged of demonic possession. One of the followers of this movement, Ted Haggard, was seen in his city -- Colorado Springs -- anointing intersections with a bottle of Crisco and a garden sprayer to purge the demonic influence from the intersection; or hanging out outside gay bars, praying that the demons would be lifted. He called gay bars "covens." Of course, he wound up in the arms of a gay male escort, snorting meth. But back to Palin.
I went to her church and saw a pastor by the name of Bishop Thomas Muthee preach. He is a self-identified witch hunter, who said he battled a witch in his hometown of Kiambu, Kenya. And in 2005, when he first came to Wasilla, he anointed Sarah Palin against the spirit of witchcraft. He laid hands on her and basically consecrated her run for governor. When she was elected, she credited him with propelling her into power. So she believes in this stuff. It's all in a video I did called "In the land of Queen Esther," so, anyone who doubts this -- because I know it sounds like I'm the lunatic and I'm the one who's making this all up -- can see it, including the anointing ceremony of Sarah Palin.
The reason John McCain selected Sarah Palin -- someone who, I think, badly damaged the Republican Party and continues to damage it by driving it so far out of the mainstream -- is because McCain was loathed by the Christian Right. It was the only way to bring the movement that controls the Republican Party around for McCain. But at the same time, it marginalized McCain, and Obama was able to capture a lot of moderate Republican votes.
And Palin's still out there, claiming Barack Obama wants to institute death panels in his health care plan, to pull the plug on grandma. Which is suggesting that he has a euthanasia program like Hitler did for the elderly and mentally retarded. She said, "This plan could kill my son, who has Down Syndrome." It's an absurd thing to say.
So Sarah Palin, while we might look at her as an extremist, is a folk hero to the Republican base. And that shows you where the Republicans are with respect to the rest of America.
How about Dick Cheney?
He's not from the Christian Right. Couldn't appear less to care about the so-called "homosexual agenda" or abortion. In fact, his daughter's a lesbian. And his wife, Lynne Cheney -- who's a culture warrior on some levels, very conservative -- wrote a book called "Sisters," which is just brimming with homoerotic lesbianism and scenes of lesbians. Anyone who finds lesbians erotic should read that book.
But Cheney is a typical Western conservative: Get the government out of my life and let us exploit the land and let us fulfill the manifest destiny of the settlers. He's an imminent domain conservative, and that extends to Iraq. He's a sadist, but he's not a sadomasochist. In other words: He enjoys kicking down evildoers, those who are perceived to be weaker than him. He enjoys torturing terrorists. But he's not masochistic, because he follows no higher power. Unlike Bush, who says he has a higher Father than his own father. And he's also totally Machiavellian and cynical, and requires someone like Bush -- who's beloved by this movement -- to puppeteer.
This is not even a person, but: What about Proposition 8 in California?
There's so much to say about it.
I write about one of the figures who funded Prop. 8: Howard F. Ahmanson, Jr. He is the son of the founder of Washington Mutual, Howard F. Ahmanson, [Sr.], who was a mainstream Republican philanthropist. When Ahmanson, Jr., turned 18, his father left him with $300 million. And his mother died, too: So he's alone in a mansion with $300 million, an 18-year-old kid. And he goes crazy: winds up in a mental institution for two years. When he comes out, he meets an extreme rightwing theologian named R.J. Rushdoony, who advocates for replacing the Constitution with biblical law, and executing all evildoers, from homosexuals to disobedient children, to witches and blasphemers. And Rushdoony helps Ahmanson reorder his life through this Calvinstic, ultra-rightwing religion, becomes his surrogate father. And Ahmanson becomes Rushdoony's financial angel, the sugar daddy of the Christian Right. And then in 1985, Ahmanson declared, "My goal is the total integration of biblical law into our everyday lives." It was part of biblical law, and Leviticus case law, [that] homosexuals are imprisoned or they're killed. So of course he's going to fund anti-gay initiatives.
First he funded Prop. 22 in California in 1996. But it was overturned by a court. So Prop. 8, it just repackaged Prop. 22 in a way that could pass muster with the courts. And it did. It succeeded in banning same-sex marriage [in California]. And he put up a million or a million-five for it. But it has to be seen as an effort beyond the anti-gay agenda to establish at least a soft theocracy or influence secular law.
He shows the sensibility of the movement: People who have had a personal crisis and use this extreme rightwing religion as a way of medicating their anxiety: When they try to cleanse the land of sin, what they really want is to cleanse their own soul.
Another figure I talk about in relation to Prop. 8 is Rick Warren, who is a mega-church pastor from California --
And was at the Inauguration.
-- despite telling his followers to back Prop. 8. So where does Barack Obama stand on this? Where does he draw the line? Where do the Democrats draw the line on the anti-gay crusade? You know, if Rick Warren had told his followers to back an initiative that banned interracial marriage or interracial relationships, would Barack Obama have let him speak at the Inauguration? He's wavering on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," he's wavering on getting rid of the Defense of Marriage Amendment, which is totally unconstitutional, because it allows one state to reject another state's rulings, which violates a clear provision of the Constitution. So I think it's all really troubling what happened around Prop. 8, especially in a state like California, which has always led the country in progressive legislation.
Here in Washington we're going through a similar referendum [Ref. 71], where they're trying to deny rights to same-sex couples. So, these referendums, initiatives keep popping up. Can anything be done to stop their viral spread?
Well, the Christian right, which comprises only about 12 percent of the population, was able to mobilize and successfully capture the White House and Congress by training activists at a local level. [Slain gay San Francisco Board of Supervisors member] Harvey Milk got this: He trained people off the streets who were oppressed, who were persecuted, and turned them into activists, told them what was at stake. And encouraged them to move up through the ranks of politics.
People need to overcome their fear of politics and their fear of holding power. And that's a fear that pervasive on the left, and it's pervasive among people who've been hurt by power: homosexuals, minorities. They need to understand that you can work outside the system in a protest mode and work within the systems, too, at the same time.
The other thing is: Howard F. Ahmanson, Jr., putting up all this money for his causes. Well, where are the donors for the gay rights movement? Where was [radio exec and DreamWorks SKG co-founder] David Geffen for Prop. 8, when these rightwing sugar daddies were putting up half of their fortune? You can blame the right, but there needs to be an assessment of failures on the left. And it's a failure of will.
So, the assessment of the left: Will that happen?
Well, you can see what the stakes are.
What I do in my book is offer a critique of a radical movement that took over a major political party that was once a big-tent party and is now a one-ring circus. So I think there's a lot of lessons that people on the left can learn. And there are lessons that Republicans can learn from it, too.
But all I tried to do is provide a really entertaining and informative critique, with a unique analysis of the psychological sensibility of people in this movement. Martin Luther King said the arc of history is leading to justice. And I think that's true. My book hints that this is a movement that sees itself dying in a culture that's increasingly diverse and increasingly progressive.
So really, I think there should be a sense of confidence on the left. People should see that the initiative is theirs to seize. But at the same time, they need to understand their own limitations and be self-reflective. The movement in my book never understood its own limitations and still can't reflect on its own failures.