A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Hate-talk radio is all about Manichean dualism: Dividing the world into good and evil, black and white, conservative and liberal. And I’m convinced that it actually services a significant bloc of the American public that craves this kind of explanation of their world, because it has a comforting value to them. These are the people Robert Altemeyer calls “the authoritarians” –- the people who actively seek authoritarian rule.
-- David Neiwert, author, The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right
If BuzzFlash has emphasized three things in its nine years of being online as a progressive news and commentary site over nine years, it's that the right wing engages in demagoguery, hypocrisy and lies.
Right-wing radio and television roll all three of these nefarious techniqures together and deliver up a combo plate heaped high with a dangerous appeal to primal fears and emotions that threaten the basis of a reasoned democracy based on mutual respect.
They also threaten the "other" -- as in "liberals," for instance -- by branding them ("us") as the enemy. We might laugh condescendingly at right-wing media shills, but they are very dangerous indeed.
As David Neiwert writes in his introduction, "Eliminationism [is] a politics and a culture that shuns dialogue and the democratic exchange of ideas in favor of the pursuit of outright elimination of the opposing side, either through suppression, exile, and ejection, or extermination."
Their rhetoric is "focused on an enemy within, people who constitute entire blocs of the citizen populace. It advocates the excision and extermination of those entire blocs by violent or civil means."
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BuzzFlash: The title of your book is The Eliminationists. How has right-wing hate talk made non-right-wing Americans into "the enemy"?
David Neiwert: Well, it’s simply become a cornerstone of conservative beliefs that all the world’s ills can be laid at the feet of liberalism. It’s also a built-in feature of right-wing ideology to construct an Enemy. So when the Enemy is something as broad and popularly embraced as liberalism, it’s not too long before your world becomes narrow and enclosed, and everything outside of it is the Enemy.
What that’s produced has been a nonstop harangue from the right demonizing liberals generally, and liberal politicians particularly. Remember that Bill Clinton was evil because he had “bad character.” John Kerry "lied" about his war service. Barack Obama was a scary "Mooslim" brown man. And more generally, antiwar liberals have been dismissed as mere “Bush haters” and “America haters” and, in the early years of the Iraq war particularly, as “traitors.”
This rhetoric is not simply dehumanizing -- it also characterizes its subject as fit only for elimination, expurgation, exile or extermination. So we get frequent references to them as diseases and vermin, or carriers of them, as well as scum or filth of various kinds. We get spoken wishes to purge them, drive them out, do away with them -- often couched as “jokes” for which it’s only possible to see any humor if you share that wish.
BuzzFlash: If someone such as Sean Hannity on a widely watched television network calls liberals the enemy -- as he did again and again during the so-called "war on terror" -- doesn’t that impart the message to FOX true believers that "liberals" are actually a threat to their lives because "liberals" are "the enemy" and enable terrorists, according to Hannity and his colleagues?
David Neiwert: In a word: Yes. This is precisely how eliminationist rhetoric works: The opposition must not simply be opposed, but our very survival depends on his utter destruction and removal as a threat. This is, of course, not merely not discourse, but the very death of it. There is no exchange of ideas, only the destruction of the opposition.
But hey – they’re only entertainters, right? I remember the title of Hannity’s book: "Deliver Us From Evil: Defeating Terrorism, Despotism, and Liberalism." It not only clearly declares liberalism is “evil,” but is an evil on par with terrorism and despotism. You could buy that book in drugstores and at the airport, and even if you never even picked it up, let alone read it, you’d get the message right there by merely glancing at the cover. How many people absorbed that message unthinkingly, you have to wonder.
BuzzFlash: Your book’s subtitle is "How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right." Let’s ask the old chicken and egg question? Wasn’t the American Right radicalized before hate talk hit the airwaves? Didn’t the right-wing media hate talkers just bring a subterranean stream above ground?
David Neiwert: Well, from my perspective -– I am a reformed conservative, someone who grew up Republican in Idaho -– it was always possible to distinguish between the right-wing extremists, the Aryan Nations and militias and assorted backwoods survivalists I covered as a journalist in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and mainstream Republicans. The American Right generally was not radical, just this component of it.
Well, in the past decade, that distinction has been gradually diminishing, in no small part because of movement conservatism’s avid absorption of the extremists on the right who always held themselves apart from the mainstream, which I spend a bit of time documenting in the book.
BuzzFlash: Is there any gray in the world of hate talk in the media?
David Neiwert: Not that I’ve ever been able to observe. Hate-talk radio is all about Manichean dualism: Dividing the world into good and evil, black and white, conservative and liberal.
And I’m convinced that it actually services a significant bloc of the American public that craves this kind of explanation of their world, because it has a comforting value to them. These are the people Robert Altemeyer calls “the authoritarians” –- the people who actively seek authoritarian rule.
BuzzFlash: To what extent, as you cover it in your book, is "eliminationism" an American tradition?
David Neiwert: The book’s longest chapter is a history of eliminationism in America, and it goes back to our very roots -– it’s something Europeans brought with them, like a virus, and it killed over 90 percent of the native population on this continent. It continued through the lynching era and subsequent “sundown towns” phenomenon, the anti-Asian fever of the 1920s and the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II, and continues today in the form of anti-Latino agitation and an ongoing litany of hate crimes.
One of this chapter’s key points is to explain the role of eliminationist rhetoric, historically, in creating permission for the actual eliminationist violence that followed. It’s one of the reasons I call out its current frequency as a warning sign.
BuzzFlash: Are you surprised, in light of the "eliminationist" worldview of hate talk radio and TV that the so-called "tea parties" on April 15 were all white, and almost all working or middle-class white?
David Neiwert: No. I attended the Tea Party in Seattle and that describes the demographic perfectly. The 'Tea Parties’ were all about movement conservatism’s full and final embrace of right-wing populism, which really is embodied more by Ron Paul and Sarah Palin than the mainstream GOP. So don’t be surprised to see these two take on increasing importance in the Tea Party bloc of the Right in coming months and years.
BuzzFlash: All the major purveyors of hate talk on cable TV and national radio are relatively wealthy people, but the majority of their followers are displaced working and middle-class white Americans who would even benefit from the Obama tax break for those earning under $250,000 a year. How can you explain that?
David Neiwert: Well, I recommend everyone read Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland for a historical picture of how the politics of resentment –- as effective a method of driving a cultural wedge between working-class people and the liberal interests that naturally represent them as one could ever hope to devise –- first came into existence. And conservatives have been plying that strategy ever since -– Reagan was certainly its master, while George W. Bush was its true apotheosis, the final promotion of utter incompetence and mendacity in a disastrous synchronization that not only harmed the nation but left the Republican Party the irrelevant shell it is today. It finally took that disaster to wake a lot of people up. Unfortunately, the real Kool-Aid drinkers are very much still with us –- and filling the ranks at Tea Parties. Their numbers are shrinking, but their radicalism is growing.
BuzzFlash: Hate is such an emotional, troubling word. Why is "hating" liberals so important to the worldview and daily "frame" of someone like Rush Limbaugh?
David Neiwert: I think a lot of it has to do with the psychological construct of movement conservatism, which is distinct from actual conservatism. I mentioned Altemeyer’s work above, and it’s part of the answer here, too: These folks are essentially authoritarians for whom a dualist worldview is natural and essential (almost always a product of individual psychological needs), and from it proceeds the need to construct an Enemy, an Other upon whom it can project all of its own worst fears about itself.
BuzzFlash: What is the relationship between hate talk and fascism?
David Neiwert: Well, eliminationism is a signature trait of fascism –- it proceeds directly from the fascist project of palingenesis, or the myth of a phoenix-like national rebirth from the ashes. But it is not unique to fascism by any means -– as the book demonstrates, it can be found running through ordinary right-wing discourse these days, and certainly occurred outside of anything fascist in our own history.
Nonetheless, it’s a major red flag about the development of fascism within the American body politic, because it is so closely associated with it. It’s important to understand that fascism is less an ideology than it is a political pathology –- and like psychological pathologies, it consists not of a core principle, but rather comprises a constellation of various traits which, when they come together, take on a life of their own.
Eliminationism is a signal of these fascist traits, and when it comes combined with a love of violence and a determination to remake the nation and other key fascist traits, then the pathology comes very close to completion.
BuzzFlash: Your last chapter is called "It Can Happen Here." What can happen here?
David Neiwert: Fascism, to put it simply. (The title plays off Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, which was about the rise of a fascist regime in the USA.) Because fascism always arises in a democracy that has reached a point of extreme dysfunction and decay, we know that America is one of the places where it could still arise.
Now, there’s been a lot of discussion, since I wrote much of this, about whether liberals should even be talking about fascism in the context of modern conservatism, since raising such suggestions is itself a means of shutting down discourse. But ignoring the phenomenon won’t make it go away; it will just fester. I think we need to use the words that actually describe the situation.
Moreover, these days, the word “fascism” –- see especially Jonah Goldberg and Glenn Beck -– is being spoken glibly by right-wingers, because they believe that’s what Obama is instituting. They’re using Newspeak. I think it’s time that someone stood up and pointed out exactly what fascism means, what it’s about, and what the very real danger of it actually is today.
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A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW