I would call the GOP the ZOP -- instead of the Grand Old Party, it’s the Zombie Occupied Party. It has no ideas. It has no capacity for maneuvering on constituent concerns. It’s just like a zombie that’s lurching towards Obama and towards all the moderate Republicans and yelling, "Brains!" And eventually, it’ll eat itself alive. However, and at the end of George Romerez’ Land of the Dead, the zombies figure out how to use guns.
-- Max Blumenthal
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Max Blumenthal is an award-winning journalist and blogger whose articles and video documentaries have appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, The Huffington Post, Salon.com, Al Jazeera English and many other publications. He is a senior writer for The Daily Beast and a writing fellow for the Nation Institute.
But we know Max as a former night editor for BuzzFlash.com and for his fearless work in taking on right-wing zealots -- religious and otherwise -- by going to their events and challenging them.
Ever since we talked to Max last year about the hate and racial politics emanating from the 'angry white men' of talk radio, we've been looking forward to the 2009 release of his new book, Republican Gomorrah: Inside The Movement That Shattered The Party.
To progressives, the purging "purity movement" in the Republican Party right now appears internally destructive, if not slightly insane. Either way, it's particularly hard for progressives and free-thinkers to understand.
Thankfully, Max Blumenthal is on the case. BuzzFlash recently spoke to him about his insights on the apparently irrational behavior we've been seeing from the GOP lately, which he explored in his book.
In the resulting interview, Max explains how Gov. Mark Sanford and other disgraced Republicans communicate to their base using their personal scandals and crises. He also addresses why Democrats can't get away with such scandals, how George W. Bush is still the prototypical Republican candidate for president and why Virginia's Bob McDonnell is more threatening than Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann combined.
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BuzzFlash: Max, first of all, how did you come to the title of the book, which is obviously religious in nature, Republican Gomorrah?
Max Blumenthal: The title is a reference to the Gomorrah-like atmosphere that consumed the Republican Party and the movement that substantially controlled its grassroots base, the Christian right.
In advance of the 2006 midterms, the 2008 election, and even afterward, the party became consumed in a sea of bizarre sexual and criminal scandals, from Ted Haggard’s notorious affair with a male escort and amphetamines, to Larry Craig’s wide stance, to David Vitter’s peccadilloes with hookers in New Orleans, to Tom DeLay’s allegedly criminal fundraising schemes, to Mark Sanford’s Latina lover.
All of these scandals revealed the Republican Party not as a party of family values, but as the party that was slouching towards Gomorrah. And more than that, they highlighted the sensibility of the movement that controls the party and the political psychology of that movement.
BuzzFlash: You've applied some of Erich Fromm’s theories to the religious right in this new book. Did you find that the leadership of the religious right were driven ideologically by their personal crises to gain followers by tugging on the vulnerable emotions of similarly scarred Americans?
Max Blumenthal: Well, I don’t say that the leadership took advantage of the personal crises. A lot of the leaders had these crises themselves. There are exploiters as well. [Focus on the Family founder] James Dobson, who is a central figure in my book, is just someone who I think understands this culture and understands how to mobilize people who come from a background animated by private trauma.
I covered this movement for six years, and in covering it I met just dozens and dozens of followers, leaders and activists who told me that they had had some terrible thing happen to them in the past that they blamed themselves for. Junk -- you know, alcoholism, some family crisis, sexual abuse, sex addiction, pornography addiction, drug addiction -- you name it. And they confessed this to me unprompted, without me even asking about it. And I wanted to understand what it was that connected all these people together -- why there seemed to be a common thread throughout the movement.
I came across Erich Fromm’s book, Escape From Freedom -- which he wrote in 1931 as a warning to Americans after fleeing from Nazi Germany and watching the rise of an authoritarian movement in a democratic society. And what he said was the peril stems from people who can’t handle the pressures of freedom, who can’t handle the anxiety and pressure of exercising their free will in an open society. Often they will succumb to that pressure. They will become self-destructive, and they will seek what he calls the neurotic solutions, which is flocking to an authoritarian structure or an authoritarian leader to basically control them and help them reorder their lives.
And that’s what so many people on the Christian right told me. And if they did what they wanted to do, they would basically go crazy and do anything up to man-on-dog sex. But when they did what God wanted them to do -- you know, God as translated to them through James Dobson -- they could put their lives back together. Fromm helped me articulate what I was seeing on the Christian right, which was a culture of personal crisis that animates the politics of resentment.
BuzzFlash: How does an individual, personal crisis animate the politics of resentment? What’s the tie between the two?
Max Blumenthal: When you believe that when you do what you want to do, you can’t moderate your own behavior, and you’re destroying your life -- you’re self-destructive -- for whatever reason, you seek to dissolve the self, what you think is the source of your problems.
For example, if you’re ashamed of the fact that you’re gay, and you live in a community where homosexuality is looked down upon, you blame yourself. And you seek to dissolve the self in a glorious holy cause that’s bigger than you. And in giving away the self, you give yourself over to a strong authoritarian leader like James Dobson.
The story of Christ as depicted in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ -- and it’s depicted in every Mel Gibson movie; Mel Gibson is the top propagandist -- is really the same. Iconically, at the end of each movie, the protagonist has his body torn apart while he’s screaming “freedom.” He’s transcending his own body, the sector of shame and sin, and moving on to a higher plane, and becoming part of this glorious cause, becoming a symbol of it.
That’s the goal of so many of the men of the Christian right. It’s why Mark Sanford, for example, when he confessed his affair with his Latina lover in a nationally televised press conference, said the reason why he followed God’s law is to restrain himself from the self. It’s like John Ensign, the only Pentecostal senator in the Senate, a far right-wing legislator from Nevada -- well, what happened in Vegas didn’t stay in Vegas. His affair was revealed with a staffer he’d been paying hush money to. He wrote her a letter and he said, "The reason why I did this with you is I walked away from God." In other words, "I did what I wanted to do."
Sarah Palin, in her autobiography, Going Rogue, says you have to give your life over to God and let God take over. In other words, give away yourself and let God take over control over your own life. This is a movement populated by people who believe that they have to give away their own individual will.
They give away the self to a higher leader, which is the essential mentality of an authoritarian follower. And the reason why they think that way, the reason why they want to give the self away, is they loathe what their individual will has made them do, and they feel that it will lead them to do, which is a sin.
BuzzFlash: Let’s fast forward to Sarah Palin, who you cover in Republican Gomorrah, and her church in Wasilla, which is an extremist offshoot denomination. And also I want to bring up Rep. Michele Bachmann, because she and Palin talk about God and how important God is and everything, but neither of them bring up their extremism in their politics. I mean, Palin tried to hide the extremism of her church. Bachmann is really Evangelically-driven, believes in a Christian-run nation and that the world will be saved by Christianity. They don’t hide their belief in God, but they hide the kind of extremism of their religion.
Max Blumenthal: I think Palin and Bachmann have been pretty bad at hiding the extremism of their beliefs. They’ve been remarkably bad at it. Palin went on James Dobson’s show and said she was a hard-core pro-lifer and a prayer warrior. And Michele Bachmann uses this language frequently. She hangs out with the prosperity gospel and end-times enthusiasts in Minneapolis pretty publicly. And she is at the megachurch all the time. And I guess I helped to discover a video of Palin being anointed at a public ceremony at her church by a self-proclaimed Kenyan witch hunter, then Bishop Thomas Muthee, anointed against the spirit of witchcraft.
These are people who have built their political careers on the strength of the Christian right. Michele Bachmann makes no secret of that. And besides that, she’s all over Fox News warning that the Census is collecting information on people in order to create the conditions for mass government round-ups and new government concentration camps that will resemble those created for Japanese-Americans in World War II. So she’s out there about her extremist beliefs, so much so that her chief of staff recently quit and said when the captain of the ship is crazy, you have to jump ship.
There are, however, people who I think are just as extreme as Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann who are effective "stealth candidates" who know how to conceal their extremism behind a veneer of geniality and suburban charm. And one of them who’s been talked about as a model for the Republican Party's future, and who I think could be a viable presidential candidate in 2016, is Bob McDonnell. He's just been elected governor of Virginia and is an acolyte of Pat Roberson. Bob McDonnell, who wrote in a graduate thesis that working women and homosexuals were destroying society and that strict laws needed to be implemented to punish homosexuals and adulterers, is basically a dominionist.
He went on Pat Robertson’s show, The 700 Club, right after being elected to the attorney general’s office in Virginia in 2007 and he said, “Pat, one of the things I learned when I studied law at Regent University, your university, was how to stick to my principles but to discuss them in a civil way and to not turn anybody off who didn’t share these principles.” In other words, he learned to conceal his beliefs behind that veneer of geniality.
And when I talked to Larry Sabato, who is the most prominent political analyst and pollster in Virginia, he told me that Bob McDonnell is going to win. He’s going to win in a landslide because in Virginia, which is a purple state -- a competitive, two-party state, sort of a microcosm of the United States -- all you have to do is pass the suburban cocktail test. That's where you have to appear as the person who you would like to invite over to a cocktail party at your house.
If you go back to 2000 and look how George Bush ran his campaign, it’s the same thing. He was the compassionate conservative who independent voters wanted to invite over for a barbecue. So Republicans can be dangerous, but when they run people like Palin or Bachmann who are just transparently radical and have hysterical personalities to match their politics, they lose every time.
BuzzFlash: George W. Bush said that when he found Christ, he abandoned his personal crisis -- which was alcoholism and drugs -- and through Christ, he redeemed himself. How does this fit into your thesis in Republican Gomorrah?
Max Blumenthal: We could assume that Bush really meant that and that was true. But even if he was being cynical, someone -- most likely Marvin Olasky -- had advised him to say that because this is a key way of reaching the Republican grassroots, by broadcasting your own personal crisis and your dissolution of the self into a glorious higher cause.
That’s how Bush became the prototype of the Republican presidential candidate. Bush finished his term with a 25 percent approval rating, which is one of the lowest approval ratings any president has finished their time with. But it’s significant because his approval rating, given his performance, should have been zero percent. But he held on to 25 percent of the country. That 25 percent liked these elements -- the element among the American voting population that appeals to this culture of personal crisis and politics of resentment resonate with. And Bush held on to them, and that’s the Republican base who exercise an influence, though disproportionate to their numbers.
So that 25 percent is now behind Sarah Palin, who has dangled her infant child who has Downs Syndrome, Trig Palin, in the media klieg lights. She is going around the country speaking to anti-abortion groups and Republican women’s groups about the personal crisis she suffered through her pregnancy with this child, and how she considered having an abortion and prayed to God over it, and decided not to abort the child because she wanted to advertise her pro-life values. She’s basically saying, "This child is a campaign prop."
This appeal has really worked with the Republican grassroots, even though it might seem a little bit grotesque to independent voters and to us. The ghostwriter of Palin's book, Lynn Vincent -- who is a features writer for World magazine, the Evangelical magazine of Bush’s former faith-based guru, Marvin Olasky, who I mentioned earlier -- said that when she saw Palin discussing Trig and her decision not to abort him, it made her seem more human. And eventually her and Vincent became friends, and Vincent became her ghostwriter.
So this again goes to the culture of personal crisis, and explains why, as unpopular and ineffective as he was, Bush remains the prototype of the Republican presidential candidate.
BuzzFlash: The "sins" of these Republicans; Ensign, Sanford, et al. are really soap-opera-ish. But they're always forgiven because they frame it as a falling from God. But if a liberal or progressive engaged in the same behavior, the right wing would call it a sign that they are fallen and not "of Christ."
Max Blumenthal: Yeah, I want to make three points about that. The first point is that adherents of the Christian right tend to believe they’re persecuted, like they are living in the catacombs in Rome like the early Christians. They believe the fallout from their scandals is ginned up by the liberal secular media, but that they should be in charge of deciding who’s forgiven and who’s rejected and who’s redeemed.
So Tom Coburn covers up for John Ensign and his affair. They’re willing to overlook that because he’s their guy and who are we to condemn them, because we are already the children of Satan -- progressives and secularists.
Whenever one of these figures says they’re being persecuted by the media, the base rallies to them. That's Sarah Palin's whole strategy. Every interview she does, afterwards she condemns the interviewer, like she just did with Barbara Walters, and like she’s done with Katie Couric. And that's an appeal to the movement's persecution complex.
The second point is that they see the world in the context of spiritual warfare. In other words, there’s a secret battle between Satan and God that lurks behind reality and illuminates reality. And all of these bad things that have befallen their leaders, the sins their leaders have committed, the crimes they’re accused of, is because they’ve been possessed by Satan.
So when I interviewed Tom DeLay in 2006 at Pastor John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel Summit in Washington, an end-times enthusiasm conference, I asked him who was responsible for these money-laundering charges against him. He said, “Satan is behind them. And Satan is behind the left. Satan is behind my prosecution.”
If you’re of that kind of mentality where you believe that everything bad you do is Satan taking over your body and your mind, and everything good you do is because you’re doing what God wants you to do, you’re completely incapable of taking any personal responsibility for your own actions. And you will inevitably become self-destructive because you’ve externalized your own behavior and ascribed it to hidden mystical forces. And that’s why Tom DeLay was such a corrupt leader -- because he couldn’t take any personal responsibility for anything he did. And anyone who criticized him was controlled by Satan.
The third point is that these are heterosexual scandals that we’re talking about with Ensign and Sanford. And Sanford actually hasn’t been forgiven, and Ensign’s in big trouble. But if they were homosexual scandals, these guys would have been out of there much faster.
Most of the sex scandals I discuss in my book are homosexual sex scandals committed by self-loathing girlie men parading as manly men before the manly men of the conservative movement. Ted Haggard, for example, and Mark Foley, who was sort of out of the closet, but had managed to contain the rumors with the help of the Republican leaders in the Congress.
But when their homosexual behavior exploded into the open in advance of the 2006 midterms, they were immediately thrown to the wolves by the manly men of the movement. And depressed the turnout of the election reflected the Republican base which was so repelled by their behavior. The Republicans and Karl Rove have said this is a factor in the loss of six Senate seats and 32 House seats, turning control of the Congress over to the Democrats for possibly a generation and sending the Republican Party into the 2008 Presidential election with the Republican brand more damaged than it had been since after Barry Goldwater won the nomination.
BuzzFlash: Is their sense of persecution and victimhood -- which really is a consistent thing even on what one might call the "secular television" of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh's show -- a parallel to the religious context of Christ being a victim?
Max Blumenthal: Well, there are several different Christs in the Bible, and one of them is the Christ who is condemned by Pontius Pilate and the Romans. There are other Jesus figures revered by different factions of the Christian religion. But they choose to focus on the persecuted Jesus, and then on the violent retribution for his persecution. And that’s because they themselves believe that they represent a subculture in society.
It’s only about 12 to 20 percent of the American voting public. But they must see themselves as early Christians in order to exercise their influence in a way that’s disproportionate to their numbers in order to energize the base, to energize the activists, to get them to be fervent politically: constantly running for school board elections, running for dog catcher, hammering in yard signs, leafleting church parking lots on Election Day. They have to believe this. Their very survival is at stake.
That’s why whenever the Christian right’s leaders want to raise money, their fundraising pitch relates to persecutions. For example, one of the biggest money-makers for Christian right leaders and parachurches was the false allegation that Congress was going to re-institute the fairness doctrine. And that would have been the death of Rush Limbaugh, and the death of Sean Hannity, and the death of conservative Christian radio. The donations came pouring in.
That was right at the beginning of Obama’s term. Then came healthcare reform, death panels, forcing people to pay for abortions. They’re all related to persecution and the existential fears that these white Christian males should be exterminated by a cult of multiculturalists; cosmopolitan, pointy-headed, pencil-necked, soft-handed liberal intellectuals from the coasts.
BuzzFlash: When you look at some of the big recent votes on healthcare and other issues, the Republicans follow the leadership. They're very authoritarian; no independents. When the leadership says, "Vote this way or we’ll blow your kneecaps off," they’ll vote this way. But the Democrats like their independence, and like to have leadership that allows them to vote their own way when they want to. How does that parallel with the authoritarian structure that you said that people who are on the religious right are comfortable with?
Max Blumenthal: Well, it’s a dangerous phenomenon for the Republican Party. They’ve managed to cultivate and recruit so many candidates for Congress who eventually move into the Senate who came through the Christian right and tend toward this apparatus of conservative think tanks in Washington, through their pseudo-intellectual hothouse. And they vote with their leadership in lockstep.
As John Dean said, Newt Gingrich was an authoritarian leader. Tom DeLay was a dictator. And they would not allow Democrats to introduce amendments, and they would close off the mics of the Democrats. They would even shut them out of hearings. And Republicans were punished mercilessly for not voting down the line with the DeLay agenda. They were even bribed on the House floor to vote a certain way.
What we’re seeing now with the Republicans in the minority, is that they’re working to consolidate that minority status by wielding whatever power they have left to destroy the last remaining moderates. We saw that in New York’s 23rd District with Dede Scozzafava. We’re seeing it in Florida with the gradual destruction of Charlie Crist's campaign by teabagger favorite Marco Rubio. And we may see it in Maine, where Olympia Snow, one of the last moderate Republicans in the Senate, is likely to be defeated by a monkey or a zombie. The Family Research Council said they’re willing to run a third party candidate or a primary challenge to Olympia Snow in order to fulfill that scenario. And of course, if they did that, the Democrat would win.
But the movement that has control of the Republican Party doesn’t care. All they care about is ideological purity. Everyone who’s representing them in Congress thinks just like they do and is not representing on the parochial concerns of their district, but the dominionist agenda of the Christian right and the radical right.
So I would call the GOP the ZOP -- instead of the Grand Old Party, it’s the Zombie Occupied Party. It has no ideas. It has no capacity for maneuvering on constituent concerns. It’s just like a zombie that’s lurching towards Obama and towards all the moderate Republicans and yelling, "Brains!" And eventually, it’ll eat itself alive.
However, and at the end of George Romerez’ Land of the Dead, the zombies figure out how to use guns. So if Barack Obama, the White House and the Democratic Congress don’t have an agenda of their own, the Zombie Occupied Party could do some serious damage. And they already have.
BuzzFlash: Max, thanks so much. And congratulations on your book; job well done.
Max Blumenthal: Thank you.
BuzzFlash interview conducted by Mark Karlin.