Conservative 'Sleeper Agents' in Hollywood? The Right Wing's New War for Culture
“You looking for Hollywood? Come on in!”
I walked into a small but packed room at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) for a primer on entering show business stage right. It was the panel’s second year at the annual convention, and the young people gathered were planning to skip the D.C. internships and look for jobs in film, music and television.
The movement is shifting away from the outright opposition to popular culture that defined the culture wars of the 1990s. They have embraced a two-pronged strategy to get their message out: making their own films and music, and using Tea Party or church networks to distribute them; and working inside the mainstream entertainment industry to release films and other products with movement themes into the mass market.
The prospect of political action and personal fame proves alluring for a generation where online celebrity meshes easily with real-world political power. A young man canvassed the room--“who does video?”--saying that he helps young videographers plug into local campaigns as he passed out his business card. Young men discussed their Twitter feeds, and two others tried to understand Obama through the prism of Star Wars.
Larry O’Connor, editor-in-chief at Andrew Breitbart’s Breitbart.tv (of ACORN and Shirley Sherrod political character assassination fame), delivered an insider account. Before coming to the right-wing web-o-sphere, O’Connor worked as a production manager on Broadway and in Los Angeles. Wearing square-frame glasses, with untucked dress shirt, jacket, and jeans, salt and pepper stubble, and a proclivity to strike a sardonic tone, I would have easily mistaken him for a liberal.
“If you’re thinking about coming to Washington to be in politics or you’re thinking of working for some congressperson and be their aide,” an animated O’Connor told the room, “there are a hell of a lot of people who can do that already...We need conservatives in Hollywood...The culture and what happens in Hollywood and in the entertainment industry is a driving factor for what happens in our country and, frankly, for what happens in Washington.”
“Politics is downstream of popular culture,” moderator Kevin McKeever chimed in. “That’s one of the reasons why we do this panel.”
Presenters encouraged the eager young attendees to paddle upstream. One suggested that young conservatives become “sleeper agents” in the entertainment world: establish yourself doing high quality but conventional work as an actor, agent or producer. Keep quiet on politics until you have established influence and power.
Remarkably, John Nolte, editor-in-chief of Big Hollywood (another Breitbart enterprise), pointed to the gay rights movement as an example of the power of (what conservatives tend to call) “the culture.”
“Look at the issue of gay marriage,” he said, arguing that it was an important case study whatever your position was. (This was itself supporting evidence for his argument, as his comments reflected an important shift: gay rights have become a seriously contested issue at CPAC and throughout the conservative movement.) “Look how far we’ve come on gay marriage in 10 years. In the '90s, we were saying ‘are we gonna' do civil unions, are we okay with that as a country?’ Now we’re one vote away probably from legalizing gay marriage throughout the country. And that’s not politics. That’s the culture. That’s television, and movies, and music changing the way we think, and changing what we believe.”
The new conservative film movement has two main currents: the political documentary and the Christian moral narrative. Fahrenheit 9/11 was a wake-up call for right-wing documentarians eager to match the power of progressive documentary. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ sent the opposite message to conservatives and to Hollywood at large: we have a market.
The Passion of Christ made over $370 million domestically and over $241 million worldwide, aggressively reaching out to churches nation-wide, a readymade publicity channel for religious right films. The 2009 film The Blind Side won an Oscar, made over $255 domestically, and simultaneously hit a number of right-wing sweet spots: Sandra Bullock is a Southern Christian lady who saves a black boy fromthe black ghetto, “shedding nuance and complication in favor of maximum uplift” over “vague stories meant...to conjure a world of violence, dysfunction and despair.”
In popular culture as in politics, conservatives don’t openly defend the oppressor against the oppressed. They deny that any such injustice exists--particularly when it comes to race. The overall goal is simple: more movies with clearly defined good and evil. Less moral ambiguity.
Producer Ralph Winter, who made The Fantastic Four and the X-Men trilogy, is an evangelical. He also produced the film versions of the best-selling “Left Behind” book series--the plot of which is: what happens when Jesus comes back? He throws all the non- or wrong-believers into a lake of fire. He has also made a number of “small-budget, direct-to-video movies based on popular Christian novels.”
“I think things are changing in Hollywood,” said Nolte. “You do have a better environment to walk into than there was five years ago. Andrew Breitbart has a lot to do with that...For your country, I think it’s a very patriotic thing to be willing to go in there.”
Megachurches are also tapping their substantial resources to produce sophisticated media in-house. Evangelical producer Dallas Jenkins, the son of one of the “Left Behind” series’ two authors, is now director of visual media at Harvest Bible Chapel in Chicago and is planning to produce feature films directly out of the church. This is a remarkable feat of vertical integration.
TheChronicles of Narnia and even Lord of the Rings strike religious notes in the guise of fantasy. One Baptist writer, though acknowledging that the “Hobbit habit of ingesting mushrooms and smoking ‘pipe weed" got translated into drug use for counter-culture readers,’ was pleased that the Christian J.R.R. Tolkien had set out “the reality of evil and the task to struggle against it."
After a major delay caused by Chapter 11, MGM is planning to release its remake of the Cold War classic Red Dawn. The original Soviet invasion of the U.S. will be Chinese in the new version.
The biggest, most recent and utterly surprising coup for the religious right is the 3-D “documentary” of tween idol Justin Bieber, whose mother is a devout evangelicalChristian. Paramount has a Christian outreach plan with special church screenings, which a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article calls “a page torn from the Passion of the Christ marketing playbook.” (Though Wonkette notes that Focus on the Family is worried that Bieber has fallen prey to an “entertainment industry [that] is a sexual and political minefield” thanks to anambiguous comment about pre-marital sex.
Hollywood is a complicated thing for the right, which hates it for sex and moral ambiguity but celebrates or declines comment on the glorification of war and crass commercialism. And they blame liberals for everything, including stuff that most liberals dislike. Left-wing forces cannot be held responsible for the music video of 17-year-old pop star Miley Cyrus writhing on a bed in her underwear. The conservative hysterics about Hollywood ignore the role big business plays in keeping the system conservatives so cherish up and running.
Stephen Baldwin, the youngest Baldwin brother and a born-again Christian who was supposed to speak at CPAC but had something else come up, actually got an “HM” tattoo in honor of Hannah Montana after Cyrus promised that if he did, Baldwin would get a cameo appearance on the show. He never appeared.
Though his most recent hit was a stint onCelebrity Big Brother,his Web site refers to him as “one of the most sought-after male talents in film and television today” and “one of the few Hollywood actors versatile enough for key roles in everything from The Usual Suspects to Bio-Dome.”
Other efforts are also frustrated. According to the Washington Post, the new film "Atlas Shrugged was supposed to star Angelina Jolie or Charlize Theron; instead, the long-awaited adaptation of Ayn Rand's freedom-loving tract has come to the big screen with actors you've never heard of and no distribution deal.”
And there is no small amount of jealously over the skills on display in liberal Hollywood, including one presenter’s embarrassed compliment for the narrative structure of James Cameron’s Terminator--embarrassed, because Cameron also made the anti-war and environmentalist Avatar. The pro-charter school polemic Waiting for Supermanwas the subject of unqualified support. As I wrote at In These Times “Superman, directed by An Inconvenient Truth director Davis Guggenheim, was panned by many education scholars. But for many conservatives, the film’s success was proof that conservative ideas can win ground on the left, especially whenthey’re dressed up as a story of poor people of color fighting for justice.”
One young filmmaker at the Hollywood panel expressed his annoyance that festivals would not accept his films, though he suggested that revenge was possible: he claimed that he is chairman of the Mississippi International Film Festival screening committee. “All the liberal documentaries that came through, I shut those down fast,” he declared. (The Mississippi Film Institute says that the speaker was not the chairman of the screening committee but rather a volunteer, and that films were never rejected because of their political content.)
One man was upset that no one was interested in his film, Fear of a Black Republican, “the movie that neither political party wants you to see.” He, like everyone in the room, was by all appearances a white Republican.
Yet B-list actors can make Grade A politicians. For Ronald Reagan, thoroughly lionized at CPAC or any conservative gathering, the invocation and performance of heroic virtues first tried out in Hollywood made a presidency. Reagan is now the stock character for a new generation of political thespians. The drumbeat about manliness, character, virtue and resolve was deafening at CPAC. For all their bluster, it is the conservative movement that brought Hollywood values and a silver screen sensibility to Washington.
Citizen’s United: More than a horrible Supreme Court decision
“Don’t wait for Godot!” Kevin McKeever implored the crowd. He told the audience to steel itself for the rigors of the industry. “It could be that you’re just selling the DVDs out of the trunk of your car. That’s how MC Hammer started!”
While the creatives burrow into Hollywood, the explicitly political new media is bypassing the mainstream. In doing so, they cut out the middleman and directly reach out to their base. Counterintuitively, this strategy also increases pressure on mainstream media to reflect their viewpoint: Breitbart.tv promotes video hatchet jobs; conservative radio and cable news then hector the mainstream media into picking up a fabricated “story” with their perspective baked in; and, finally, the mainstream media succumb to the pressure and oblige.
Citizens United is best known as the plaintiff in the 2010 Supreme Court case that overturned the McCain-Feingold law, obliterating campaign finance restrictions. One might have forgotten that Citizens United is also one of the most important media organizations on the political right. The group put on a constantly running film festival at CPAC, presenting the torrent of documentaries they have produced in recent years attacking President Obama and Hillary Clinton, celebrating Bachmann and Palin, opposing immigration and the ACLU.
The Supreme Court decision, over whether the attack film Hillary constituted a campaign advertisement, was a victory for the entire corporate-funded right. It was also a very particular victory for Citizens United, enabling the organization to pour additional dollars into their films. And in a little discussed June 2010 ruling, the FEC declared Citizens United to be a media organization, which means they do not have to disclose donors or expenditures as itpertains to their films. Citizens United is also a Political Action Committee (PAC) and donates money directly to political campaigns.
“We won,” Citizens United president David Bossie said, according to an article bySlate’s David Weigel. “And we want to make use of that.”
Citizens United films premier at major conservative events, and are screened by Tea Party groups around the country. Taking a cue from liberal groups like MoveOn and Brave New Films, they encourage activists to buy DVDs and screen them at house parties. The Tea Party tribute and anti-Obama screed Battle for America was used as a get-out-the-vote tool in the 2010 midterm elections.
Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 was a defining moment for movement conservatives. Ironically, it was Citizen’s United that in 2004 petitioned the FEC to declare Fahrenheit 9/11 commercials political ads and thus illegal to air in the lead up to elections--taking advantage of the very same laws they would challenge with Hillary four years later.
Citizens United has closely studied the left, releasing their first full-length documentary just months after Fahrenheit 9/11: Celsius 41.11: The Temperature at Which the Brain Begins to Die.
Brave New Films president Robert Greenwald says his organization and MoveOn pioneered the alternative distribution method that Citizens United is using. Brave New Films has produced dozens of videos organized around political efforts, from full-length documentaries like Outfoxed to short and timely commercials like the 2008 bit pillorying John McCain for being unable to recall how many homes he owned (the answer was 10).
“I assume they watch and read and follow what we do,” Greenwald wrote in an email, though he pointed out that conservatives already control a sprawling communications network of their own. “Conservatives have talk radio, so they don’t need film/video the way progressives do.”
They may not need it. But they plan on taking it. And unlike Brave New Films, Move On or Michael Moore, they are seamlessly integrated into a political party and movement flush with corporate dollars.
Citizens United president David Bossie illustrates the close ties between the GOP establishment and movement new media. A young Bossie was involved with Citizens United in 1988 when it made the infamous Willy Horton ad suggesting that Michael Dukakis, if elected president, would let dangerous (and black) felons onto the streets. In the 1990s, he moved to Capitol Hill, where he was the top aid on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform investigating everything about Bill Clinton and a zealous promoter of White Water and other pseudo-scandals.
At CPAC, Bossie basked in the glow of television cameras and wide-eyed young conservatives, an institution builder at the nexus of media and politics. Taking the stage at the Citizens United bloggers lunch, he gave a shoutout to Breitbart and Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller in the same breath, before praising his friend and former colleague Michael Chertoff for the Homeland Security chief’s role in extraordinary renditions and Guantanamo. And he effusively thanked Newt Gingrich, who has taken a lead role at the organization.
Gingrich and his third wife Callista’s Gingrich Productions have now “co-produced” six films with Citizens United. Gingrich converted to Callista’s Catholicism after first dating her during his previous marriage, and while he was Speaker of the House. Energized by his newfound faith, the Gingriches have produced a film celebrating Pope John Paul II’s role in felling communism, a move transparently intended to deflect growing criticism of a church mired in scandals over child sexual abuse.
Gingrich has been busy: hinting and hinting at a 2012 presidential run, starting a "solutions" oriented think tank and “tri-partisan citizen action network” (which claims a hard-to-believe 1.5 million members on its Web site), aggressively hawking his historical fiction, and giving lectures with titles like "America at Risk: Camus, National Security, and Afghanistan.” It is significant that Citizens United has become a Gingrich vehicle.
There are other independent offerings, too. The Ground Zero Mosque: The Second Wave of the 911 Attacks, produced by anti-mosque mouthpiece Pam Geller, premiered at CPAC in attempt to revive a controversy that has long since flagged.
Rock & Roll: Saving Souls, Fighting Big Government Control
Lisa Mei Norton has no big designs on New York/Hollywood polish. She proudly represents the movement’s DIY arm. The conservative singer-songwriter and former air force sergeant created a webpage in the MySpace aesthetic (and this is not a good thing) for like-minded musicians called Big Dawg Music Mafia. She emphasizes the non-standard spelling of “Dawg” through her street-sense delivery: this is how conservatives roll now, people. She’s part of a growing number of musicians who tour Tea Party rallies around the country, and the composer of one very heartfelt tribute to Sarah Palin’s fairy tale life called “Thank God You're a Woman.”
Norton is also a member of an organization called Oathkeepers, made up former and active duty soldiers and police who pledge to take on the federal government should it be necessary. Like everything at CPAC, the fringe right mingles easily with the Republican establishment.
Jon David is one of the most famous of the Tea Party musicians, and you have probably never heard of him.
David wears a trucker hat and lives in Los Angeles and takes on a singer-songwriter posture at the microphone. He headlined CPAC’s Friday night banquet, and has opened for Sarah Palin and Tea Party rallies nationwide. Jon David is not his real name. He told the Wall Street Journal that he was worried about losing work in liberal Hollywood. Jonathan Kahn is now out of the closet: the persecuted conservative bravely announces his faith before the heathen powers that be, prepared for martyrdom should it come to that.
The core of David’s appeal is a catchy and deeply maudlin song called “American Heart.” He played it right before Phyllis Schlafly was presented with the lifetime “Courage Under Fire” award for leading the successful fight against the Equal Rights Amendment and other such nefarious liberalisms.
The song is very catchy, and the video deftly if manipulatively uses a montage of historical images to elicit an emotional response: victorious USA Olympic teams; soldiers on patrol abroad; that photo of construction workers eating lunch at the top of a skyscraper. That nearly all of the half-dozen black people pictured were firmly on the left--Martin Luther King, who called the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today," or Muhammad Ali, who resisted the draft to Vietnam--fades into a mush of soft-focus patriotism.
It is the perfect soundtrack for a movement that glorifies the idea of history but rejects knowledge of its substance.
If you can't beat em, join 'em
The right is increasingly hostile to political compromise. But in the realm of pop culture, they’ve taken a “if you can’t beat em, join em” approach.
In 2006, the National Review published a “50 Greatest American Rock Songs,” unapologetically co-opting songs that have been traditionally identified with the left.
“According to everyone on the left, we are all 91-year-old white bald men in this room right now,” Stephen Kruiser, a comedian and Fox News commentator, told the large crowd gathered for “Engaging America through Conservative Pop Culture.” “You know that right?...Pop culture, the use of it, opens up the avenues of bringing in a new audience..I am going to steal pop culture from the lefties.”
The panels continually returned to a deep anxiety on the right: conservatives still don’t know what to make of the modern world. They embrace the internal combustion engine and nuclear power while rejecting the theory of evolution and the science of global warming; puzzling over the depravity of "Jersey Shore," they daydream about small-town geniality from the confines of the sprawling rec room of an exurban McMansion.
“It might seem ridiculous,” wrote pop culture scholar Mike Spencer, “for conservative forces to indoctrinate rock music, a popular culture form which they have historically derided and which they recognized as a cause of a variety of social problems (juvenile delinquency, race mixing, Communist subversion, etc.).”
But as cultural theorist Frederick Jameson notes, the passage of time has always allowed for the cooptation of music and art that is “ugly, dissonant, obscure, scandalous, immoral, subversive and generally ‘anti-social,'" making it into something safe for civilization.
Often, the appeals fall flat, like Michael Steele’s infamous promise to bring an “off the hook” GOP to “urban, suburban hip-hop settings.” And rock stars have protested the appropriation of their music for conservative political campaigns. In 2008, members of Heart told Sarah Palin to stop playing their hit song "Barracuda":
“Sarah Palin’s views and values in NO WAY represent us as American women. We ask that our song ‘Barracuda’ no longer be used to promote her image. The song ‘Barracuda’ was written in the late '70s as a scathing rant against the soulless, corporate nature of the music business, particularly for women. (The ‘barracuda’ represented the business.) While Heart did not and would not authorize the use of their song at the RNC, there’s irony in Republican strategists’ choice to make use of it there.”
That working-class bard Bruce Springsteen is a liberal clearly bothers conservatives. In 2009, the Boss turned down New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s request that he play at his inauguration. Glenn Beck attacked Born in the USA as “anti-American” during a show where he also put forth his dumbfounded realization that "This Land is Your Land" was critical of capitalism. Yet Springsteen still commands the image of salt-of-the-earth Americana. (I’m not aware of a situation in which a group or candidate on the left has been criticized for appropriating a conservative musician.)
The Decline of Frumpy Censors
“People are always trying to play Shakira before I speak,” complained one of a handful of Latinos at CPAC, rushing up to speak to members of a panel called "Pop Culture: An Influence or a Mirror?" as they left the stage. She was desperately seeking a family values Latin pop star. “Shakira is a liberal!”
There are still old-line conservatives who pass their days worrying about Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction. But as the New York Times noted in an October article on the Parents Television Council, “These are difficult days for the decency police."
The (bi-partisan) Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), formed in response to Prince’s Purple Rain’s lyrics about sex and masturbation no longer exists. Failed Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork’s writing in 1996 that “difficult to convey just how debased rap is,” now seems, well, quaint.
During the Hollywood panel, O’Connor of Breitbart.tv made fun of the Family Research Council, apologizing only when an evangelical in the back of the room meekly protested. The most provocative new conservative mediamakers are shedding the baggage of culture war hangups, freeing up time and energy to attack the left and President Obama. That night, Breitbart threw a party for GOProud and passed out stickers that read, “Our gays are more macho than their straights!”
Breitbart and others know that playing at cool while outlawing fun is a hard thing to do. But much of the new conservative media is just more of the same old fear and loathing, however more licentious. That, unfortunately, is something America has always provided a market for.
Correction: This article originally stated that a chairman of the Mississippi International Film Festival screening committee said they had blocked entry of liberal films to the festival. AlterNet has since learned from the Mississippi Film Institute that the man was not the chairman of the screening committee but a member. This article has been corrected to reflect this.