Republican Gomorrah: The Shattered GOP, Taken Over by Authoritarian Radicals, Is Incapable of Compromise
Terry Gross: ... The right is trying to de-legitimize the Obama presidency, according to my guest, journalist Max Blumenthal. There's the movement of people who claim Obama isn't even an American citizen, and others who accuse him of being a Hitler or a Stalin. In Blumenthal's new book, "Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party," he writes that the Republican Party has gone from a big-tent philosophy to being fully in the grip of its right wing. Blumenthal has been covering the Christian right for six years, attending dozens of its rallies and conferences, listening to its radio programs, and sitting in movement-oriented houses of worship.
In his book "Republican Gomorrah," he writes about the people who created the blueprint for the Christian right and the people who have funded it. Blumenthal is a senior writer for the Daily Beast, and has written for the Nation and the Huffington Post.
Max Blumenthal, welcome back to Fresh Air. Your book ends with a scene of Republican congressman Paul Brown of Georgia and two of his friends who are very highly placed in the anti-abortion movement, praying over a door that Obama was about to walk through to take the oath of office. What were they praying about? Set that scene for us.
Max Blumenthal: Well, Paul Brown, who is a congressman from Georgia -he's a born-again congressman who said that he was inspired to become an vangelical Christian by the guy who used to hold "John 3:16" signs in sports games, who wore a multicolored wig, who's actually in prison now for kidnapping and stink-bomb attacks - that this image of this character at sports games inspired him to become a born-again Christian.
And he gave special access to two characters, Paul Mahoney and Rob Schenck, who were involved in Operation Rescue during the 1990s, which is the militant wing of the anti-abortion movement, which was at least indirectly connected to several assassinations of abortion providers and attacks on abortion clinics, most recently the assassination of Dr. George Tiller in Kansas.
What they were doing there in the Capitol was, they were planning to anoint the door that Obama would walk through, as he prepared to give his inaugural address, with oil crosses. And the reason that I described this scene and thought that it was important was that it was emblematic of where the movement was going to go, that they were consecrating their planned opposition to the Obama administration at a time when the media and probably the Obama administration believed that they had the good will of even elements that had opposed Bill Clinton in the 1990s, and that this was a new, post-partisan era. And I think that this anointing of the door was symbolic of what was to come. And I think it's bearing out right now in the health-care debate.
Gross: One of the things Paul Brown has done is to compare Obama to Hitler and Stalin, and he said on his Web site that he was concerned that Obama has a vision that is fundamentally different from the system of limited federal government that our founders established, that he will attempt to destroy the free-enterprise, free-market economic system which has made us the wealthiest nation in the history of the world.
We're hearing a lot about comparisons between Obama and Hitler and Stalin lately. What do you think is behind that?
Blumenthal: Well, Paul Brown was referring to Obama's plan to implement a civilian force that could help during natural disasters. George W. Bush actually introduced this plan, and Paul Brown and his Republican allies said nothing. But the grassroots right is determined to de-legitimize President Obama, to prove that he was either not born here, that he's not one of us, or that he has totalitarian intentions. And so Paul Brown has compared Obama simultaneously to Hitler and Stalin, two leaders who were opposed to each other.
It seems like a bizarre comparison, but if you tune in to right-wing radio, especially fringe right-wing radio hosts like Alex Jones, you're going to hear warnings that Barack Obama plans to create concentration camps for right-wing dissidents, that he's going to implement mass gun seizures. And this fear is designed to mobilize opposition at a grassroots level to Barack Obama, to the Democratic Congress, and to the progressive agenda in general in order to win more followers to the Republican grassroots and to the right wing, to raise funds. And it's working.
You know, during the Bush years, the right-wing groups lost a lot of money because they function better throwing stones from the outside than they do from the inside, calling shots. Now, their coffers are filling up. So a lot of this rhetoric is designed just to ramp up the debate, and to mobilize forces and elements that have been dormant for eight years because the Republicans were in power.
Gross: You describe someone named Anton Chaitkin as launching the opening volley of an orchestrated campaign designed to link Obama and his health-care reform proposal to the mass euthanasia of Hitler. Who is Anton Chaitkin, and what was his role in launching that opening volley?
Blumenthal: Anton Chaitkin has described himself as a historian without disclosing his affiliation with the political empire of extremist cult leader Lyndon LaRouche. And he publicly accused Ezekiel Emanuel, who is the chief bioethicist at the National Institutes of Health and the brother of presidential chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, of creating a plan for Hitlerian death panels based on Hitler's T-4 program. He did this well before anyone in the, you know, conservative right or within the Republican Party suggested that Barack Obama had a Hitlerian agenda with his health-care proposal. And the LaRouche movement began distributing leaflets throughout the town halls of Obama with a Hitler moustache painted on his face. And interestingly, right-wing groups adopted this rhetoric. I can't say they adopted it directly from Lyndon LaRouche, but I was unable to detect any other sign of this rhetoric anywhere else before Anton Chaitkin pinpointed Ezekiel Emanuel as the point man for Obama's Hitlerian agenda.
And subsequently, we've seen mainstream Republican leaders echoing the LaRouche rhetoric: For instance, Sarah Palin accusing Barack Obama of planning to implement death panels based on the advice of Ezekiel Emanuel, and Charles Grassley, the senior senator from Iowa, who is in charge of negotiating for the Republican side Barack Obama's health-care reform proposals, said there may be some reason to worry that this plan will include some kind of mechanism for pulling the plug on Grandma. So you see mainstream Republicans echoing the rhetoric of an extremist movement that many people thought had disappeared years ago.
Gross: And what is Anton Chaitkin's connection to the LaRouche movement?
Blumenthal: He's a LaRouche staffer for Executive Intelligence Review, which is the political bulletin of the LaRouche organization.
Gross: Do you see a connection between the Christian right and the claims that Obama bears resemblance to Hitler and to Stalin, that he's leading us in the direction of fascism? Because this is different from the kind of anti-Democratic rhetoric that we're used to, which is more about, you know, family values and, you know, culture wars and abortion. This is like Hitler, Stalin, fascism, communism. So is that, do you think, connected to the Christian right? Where do they come in on that?
Blumenthal: I think it's ironic that they would level this rhetoric at someone who's really a sort of centrist, consensus-building figure when one of the movement's great inspirations, R.J. Rushdoony, advocated replacing the U.S. Constitution and secular government with a totalitarian theocracy in which disobedient children, adulterers, witches, abortion doctors, women who receive abortions, etc., would all be executed. Rushdoony's son-in-law, Gary North, who is a former staffer for Ron Paul, the Republican libertarian, and who is an economist, advised stoning these evildoers to death because stones are less expensive.
The Christian right, during the 1980s, advocated putting people with AIDS, particularly homosexuals, in quarantine, in camps. They're on the record saying this. And Mike Huckabee, who campaigned for president in 2008, was among those who advised - who advocated quarantining AIDS patients, and he's refused to recant his advocacy for this sort of policy.
So I think it's ironic that a movement that has authoritarian, if not totalitarian, tendencies, along with this paradoxical anti-government strain, would level these accusations at one of their opponents.
Gross: The Southern Poverty Law Center released a report about how anti-government rhetoric is spilling over into the mainstream and as examples, they've mentioned some politicians, including Texas Governor Rick Perry, Fox Business Network anchor Cody Willard, who the report quotes as saying: Guys, when are we going to wake up and start fighting the fascism that seems to be permeating this country? Glenn Beck, the example they gave from Glenn Beck is: If this country starts to spiral out of control, and Mexico melts down or whatever, if it really starts to spiral out of control, Americans just won't stand for it. There will be parts of the country that will rise up.
I know as part of your research for your new book, "Republican Gomorrah," you were listening to the mainstream media, and you were listening to more fringey media and talk shows of all sorts. Do you agree with this, the conclusions of this report, that a lot of anti-government rhetoric is spilling over into the mainstream?
Blumenthal: Well, I would simply say that the Republican Party, over the last 20 years, has been subsumed by extreme elements, mainly by the Christian right, and the Republican Party at the same time has been the most dominant party for the last 30 years. So naturally, you know, the extreme rhetoric of the right-wing fringe is going to become mainstream if the major opposition party to the Democrats, who now control Congress and the White House, are echoing it, and Fox News is providing a megaphone for it.
So this is no surprise at all. What also needs to be noted is that many of the radio shows that are projecting this information and broadcasting it - these conspiracy theories about concentration camps for right-wing dissidents, about mass gun seizures, about death panels - are some of the most popular radio shows in the country. James Dobson of Focus on the Family is one of the top five radio hosts in the country. So is Michael Savage, who accused Obama of trying to indoctrinate an Obama youth corps with his speech encouraging public school students to study hard and stay in school - the same with Sean Hannity.
So all of the people who are introducing these conspiratorial theories about Barack Obama, suggesting that he's either Hitler or Stalin or both, command enormous audiences and are therefore taken seriously by the mainstream media, which attempts, you know, this veneer of balance, of entertaining both sides.
But when one side is completely hysterical, conspiratorial and is leveling baseless attacks, should it be taken seriously? And what are the consequences of taking those attacks seriously in a democracy? I think those are questions that need to be raised. ... Now, you went to a couple of gun shows in Reno, Nevada, and in Antioch, California, and you write that you came away with a portrait of a heavily armed, tightly organized movement incited by right-wing radio to a fever-pitched resentment of Obama and his allies in Congress.
The Southern Poverty Law Center recently released a report saying that the militia movement, which had strengthened during the Clinton years, organizing against the powers of the federal government, faded out early in this decade with Republicans in power, but it's on the rise again. The militia movement is on the rise again. Did you see evidence of that at the gun shows that you attended?
Blumenthal: Yeah, absolutely. I think there is a perception, especially within the media, that Barack Obama could avoid inciting the kind of opposition that President Clinton did by implementing a moderate to liberal agenda. And what I was able to witness at these gun shows earlier in the year, before the battle was brewing over health care and the government bailout, was an incipient extreme opposition to Barack Obama building within the Republican grassroots and on the far right.
And it stemmed from conspiracy theories spread by radio hosts who are not very well-known in the mainstream but are extremely popular, like Alex Jones, that President Obama had a plan to put right-wing dissidents in concentration camps under the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA. And when I spoke to people at gun shows, this conspiracy theory was really popular, the same with, you know, Obama's supposed plan for mass gun seizures.
And so, people were buying as many guns as they could, including high-powered weaponry, like 50-caliber, semiautomatic rifles, which have been shown to be able to down aircraft, you know, sniper rifles that can be easily disassembled and put into a briefcase that's concealable. I showed this in a video I did called "Gun Show Nation."
And the crowd you see at gun shows, I mean, some people are just basic, apolitical gun enthusiasts, but it's a very political gathering. There are Confederate flags. There are even Nazi flags being displayed throughout the conference because it brings in elements that are even considered extreme within the right-wing grassroots, like neo-Nazis.
And it's a gathering place. Gun shows have become a gathering place for people who are the most extreme opponents of Barack Obama's agenda, and they're energized again by the battle over health care. And we're seeing it across the board; it's not just with the extreme, militia-oriented elements. We're seeing it within the Christian right.
A recent poll showed that seven out of 10 white evangelicals are extremely opposed to Barack Obama's proposed health-care reforms. And the Christian right is raising a lot of money, organizing against health care. So it's across the board. The right is growing again. And those who pronounced the death of conservatism, or the death of the Christian right, were premature.
Gross: You know, you say at these gun shows, you know, in addition to there being conspiracy theories that Obama will put people who oppose him in concentration camps, which would be another Hitler comparison; there's also a lot of people who are convinced that Obama plans to usher in a Marxist dictatorship.
Blumenthal: There are, and there are also a lot of people, possibly the majority of people I spoke to, who didn't really seem to know the difference between fascism and communism. The goal is to paint Obama as a totalitarian, a secret communist, fascist, terrorist, Muslim, whatever they can do, a basic pastiche of right-wing hobgoblins, a multicolored pinata of every evildoer they want to smash in order to de-legitimize him and mobilize as much opposition as possible.
And as I discuss in my book, this began during the rallies after Sarah Palin was nominated as vice president. It began when Sarah Palin said -- I'm slightly paraphrasing -- that Barack Obama is not one of us. His America is not our America, and he's palling around with terrorists.
And at that point, you began to hear cries from the crowd that Barack Obama is a traitor, that he is treasonous and so on. And the campaign didn't end with Barack Obama's inauguration. Those rallies didn't end. They've extended into the health-care debate, into the debate over the government bailout and into every element of Barack Obama's agenda. And the more time that goes on, the more extreme the rhetoric becomes and the more diffuse the opposition to Barack Obama becomes.
So it's not led by Sarah Palin -- or any right-wing, any conservative leader anymore. It's hard to pinpoint where the opposition is coming from, but it's coming from diffuse right-wing elements that are mostly within the Republican grassroots. It's spreading, and it's growing more and more extreme, to the point where Barack Obama is compared to Hitler, the most evil man in history. ... One of the things your book does is kind of give portraits of a lot of the people who help create the right as we know it now. But a lot of the people who you profile in the book are people who - whose names, or groups whose names won't be familiar to most Americans because they are people who operated largely behind the scenes and are known to insiders but not to outsiders.
Let's do a little bit of a who's who of some of the people who you write about in your recent history of the right. Let's start with R.J. Rushdoony, who is, I guess who -- you would describe him as one of the founders of the extreme end of the Christian right as we know it today.
Blumenthal: Yeah. I would describe him as the man who gave the Christian right its theocratic blueprint for the society and government it hoped to create in the United States at a time when the movement was moving from the pews into the streets and becoming increasingly radicalized by federal government attempts to integrate public schools and even so-called private Christian schools.
R.J. Rushdoony was a survivor of the Armenian genocide, who came to this country and became a theologian. He's the descendant of six generations of high priests, and he laid out a plan in several tomes for replacing the federal government, the secular government, with a totalitarian theocracy in which functions like road building and medical care and schooling would be provided by the church. The criminal justice system would be turned over to the church and run according to Leviticus case law, so disobedient children, adulterers, loose women, etc., would all be executed.
And, of course, you know, many of the people he influenced didn't take it as literally as Rushdoony did but he, as I said, provided the Christian right with a blueprint of the society they hoped to create.
Gross: Where do you most see R.J. Rushdoony's influence in the far right today?
Blumenthal: Well, most of the leaders among the Christian right would deny that Rushdoony has any influence at all on them because of the controversial, radical nature of his work.
However, Marvin O'Lasky, who helped inspire George W. Bush's faith-based initiative, has footnoted and cited Rushdoony in some of his early work. And you see some of Rushdoony's ideas reflected in the faith-based initiative which has replaced government social services with services performed by the church and funded groups, including abstinence-only groups, with taxpayer money.
So, Rushdoony has at least loosely inspired that initiative, which continues into the Obama administration. I also see it in initiatives funded by one of Rushdoony's acolytes, his financial angel who I write about in my book, Howard F. Ahmanson Jr., who is the son of the famous philanthropist Howard Ahmanson, from Southern California. And at age 18, Howard F. Ahmanson Jr. inherited $300 million after his father died. His mother died soon after and he literally went crazy, spending two years in a mental institution.
When he came out of the mental institution, he became a born-again Christian and encountered Rushdoony, who became his - practically his surrogate father. And in return, Ahmanson funded Rushdoony's political empire and then funded some very successful Christian right initiatives. For example, the intelligent design movement - Howard F. Ahmanson Jr. has donated at least $2.8 million to the Discovery Institute in Seattle, which created the intelligent design curriculum.
Howard F. Ahmanson Jr. donated $1 million to Prop. 8, the successful ballot initiative in California in 2008 to ban same-sex marriage. In 1985, Howard F. Ahmanson Jr. said: My goal is the total integration of biblical law into our everyday lives. And whether or not he's an avowed follower of Rushdoony anymore, I think that remains the goal of all these initiatives that he's funding, which remain successful, even though some pundits are pronouncing the death of the Christian right.
Gross: Well, what's another group or funder on the far right that you've been following, that you think is important and powerful but unknown to most people?
Blumenthal: Well I wouldn't call this individual unknown. He's an important person in American life and in American history, and I'm referring to James Dobson, who's commonly and wrongly referred to by some pundits as Reverend James Dobson when in fact, he's not a religious leader. He's not a theologian. He has no religious credentials - even though he's the most influential leader of a religious movement, the Christian right, and also the most popular.
He is a child psychiatrist, and James Dobson understands that behind the right's politics of resentment is a culture of personal crisis that he's been catering to and cultivating since he became a public figure in the early '70s. And what Dobson does and where his strength comes from, is the correspondence in his organization Focus On the Family, based in Colorado Springs, which rakes in about $150 million every year. The correspondence department there handles so many letters and so many phone calls that they have their own zip code in Colorado Springs.
The letters basically are people pleading for advice on basic problems - from their child's bedwetting problem to marital strife. And they will receive, in short order Dobson-approved advice. But then their personal information is entered in a database and they're bombarded with political mailings, telling them that the source of these problems and the source of societal decay is liberalism, is the homosexual agenda, feminism, etcetera.
Dobson's radio show, which is one of the top five radio shows in the country, operates the same way. And so, what Dobson has done and why he's a central character in my book is he has helped cultivate the sensibility of the movement that controls the Republican Party, and with these people who view him not just as a political leader or a religious leader, they view him as a magic helper who's helped save them from personal problems.
They will do whatever he commands at election time and he's been able to set his shock troops against Republican moderates and against vulnerable Democrats. He was credited for helping re-elect Bush in 2004, and I credit him as a major reason why Sarah Palin was named vice presidential nominee in 2008, of John McCain - and has a lot to do with the fact that James Dobson said, on his radio show, that he would not vote for John McCain unless he named a suitable vice presidential candidate.
Gross: Which would be Sarah Palin?
Blumenthal: Which would be Sarah Palin. And when Sarah Palin was named, Dobson gave McCain his full-throated endorsement and began promoting Sarah Palin to the Republican grassroots.
Gross: One of the up-and-coming leaders he profiles is Tony Perkins, President of the Family Research Council. The group is described on its Web site as an organization dedicated to the promotion of marriage and family and the sanctity of human life in national policy.
This evening the group is hosting a national town hall webcast on health care reform to discuss what it considers to be the dangers of President Obama's health care plan. I asked Blumenthal to tell us about Perkins.
Blumenthal: Tony Perkins comes from Louisiana. He was a state legislator there who wanted to become a senator. He wanted to be in the position that David Vitter is in right now. But because of a scandal in which he signed a check when he was chief of staff for another senatorial candidate, paying the Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke for his mailing list, Tony Perkins was unable to make good on his ambitions. Tony Perkins, as I reported, also spoke to a white supremacist group, the Council of Conservative Citizens, in 2001 and has refused to disclose what he said there. So he went to Washington, was sort of tapped by Dobson to lead this group, the Family Research Council after Dobson fell out of favor with his previous lobbyist, Gary Bauer.
And Perkins has emerged as a figure even probably more influential than David Vitter as the person he could've been had he made it into the Senate. He's able to dictate the Christian right agenda to Republican senators who depend on the Christian right grassroots to get reelected and he is incredibly involved in the town hall disruptions that we're seeing across country. The Family Research Council hosts weekly conference calls with hundreds of pastors across the country who are telling their congregations to go out to these town halls to create disruptions and to voice their discontent with Barack Obama's health care proposal.
Perkins has also helped introduce the rumor that Barack Obama's health care proposal contains a mandate for citizens to fund abortion. And they're running commercials, The Family Research Council, making this claim and raising lots of money among their followers to broadcast these commercials throughout the country.
Gross: You have managed to get into places and report on meetings where the press is not welcome. One example of that was about a year ago when you went to the church that Sarah Palin had been baptized in, the Wasilla Assembly of God, which is a Pentecostal church in Alaska, and she spent over 20 years there as a member. And you were there one of the days that Bishop Thomas...
Gross: ...Muthee of Kenya was there and he's somebody who claimed to be able to expel witchcraft from deep within people. I guess exorcisms, in a way. Would you give us a sense of what it was like to be there when Bishop Muthee was there? Was Sarah Palin there that day too?
Blumenthal: Sarah Palin was campaigning that day and Bishop Muthee, the self-proclaimed witch hunter from Kenya, who had anointed Sarah Palin in 2005 as she was running for governor against the spirit of witchcraft, was there at a small house in Wasilla. It was pouring rain outside and I stumbled in and the entire congregation was speaking in tongues. And I had heard from other reporters that no media would be allowed, that taking notes was forbidden, that filming was strictly forbidden, so I began speaking in tongues. I'd never done it before so I just started rattling off the names of the Jackson siblings.
And insinuated myself into the congregation and watched Bishop Muthee as he, you know, referred to Sarah Palin as the biblical Queen Esther and then began leading the crowd in a really intense prayer to cast out the spirit of witchcraft.
Then another pastor came up, took the microphone, and declared that we will put our feet against the heads of the enemy and crush the python spirit by stepping on the enemy's neck. It was an instructive event to attend, you know, in terms of the theology that animated the congregation that Sarah Palin and her family had belonged to for 20 years and which she was baptized in, the Wasilla Assembly of God.
Gross: So were you discovered there are actually being a reporter and not a true believer?
Blumenthal: Well, I couldn't resist pulling out a small digital camera and so I was sort of discovered. But afterwards, I pulled out another digital camera and concealed it much better and was able to show some of the episodes that I just described in a video that I have online called, "In the Land of Queen Esther" along with some interviews I conducted around the Wasilla and Anchorage area - but especially in Wasilla which is considered the Bible Belt of Alaska - with people who considered Sarah Palin to be a biblical figure and believe that - or at least a biblically-inspired figure - and believe that Alaska, because it was shaped like a crown, was called upon God to lead the nation and would be a refuge in the end times for everyone from the lower 48 who had escaped the Rapture.
Gross: The church meeting that you went to is just one example of where you've used a hidden camera. Are you, are you 100 percent comfortable with going in on false pretenses and using a hidden camera to document what you see?
Blumenthal: That would be the only time that I've used a hidden camera. And I, generally, I think I've never entered an event on false pretenses or concealed my identity, which is why I get kicked out of so many places, including violently, as I was tossed out of the College Republican National Convention in 2007, physically, because of my disclosure that I was basically a member of the liberal media. So it's always a risk, but I think it's best to be aboveboard. The only reason why I concealed my camera at Sarah Palin's church was because there was no other means of capturing what was going on.
Gross: Your book "Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party" is in part motivated by words said by - or written by Republican President Dwight Eisenhower. Would you leave us with some of what he said that in part inspired you to write this book?
Blumenthal: While I was writing my book, I discovered a letter by Dwight Eisenhower to a dying veteran of World War II who had terminal cancer. The veteran Robert Biggs wrote to Eisenhower that he felt from his recent speeches the feeling of hedging and a little uncertainty, and that he waited for someone to speak for us and we'll back him completely if the statement is made in truth. And it seemed to me and to Eisenhower that Biggs was sort of suggesting that he would prefer a more authoritarian leader, at least a more heavy-handed leader, someone more like George W. Bush.
And Eisenhower decided to respond to Biggs, when he could've just tossed the letter in the trash can or he could have just issued a canned response. And Eisenhower's response I think was really remarkable and somewhat eerie because at the time he was under attack from the radical right of his day, the John Birch Society, which had named him and many of his cabinet members as communist agents - and Joseph McCarthy. And he wanted to guard his Republican Party and its big tent philosophy against its right flank.
So Eisenhower responded with his vision of the open society, remarking that, you know, the unity that Biggs was asking for was only logical in a military organization, but in a democracy, debate is the breath of life. Eisenhower bemoaned the fact that there were people who had experienced mental stress and burden, who viewed this form of government, democracy, as possibly dispensable, because it places too much pressure on them. And he recommended a book called "The True Believer" by Eric Hoffer - really interesting figure who was a self-educated philosopher, who was a dockworker. And the central thesis of Hoffer's book, which is an analysis of the mentality of the true believer, is that faith in a holy cause is really a substitute for lost faith in ourselves. And this book was passed down through the Eisenhower family and helped inform Eisenhower as he warned against the rise of the radical right and its influence on the Republican Party. And I included this letter in my book because my book shows the Republican Party ignoring Eisenhower's warning and realizing his worst fears.
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