Thursday, January 16, 2020

Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America

Book Review: Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America – by John Avlon (Beast Books, 2010)

Here we harken back to the early days of the Obama presidency, perhaps a more innocent time compared to now, to see the rise of conspiracy-toting pundits whose influences are still relevant. In this book, they are mostly on the political right – many in response to Obama, with only a few given on the left for balance. Since then, however, the left has caught up a bit with anti-science bias and pandering to certain conspiracies and other biases. The internet has aided the fringe much more than many of us expected and that seems to continue with even more vigor today, nearly a decade after this book came out. The author was a speech writer for Rudy Giuliani (irony?) and was deputy policy director for his 2008 campaign, although he identifies more as politically center, more specifically an Independent – socially progressive but fiscally conservative. Avlon points out that many of the revered American leaders have also been more centrist and less polarizing. He notes that such designations may no longer be applicable in a world where political parties and the media are both quite polarized – and still so nowadays.

Lots of fringe groups are mentioned here. One is the Oath Keepers, who say they aim to prevent a dictatorship. It was started by a congressional aide to Ron Paul. Wingnuts are of course those on the political fringes of right and of left. He notes that the economic recession of 2008 led to anxieties that exacerbated hyper-partisanism. He thinks that parties out of power tend to be dominated by their most extreme voices so the right during the Obama years was the most wacko. Ideological activists preach absolutism, he says. Thus, we went from Bush Derangement Syndrome to Obama Derangement Syndrome. Another factor is that Obama was the first African-American president, which also was a new change, one that perhaps aided a new white minority politics that is still happening today. The Oath Keepers is not only a fringe group but one that has strongly influenced the Tea Party.

Wingnuts have been around since at least the 19th century. Teddy Roosevelt coined the term “lunatic fringe” to describe them. In the 1950’s there was McCarthyism and the John Birch Society prompting the “red scare” where so-called communist sympathizers were ostracized. On the left there were radicals like the Black Panthers. Fringers often compare politicians in power to tyrants like Hitler or Stalin.

He notes, and I concur from recent observations, that the more extreme voices are often the loudest and the most willing to flood social media and the internet with their views. He thinks loyalty to country is being replaced by loyalty to party. 

Obama won the 2008 election against McCain by the largest margin in 20 years. During the campaigns Sarah Palin began her rants about “real Americans” she would later feed to the Tea Party. He notes that hardcore partisans like “play-to-the-base” politics. This has always been the modus operandi of Trump. Is he a hardcore partisan? I would say so. His views seem pretty inflexible and that is a hallmark in my opinion. He gives lip service to being flexible but usually only is flexible when he realizes he can’t get away with something. The embers of the seemingly perpetual culture wars are stoked with partisanism. I would say also stoked with inflexible views which tend to be more common in partisans but also possible to a lesser extent with moderates. 

He does note that vigorous “hatred” of G.W. Bush by the far left was a thing. Bush was compared to Hitler. Of course, these days any popular politician should expect to be depicted in caricature as Hitler.

He also makes the interesting point that centrists are often dubbed traitors or heretics by the partisans and the whole notion of compromise is seen as heresy. Thus, an us-and-them mindset is cultivated. We see this today with Trump using bully tactics to try and silence and weed-out anti-Trump Republicans. We also see it on the left with centrists and moderates being depicted as worse than Republicans, and thus the true enemy.

He notes the growing voting bloc identifying as Independents in the U.S., then 40% (I think now similar). He says most are fiscally conservative but socially liberal. He states that then 11% of Americans described themselves as liberal Democrats and 15% described themselves as conservative Republicans. Obama did not receive an ideological mandate and neither did Trump but both, especially Trump, have acted as if they did. Ideologues are ‘true believers’ who tend to see those who differ from them in belief as enemies. Such ideologues are antithetical to one of the founding US mottos, e pluribus umum, out of many, one. He talks about the moderate majority needing to stand up to and dismiss the loud extremes. Indeed, I do think, or at least hope, there is still a moderate majority.

The Tea Party protests began with Libertarian Ron Paul’s 2008 campaign. After Obama was elected the protests turned to government spending, particularly the bailouts (required around the world) in response to the economic downturn. Few now would question such spending to shore up imploding worth but then it was an excuse and an opportunity to rail about the excesses of Big Government and out of control spending. Obama’s new presidency combined with big spending brought charges of Obama being a socialist (although later the radical left would call him a Republican in disguise!) It is true that Obama campaigned on being non-partisan and reigning in spending, but the spending was probably necessary as he took office in the midst of an historical economic crash. However, he turned out to be more partisan than non-partisan, but he made some effort. Bailout backlash turned out to be a foothold for the Tea Party. On Tax Day, April 15, 2009 there were Tea Party protests in 346 towns drawing 300,000 people. One interesting note is that the Tea Party protests were quite benign, no violence or vandalism, although a few years later their rhetoric would inspire a deluded individual to shoot Democrat Rep Gabrielle Giffords.  Later the Tea Party went after the town halls typically sponsored by congresspeople for their constituents in August. Again, it was Big Government and spending that were demonized, now Obama’s health care plan especially. The teabaggers were fed their marching orders by the radio and TV pundits like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. Beck has more recently praised Obama. In his younger days Obama reportedly studied and taught Saul Alinsky’s techniques put out in his early 70’s book, Rules for Radicals, a radical ‘war’ manual for the left. The Tea Party actually took a similar approach, utilizing street theatre and radical messaging, for the right. Obama was mostly branded a communist. His health care plan was especially reviled. Fox News host Glenn Beck became the guru of the Tea Party, although years later he would regret demonizing Obama and offer him some praise. Advocates were called patriots, insinuating that those who were not Tea Party enthusiasts were not patriots. 

There was resistance to Obama as there is resistance to Trump now. White nationalist and White supremacist ranks grew a bit. Avlon profiles some of the more virulent Obama haters who called him a Muslim, a communist, Hitler, and the Anti-Christ. Some pastors and conservative radio hosts pushed the issue the most. He was often called by his full name Barack Hussein Obama, to exemplify his connection to Islam and having a similar name as Saddam Hussein. Of course, the real socialists and communists confirmed that Obama was no where near them in policies. Later, followers of self-avowed socialists like Bernie Sanders would suggest Obama was too conservative, just Bush-lite! Some people, like some in the infamous Westboro Baptist Church actually believed Obama was the Anti-Christ predicted in the biblical Book of Revelations. According to polls many Republicans actually believed that or at least stated that they did. 

Avlon notes that when Obama became president, white minority politics was born. Perhaps he is right since in more recent times the issue of non-whites gaining population on whites seems to have generated interest among the more racially insensitive people who actually believe that retaining a white majority matters in some way. This makes for resentment among those who believe in such a way. The Tea Party talked about “taking “our” country back” and about “real Americans.” Radio hosts Michael Savage and Rush Limbaugh pushed similar sentiments, deriding ideas like multiculturism. Pat Buchanan was another extremist who peddled such ideas: ie., the dangers of multiculturalism, multiple languages, ethnicities, and races. In the American south the prominent display of the confederate flag was deemed “heritage, not hate,” although recently with the removal of some the massive amount of monuments venerating confederates (far more than the non-confederates who defeated them) is perhaps a sign that such brazen attitudes are fading. Palin’s “real America” implied that there was a “false America” and the guy with the middle name Hussein was its rep. People chanted against “Osama Obama,” Of course, Obama didn’t run on being a president for black America and even got re-elected by a wide margin. 

Avlon writes about the changes through the years that brought the GOP, once the ‘party of Lincoln’ who subdued the white southern Democrats to the ‘party of Reagan’ against the big government that threatened to be more inclusive. He writes a lot about the racism that came up over and over in various contexts. It has slowed down a bit overall but there is still plenty, with some more subtle than it used to be, since it is less tolerated these days. 

Another charge on both sides of the political aisle was the RINO’s and DINO’s: Republican in name only and Democrat in name only. This was simply a way to say that those with certain views on certain topics weren’t “real Republicans” or “real Democrats. Get too far towards the middle of the aisle and you will be deemed a traitor. Such thinking reinforces partisanism and extremists on both sides perpetuate such declarations. 

The cable news outfits came to specialize in particular political views. Avlon calls these “polarizing for profit.” Fox News on the right and MSNBC on the left were minted thus. Among pundits Glenn Beck proclaimed the extreme right at the time and Keith Olberman the extreme left. As partisan pundits they claimed only they had the freedom to speak their minds while others chose to be political correct, which also implied they were politically stifled by things like basic manners and sensitivities. Cass Sunstein talked about political divisiveness and fostering it, ie. the notion of the “echo chamber” where certain views were repeated over and over, memorized, and used in any debating. Fox News was very good at this (after all Roger Ailes studied and applied Nazi propaganda techniques) offering “talking points” on many issues that were repeated frequently enough that regular casual viewers would catch on and be able to parrot those points. As Avlon says it:

“Demagogues are the heroes in the echo chamber. They’re selling special knowledge combining old fears with new technologies and reaching a wider audience than ever before.”

One reason such partisan medias took off is that there became more and more choices with all the channels of cable, radio, and internet. Less biased newspapers and network TV were steadily losing market share. With all the choices, those who succeeded were those that could rally others and the key to rallying is providing concise clear messaging to a narrow partisan constituency so that they could be heard above the noise. People are attracted (at least initially) to the fringe and outrageous and if such voices are readily available in nice packets they will be imbibed. Stoking partisan anger = better ratings.

Fake News had yet to be popularly dubbed such at this time. It was there though. Now it is a mainstay, especially of the internet. The left has caught up to the right on the spreading of nonsense based on partisanism. Some purvayors have deferred, saying it’s just entertainment, ie. Alex Jones. The pundits on the right then like Beck and Limbaugh were like preachers in their pulpits rousing their congregations. Beck and others railed about an out-of-control government but soon enough the left would catch up with anti-corporatism, railing about out-of-control corporations. Keith Olberman was the pit bull on the left at the time, likely a response to the domination of partisan radio and TV by the Tea Party and the right. Olberman started out during G.W. Bush times more in the political middle but also with middling ratings. His ratings grew with his partisan pivot. He was called the “Limbaugh of Lefties” calling Bush a fascist dictator and Fox News worse than al-Qaeda and the KKK. Like the Fox pundits he also despised political moderates. With the proliferation of social media on the internet and the potential for news going viral the extremist left gained some traction. These days there are plenty of sites where leftist radicalism has become a huge echo chamber. Perhaps the left was more “techy” than the right then which made their echo chambers catch up but catch up they have. These days one has to consider and remember which sites are on which part of the political spectrum. One thing that annoys me these days is people sharing news stories that are not current, some several years old, presumably to keep the echo chambers echoing. I have seen this predominantly on the far left. Avlon suggests the solution to echo chamber – ism is to strive to be truthful before and beyond striving to be persuasive. Trump came to believe early that all media was biased against him, except Fox, although more recently some Fox commentators too. Though he has repeatedly called the press the “enemy of the people” it is more probably that they are simply hostile of him and his own enmity of them.  

A long chapter is devoted to Sarah Palin and the Limbaugh Brigades. McCain would come to regret picking Palin as his running mate. She promoted patriotism, social conservatism, and called Obama a socialist that pals around with terrorists. Even those that called McCain a RINO voted for him because of Palin who they considered a true God-and-country conservative. On the other hand, moderates who liked McCain may have not voted for him because of Palin. She came to be the quintessential Tea Party wingnut. She was praised for “bluntness and straight talk – no apologies.” 

Rush Limbaugh rose to popularity in the 90’s with his radio talk show. I remember because one place I worked had his show on all the time. He too was the quintessential wingnut, divisive and incendiary. The author points out that figures like Limbaugh have political power without the responsibilities of governing or policy making. He utilized conflict rhetoric to increase his ratings. Those who followed his model are dubbed here the ‘Limbaugh Brigades.’ Limbaugh’s response to Obama being elected was, “I hope he fails.” 

Another popular and rather outrageous wingnut was Minnesota congresswoman Michelle Bachman who spouted much fiery and controversial anti-Obama rhetoric. Another was Iowa Congressman Steve King, still in Congress but recently censured and stripped of committee positions due to his white supremacy statements. Back in 2008 he was rebuked by McCain for his extreme views. Arizona Congressman Trent Franks called Obama an “enemy of humanity.” Conservatives railed against gay rights and feminism. Presidential candidate and Fox News contributor Mike Huckabee was another wingnut. Several were part of the “Values Voters” coalition. Their argument was that most Americans didn’t want things on the socially liberal agenda. While Obama won re-election in 2012 the Tea Party Republicans also won many elections so the rhetoric was fairly successful. Polls indicate that most independent voters are fiscally conservative but socially liberal, so the centrists are much less likely to vote for extremists. The extremists conservatives were fairly successful at demonizing Republican moderates as RINOs. These days something similar has happened to a lesser extent on the left where moderates are deemed traitors and DINOs. Avlon suggests the extremists are “hunting for heretics.” It has gotten bad with Trump Republicanism where if a Republican is not wholly aligned with Trump he or she gets demonized. The Tea Party radicals tended to split the party much like the more radical progressives on the left do. In the past anti-segregationists and those dubbed communist sympathizers by McCarthy were hunted heretics. Now it was mainly RINOs and DINOs. Any Republican that had some socially liberal views was a potential heretic. 

Excommunications and defections were on the rise. Defectors included Chris Buckley (son of William F. Buckley), David Frum, David Brooks, Peggy Noonan, and Andrew Sullivan, each declaring in some way as Independents. Criticizing the extremists raised the ire of their followers and those that did got the heretic branding, as those on the right who criticize Trump do today.
Hunting for heretics is a way of gaining ideological purity, or as Avlon says it “burning down the big tent.” He suggests that famed Republicans like Goldwater and Reagan would not even meet the current ideological purity tests! Limbaugh, Beck, and Huckabee have all rejected any “big tent” notions. Former GOP Congressman and current MSNBC talk show host Joe Scarborough spoke out against the hunt for heretics. Trump reviles him and his co-host wife. 

The hunt for heretics on the left stoked up with the dubbing of Obama as Bush-lite. MSNBC’s Ed Schultz called him a corporate sellout. Arianna Huffington derided him for compromising with Republicans. Obama was dubbed a DINO. Groups like complained about his having some Republicans in his cabinet like secretary of defense, Robert Gates and even Hillary Clinton as secretary of state was considered too hawkish, a “warmonger” as Tulsi Gabbard would later come to call her. Wingnuts of any ilk do not take kindly to bipartisanship. “No compromise” is their motto. The so-called “Blue Dog” democrats were deemed DINO’s and traitors. This continues with current progressivism.

Next, we come to far fringe politics, particularly the Birthers and Truthers. Birthers refers to the preoccupation among far right conspiracy theorists that Obama was not really born in America. They demanded his birth certificate (which of course was provided but it was obviously fake according to them). Oddly the birther conspiracy first appeared among Hillary Clinton supporters who did not want to concede in the primary. Democrats Linda Starr and Phillip Berg developed and supported the birther conspiracy. Berg was also a Truther – referring to those who believe that 9/11 was a coverup and the buildings were blown up from within. Of course, Fox’s Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs picked up and carried the torch of birther-ism as did Donald Trump. Both of these conspiracies are patently ridiculous but show the gullibility of the people as well as the lengths they will go to keep believing.

Trutherism was likely fueled by Bush Derangement Syndrome. This was also begun on the left. Along with Berg there was far left Congressman Dennis Kucinich, Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney as well as well as filmmaker Michael Moore, Ralph Nader, Howard Zinn, Janeane Garofalo, Ed Asner, and Van Jones. Again, the right picked it up and ran with it. It became a staple of right wing provocateaur Alex Jones. Ron Paul is a frequent conspiracy peddler. Avlon is a New Yorker and while a speech-writer for Giulliani wrote many eulogies for those who died in the attack. For this reason Trutherism is perhaps a sore spot with him.

Next on the fringes are the self-styled patriots who collect arms to go with their conspiracy-theory pandering. He calls them “hatriots.” They are rooted in the pro-gun lobby and the militia movements spurred by Clinton attorney general Janet Reno’s sacking of the Waco compound. One group is called the Oath Keepers. They assert that they will not obey when the government begin to oppress with things like detention camps. The militia movements of the 90’s opposed a Democratic administration but the new ones opposed a black Democratic president. That gave a jolt to white nationalist and white supremacists. Some claimed Obama was starting a civil war. Some conservative states called for secession. Add confederate sympathizers to the militias and the results could be even more dangerous, especially if spurred by an aura of acceptability. Many found that in Trump who refused to condemn the white supremacists at Charlottesville. He is very popular among white supremacists like the KKK and a few mass shooters and bomb senders. Wingnuts like Michael Savage stated that Obama would declare martial law much like the Nazis. Sometimes its hard to tell if its just the ideas that are unhinged or the people themselves, Unfortunately, unhinged ideas taken up by unhinged people often lead to bad results. 

As a conclusion Avlon makes suggestions for taking America back (ironically a typical wingnut phrase) from the lunatic fringe. He suggests we declare our independence from the far right and far left fringes, I agree. Good vs. evil or us vs. them attitudes are not conducive to political civility. Avlon notes that fear is often behind all the rhetoric:

“But when you pull the curtain back on all the Wingnut politics, behind the all-or-nothing demands, apocalyptic warnings and the addiction of self-righteous anger, you’ll see that fear is the motivating factor: fear of the other; fear wrapped up in the American flag; fear calling itself freedom.” 

He says the wingnuts are just snake oil salesmen. He suggests that far more Americans are moderates than are on the fringes (I do hope he is right but I wonder) and that we should be vocal in declaring our independence from extremists. He suggests that the moderate majority has been bullied into silence and simply to be silent no more.

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