XII: Divine Transmissions
The fundamentalist right and the extremist right have always done a certain amount of commingling -- witness, for example, Pat Robertson's "New World Order" skirmish, and the white-hot rhetoric over abortion. And since the early 1980s, conservative Christians have had an explicit alliance with the secular corporatist right; Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush represented this latter bloc, and their alliance with the Christian right was as much tactical as heartfelt.
Not so the presidency of George W. Bush. While secular neoconservatives are in charge of Bush's foreign policy, on domestic policy the Christian right has been almost completely in charge, beginning with Attorney General John Ashcroft's numerous assaults on individual and privacy rights, and running through the Ted Olson-led White House, which has endorsed attacks on everything from affirmative action to the Miranda ruling. Most of all, Bush himself has given his own fundamentalist beliefs an extraordinarily high profile -- to the point that fundamentalists' very beliefs are now identified with the president's agenda.
This is strange, if you think about it. If you look up and down the roster of the Bush administration, what's clear is that it is dominated by corporatists. And when you look at the Bush agenda -- from tax policy to "corporate reform" to media ownership to environmental policy to the war in Iraq -- nearly every aspect of it is controlled by corporate interests. This is disquieting enough; after all, the historical record is clear on one thing: When fascism has succeed at Paxton's "second stage," it has done so through an explicit alliance with the mainstream corporatist right.
A couple of readers wrote in to point out that Mussolini himself described fascism thus:
- "Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism, because it is a merger of State and corporate power."
Of course, this is a typically self-serving (for Il Duce) and incomplete definition of fascism; the alliance between fascism and corporatism was essential to Mussolini's success, and he liked to flatter himself as a kind of captain of industry. Though this alliance was indeed vital, fascism in fact was a complex phenomenon that drew its animating force from its claims to represent a true national identity. Nonetheless, as Matthew Davis wrote in an e-mail:
- Any reasonable definition of 'fascism' should incorporate a corporatist component -- both Mussolini and Franco (and certainly Hitler, who's not really a pure Fascist) were big on running their country for the benefit of corporate elites, at the expense of labor (sound familiar?). They occupied a grey area where industry wasn't the direct property of the state, but maintained a hand-in-glove symbiosis. The U.S. under Bush isn't quite as tight with industry, but it ain't that far off, either.
This argument, however, also demonstrates the limits of identifying corporatism with fascism. While the Bush regime is devotedly corporatist, it is only in the way it circulates and traffics in fascist memes and Newspeak that it resembles anything fascist. There is so far none of the strict and brutal authoritarianism or police-state tactics that also typify fascist regimes. Perhaps most telling at this stage of things is the extent to which it resorts to thuggery and street violence, or any of the other tactics of threatening intimidation that are associated with genuine fascism -- which so far is not to any great or really appreciable degree. That may, however, be changing.
Of course, the identifiable proto-fascist element in America -- the Patriot/militia movement and associated manifestations of right-wing extremism, especially anti-abortion extremists -- often favors such tactics. And unfortunately, the Bush campaign's apparent alliance with some of these thuggish elements in the Florida debacle indicates that, when push comes to shove, they may be precisely the kind of corporatists who wouldn't hesitate a moment to form an alliance with, and unleash the latent violence of, the Patriots and their ilk. When that occurs, real fascism will have arrived.
Much of this proto-fascist element, particularly the disillusioned former militia Patriots, clearly identifies with Bush now and could be considered fully part of the Republican electorate, instead of the maverick Reform Party-type voters they may have been eight years ago. The extent to which this identification deepens in the coming years, and the ends to which it is directed, may well determine whether or not proto-fascism blossoms further inside the mainstream, or is merely further dissipated.
It is clear that it is already deepening in the administration's response to the antiwar protests, and its seeming encouragement of "pro war" responses which simultaneously attacked the antiwar demonstrations. However, there have been no overt signs of an alliance with these elements yet, beyond their sometimes sponsorship by the Bush-connected Clear Channel Communications.
What is most disturbing, however, about the Bush administration, is not merely its devout corporatism, but the way in which it uses religion in the service of the corporatist agenda. It does so in a way that explicitly identifies the Bush agenda with God's, and suggests that Bush's every step is divinely inspired. Bush asks his followers to stick with him as an act of faith -- he's a good man with good advisors and he prays and he's not Clinton, so he must be right.
Consider, if you will, the following item from Harper's July 2003:
- From "A Christian's Duty in Time of War," a pamphlet published by In Touch Ministries. The pamphlet exhorts its readers to pray for President Bush and to "consider fasting as you beseech the Lord" on his behalf. Thousands of the pamphlets were distributed by unknown persons to U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
MONDAY: Pray that the President and his advisers will be strong and courageous and do what is right, regardless of critics.
TUESDAY: Pray that the President and his advisers will have the unified support of the American people as well as that of other countries around the world.
WEDNESDAY: Pray that the President, his advisers, and their families will be safe, healthy, well rested, and free from fear.
THURSDAY: Pray that the President and his advisers will be successful in their mission and that world peace will be realized.
FRIDAY: Pray that the President and his advisers will recognize their divine appointment and will govern accordingly in compassion, mercy, and truth.
SATURDAY: Pray that the President his advisers will remember to keep their eyes on Almighty God and be mindful that He is in control.
SUNDAY: Pray that the President and his advisers will seek God and His wisdom daily and not rely on their own understanding.
Then there were the reports that came leaking out of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Crystal City, Va., in late January 2003, like the Salon article that offered the following description:
- It was like a right-wing version of a Workers World rally, with one crucial difference. Workers World is a fringe group with no political power. CPAC is explicitly endorsed by people running the country. Its attendees are Bush's shock troops, the ones who staged the white-collar riot during the Florida vote count and harassed Al Gore in the vice presidential mansion. Bush may not want to embrace them in public, but they are crucial to his political success and he has let them know, in hundreds of ways, that their mission is his.
Rev. Lou Sheldon, the founder of the Traditional Values Coalition and sworn enemy of homosexuality, put it best. Asked if Bush was in sync with his agenda, he replied, "George Bush is our agenda!"
It's important to note what the atmosphere was like at the CPAC gathering, especially as a barometer of the conservative agenda. The Clinton-hate remains palpable and is an important trigger topic, but the focus has shifted to two topics: first, the utter demonization of all things liberal, with a rising quota of eliminationist rhetoric:
- At a Thursday seminar titled "2002 and Beyond: Are Liberals an Endangered Species?" Paul Rodriguez, managing editor of the conservative magazine Insight, warned that the liberal beast wouldn't be vanquished until conservatives learn to be merciless. "One thing Democrats have long known how to do is play hardball," he intoned, urging Republicans to adopt more "bare-knuckle" tactics.
(Evidently, they've only been playing tiddly-winks up to this point.)
But the other dominating theme, of course, was an exaltation of all things Bush, with a heavy emphasis on the Christian aspect of his "character" and the clear implication of divine Providence in his presidency.
CPAC is an important conjunction of the mainstream and extremist right, so it's very instructive to see the commingling of ideologies at its gathering under a fundamentalist umbrella. Back when I was posting on the conference earlier, a skeptical reader wrote to pose a pertinent question:
- My secretary took a couple of days off last week to go to the CPAC convention and she's not particularly religious, not a theocrat by any means or Patriot-type, just a mainstream conservative, so I am more than a little confused by your claims about CPAC.
This is, of course, the entire point: Gatherings like CPAC give a broad range of extremists, posing as ordinary Joes or Limbaughite loudmouths, the opportunity to spread their radical ideas among the whole sector of mainstream conservatism. Unassuming conservatives go to these gatherings and come away at least exposed to, if not outright converted to, some of these extremist beliefs. That's how these ideas eventually gain circulation among the broader population, often dressed up in a nice Republican cloth coat.
Next came Bush's relatively mundane appearance before the National Religious Broadcasters in which he touted his "faith-based initiatives." What was noteworthy was that at the same conference, the NRB's president, Glenn Plummer, delivered a scathing attack on Islam, denouncing it as a "pagan religion" -- which is the kind of talk the Bush team has, up till now, done an admirable job of countering. (Recall that Bush chastised both Falwell and Robertson for similar loose talk in early December.) After all, much of the president's war coalition depends upon Islamic allies, and moreover, an Islam-vs.-West cultural conflict is precisely the trap Osama bin Laden has laid for us. But Plummer's remarks received neither rebuke nor demurral from the White House.
Then there have been a spate of stories describing Bush's religiosity, notably one from the Baltimore Sun, "Christ-centered course of faith-based president worries some":
- At the same time, Bush's stepped-up efforts to express his faith coincide with a White House drive to court religious conservatives in advance of the president's 2004 re-election campaign.
The president's top political adviser, Karl Rove, has concluded up to 4 million Christian conservatives who probably would have voted for Bush instead stayed home in the 2000 election. Rove said a year ago that "we have to spend a lot of time and energy" drawing them back into politics.
Of course, this is not the first sign of Bush's predilection for seeing himself in a messianic light. A February 2003 piece in The Progressive, "Bush's Messiah Complex," tackles the subject directly.
- That Bush believes he was assigned the Presidency from on high comes through in another passage of [former speechwriter David] Frum's book. After Bush's September 20, 2001, speech to Congress, Gerson called up the President to compliment him: "Mr. President, when I saw you on television, I thought--God wanted you there," Gerson said, according to Frum.
"He wants us all here, Gerson," the President responded, according to Frum.
It's clear that not only does Bush see himself as a man on a divine mission, but he actively cultivates this view of his importance among his staff. Moreover, the White House similarly promotes this image to the public, particularly among conservative Christians.
It's important to note that the White House has been very secretive about the nature of Bush's relationship with the religious right. Indeed, his pre-election overtures to the fundamentalists were specifically kept under wraps. It was something that should have been noticed and uncovered at the time, but everyone was too busy unearthing Al Gore "lies."
I'm thinking specifically of Skipp Porteous' work at the (apparently now-defunct) Institute for First Amendment Studies. Skipp attempted to find out just what Bush was saying at one of the meetings where many of us suspect he was promising to carry out their agenda once elected -- specifically, a meeting of the Council for National Policy in 1999:
- To find out what the Republican candidate for president had to say to such a group, the Institute for First Amendment Studies (IFAS) ordered a set of audiotapes of the sessions. Using an approach that had worked several times in the past – tapes are available to members only – the tapes finally arrived, sans the Bush speech.
IFAS contacted Skynet Media, the recording company hired to record CNP meetings. IFAS then learned that it wasn't the fanatically secretive CNP that decided to delete the Bush tape from the package – the deletion was done on direct order from the Bush campaign. When asked if they actually have the Bush tape, Skynet spokesperson Curt Morse said, "We do," and also noted it wasn't available at any price.
When asked about Bush's speech at CNP, Scott Sforca, a press officer for the George W. Bush for President campaign office, claimed that the meeting "doesn't ring a bell" with him.
When contacted by The New York Times, CNP executive director Blackwell put it as follows: "[T]he Bush entourage said they preferred that the tape[s] not go out, though I could not see any reason why they shouldn't." Blackwell claims that it was a standard speech that he had heard before and since.
Ari Fleischer, a Bush campaign spokesman, told The Times that if anyone was "hoping to hear something that the governor would say that he hasn't said publicly, then they're on a wild goose chase." Fleischer declined to characterize the speech, but said, "When we go to meetings that are private, they remain private." He added, "As far as we know, there is no tape."
Of course, any reporter worth their salt would recognize that Fleischer is baldly lying. If it's only a mundane speech, then what's the secrecy? Why not just let journalists listen to it?
[Sure. I know the answer. The same one you get to the question: Why doesn't he just release his military records?]
The sum of all this identification of Bush with a Divine Agenda -- which has reached such heights that now conservative Christians are even organizing fasts for Bush -- is especially troubling in light of the presence of a proto-fascist element within the ranks of those who openly and avidly support him. While Bush himself may not be charismatic in any kind of classic sense, his adoption of this image may be an effective substitute for rallying a fanatical following -- one which is all too willing to discard of such niceties as free speech and constitutional rights in the name of homeland security -- in a time of war.
This was driven home during the run-up to the Iraq war, especially as the rhetoric identifying antiwar dissent as "treason" has reached new levels, as has the open use of thuggery to silence dissent.
The essence of this mindset was described for me by reader John Burns of Raleigh, N.C., in an excellent letter in which he outlined the concept of "a law beyond the law":
- As an attorney, precision in language is, of course, of paramount importance, and accusations of fascism which all too easily fly back and forth do very little to advance reasoned debate.
Nevertheless, there are ominous signs of, if not fascism, then something very closely approximating it. I came across the quotation below in an article in the Fall 2002 issue of Litigation magazine, written by Robert Aiken, called 'Hans Frank: Hitler's Lawyer.'
"The article concerns the gradual perversion of German Law during the 30s, driven by Hitler and Frank, from a Civil Code based system to one based on the Will of the Fuhrer above all else. What is interesting are the parallels in this statement of the nature of Reich law and the principles put forth by the Christian Reconstructionists who populate the right wing, the Federalist Society and now, more and more, our courts. I think the key element is the idea of a law beyond the law. Here's the passage, which Aiken takes from Noakes & Pridham, Documents on Nazism (1975).
- National Socialism substitutes for the conception of formal wrong the idea of factual wrong: it considers every attack on the welfare of the national community, every violation of the requirement of the life of a nation as wrong. In [the] future, therefore, wrong may be committed in Germany even in cases where there is nothing (no written law) against what is being done. Even without the threat of punishment, every violation of the goals towards which the community is striving is wrong per se. As a result, the law gives up all claim to be the sole source for determining right and wrong. What is right may be learned not only from the law but also from the concept of justice which lies behind the law and may not have found perfect expression in the law.
Compare this with the remarks of John Ashcroft at Bob Jones University on January 12, 2001:
- "There's a difference between a culture that has no king but Caesar, no standard but the civil authority, and a culture that has no king but Jesus, no standard but the eternal authority. When you have no king but Caesar, you release Barabbas -- criminality, destruction, thievery, the lowest and least. When you have no king but Jesus, you release the eternal, you release the highest and best, you release virtue, you release potential.
"It is not accidental that America has been the home of the brave and the land of the free, the place where mankind has had the greatest of all opportunities, to approach the potential that God has placed within us. It has been because we knew that we were endowed not by the king, but by the Creator, with certain unalienable rights. If America is to be great in the future, it will be if we understand that our source is not civic and temporal, but our source is godly and eternal. Endowed by the Creator with rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I thank God for this institution and for you, who recognize and commit yourselves to the proposition that we were so created, and that to live with respect to the Creator promises us the greatest potential as a nation and as individuals. And for such we must reacquaint ourselves daily with His call upon our lives."
Of course, the ideal behind the law in Germany was found only in the pronouncements of the Fuhrer, who, Frank came to believe, was divinely chosen for his role. Perhaps in that paragraph can be found a definition of fascism -- the equation of the will of the leader (or the party) with law and the organizing of society around that central principle. This of course leads one to wonder from where Ashcroft and the Christian Reconstructionists would divine the "higher law." From all appearances, I would say it is from their own interpretation of the Bible. God must have divinely chosen them to pronounce the true law. A scarier prospect one can hardly imagine.
Frank, incidentally, was executed at Nuremburg, but not before salvaging some honor by admitting to his crimes and to the crimes of the Nazis. He is quoted in the trial transcripts as stating that "a thousand years shall pass and still Germany's guilt will not have been erased."
This very concept -- that the law must accede to a higher authority -- is now being circulated by none other than Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. The upshot is that the Supreme Court itself is in danger of aligning itself explicitly with the open use of such thuggery as may be necessary to maintain power.
The main evidence lies within a May 2002 piece by Scalia, "God's Justice and Ours," that appeared in First Things. Particularly startling was this:
- These passages from Romans represent the consensus of Western thought until very recent times. Not just of Christian or religious thought, but of secular thought regarding the powers of the state. That consensus has been upset, I think, by the emergence of democracy. It is easy to see the hand of the Almighty behind rulers whose forebears, in the dim mists of history, were supposedly anointed by God, or who at least obtained their thrones in awful and unpredictable battles whose outcome was determined by the Lord of Hosts, that is, the Lord of Armies. It is much more difficult to see the hand of God—or any higher moral authority—behind the fools and rogues (as the losers would have it) whom we ourselves elect to do our own will. How can their power to avenge—to vindicate the "public order"—be any greater than our own?"
- The mistaken tendency to believe that a democratic government, being nothing more than the composite will of its individual citizens, has no more moral power or authority than they do as individuals has adverse effects in other areas as well. It fosters civil disobedience, for example, which proceeds on the assumption that what the individual citizen considers an unjust law—even if it does not compel him to act unjustly—need not be obeyed. St. Paul would not agree. "Ye must needs be subject," he said, "not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake." For conscience sake. The reaction of people of faith to this tendency of democracy to obscure the divine authority behind government should not be resignation to it, but the resolution to combat it as effectively as possible. [Emphasis mine]
As Dave Johnson of the Commonweal Institute correctly suggests, "Scalia appears to think that the way to identify legitimate God-chosen leaders is when they seize power in conflict, demonstrating that God chose them over others." Scalia's formula invites all kinds of mischief, including particularly the overthrow of democracy itself. Notably, Scalia reveals an open hostility to democracy anyway when he contends that it tends "to obscure the divine authority behind government." One indeed wonders if Scalia has read the Declaration of Independence, which enumerated one of the basic principles of American democracy, namely, that "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."
Under the legal theory Scalia now seems to advocate, a Bush administration that saw itself on a divine mission might find some justification for refusing to relinquish the reins of power to a Democratic election winner in 2004. With the backing of Patriot thugs who shout down political dissenters, and a devotedly pro-Bush military, it would not be hard to imagine who would be most likely to lay claim to being the "hand of God" and thereby winning Scalia's proclamation as the nation's true ruler, mere democracy notwithstanding.
This is not to suggest that such an unthinkable scenario is being plotted by the administration. But when the rhetoric starts inviting thuggery, the equation changes dramatically. And events have a way of piling upon themselves inevitably. After all, who could have foreseen the sequence that brought us Bush v. Gore?
That ruling was, in many ways, a harbinger, in that it represented a similar capitulation to thuggish, proto-fascist elements. Recall, if you will, that it is a unique ruling in that it has virtually no defenders or supporters outside of a tiny clique centered around the arguments offered by Richard Posner. And the essence of Posner's defense of Bush v. Gore is that, yes, legally it may have been a thoroughly unsound ruling, but the court was acting in a practical sense by settling the election decisively, because otherwise incipient social chaos threatened. It was, you see, justice, not the law.
As it happened, the only sector of the country that was likely at the time to enact any widespread social chaos was the extremist right -- the same Freepers and Patriots who are now threatening to string up anyone who questions the Divinely Inspired President's war plans. In contrast, the left proved thoroughly subdued enough to settle back and live with a Bush administration.
Of course, that's the way it works when you're busy achieving justice above the law. That's because it's divine justice.
Next: Fascism and fundamentalism