Part 2: The Architecture of Fascism
Part 3: The Pseudo-Fascist Campaign
Part 4: The Apocalyptic One-Party State
- "We don't want to get rid of all liberals. I want to keep a couple, for example, on every major U.S. college campus so that we never forget who these people are."
-- Rush Limbaugh
When confronted with eliminationist fantasies like Limbaugh's, mainstream conservatives are quick to say that it's just intended as humor. (As though suggesting we eliminate about half the country were something to joke about.)
But as Phillip Miller has observed, there's a deeper resonance to these kinds of "jokes":
- Or when they say things that are sort of Nazi-like, which many of them do. When Limbaugh says, for example, don't kill all the liberals so we can have some around for display, you can't help but think of the Nazis, where they wanted to kill all the Jews and then have a Jewish Museum that people could go and look at.
And that was Hitler's particular interest.
That's what I thought of right away when I read that. There are a lot of instances where their rhetoric reminds you of Nazi rhetoric.
This is how pseudo-fascism works: It's not real fascism. A real fascist would speak explicitly of rounding up liberals and sending them off to concentration camps. Pseudo-fascists don't; they offer instead a pale imitation that only hints at such action. And then they claim it's just a joke.
The real problem with this is that a lot of other movement conservatives say the same sort of thing -- and no one thinks for a moment they're joking.
We've seen a lot of examples of an openly stated desire to do away with liberalism, particularly by accusing liberals of treason and equating them with "the enemy," in the past couple of years. This has been most notable in the field of conservative-movement book titles, ranging from Ann Coulter's Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism to Sean Hannity's Deliver Us From Evil: Defeating Terrorism, Despotism and Liberalism to Michael Savage's The Enemy Within: Saving America from the Liberal Assault on Our Schools, Faith, and Military. The crass intimidation inherent in these attacks cannot be clearer; and if you go to places like Savage's Web site, "Your Gear for Liberals to Fear" is only a click away.
These all may seem relatively minor when taken individually, until you calculate their widespread effect. The eliminationist message coming from movement conservatives isn't relegated to the fringes, but is broadcast to millions of people. In the arena of mass politics, this can have a profound effect.
The way this plays out on the ground is an increasingly widespread intolerance, particularly in areas where conservatives dominate, for any vestige of liberalism. Small acts of nastiness and mean-spiritedness become common, and after awhile begin adding up. There's nothing organized, just an environment where politics actually begin to poison our community wells.
But while the eliminationist motif plays out on the local micro-level, it also manifests itself at the national level, particularly in the strategies employed by movement-conservative leaders.
Indeed, if one were to search for evidence of a totalitarian impulse in the modern American political arena, it would be hard to find a clearer example than the discrete conservative movement's drive toward creating a one-party state.
Take, for instance, Republican poobah Grover Norquist, who has a noted propensity for indulging in the same fantasies. On more than one occasion, Norquist has made clear that he intends to ride the conservative movement to the transformation of America into a one-party state -- and using any means necessary to achieve that end.
There was, for instance, the time that the Denver Post reported the following from Norquist:
- "We are trying to change the tones in the state capitals -- and turn them toward bitter nastiness and partisanship," said Grover Norquist, a leading Republican strategist, who heads a group called Americans for Tax Reform.
"Bipartisanship is another name for date rape," Norquist, a onetime adviser to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, said, citing an axiom of House conservatives.
In the same article, Norquist made clear that he saw Texas as a model for the rest of the country, as a place where Republicans would dominate the political scene in ruthless fashion. First to go, he said, were people like Rep. Charles Stenholm, a moderate Democrat:
- ..."[I]t is exactly the Stenholms of the world who will disappear, ... the moderate Democrats. They will go so that no Texan need grow up thinking that being a Democrat is acceptable behavior."
Considering what's taken place in Texas since Norquist made these remarks -- particularly the outrageous forced redistricting of the state that was clearly intended to gerrymander the GOP into long-term political dominance -- it's more than evident he wasn't just joking. (Fortunately, it now appears that Rep. Tom DeLay, the plan's mastermind, may finally pay a political price for this atrocity.)
The drive to create this one-party state is, in fact, well within reach for Republicans. Robert Kuttner explored the many facets of this campaign for American Prospect recently and concluded:
- We are at risk of becoming an autocracy in three key respects. First, Republican parliamentary gimmickry has emasculated legislative opposition in the House of Representatives (the Senate has other problems). House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas has both intimidated moderate Republicans and reduced the minority party to window dressing, rather like the token opposition parties in Mexico during the six-decade dominance of the PRI.
Second, electoral rules have been rigged to make it increasingly difficult for the incumbent party to be ejected by the voters, absent a Depression-scale disaster, Watergate-class scandal or Teddy Roosevelt-style ruling party split. After two decades of bipartisan collusion in the creation of safe House seats, there are now perhaps just 25 truly contestable House seats in any given election year (and that's before the recent Republican super gerrymandering). What once was a slender and precarious majority -- 229 Republicans to 205 Democrats (including Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent who votes with Democrats) -- now looks like a Republican lock. In the Senate, the dynamics are different but equally daunting for Democrats. As the Florida debacle of 2000 showed, the Republicans are also able to hold down the number of opposition votes, with complicity from Republican courts. Reform legislation, the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA), may actually facilitate Republican intimidation of minority voters and reduce Democratic turnout. And the latest money-and-politics regime, nominally a reform, may give the right more of a financial advantage than ever.
Third, the federal courts, which have slowed some executive-branch efforts to destroy liberties, will be a complete rubber stamp if the right wins one more presidential election.
Taken together, these several forces could well enable the Republicans to become the permanent party of autocratic government for at least a generation.
As Kuttner suggests, these gains will be completely consolidated by a George Bush win in the coming presidential election. That makes its outcome truly vital:
- Benjamin Franklin, leaving the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, was asked by a bystander what kind of government the Founders had bestowed. "A republic," he famously replied, "if you can keep it." There have been moments in American history when we kept our republic only by the slenderest of margins. This year is one of those times.
Another aspect of the completeness of this consolidation is the recent domination of the lobbying industry of Washington's K Street by movement conservatives, as Nicholas Confessore recently explored for Washington Monthly:
- If today's GOP leaders put as much energy into shaping K Street as their predecessors did into selecting judges and executive-branch nominees, it's because lobbying jobs have become the foundation of a powerful new force in Washington politics: a Republican political machine. Like the urban Democratic machines of yore, this one is built upon patronage, contracts, and one-party rule. But unlike legendary Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley, who rewarded party functionaries with jobs in the municipal bureaucracy, the GOP is building its machine outside government, among Washington's thousands of trade associations and corporate offices, their tens of thousands of employees, and the hundreds of millions of dollars in political money at their disposal.
Confessore details some of the ruthless tactics employed by Republicans in their attempts to drive out liberal lobbyists on K Street, beginning shortly after the GOP gained control of Congress in 1994:
- ... One way was to start ensuring that the new GOP agenda of radical deregulation, tax and spending cuts, and generally reducing government earned the financial support they thought it deserved. In 1995, DeLay famously compiled a list of the 400 largest PACs, along with the amounts and percentages of money they had recently given to each party. Lobbyists were invited into DeLay's office and shown their place in "friendly" or "unfriendly" columns. ("If you want to play in our revolution," DeLay told The Washington Post, "you have to live by our rules.") Another was to oust Democrats from trade associations, what DeLay and Norquist dubbed "the K Street Strategy." Sometimes revolutionary zeal got the better of them. One seminal moment, never before reported, occurred in 1996 when Haley Barbour, who was chairman of the Republican National Committee, organized a meeting of the House leadership and business executives. "They assembled several large company CEOs and made it clear to them that they were expected to purge their Washington offices of Democrats and replace them with Republicans," says a veteran steel lobbyist. The Republicans also demanded more campaign money and help for the upcoming election. The meeting descended into a shouting match, and the CEOs, most of them Republicans, stormed out.
Significantly, Confessore reaches the same conclusion as Kuttner, namely, that a Bush win means the long-term consolidation of the right's power:
- But most Republicans seem confident that the strength they gain by harnessing K Street will be enough to muscle through the next election -- so confident, in fact, that Bush, breaking with conventional electoral wisdom, has eschewed tacking to the political center late in his term. And if the GOP can prevail at the polls in the short term, its nascent political machine could usher in a new era of one-party government in Washington. As Republicans control more and more K Street jobs, they will reap more and more K Street money, which will help them win larger and larger majorities on the Hill. The larger the Republican majority, the less reason K Street has to hire Democratic lobbyists or contribute to the campaigns of Democratic politicians, slowly starving them of the means by which to challenge GOP rule. Already during this cycle, the Republicans' campaign committees have raised about twice as much as their Democratic counterparts. So far, the gamble appears to be paying off.
The "machine" that Confessore describes, in fact, has more than a passing resemblance to the political apparatus erected in other totalitarian states, notably Soviet Russia -- though in this case, it is a decidedly right-wing brand of totalitarianism. This was described recently by Jerry Landay, writing for Media Transparency, who detailed the power structure that has been propelling this drive toward a one-party state, labeling it "The Apparat".
Landay details the network of non-profit foundations and think tanks that comprise the body of this party apparat (which I briefly described in Part 1):
- Rob Stein, an independent Washington researcher, follows the money flow to the radical activist establishment. He estimates that since the early 1970s at least $2.5 to $3 billion in funding has been awarded to the 43 major activist organizations he tracks that constitute the core of the radical machine.
He terms the big 43 the "cohort" -- an "incubator of right-wing, ideological policies that constitute the administration's agenda, and, to the extent that it has one, runs its policy machinery."
He calls the cohort "a potent, never-ending source of intellectual content, laying down the slogans, myths, and buzz words that have helped shift public opinion rightward." The movement's propulsive energies are largely generated within the cohort.
Stein describes it as movement conservatism's "intellectual infrastructure" -- multiple-issue, non-profit, tax-exempt, and supposedly non-partisan. The apparatus includes think tanks, policy institutes, media-harassment enterprises, as well as litigation firms that file lawsuits to impose their ideological templates on the law.
They mastermind the machinery of radical politics, policy, and regulations. They include campus-based centers of scholarship, student associations, and scores of publications. The shorthand of their faith is well known: less government, generous tax cuts for the privileged, privatization or elimination of Social Security and Medicare, rollbacks of environmental safeguards, major curbs on the public's right to go to court, and a laissez-faire free market system unfettered by regulations or public-interest accountability. Bush campaigns to advance the ideological agenda of the right, and the radical front in turn campaigns for Bush.
Most studies of the growth of movement conservatism have traced the money flow to a handful of right-wing foundations funded by ultra-conservative millionaires, but Landay observes that the base has now expanded exponentially:
- In the early 1970s, when the movement was spawned, most of the seed funding came from a relative handful of private foundations established by far-right industrialists and inherited wealth.
They included, most notably, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation of Milwaukee, the John M. Olin Foundation of New York City, the quartet of foundations controlled by Richard Mellon Scaife of Pittsburgh, the Smith Richardson Foundation (Vicks), the Castle Rock Foundation (Coors beer), and the Koch family foundations (energy).
Today, the right's funding base has hugely expanded. The NCRP now identifies a total of 79 private foundations that make grants to right-wing political action groups. The NCRP estimates that those foundations granted some $253 million to the 350 activist organizations between 1999 and 2001 alone.
Scores of for-profit corporations add millions more to the funding stream. These include Time-Warner, Altria (Philip Morris), AT&T, Microsoft, Pfizer, Eli Lilly and other members of the pharmaceutical industry, the two titans of the military-industrial complex Boeing and Lockheed Martin, as well as telecommunications, banking, real estate, and financial interests. Precise information on corporate contributions to tax exempt organizations is scarce since the IRS does not require their public disclosure.
None of this growth and consolidation of power, of course, would be possible without the participation of the media, both passively and actively. This has been made possible by a two-pronged attack: Placing movement conservatives, through assiduous promotion and manipulation, in influential positions among the media punditry; and maintaining a loud and merciless campaign against a mythical "liberal media bias" that includes waging campaigns intimidation against any person who dares stray from the party line.
Landay describes how the movement apparat has worked at placing its mouthpieces in key media positions, to the point that they are now able to dominate the national discourse:
- The positioning of these right wing operatives within the "mainstream" media surely puts the lie to the old "liberal media" canard, which despite its demonstrable falsity is still standard cant for the conservative propaganda mill. This myth serves to divert attention from the stunning dominance of the right wing in media.
A look at the 15 most widely syndicated newspaper columnists makes the point: Nine -- 56 percent -- are solidly right-wing. Of the remaining six, only three are solidly liberal -- Molly Ivins, Nat Hentoff, and Ellen Goodman.
The far right machine also controls the microphone. The top 27 syndicated on-air hosts are right-wing. There is not one liberal voice among them. Journalists and personalities of the right reach millions of people through hundreds of radio and television stations, and cable channels.
Of course, in the name of providing balance, what the media chieftains who have overseen this trend have in fact done is, in the name of displacing an alleged "liberal bias," erected in its place a de facto conservative bias. The object, of course, should be eliminating any bias -- but then, that would put attack dogs like Coulter and Hannity out of business.
In place of objectivity -- in which journalists independently examine the truth of the matter on which they are writing and report that -- we've been treated to a deluge of "he said/she said" journalism, in which factually true statements are "balanced" by factually false counters, and both are presented merely as equivalent viewpoints.
Paul Glastris earlier this summer discussed the media's timidity in confronting this failure:
- Yet even when journalists' own evidence plainly shows that one party has become more moderate and the other more ideologically extreme, they can't bring themselves to say so.
The point is not necessarily that the Republicans have done wrong by being partisan and ideological. The point is that they have clearly taken the lead in dismantling bipartisanship by uniting around a radically conservative agenda and consciously -- even gleefully -- defying the old unwritten rules of politics that once kept partisanship and ideology in check. The same simply does not hold true on the other side of the political spectrum. You can say a lot of things about the Democrats. You can say the party's grassroots loathes Bush just as intensely as Republicans loathed Clinton. You can say Democratic members of Congress have, belatedly, become less naive about making deals with the Bush administration. But you can't say Democrats have moved farther to the left. They have recognized a radical presidency for what it is -- but that does not make them radical as well.
Reporters for mainstream outlets have a difficult job trying to write about one of the most divisive of subjects, politics, in a way that does not alienate their heterogeneous readership or call forth too many outraged emails challenging their fairness. But they ought to find a way to acknowledge the obvious truth that Republican radicalism is driving the polarization of American politics. That goes double for those journalists and pundits most pained by the loss of bipartisan civility in Washington. They do their cause no good by clinging to the fiction that America's political polarization is equally the fault of both parties. Moderation and compromise can return to the nation's capital only if and when the GOP itself moves back to the civil center -- which, over the long term, is probably in the party's electoral interest as well. Some tough love and honest talk from the nation's top political writers might hasten that day.
There have been recent signs that journalists are becoming more aware of the extent and nature of the problem -- particularly the current controversy over Mark Halperin's memo to the staff at ABC News, warning them not to fall into the trap of assuming that the levels of mendacity from the two presidential campaigns were equivalent. As Josh Marshall notes, this was "simply a news organization trying to grapple with the same reality that every respectable news outlet is now dealing with -- how to report on the fusillade of lies the Bush campaign has decided to use against John Kerry in the final weeks of the campaign."
But led by the Drudge Report and a number of prominent right-wing bloggers, the right has again unleashed one of its massive intimidation campaigns aimed at forcing ABC News to toe the conservative-movement line, in much the way that Landay described in his Media Transparency piece:
- The apparat's media-attack organizations are charged with keeping journalists in line, mobilizing the base to wage harassment campaigns against media organizations and reporters they dub as too "liberal." Journalists who dare criticize the Administration are priority targets for abuse. For that reason, among others, Americans learn almost nothing from mainstream media about the apparat, whose media-attack operations effectively silenced Hillary Clinton's charges of a "vast right-wing conspiracy" operating against her husband's administration.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the resulting "war on terror" and subsequent invasion of Iraq all played major roles in fomenting this syndrome. At each step of the drama, liberals (increasingly defined as "anyone not in line with conservative movement dogma") in the media and elsewhere were accused of aiding and abetting the enemy, and increasingly became identified with the enemy. Manipulating a traumatized national psyche, the conservative movement throughout the drama began responding to its critics by mobilizing intimidation campaigns both from above and below, further shutting liberals off from national discourse, and doing their utmost to silence dissent, especially as its intiatives on a variety of fronts began producing grotesque disasters.
These campaigns played a decisive role in the way American journalists covered the misbegotten decision to invade Iraq, an invasion we now know was based on false pretenses. Michael Massing in the New York Review of Books described, in massive detail, the way the this syndrome worked:
- In the period before the war, US journalists were far too reliant on sources sympathetic to the administration. Those with dissenting views—and there were more than a few—were shut out. Reflecting this, the coverage was highly deferential to the White House. This was especially apparent on the issue of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction— the heart of the President's case for war. Despite abundant evidence of the administration's brazen misuse of intelligence in this matter, the press repeatedly let officials get away with it. As journalists rush to chronicle the administration's failings on Iraq, they should pay some attention to their own.
The media were especially manipulated, he reports, by intimidation from within the ranks of journalists and without:
- On December 12, for example, The Washington Post ran a front-page story by Barton Gellman contending that al-Qaeda had obtained a nerve agent from Iraq. Most of the evidence came from administration officials, and it was so shaky as to draw the attention of Michael Getler, the paper's ombudsman. In his weekly column, Getler wrote that the article had so many qualifiers and caveats that
- the effect on the complaining readers, and on me, is to ask what, after all, is the use of this story that practically begs you not to put much credence in it? Why was it so prominently displayed, and why not wait until there was more certainty about the intelligence?
And why, he might have added, didn't the Post and other papers devote more time to pursuing the claims about the administration's manipulation of intelligence? Part of the explanation, no doubt, rests with the Bush administration's skill at controlling the flow of news. "Their management of information is far greater than that of any administration I've seen," Knight Ridder's John Walcott observed. "They've made it extremely difficult to do this kind of [investigative] work." That management could take both positive forms—rewarding sympathetic reporters with leaks, background interviews, and seats on official flights—and negative ones— freezing out reporters who didn't play along. In a city where access is all, few wanted to risk losing it.
As Massing explains, the mobilization of the conservative-movement rank and file in shouting down these reservations played a crucial role:
- Such sanctions were reinforced by the national political climate. With a popular president promoting war, Democrats in Congress were reluctant to criticize him. This deprived reporters of opposition voices to quote, and of hearings to cover. Many readers, meanwhile, were intolerant of articles critical of the President. Whenever The Washington Post ran such pieces, reporter Dana Priest recalls, "We got tons of hate mail and threats, calling our patriotism into question." Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and The Weekly Standard, among others, all stood ready to pounce on journalists who strayed, branding them liberals or traitors—labels that could permanently damage a career. Gradually, journalists began to muzzle themselves.
David Albright experienced this firsthand when, during the fall, he often appeared as a commentator on TV. "I felt a lot of pressure" from journalists "to stick to the subject, which was Iraq's bad behavior," Albright says. And that, in turn, reflected pressure from the administration: "I always felt the administration was setting the agenda for what stories should be covered, and the news media bought into that, rather than take a critical look at the administration's underlying reasons for war." Once, on a cable news show, Albright said that he felt the inspections should continue, that the impasse over Iraq was not simply France's fault; during the break, he recalls, the host "got really mad and chastised me."
"The administration created a set of truths, then put up a wall to keep people within it," Albright says. "On the other side of the wall were people saying they didn't agree. The media were not aggressive enough in challenging this."
Part of the reason they were cowed, of course, was the sheer volume of utter nastiness directed at war dissenters, which reflected just how thoroughly movement followers were being energized by the direct appeals to their fears and insecurities in the post-9/11 world.
This in turn was due in large part to the way the Bush administration has approached the "war on terror," not merely as matter of national security, but as an apocaplyptic confrontation between good and evil. In this way, movement conservatives have had free rein to portray their opponents as agents of the dark side and themselves as the champions of goodness and light. In a nation still reeling psychologically from the trauma of the attacks, this characterization of reality found a receptive audience with a sizeable portion of the populace.
In his piece for The Nation titled "American Apocalypse" (essentially an essay-length version of his incisive text Superpower Syndrome: America's Apocalyptic Confrontation with the World), the famed psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton observed this dynamic in action:
- Warmaking can quickly become associated with "war fever," the mobilization of public excitement to the point of a collective experience of transcendence. War then becomes heroic, even mythic, a task that must be carried out for the defense of one's nation, to sustain its special historical destiny and the immortality of its people. In this case, the growth of war fever came in several stages: its beginnings, with Bush's personal declaration of war immediately after September 11; a modest increase, with the successful invasion of Afghanistan; and a wave of ultrapatriotic excesses -- triumphalism and labeling of critics as disloyal or treasonous -- at the time of the invasion of Iraq. War fever tends always to be sporadic and subject to disillusionment. Its underside is death anxiety, in this case related less to combat than to fears of new terrorist attacks at home or against Americans abroad -- and later to growing casualties in occupied Iraq.
The scope of George Bush's war was suggested within days of 9/11 when the director of the CIA made a presentation to the President and his inner circle, called "Worldwide Attack Matrix," that described active or planned operations of various kinds in eighty countries, or what Woodward calls "a secret global war on terror." Early on, the President had the view that "this war will be fought on many fronts" and that "we're going to rout out terror wherever it may exist." Although envisaged long before 9/11, the invasion of Iraq could be seen as a direct continuation of this unlimited war; all the more so because of the prevailing tone among the President and his advisers, who were described as eager "to emerge from the sea of words and pull the trigger."
The war on terrorism is apocalyptic, then, exactly because it is militarized and yet amorphous, without limits of time or place, and has no clear end. It therefore enters the realm of the infinite. Implied in its approach is that every last terrorist everywhere on the earth is to be hunted down until there are no more terrorists anywhere to threaten us, and in that way the world will be rid of evil. Bush keeps what Woodward calls "his own personal scorecard for the war" in the form of photographs with brief biographies and personality sketches of those judged to be the world's most dangerous terrorists, each ready to be crossed out if killed or captured. The scorecard is always available in a desk drawer in the Oval Office.
The apocalyptic foundations of the Bush "war on terror" have been undergirded throughout by a closely related feature of Bush's carefully constructed image: namely, his fundamentalist religiosity. In the face of a distinct lack of actual charisma, this image has served as a way for Bush to inspire extreme devotion to his every pronouncement and policy among movement followers. After all, he is being divinely guided in his every step, according to the mythology in which the movement has shrouded him.
Rick Perlstein rather tellingly described this dynamic in action for Village Voice in a July piece titled "The Church of Bush", which explore how Team Bush goes about building this foundation:
- On July 15, the Bush-Cheney campaign organized 6,925 "Parties for the President" in supporters' homes nationwide. I chose to attend in Portland, Oregon. The right love to believe the whole world is against them. In a county where Ralph Nader got a quarter of the votes of George Bush and Al Gore well over double, the sense of martyrdom is especially fragrant: Portland's conservatives are like others anywhere, only more so. One leader told me that here, it's the conservatives who are oppressed by the gays.
Readers of this series will recognize several pseudo-fascist "mobilizing passions" (described in Part 1) at play here, notably the overwhelming sense of victim and persecution at the hands of the enemy, both within and without. This crops up continually:
- Says Delores: "There is an agenda—to get rid of God in our country."
Chirps the reporter: Certainly not on the part of John Kerry, who once entertained dreams of entering the priesthood.
I'm almost laughed out of the room.
I ask why Kerry goes to mass every week if he's trying to get rid of God. "Public relations!" a young man calls out from across the room. "Same reason he does everything else." Cue for Delores to repeat something a rabbi told her: "We have to stand together, because this is what happened in Europe. You know—once they start taking this right and that right. And you have the Islamic people . . . "
She trails off. I ask whether she's referring to the rise of fascism. "We're losing our rights as Christians: yes. And being persecuted again."
In the end, Perlstein concludes:
- Conservatives see something angelic in George Bush. That's why they excuse, repress, and rationalize away so much.
And that is why conservatism is verging on becoming an un-American creed.
In more recent weeks, the tempo and tenor of this appeal to apocalyptic fundamentalism has stepped up. Now conservatives are releasing, as a counterpoint to Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, a pro-Bush movie titled George W. Bush: Faith in the White House, which Frank Rich at the New York Times describes in stomach-churning detail (via Jenny Greenleaf at The American Street):
- More than any other campaign artifact, it clarifies the hard-knuckles rationale of the president's vote-for-me-or-face-Armageddon re-election message. It transforms the president that the Democrats deride as a "fortunate son" of privilege into a prodigal son with the "moral clarity of an old-fashioned biblical prophet." Its Bush is not merely a sincere man of faith but God's essential and irreplaceable warrior on Earth. The stations of his cross are burnished into cinematic fable: the misspent youth, the hard drinking (a thirst that came from "a throat full of Texas dust"), the fateful 40th-birthday hangover in Colorado Springs, the walk on the beach with Billy Graham. A towheaded child actor bathed in the golden light of an off-camera halo re-enacts the young George comforting his mom after the death of his sister; it's a parable anticipating the future president's miraculous ability to comfort us all after 9/11. An older Bush impersonator is seen rebuffing a sexual come-on from a fellow Bush-Quayle campaign worker hovering by a Xerox machine in 1988; it's an effort to imbue our born-again savior with retroactive chastity. As for the actual president, he is shown with a flag for a backdrop in a split-screen tableau with Jesus. The message isn't subtle: they were separated at birth.
... It's not just Mr. Bush's self-deification that separates him from the likes of Lincoln, however; it's his chosen fashion of Christianity. The president didn't revive the word "crusade" idly in the fall of 2001. His view of faith as a Manichaean scheme of blacks and whites to be acted out in a perpetual war against evil is synergistic with the violent poetics of the best-selling "Left Behind" novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins and Mel Gibson's cinematic bloodfest. The majority of Christian Americans may not agree with this apocalyptic worldview, but there's a big market for it. A Newsweek poll shows that 17 percent of Americans expect the world to end in their lifetime. To Karl Rove and company, that 17 percent is otherwise known as "the base."
What's important to understand is what the nature of these appeals -- and their self-evident success -- tells us simultaneously about the nature of the audience. Because the very nature of fundamentalist apocalypticism is profoundly dualist -- entirely contingent on a black-and-white Manichean worldview -- it is clear that the majority of at least the religious followers of the conservative movement are what is known as "totalists".
Fundamental to understanding totalitarianism is realizing that, contrary to the "brainwashing" model in which the totalitarian regime is imposed on a society from without and against their will, the reality is that nearly every totalitarian regime in history has succeeded because of the avid and willing participation of citizens eager to be its subjects. These people are, in the coinage of the famed psychologist Erik Erikson, "totalists."
I discussed Erikson's work previously in "Rush, Newspeak and Fascism," but it's worth remembering in this context how totalism works, as described by Dick Anthony and Jerome Robbins in their essay "Religious Totalism, Violence and Exemplary Dualism: Beyond the Extrinsic Model":
- Social movements with distinctly dualistic worldviews provide psycho-ideological contexts which facilitate attempts to heal the split self by projecting negativity and devalued self-elements onto ideologically devalued contrast symbols. But there is another possible linkage between these kinds of movements and individuals with split selves in the throes of identity confusion. People with the whole range of personality disorders, which utilize splitting and projective identification, tend to have difficulties in establishing stable, intimate relationships. Splitting tends to produce volatile and unstable relationships as candidates for intimacy are alternately idealized and degraded. Thus, narcissists tend to have vocational, and more particularly, interpersonal difficulties as they obsessively focus upon status-reinforcing rewards in interpersonal relations. They have difficulty developing social bonds grounded in empathy and mutuality, and their structure of interpersonal relations tends to be unstable. Thus, individuals may be tempted to enter communal and quasi-communal social movements which combine a more structured setting for interpersonal relations with a dualistic interpersonal theme of 'triangulation' which embodies the motif of 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend.'
Such movements create a sense of mutuality by focusing attention on specific contrast groups and their values, goals and lifestyles so that this shared repudiation seems to unite the participants and provide a meaningful 'boundary' to operationalize the identity of the group. Solidarity within the group and the convert's sense of dedication and sacrifice on behalf of group goals may enable him or her to repudiate the dissociated negative (bad, weak or failed) self and the related selfish and exploitative self which they may be aware that others might have perceived. These devalued selves can then be projected on to either scapegoats designated by the group or, more generally, non-believers whose values and behavior allegedly do not attain the exemplary purity and authenticity of that of devotees.
As I observed then, any implication contained in all this that the conservative movement's followers will be essentially dysfunctional people is little source of comfort either, for as they note at the end, this kind of susceptibility to authoritarianism obviously increases during such periods of social chaos as we have had since Sept. 11:
- We do not necessarily view the members of exemplary dualist groups as mentally ill or deeply disturbed relative to average levels of developmental maturity in the general population. We do believe that such groups appeal to individuals with certain identity constructions and difficulties. Nevertheless some degree of splitting, projective identification and polarized identity may be 'normal' for most people in mainstream culture.
People with completely holistic selves with an integrated ethical orientation rather than split-off negative external conscience may be relatively unusual, particularly in periods when general meaning orientations in the culture as a whole have declined in coherence and plausibility. ... When mainstream cultural coherence declines, and anomie and identity confusion become more common, active seeking for exemplary dualist involvements is one possible solution to immediate psychic pain.
The conservative movement's straightforward appeal to a dualist and apocalyptic mindset is, in fact, the cornerstone of its drive to create a one-party state -- because nurturing such a mindset among the masses is absolutely essential to establishing that kind of totalitarian political control.
This program is neither accidental nor random in its nature. It appears rather to be very carefully designed according to certain key principles of communication.
A more careful examination reveals that what it most closely resembles, in fact, is a program of psychological warfare, waged not against opposing nations but the American populace itself.
Next: Warfare By Other Means