In 2004 the renowned British political documentarian Adam Curtis did a three-part series entitled “The Power of Nightmares.” In it, he pointed out that the group known as the neo-cons greatly resembled their counterparts amongst the radicalized population of the Middle East, al Qaida in particular. Both sides are deeply mistrustful of individual freedom and liberties, and are intent on using authoritarian methods of containing such. Both sides used fear, if in different ways. Islamic radicals used terrorism, whereas neo-cons used fear-mongering. Each side found in the other a useful bogeyman.
The neo-cons lost power and influence in America (and the power and influence of al Qaida in the Middle East had always been vastly overstated), and withdrew from mainstream political discourse as the military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan bogged down and eventually failed.
But another group stepped in to replace the neo-cons in American right-wing political circles, and I tend to think of them as the 'anti-Soviets.' They saw their role in America as being similar to the role of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union: a sort of shadow government without accountability, and with vast influence in the workings of the actual government. They were the “financial sector.”
The Republican party tried to reinvent America as a single-party government in the election of 2004, and in many ways they continue to do so to this day, through the mechanisms of making it more difficult for demographics who aren't Republican to vote, by increasing the government and private-sector surveillance of the citizenry, and through flat-out criminality in the election process. The Russian government permitted only Communist Party members to run for office, and the Republicans are a bit more subtle; by granting the corporations the right to determine who would get the funding needed to even run for office, they've effectively redesigned America so only those candidates favored by the major corporations and ultra-wealthy have very good chances of attaining office.
But the crash of 2008, and the subsequent rise of the Occupy movement, have hindered Republican progress along those lines. Even their own rank and file have been splitting along class lines, which is why right wing populists such as Palin, Gingrich, Santorum, and Perry have all had their moments in the electoral sun as many Republicans pull back from the unattractive plutocrat, Mitt Romney. In the last set of primaries, the vote split sharply along class lines. Wealthy Republicans voted overwhelmingly for Romney. Poor Republicans voted for one of the other three candidates. The only one whose vote didn't break along class lines was Ron Paul, who can attract and repulse rich and poor about equally.
So now the Republicans have a third incarnation since 2000. The rise of the right-wing populists.
Americans tend to think of populists as left wing. Che Guevara. Fidel Castro. Huey Long. Part of that is right wing propaganda, and part of it is that left-wing populists tend to do better at attracting the hoi polloi. As the “Tea Party” shows, the lure of astro-turf is short lived, and once people realize it doesn't really represent their interests, they drop away. Since in America, “right wing” equates to wealth and authority, it's a tough row to hoe for populists.
Except for religious populists. Religion has always been a way for the right wing to appeal to the masses. Mass media augmented that power far beyond the tents and clapboard churches that had been their domain for the previous 150 years of American history.
The first was Charles Coughlin, who, characteristically enough, rose to fame as a socialist firebrand, vehemently supporting FDR and the New Deal. In an arc that is not too dissimilar to some right wing media personalities today, he swung to the left of FDR, becoming disenchanted with what he saw as FDR's centrism and timidity, and then formed his own party, the Union Party. He predicted he would get more than nine million votes in the 1936 election, and when he actually got less than one tenth that many, he reinvented himself, slewing to the far right and embracing anti-Semitism and fascism. His fleetness of foot in 1936 deserted him in 1940, when he not only continued to support Hitler and Mussolini against “the international Jewish bankers” but heavily promoted an outfit called “The Christian Front” which was subsequently raided by the FBI for plotting a overthrow of the US government. Not even Coughlin could survive that in the middle of a war, and his power and influence permanently waned. As his power dwindled, his extremism grew, a self-defeating circle. This, too, is a common occurrence among his type.
The rise of right wing religious demagogues is well documented in such places as Americans for Separation of Church and State, Information Clearinghouse, People for the American Way, the American Civil Liberties Union, and hundreds of other sites. For most people one need only mention the names of Ralph Reed, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Oral Roberts and Jim Bakker.
Not all religious demagogues are right wing, and not all demagogues are religiously-oriented. (Very few are actually personally religious; believing your own malarkey is as destructive among that crowd as getting addicted to the product is to a dope dealer). But the right wing demagogues who are secular, such as Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity, don't hesitate to vilify those they oppose as being enemies of the faith.
The huge advantage to religious demagoguery is that you can use the name of the Christ Jesus to persuade people to oppose their own best interests. You have to be careful, of course, because Jesus was a socialist and anti-authoritarian besides. There was that “eye of the needle” and “the least among you” stuff that had to be glossed over, and a right wing group has been busy writing a version of the New Testament that eliminates all the touchy-feely left-wing stuff and essentially creates the impression that Jesus was a supply sider and probably wanted to keep Jews out of his country club.
Neo-cons are still in disrepute, despite the ongoing efforts to gin up a war against Iran, and the Occupy movement has made appeals to peoples' supply-side sensitivities a limited one. People aren't as willing to give to billionaires so they can soar like eagles as they were a few years earlier. The only thing that comes from soaring eagles is predation and eagle shit, and people who are already struggling don't find that in their own best interests.
That leaves religious demagoguery. Which is why you have a religious nut like Rick Santorum leading the race (for now) in the GOP, and why Newt Gingrich, of all people, has been trying to exploit this by mooing religious noises of his own.
The GOP have nothing to offer the American people. Nearly everything they stand for—tax cuts for the rich, slashing social services, increased military adventuring—all work against the public interest, and the public is beginning to realize that. It's why Mitt Romney can never seem to rise above 35% support in his own party, no matter how loony and self-defeating his rivals have been. For all the jubilant cries that Occupy has been defeated, the fact is the entire public attitude toward class in American has undergone a sea change in the past six months.
David Brin has noted recently that 2012 was the year in Robert Heinlein's “Future History” series in which the Prophet Nehemiah Scudder seized control of the United States, turning it into a bleak and repressive theocratic dictatorship. Heinlein saw the rise of Scudder on the back of the tent-revival crowd and fraternal organizations such as the Masons. Instead, the present wave of theocratic populism appears to be riding the back of corporations manipulating the tent-revival crowd. This dates back to the Reagan era, which was when the GOP first realized the evangelicals could be used as a cheap date at the voting booths.
But back then, they also represented “business interests” which were unfailingly seen as benign and all-American, and security, either in the form of law and order, or national defense. They still could count on those voting blocs, in a time when corporations and cops were nearly universally trusted, and national defense didn't involve protracted occupations of countries in Central Asia. Support in those areas has eroded.
Which leaves appealing to the religious nuts. That's always been a dangerous game, because they adhere to 'truths' that are inimical to a society of individual freedoms and plurality. Now, when you have a major political party openly courting them as their main source of support, it's a good time to contemplate Nehemiah Scudder's vision for America.
One of Heinlein's earliest works had America successfully fending off Scudder before he even became a dictator, and his later, better-known “If This Goes On...” has Americans organizing into cabals and eroding the theocracy through a death of a thousand slices, and some pretty dodgy technology.
It's far easier to avert a theocracy than it is to overthrow one. Just ask the people of Iran. And what Santorum and his lot have in mind for us isn't much different from what we see in Iran and Saudi Arabia today.
Brin clearly isn't sure if America can avoid that particular catastrophe or not, and of course, nobody can really say for sure what might happen. But my own feeling is a bit optimistic.
Remember I mentioned that Coughlin got ever more radical and vituperative as his power and influence waned?
I'm hoping that this is the case here, and it's just a frantic effort by a GOP who doesn't quite believe that they can't use just Citizens United and electronic voting to steal an election, following the same self-destructive path as Coughlin did.
Posted: February 24, 2012