Over the Cliff: How Obama's Election Drove the American Right Insane
By John Amato and David Neiwert
Softcover, 280 pages, $16.95
Pretending that the hysterical hyperbole that became a fixture of right-wing rhetoric on mainstream conservative programs like Beck's had no discernible effect on its audience—that it had no role in inflaming the irrational beliefs of extremists and unstable characters likely to explode into violence—became a standard mainstream response to the flood of right-wing violence that ensued. Inherent in the dismissal by Beck and others of the role of their own hyperbole in inflaming white-supremacist ideologues—that these were just nutcases, mentally ill people, anomalies—was the underlying contention that right-wing extremism didn't really exist as a serious threat to the well-being of Americans.
Authors: John Amato is the founder of Crooks and Liars, and David Neiwert is that blog's managing editor. In addition, Neiwert founded the Koufax Award-winning Orcinus and has written several previous books, most recently The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right (which was reviewed here.
Basic premise: Right-wing extremists have bubbled up from the underground and injected their sick ideology and hate-filled rhetoric into the mainstream of conservatism—and thus into mainstream discourse. The triggering event was Obama's campaign and election, although many of the tropes have been around for a generation or two and have flirted with mainstream acceptance through their "godfathers"—Goldwater, Nixon and Reagan. While some elements of the extremist movement embrace their outsider status as the road to martyrdom (abortion activists, militia members), most are trying to present their ideas as representing "real America." The traditional media, with its penchant for "fair and balanced" is enabling this process through what the authors describe as the "willingness to treat palpably false information and transparently partisan hatchet jobs as genuinely newsworthy stories in the first place."
Readability/quality: Concise, persuasive and methodically documented, Over the Cliff is a smooth and sobering read. It feels much shorter than it actually is—there's a lot of information packed in, both historical and current, and a tremendous job has been done in picking through the right-wing landscape for pertinent, on-the-money examples. Lord knows you could spend a couple thousand pages just on documenting the day-to-day rhetoric (in fact, Media Matters does just that). So thanks, guys, for paring it down and honing it.
Who should read it: Everybody. Seriously. This is a wake-up call for those in denial, a refresher course for the painfully aware. Good reference to have on hand in your permanent home library for quick examples of extremism in Obama's first year.
Paul's appeal to the extreme right was not so much by design as by nature: a natural outgrowth of who Ron Paul is. Much of his popular image is predicated on the idea that he is a "libertarian" Republican—and he was indeed the 1988 presidential candidate of the Libertarian Party. But a closer examination of Paul's brand of politics—as practiced both in Congress and in the policies and ideas he has championed—makes clear that he has a closer affinity to the John Birch Society than any genuinely libertarian entity. His ideological framework—fighting the "new World Order"; eliminating the Federal Reserve, the Internal Revenue Service, and most federal agencies; getting the United States out of the United Nations, ending all gun controls; reinstating the gold standard—comes straight out of the wingnuttiest elements of far-right populism. Thus, Paul's candidacy, though it ultimately fell short, reflected not just a resurgence of right-wing populism but a dramatic weaving of extremist beliefs into the national conversation.
As it is with the father, so it is with the son, eh?
Although Ron Paul isn't at all the focus of the book, in this passage he serves as a stand-in for how stealthily some of the extremist elements of far-right ideology can be slipped into the mainstream. The main appeal of Paul for liberal-leaning independents in the past election was his demand to leave Iraq and his disdain for Wall Street; so appealing were Paul's unequivocal stances on these matters after years of Democratic mushiness, that the crazy gold standard and IRS stuff was dismissed as silly jokes easy to put the brakes on in Congress. All the while, the paranoid white guys who stockpile food and ammo in the depths of the woods were hearing a completely different message from the candidate, as were a heck of a lot of people in between the liberal responders and the far-right nutbags. There was a whole lot of signaling going on, and it's precisely this sort of signaling that Amato and Neiwert dissect so skillfully in this work.
These dog whistles are dangerous, as case after case of triggered violence documented by the authors indicate. As in the example of Ron Paul, the wrapping paper may say anti-war, anti-corporatist champion, but inside the package there's a carnival of crazy: the worst of William Jennings Bryan crossbred with the love child of Charles Lindbergh in his denial/isolationist stage and Father Coughlin in his vitriolic prime.
Beware. There's even more crazy in front of us than behind, the authors say.
An ominous prediction:
Things got ugly at the town-hall forums on health care, but just wait till the immigration debate gets under way.
(The authors will hang around these parts next Sunday for a Q & A with readers.)