Sodom and Gomorrah and Hypocrisy
There come moments when one wishes Hunter S. Thompson were not just still alive but still in fighting form. These are trying times, a would-be comical binge of manufactured “outrage”, calls for open revolt over the barest deviation from the post-9/11 template of free market imperialism, and unctuously grinning demagoguery that dares not reveal its true bigotry. We stand on the prow of a ship heading into dark and dangerous waters, arguing with incandescent fury not over our heading or the condition of the vessel’s life rafts, but about who the captain snubbed at last night’s ball or why first-class passengers deserved to be saved first due to their having paid more for a ticket. Thompson would have seen the danger coming (of course, he always did, rooting about for Book of Revelations metaphors even when they were hardly appropriate) and tried to alert us in typically splenetic style, pointing a nervous finger at those who were leading us astray, calling foul.
The Thompson that we need today—not the later Thompson, more concerned with feeding his habits and avoiding the real work of journalism, but the great mid-period muckraking politics junkie of Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail (excerpt here)—would have not-so-secretly reveled in the apocalyptic weirdness of this moment in American history. In the red-faced bellowing of our new breed of all-American rage merchants, these cable news Father Coughlins and talk-radio Huey Longs who blithely elide the facts while stoking our ugliest reptilian urges, he would have found a worthy foe in increasingly surreal times.
Instead of Thompson, we have writers like Max Blumenthal, and though we might be better off in the trade (the likes of Thompson frequently didn’t let the truthful details get in the way of a good story that they felt better explicated the reality of the situation), reading a book like Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party is not nearly so vivid or perversely enjoyable as it might be.
A frequent scrivener for the usual nodes where liberal journalists gather these days to decry the latest conservative outrages (Huffington Post, Daily Beast, The Nation, and so on), Blumenthal is a good choice to write the book on what exactly the evangelical right has been doing to the Republican party (and the nation) over the past few years. Like many of his brethren, he’s a diligent journalist and researcher, rooting in the septic tank of modern conservatism for the proof of their frequently breathtaking venality and hypocrisy. Luckily for them and unluckily for the rest of us, this kind of proof is all too easy to find, and indeed, Republican Gomorrah nearly spills over with it, hardly a page not containing an outrage of some form or another. And unlike the bestselling sky-is-falling conservative screeds from the likes of Michelle Malkin, Blumenthal’s accusations are hard to dismiss, being rooted for the most part in simple fact.
The book starts vividly at the 2008 Republican Convention, where Blumenthal surveys the pumped-up scene, where Sarah Palin was ascendant and moderates were nowhere to be seen. The anger seems almost as palpable as the ideological confusion:
This was a portrait of the Republican Party fully in the grip of its right wing: almost exclusively white, overwhelmingly evangelical, fixated on abortion, homosexuality, and abstinence education; resentful and angry, and unable to discuss how and why it had become this way.
It’s this evangelical fringe that Blumenthal’s book is focused on, which—given their leaders’ documented proclivity for bizarre behavior—gives his writing an automatic tabloid kick that, say, an expose on flat-tax advocates and supply-siders just wouldn’t have had. There’s more bad behavior in between these covers than several channels’ worth of reality TV, which wouldn’t be so surprising (this is politics, after all) if the actors in these farcical melodramas weren’t also self-appointed spirituality guardians supposedly committed to the upkeep of the nation’s morals.
Like any good multi-generational saga, Republican Gomorrah has a several players who pop up again and again. Most prominently featured are the likes of Francis Schaeffer, who morphed from a Christian hippie whose writings were embraced by the ‘60s counterculture to a doomsday fanatic who believed that to “preserve Judeo-Christian society” his followers should “organize a crusade to stop abortion by any means”. Schaeffer (and later his son Frank) was just following in the footsteps, though, of R.J. Rushdoony, an Armenian immigrant who aligned with John Birchers and other Cold Warriors to preach a particularly ugly theology of “Christian Reconstructionism” which advocated aligning the country along strictly Biblical lines (as he interpreted them, at least) and prescribed execution for all who didn’t obey. It was the likes of Schaeffer, and mentally unstable inheritors of vast fortunes like Howard F. Ahmanson, who would create the ideological and funding apparatus for the culture wars of the 1980s and beyond.
Typical of the current breed of evangelical conservative leaders profiled in Republican Gomorrah is Focus on the Family grandee James Dobson. A self-styled patriarch for a wayward nation, Dobson propounds a mix of media-age fire-and-brimstone with soft-focus nostalgia for an invented vision of pastoral (white, Christian) America. Dobson—who fled the disturbingly multicultural Pomona, California in 1991—out fervid radio missives about the decline of Christian America from his Colorado Springs compound, where he surrounds himself with armed guards, obsesses over gay marriage, and files away the most minor perceived slights (both against his Christian followers and, more importantly, himself) for future vendettas.
Amidst all this talk of religion, Blumenthal relates little if anything about these leaders’ interest in Christian teachings on love – most likely because it’s not something they’re quite so interested as the accumulation of power and unholy lucre. While he clearly has an ideological axe to grind, it’s hard to argue with his basic thesis that the modern evangelical conservatives are more interested in the consolidation of power than preaching peace. Blumenthal takes this point a step further, saying that not only are these evangelicals hardly Christ-like in their motives and methods, but that there is a downright fascist element to what they’re promoting. He quotes liberally (too much so at times) from the works of Erich Fromm to make the point that what drives so many evangelical leaders is not their faith, per se, but a need for authoritarianism that derives from a deeply disturbed past: “Many of those who once crumpled to the breast of a parent after a thorough beating have found themselves prostrate at Dobson’s feet later in life”.
This dysfunctional drive for power and rigid morality so prevalent in political evangelical circles leads to an occasionally repetitive narrative of scandal, confession, and finger-pointing on all sides. The straying of the religious has, of course, been a type in Western literature since before the days of Chaucer. And yet Blumenthal’s tales of modern evangelicals grubbing for money, fame, power, and sex in the basest manner still retain the ability to shock. They range from the farcical (“Hot Tub Tommy” DeLay being tearfully born-again after watching James Dobson sing “Cat’s in the Cradle” in the video “Where’s Dad?”) to the disgusting (the same Dobson making a cool $1 million selling copies of his interview with the supposedly born-again Ted Bundy).
There’s Ralph Reed’s collusion with conservative money-launderer and fixer Jack Abramoff or Larry Craig’s arrest for alleged propositioning an undercover policeman in a Minneapolis airport (just one of many such episodes illustrating how the Republican Party has, as Blumenthal writes in a rare, wry aside, “through its descent into paranoid homophobia, transformed itself into the country’s biggest walk-in closet”), this is a storyline that modern religious conservatives never seem to tire of.
When Blumenthal tries to insert a more stylized voice into his normally straight-ahead writing, it results in mixed metaphors at best (“siege towers of the Republican’s shattered electoral fortress”) and a fogging of his central theme at worst. He betrays the occasional and expected elitism here, for instance referring wistfully to Christine Todd Whitman as part of a “distinguished and wealthy eastern Republican family” (so much easier to swallow, apparently, than all these crass red-state Christian rubes from the lower classes).
As with so many of his enraged brethren—many of whom publish under the Nation Books imprint as well—Blumenthal often forgets the forest for the trees, moving from one episode to the next in a plain-spoken narrative that’s a little too shorn of background color or digressions. This is a reporter’s book (and unlike other young lefty muckrakers, desk-bound all, Blumenthal does actually seem to have done an impressive amount of on-the-ground, shoe-leather reporting), not a writer’s book. One doesn’t get a sense of the larger forces at work in the nation which have shaped this powerful and psychosexually perverse religio-political movement. But then it’s not necessarily the trashman’s duty to understand the grotty muck, just to haul it away.