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REFLECTIONS: The Far, Far Right

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

Category_bug_reflections I grew up politically in the times of New Deal, left-wing liberalism when, in my Brooklyn neighborhood, Republicans, conservatism and capitalism were synonymous and dirty words. Now, crazy as it seems, some of these loony teabaggers on the far, far right are killing conservatism and trashing capitalists, even if they don’t realize it. The trouble is they’ve gone so far right they may have come full circle to that which they say they’re denouncing, but more on that later.

That these semi-orchestrated mobs are really ranting and raving against traditional, mainline Republican conservatism and corporate America came to me when a bona fide liberal, Frank Rich, wrote in The New York Times of September 20, that the racist, demagogue godfather of the teabaggers, broadcaster Glenn Beck, is like a stopped clock that can be right twice a day.

By that, Rich meant that Beck has also tapped into the mob’s  resentment of the Wall Streeters who have cost the taxpayers hundred of billions of dollars. “Wall Street owns our government,” Rich quoted Beck as saying. “Our government and these gigantic corporations have merged.”

He has also denounced General Electric, General Motors, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and even Wal-Mart (along with labor unions).

Rich calls this “right-wing populism,” but racism, Christian fundamentalism and anti-banker, anti-corporate, anti-eastern establishment, anti-government populism are part of what the great historian Richard Hofstadter called, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” It came from the left as well as the right. Democrat and Christian fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan was the anti-banker leader of midwestern populism. “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman of South Carolina, a racist, and Huey Long of Louisiana, were anti-corporation, anti-Wall Street southern populists.

As Rich points out, much of the rhetoric of the teabaggers strangely and perhaps unknowingly echoes the central character in another Times story of the day, Michael Moore, producer of his new documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story.

It is a scathing critique of Wall Street and corporations in general, and Goldman Sachs and the Obama administration’s bailout of these thieves and its failure so far in restoring the New Deal era restraints such as the Glass-Steagall Act separating commercial from investment banking.

Maybe not coincidentally, the same September 20 Times carried a couple of pictures that illustrated the pallid corporate-friendly liberalism under assault by the likes of Moore and Beck: The photo on the left is of my kind of liberal, Franklin D. Roosevelt signing Glass-Steagall into law in 1933.

The one on the right shows a smiling Bill Clinton signing its repeal in 1999, with then Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and other bankers applauding. The accompanying story by Peter Goodman traced much of the blame for the financial system catastrophe to that act of kindness for Wall Street.

That repeal and the subsequent end of any restraint on commodity futures trading in 2000, approved by Clinton but sponsored by then Republican Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, further encouraged the financial meltdown and the recession that has brought teabaggers out and the rest of us to grief. That was a marriage of traditional Republican big business conservatism, and Democratic neo-liberalism, with Wall Street and investment banking.

It was a giant government giveaway. The architects included the Fed’s Greenspan, Clinton’s Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who quickly took a multi-million job with Citigroup, which the repeals helped create, and Lawrence Summers, who succeeded Rubin as Treasury Secretary and now runs Obama’s National Economic Council. It seemed, to borrow a famous phrase, that what was good for Wall Street (and General Motors) was good for the country.

Is it any wonder that these people and politics should become targets of the left-wing Moores and the right-wing Becks?

Over the same weekend, I picked up on another important piece of thinking about what the teabaggers, the Becks, the Limbaughs and the Christian fundamentalists are really doing to American politics. That was a truly enlightening conversation September 18 between Bill Moyers and Sam Tanenhaus, a top New York Times editor, an expert on the traditional conservative movement and the author of a new book, The Death of Conservatism?

Another guest by proxy was the journalist Max Blumenthal, author of The Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Party.

Blumenthal, who has probed deeply into the far right and its ultra-fundamentalist Christians, had videotaped some of the more shocking paranoid participants at the Washington teabagging march. Much of it was staged, but Moyers quoted Beck:

“This is a collection of Americans who want both parties to stop with the corruption, stop with the spending and start listening to the people.”

Moyers wanted to know how  these thousands of right-wing protesters squared with Tanenhaus’ belief in the death of conservatism, or Blumenthal’s view that the fundamentalists and the far right were destroying the Republican Party.

While traditional conservatives have used and honored political institutions, Tanenhaus said,

“now we’ve reached a point, quite like Richard Hofstadter described...where ideologues don’t trust politicians...Many of the protesters or demonstrators insisted they were not demonstrating just against Barack Obama but against all the politicians...They don’t believe in politics as the medium whereby our society negotiates its issues...They believe in a kind of revolution, a cultural revolution...”

So far, the messages and demands of the far, far right are unformed and inchoate, flailing at government, politics, corporations, Wall Street, Democrats and what’s left of traditional Republicans. They decry socialism, but beat at the institutions of capitalism. They damn a Democratic president, but condemn traditional conservative  Republicans.

The teabaggers and the loonies among them may not know it, but I fear they are like tinder, living “on the verge of apocalypse,” as Tanenhaus said. And history has taught that a movement that goes too far to the right (or left) becomes the totalitarianism it claims to oppose.

Hofstadter had faith that paranoia passes and American politics rights itself. Franklin Roosevelt also faced paranoia, the opposition of every major newspaper, and real fascists of the Silver Shirts and the German-American Bund. But he wore the label “liberal” proudly, he lived up to his liberal promises and he did not seek  nonexistent bipartisan support. And he prevailed.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today: Linda Carmi: Goodbye Shoes


While I have hope that Obama is tougher behind the scenes than he is in front of the camera, I am beginning to doubt it. He is extremely intelligent, but his background of compromising is his enemy. He should tell those quavering Democrats and all the Republicans that he will veto any health reform bill that crosses his desk that does not include the Public Option. He has learned many things from history; unfortunately, he has not learned from Roosevelt or Truman on how to get tough.

The pendulum swings too far to the left, then over corrects and goes too far to the right. Why is common sense so hard to achieve?

Ten years ago, I read "From Dawn to Decadence" by Jacques Barzun. It was a comprehensive history of our current civilization (and its discontents). Barzun makes a very convincing case for the ultimate and perhaps not too distant demise of "Western Civilization". Our civilization was built on industrialism and capitalism. We are now a "post-industrial" society and capitalism is now showing its' darkest side. Americans are panicking and looking for quick solutions - just as others did in Germany and Italy in the '20s and '30s.
Perhaps "The end is near"?

I have to say I'd like to see a little LBJ-style, finger-in-your-face, "Let us reason together" leadership from the Whitehouse. Obama's instincts are professorial. He's always ready to deal with Woodrow Wilson, but the country keeps sending him Joe Wilson.

What's your take on President Obama thus far?
Weak. Waffling, wavering, ambiguous and overwhelmingly concessionary.
(from Time magazine featuring Ralph Nader)

A very interesting post, and I'll be listening to the Moyers' interview with Sam Tanenhaus later this evening on my drive home. But I must take issue with the above comments on Obama as a weak leader. Given the multi-dimensional debacle he inherited, the 50-50 nature of the electorate, the no-holds-barred approach of the opposition (perhaps influenced by his race), AND the less than LBJ-style help he's getting from Congressional leadership, and I think he's doing a helluva job.

From what I have seen in the last few years, we are observing a lesson in showing us how the extremists and ideologues have more in common with each other than moderates of any persuasion. You see it with the far right christians who sound like the Taliban for what they would do but also in all these groups. It's enough to confuse a person and anyone who doesn't have themselves soundly grounded is in trouble to figure any of it out. If we know what we believe, we brush them off and keep on toward our own compass point. Too many people are not grounded in anything and hence swung around by the wind every which way.

You certainly make some strong points about which you've written so well.

I've been complaining for years, long before the 2nd Bush, about what you describe as happening to the Republican Party. I recall hearing Arnold Schwarzenegger speaking to the Republicans years ago about why he joined their party when he came to this country -- that was after the Calif. Governor recall putting him in office that angered me so. As I listened to the Party's purported beliefs he outlined I thought if that's what they profess then why don't they practice it, because clearly and increasingly for years they have not. Now, the extremists, their spokepersons and supporters are beyond sanity. If they have moderates in that party, why don't they speak up and take back their party?

The Democratic Party far left once seen as such extremists seem sane by comparison.

Many years ago I also recall explaining to others that capitalism had run amok. Most would just chuckle and give me a condescending look -- and then we had the recent collapse of our financial markets.

I haven't taken the time to research this, but I recall reading in the history of our country how the prevailing two political parties at the time actually did an about face over a few years with each ultimately assuming many of their opponents once strongly held positions. I've seen some of that in recent years. Could it be that history repeats itself? But who learns from history these days?

I do not appreciate anyone calling anyone else a "loony." It is pompous to look down on anyone whom one may disagree with and call them such names.

As my son once explained to me when I was irate about an ultra-conservative, "Mother, people do what they do. It is their right after all." Yes, I now realize that to call them names in order to put them down is not productive. It is like calling the enemy in wartime
filthy names in order to dehumanize them.

We are all humans together on this planet. We must have compassion for other viewpoints and find ways to communicate without writing others off as "loony."

Any president who managed to flush previosuly non-voters out of the woodwork in his vision of hope has a long row to hoe as they used to say in my day.

The first order of business was to bail out capitalism and not people like me who last year alone had to put out $100,000 for health care costs for my husband because neither our health plan nor Medicare covers custodial care.

My husband was covered for catastrophic care only.

When I see car manufacturers and corporations that are profit making getting charity but not people like us who saved off the top every year of our lives to be able to take care of ourselves in our old age, it makes me wonder what has happened to our democracy.

Now that's certainly an example of how to bring some civility to the table, isn't it? Calling us looney teabaggers who participate in orchestrated mobs, listening/watching a racist demagogue, trashing capitalism and oh yes, we're paranoid fundamentalists, too. Lefists just never look in the mirror.

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