Saturday, September 26, 2009

THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GAAAAAAAAH! Just finished Max Blumenthal's Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party. It has three big themes, two of which are not wholly convincing, but one of which is dead on.

The overarching story is of the complete infestation of the Republican Party by fundamentalist Christians and, as the subtitle suggests, the disastrous results of those agents' many public downfalls in the 2006 and 2008 elections. Blumenthal could have made a whole book (and twice as long) about the origins of the fundamentalist political movement, starting with the theocrat R.J. Rushdoony and proceeding to those who in one way or another were allied with or influenced by him -- the Birchers, Jerry Falwell, Gary North, Francis Shaeffer, et alia -- until we get to the familiar names still prominent in the Religious Right, and their apotheosis in the Administration of born-again George W. Bush. I had almost forgotten how looney Gary Bauer, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, Tom DeLay and many others were from the very beginning, and never knew how cunningly they networked to achieve their influence.

The escapades of Ted Haggard, Larry Craig, Jim West, Mark Foley and others are still well known, but having their burlesque routines told with full narrative vigor rather than in disjointed news clips helps recapture that halcyon time when the GOP revealed itself as a dysfunctional therapy camp for repressed homosexuals and, with the concatenation of Sarah Palin's negative campaign revelations (and some things that were not so much revealed -- the stuff about George Otis and Bishop Thomas Muthee gets even wackier than the Palin witch doctor video, if you can believe it), makes a stronger case than I would have expected for Blumenthal's implied thesis that the far-out religious component in modern GOP politics reached -- inevitably, it would seem -- a critical mass that "shattered the party" and loosened its grip on power.

Of course there was that tanking economy, too. Also Katrina, persistent military occupations, etc. Blumenthal doesn't say much about these, but I wonder if citizens might have been more likely to avert their eyes if many of these moral catastrophes weren't playing out against a governmental collapse on a national level.

Also, Blumenthal goes in for some group psychology and deduces that the repressionist nature of hardcore Christian dogma -- evidenced by such grisly artifacts as Dobson's Dare to Discipline, hardhat violence, the wacky theories of the anti-gay movement, and the sad case of Matthew Murray, home-school rebel turned psycho killer -- turns its political operators in sado-masochistic freaks who demand either dominion or debasement depending on what side of the Lord they perceive themselves to be on at any given moment. I sort of see the point, as might anyone who reads Rod Dreher* on a regular basis. But it's a lot to load onto a political history of this scope. The bizarre behaviors of the characters will suggest plenty to any attentive reader about the soundness of their belief system, and for me the canned expert opinions actually reduce its impact. (Blumenthal has a tendency to bring in quotes from Erich Fromm and other such analysts, which suggests that he didn't trust the story, depraved as many of its anecdotes are, to make the case for him. It's sort of like adding passages from Freud to a history of Congress in the Gilded Age.)

The clearest success of Republican Gomorrah is as a full-length portrait of the Christianist wing of the modern Republican Party -- a component which, both the book and recent events suggest, may be all that's left of it. It should prove useful background as the GOP tries to integrate the Tea Party people into its fundamentalist redoubt and bring it back to national size. We certainly ought to keep an eye on Mike Huckabee, whom I now know to be crazier than I ever imagined.

*UPDATE. Dreher has actually read an excerpt from the book and gotten something out of it, though he is enraged by "The Nation's disgustingly prejudicial headline on this story, titled 'The Nightmare of Christianity.' Writers almost never write their own headlines, so it's not fair to blame Max Blumenthal for the words..." The title of the article is also the title of the excerpted chapter from the book, and based on a comment by its subject, Matthew Murray.

UPDATE 2. Lots of interesting Suggestions for Further Reading in comments. For chuckling's and perhaps others' benefit, the three themes I saw were 1.) The fundies took over the the Party, 2.) The fundies wrecked the Party, and 3.) The fundies suffer from a specific clinical syndrome. The first is the one I found most convincing -- it seems intuitive, but I'd never seen the case made so well before -- though on further reflection I'm not sure that a wholly-owned GOP would have countenanced John McCain, even given the dramatic circumstances; Blumenthal speeds through that part. You could as easily deduce that the fundamentalists have great but not full power, and it waxes when times are good for them.

That may just be cautious self-restraint, though if they're as crazy as Blumenthal paints them, it's hard to see how they'd summon any restraint at all. And if they aren't capable of riding the brake, why isn't every national nominee a born-again? It begs the question of who else has power there. People like David Brooks seek to position themselves as part of a temporizing if not temperate force, but we all know that's ridiculous. Probably, as I had long suspected, it's lobbyists and C. Montgomery Burns.

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