The Radical Takeover
The most sweeping takeover of the new millennium didn’t take place among the telecoms or the big oil companies, or in Silicon Valley. It took place in Washington, but we can see and hear and feel its effects nationwide on our televisions, radios, and computer screens. And America is much the worse because of it. I’m talking about the takeover of the Republican Party by its own lunatic fringe, and the Right’s hijacking of America.
Ronald Reagan’s GOP has been replaced by the dark, moldering, putrefied party of Bush, Cheney, Rove, Limbaugh, and Coulter. Morning in America has given way to Midnight in America.
Yes, the Republican Party has always had its far-right cowboys, its Jesse Helmses and Spiro Agnews. Yet they were removed from the party’s more sober core.
But these days, judging by the opinions and actions of the Republicans in office and the party’s candidates for president, it has become impossible to tell where this core stops and the fanatical fringe begins. Just look at what the party is endorsing.
We have a Republican Party that continues to back the White House’s delusions about Iraq at the expense of our military, our trea- sure, our safety, and our standing in the world.
We have a mainstream on the Right that supports torture, that confirmed an attorney general nominee who is officially agnostic on torture, and that rallies behind a president who refuses to define what the very word “torture” means.
We have a mainstream that supports—even applauds—the behavior of thuggish Blackwater mercenaries, that supports the gutting of our civil liberties, that opposes universal health care, and that has views on immigration that wouldn’t have been heard outside a John Birch Society meeting ten years ago.
It can no longer be denied: the right-wing lunatics are running the Republican asylum and their madness has infected the entire country and poisoned the world beyond.
And just look who the GOP settled on as its 2008 standard bearer: the most hawkish candidate in the running, who has said he wants the United States to stay in Iraq somewhere between one hundred years and ten thousand years—John McCain.
Despite an avalanche of evidence showing that McCain the Maverick has long ago been replaced by McCain the Pandering Pawn of the Party’s Right Wing, the press refuses to believe its own eyes. Right Is Wrong will show how the “Straight Talk Express” and its conductor have completely and cravenly gone off the tracks—and how the media steadfastly refuse to notice.
Even those bastions of the so-called liberal media, The New Yorker and The New York Times, have continued to portray McCain as a moderate who, in the words New Yorker writer Ryan Lizza, has “the rare opportunity to reinvent what it means to be a Republican.”
Let’s see, over the last few years McCain has bowed to the party’s lunatic fringe on tax cuts, immigration, the intolerance of religious bigots, and torture . . . so you might wonder how is he reinventing what it means to be a Republican?
During the primary campaign, I waited in vain for one of the leading GOP presidential candidates to step away from the twitchy ideologues who have taken over their party, but instead they all held hands with Kristol, Rove, and Limbaugh and jumped. To a man, every one of the top-tier candidates—Giuliani, Romney, McCain, Thompson, and Huckabee—seemed intent on competing to see who could out-Bush Bush. Not a single one of them tried to put any distance between himself and the president—especially on foreign policy, the area of Bush’s most catastrophic errors. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee made a halfhearted attempt to speak out against an “arrogant bunker mentality” at one point and was called out by Mitt Romney to apologize. Huckabee promptly shut up, putting an end to any further rebellious attempts to amble off the reservation. As conservative pundit George F. Will put it, “They are, if anything, to the right of [Bush] on foreign policy. There’s a bidding war to see who can be more hawkish toward Iran.”
The reign of Bush and Cheney and the rise of the neocons and the “nea-cons” (the “neanderthal conservatives”) have alienated traditional conservative intellectuals like they have Bill Buckley, the godfather of modern conservatism. In April of 2007, writing about Iraq, Buckley called public opinion on the war “savagely decisive” and concluded, “There are grounds for wondering whether the Republican Party will survive this dilemma.”
And Michael Gerson, once Bush’s top speechwriter, offered this gloomy 2007 assessment of the state of the GOP: “The party is in a funk. There is a lack of creativity, very little domestic policy energy. I think it’s going to be a problem.” Of course, along with being one of the party’s brightest thinkers, Gerson is a Bush loyalist, so his calling it “a problem” can be translated as “a disaster.” If the Republican Party in its current form loses the next general election and ends up fading into obscurity and irrelevancy we can use the words of Don Rumsfeld (trying to sugarcoat a different debacle) for its epitaph: “The dead-enders are still with us, those remnants of the defeated regimes who’ll go on fighting long after their cause is lost.”
And that’s why it is vitally important to recognize what has happened, to see how the Right’s radical ideas became ordinary, and to know how to spot their remnants and echoes wherever they crop up. Regardless of the outcome of this election, the lingering after-effects of the neaconservative shift will be with us for a very long time.
A key to understanding the fanatical Right’s takeover of the Republican Party and how these ideas spread to the rest of the country is looking at the role of the media—not the Fox News pseudo-newsmen or the talk radio blowhards—but the respectable, supposedly liberal media. Without the enabling of the traditional media—with their obsession with “balance” and their pathological devotion to the idea that truth is always found in the middle—the radical Right would never have been able to have its ideas taken seriously. If not for the media’s appeals to balance, movement conservatism would have been laughed out of the court of public opinion long ago. And when the press does attempt to dig into the ideological underpinnings of debates about policy and current affairs, it becomes trapped by another form of the media’s bipolar disorder. Besides seeing two sides to every issue, they insist on seeing most political battles through the lens of right vs. left. By reporting everything that’s happening in American politics through this prism the media missed the big story: the hijacking of America by the lunatic Right.
The other not-so-innocent bystanders to the Right’s takeover are the Democrats who have continued to tread far too lightly when it comes to holding the GOP’s fanatical core accountable. Time and time again, the Democratic leadership has allowed itself to get played, run over, or distracted. Republicans wanted to deflect discussion of the war by arguing over newspaper ads and radio comments? Okay, Democratic leaders were game. Republicans wanted to avoid talking about children without health care by whining about Demo- cratic Representative Pete Stark’s tough assessment of the president and the Iraq war? (“President Bush’s statements about children’s health shouldn’t be taken any more seriously than his lies about the war in Iraq,” Stark said on the House floor. “The truth is that Bush just likes to blow things up.”) Sure, Democratic leaders were more than willing to take the GOP bait and reprimand one of their own.
Democrats are in the majority today because the positions they campaigned are in line with mainstream America. But if the lunatic fringe group now known as the Republican Party is to be stopped in its efforts to radically remake this country, Democrats are going to have to step up and defend the mainstream that swept them into power in 2006. So far, they have shown little stomach for that fight.
The Republican race to replace George W. Bush turned into a competition to see Who Could Be the Biggest Neanderthal. Who would stay in Iraq the longest? Who would cut taxes the deep- est? Who would be all right with firing gay Americans from their jobs? Who would jump for joy the highest if Roe v. Wade were reversed? Who would build the biggest fence around America? Who would put an end to stem cell research the fastest? Who would reject evolution most passionately?
The problem for the nea-con Right is not that it is at odds with my views, but that it is at odds with the views of the American people. By significant majorities, the American people believe in the science of evolution, don’t want Roe v. Wade overturned, don’t want to turn back the clock on job discrimination laws, and want to bring our troops home from Iraq. The Right flashing back to the Reagan era is one thing; the Right flashing back to the Dark Ages and trying to take the country with it is quite another.
The Only Thing We Have to Fear
The Right’s hijacking of America would not have been possible without its masterful use of fear to sway a nation terrified by the 9/11 attacks. It’s a symptom of just how sick the radical Right is that their immediate response to 9/11 was to look for opportunities to push their agenda. Abroad they saw a pretext for an attack on Iraq, a long-cherished objective. At home, they saw a chance to solidify a permanent Republican stranglehold on power if they could recast themselves as the “party that will keep you safe” and then keep fear alive. It worked for them in 2004 and they are trying it again in 2008.
Since 9/11, the Right’s fear-mongering has been relentless and revolting. It bottomed out during the 2004 presidential campaign with a sewer-level attack ad against Democratic candidate John Kerry put together by a 527 group largely financed by a pair of longtime Bush-backers. The TV spot showed pictures of Osama bin Laden, 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta, the Chechen school murderers, and the Madrid train bombings and asked: “These people want to kill us. Would you trust Kerry up against these fanatic killers?”
Somewhere—and I don’t think it’s heaven—Karl Rove’s mentor Lee Atwater was smiling.
During the 2004 race, there was an endless line of members of the Right’s establishment eager to parrot the “al Qaeda wants Kerry to win” talking point—including Senator Orrin Hatch, who made the despicable claim that terrorists “are going to throw everything they can between now and the election to try and elect Kerry.”
Even without a photoshopped photo of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi sporting a Kerry-Edwards campaign button, this “terrorists for Democrats” routine was laughable, loathsome, and a new low in American politics. It was also patently untrue. Why in the world would the terrorists have wanted to get rid of George Bush? He is their chief recruiter: a man who has alienated our allies, isolated us, and united the Muslim world against us.
The president’s preemptive invasion of Iraq has been such a boon to al Qaeda that in 2004 the British ambassador to Italy, Ivor Roberts, called Bush the terrorist organization’s “best recruiting sergeant.”
My Name Is Arianna, and I Am a Former Republican
This is probably a good time to say a little something about the transformation of my political views. It has been almost a dozen years since I left the Grand Old Party—years in which I have made my opinions known in books, in newspaper columns, on TV, and, over the last three years, on The Huffington Post. (Although I do still get the intermittent Republican e-mail sent my way—always good for a little intel. Former membership also has its privileges.)
I left the GOP just as the Right was fortifying its grip on the soul of the party. But, I must admit, even as I left I didn’t foresee just how powerful—and ultimately disastrous—that sea change would become.
People often ask me what caused me to change course so radically. In truth, my “conversion” wasn’t as dramatic as it might have appeared. On all the so-called values issues—abortion, gun control, gay rights—I have the exact same progressive positions today that I’ve always had.
The biggest shift in my thinking has been in how I view the role of government. I used to believe that the private sector would address the problems of those in need. But then I saw firsthand—up-close and very personal—that this wasn’t going to happen. Newt Gingrich and company talked a good game, but I soon came to see that despite all the lofty talk about dealing with poverty and race, their heart was never in it.
In fact, that’s how I first became involved with Gingrich. He reached out to me after he saw me on C-SPAN giving a speech challenging conservatives to remember the Biblical admonition that we will be judged by how we deal with the least among us—and to bring this admonition to the very heart of public policy.
If you read that speech now—it’s called “Can Conservatives Have a Social Conscience?”—you’ll see that a progressive could easily have given it. After watching it, Gingrich called me up and said, “This is exactly what we should be doing.” And when he later gave his first speech as speaker of the House, it was full of those sentiments, about how there was a greater “moral urgency” in “coming to grips with what’s happening to the poorest Americans” than in balancing the budget.
I admit it: I was seduced, fooled, blinded, bamboozled—call it what you will. But it didn’t take long before I recognized that the Gingrich spiel was only empty rhetoric. And I saw how unfounded was my belief that the private sector—especially conservative multibillionaires who wail about wanting less government involvement—would rise to the occasion and provide the funding needed to replicate social programs that work, sustain them, and bring them to market.
One of the changes in my thinking was born of the hard reality I confronted when I tried to raise money for poverty-fighting groups and community activists. I discovered how much easier it was raising money for the opera or a fashionable museum than for a homeless shelter or free clinic. So I came to recognize that the task of overcoming poverty is too monumental to be achieved without the raw power of annual government appropriations.
But I also believe more fervently than ever that government dollars, however many trillions of them, will never mend broken lives without citizen engagement. What I’ve found, whether in South Central Los Angeles or Anacostia in Washington, D.C., is the truth of what the Reverend Henry Delaney, who took on the task of transforming boarded-up crack houses in Savannah, Georgia, once told me: “I want to get people involved in what we’re doing. It’s like putting a poker in the fire. After a while, the fire gets in the poker too.” It certainly does. So you can blame my evolution on the fire getting in the poker.
At the same time my thinking was changing, so was the GOP, in ways I couldn’t have imagined. Indeed, many old friends from my Republican days—many of whom couldn’t understand why I’d turned my back on the party—are now just as appalled as I am by the lunatic fringe’s takeover of the Right, and the Right’s takeover of America.
From the Hardcover edition.