Interview on NPR's Fresh Air with Max Blumenthal about how the right is trying to de-legitimize the Obama presidency.
Terry Gross: There's the movement of people who claim that Obama isn't even an American citizen and others who accuse him of being "a Hitler" or "a Stalin." In Blumenthal's new book, "Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Party," Blumenthal writes that the Republican party has gone from a "big tent" philosophy to being fully in the grip of its right wing. Blumenthal has been covering the Christian Right for six years, attending dozens of its rallies and conferences, listening to its radio programs, and sitting in movement-0riented houses of worship. In his book, "Republican Gomorrah," he writes about people who created the blueprint for the Christian Right and the people who have funded it. Blumenthal is a senior writer for "The Daily Beast" and has written for "The Nation," and the "Huffington Post."
TG: Your book ends with the scene of Republican Congressman Paul Brown of Georgia and two of his friends who are very highly placed in the anti-abortion movement praying over a door that Obama was about to walk through to take the Oath of Office. What were they praying about? Set that scene for us.
Max Blumenthal: Paul Brown, a Congressman from Georgia, is a born-again Congressman who said that he was inspired to become an evangelical Christian by the guy who used to hold "John 3:16" signs in sports games, who wore a multi-colored wig, and who's actually in prison now for kidnapping and stink bomb attacks. The image of this character at sports games inspired him to become a born-again Christian. He gave special access to two characters, Paul Mahoney and Rob Schenk, who were involved in "Operation Rescue" during the 1990's. That's the militant wing of the anti-abortion movement which was at least indirectly connected to several assassinations of abortion providers and attacks on abortion clinics. Most recently, the assassination of Dr. George Tiller in Kansas. What they were doing there in the Capitol was they were planning to anoint the door that Obama would walk through as he prepared to give his inaugural address with oiled crosses. The reason I described this scene and thought it was important was that it was emblematic of where the movement was going to go. They were "consecrating" their planned opposition to the Obama administration at a time when the media and probably the Obama administration believed that they had the good will of even elements that had opposed Bill Clinton in the 1990's, and that this was a new, post-partisan era. I think this anointing of the door was symbolic of what was to come. I think it's bearing out right now in the health care debate.
TG: One of the things Paul Brown has done is to compare Obama to Hitler and Stalin. He said on his website that he's concerned Obama has a vision that's "fundamentally different from the system of limited federal government that our founders established" and that he "will attempt to destroy the free enterprise, free market, economic system which has made us the wealthiest nation in the history of the world." We're hearing a lot about comparisons between Obama and Hitler and Stalin lately. What do you think is behind that?
MB: Well, Paul Brown was referring to Obama's plan to implement a civilian force that could help during natural disasters. George W. Bush actually introduced this plan and Paul Brown and his Republican allies said nothing. But the grass roots right is determined to de-legitimize President Obama, to prove that he was not born here, that he's "not one of us" or that he has totalitarian intentions. So Paul Brown has compared Obama simultaneously to Hitler and Stalin, two leaders opposed to each other. Seems like a bizarre comparison, but if you tune into rightwing radio, especially fringe rightwing radio hosts like Alex Jones, you're going to hear the warnings that Barack Obama plans to create concentration camps for rightwing dissidents, that he's going to implement mass gun seizures. This fear is designed to mobilize opposition at grass roots level -- to Barack Obama, to the Democratic Congress, and to the Progressive agenda in general in order to win more followers to the Republican grass roots and to the right wing, and to raise funds. It's working. During the Bush years, the rightwing groups lost a lot of money because they function better throwing stones from the outside than they do calling shots from the inside. Now their coffers are filling up so a lot of the rhetoric is designed just to ramp up the debate and to mobilize forces and elements that have been dormant for eight years because the Republicans have been in power.
TG: You describe someone named Anton Chaitkin as launching the opening volley of a campaign designed to link Obama and his health care proposal to the mass euthanasia of Hitler. Who was Anton Chaitkin and what was his role in launching that opening volley?
MB: Anton Chaitkin described himself as a historian without disclosing his affiliation with the political empire of extremist cult leader, Lyndon LaRouche. He publicly accused Ezekiel Emanuel, who is the chief bioethicist at the National Institute of Health and the brother of presidential chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, of creating a plan for Hitlerian death panels based on Hitler's T4 program. He did this well before anyone in the conservative right -- within the Republican party -- suggested that Barack Obama had a Hitlerian agenda in his health care proposals. The LaRouche movement began distributing leaflets throughout the town halls of Obama with a Hitler mustache painted on his face. Interestingly, rightwing groups adopted this rhetoric. I can't say they adopted it directly through Lyndon LaRouche, but I was unable to detect any other sign of this rhetoric anywhere else before Anton Chaitkin pinpointed Ezekiel Emanuel as the point-man for Obama's Hitlerian agenda. Subsequently, we've seen mainstream Republican leaders echoing LaRouche rhetoric. For instance, Sarah Palin accused Obama of planning to implement "death panels" based on the advice of Ezekiel Emanuel. Charles Grassley, the senior senator from Iowa who is in charge of negotiating Barack Obama's health care reform proposals for the Republican side, said that there may be some reason to worry that this plan will include some kind of mechanism for pulling the plug on grandma. So you can see mainstream Republicans echoing the rhetoric of an extremist movement that many people thought had disappeared years ago.
TG: What is Anton Chaitkin's connection to the LaRouche movement?
MB: He's a LaRouche staffer for "Executive Intelligence Review" which is the bulletin of the LaRouche organization.
TG: Do you see a connection between Christian Right and the claims that Obama bears resemblance to Hitler and Stalin -- that he's leading us in the direction of fascism? This is different from the kind of anti-Democratic rhetoric we're used to which is more about "family values" and culture wars and abortion. This is Hitler-Stalin-fascism/communism! Do you think that's connected to the Christian Right? Where do they come in on that?
MB: I think it's ironic that they would level this rhetoric about someone who's sort of a centrist, consensus-building figure when one of the movement's great inspirations, R. J. Rushdoony, advocated replacing the US Constitution and secular government with a totalitarian theocracy in which disobedient children, adulterers, witches, abortion doctors, women who receive abortions, etc., would all be executed. Rushdoony's son-in-law, Gary North, who's a former staffer for Ron Paul the Republican Libertarian and who is an economist, advised stoning these evil doers to death because "stones are less expensive." The Christian Right, during the 1980's, advocated putting people with AIDS, particularly homosexuals, in quarantine in camps. They're on the record saying this. Mike Huckabee, who campaigned for president in 2008, was among those who advocated quaranting AIDS patients, and he's refused to recant his advocacy for this sort of policy. So I think it's ironic that a movement that has authoritarian if not totalitarian tendencies along with this paradoxical anti-government strain would level these accusation at one of their opponents.
TG: The Southern Poverty Law Center released a report about how anti-government rhetoric is spilling over into the mainstream. As examples they mention some politicians, including Texas governor Rick Perry, Fox Business Network anchor, Cody Willard, whom the report quotes as saying,"Guys, when are we gonna wake up and start fighting the fascism that seems to be permeating this country!" Glenn Beck's example is, "If this country starts to spiral out of control, Mexico melts down or whatever -- if it really starts to spiral out of control, Americans just won't stand for it! There will be parts of the country that will rise up!" I know that as part of the research for your new book you were listening to mainstream media and you were listening to more fringy media -- talk shows of all sorts. Do you agree with the conclusions of this report, that a lot of anti-government rhetoric is spilling over into the mainstream?
MB: I would simply say that the Republican party over the last twenty years has been subsumed by extreme elements, mainly by the Christian Right. The Republican party at the same time has been the most dominant party over the last thirty years. So naturally the extreme rhetoric of the rightwing fringe is going to become mainstream if the major opposition party to the Democrats, who now control Congress and the White House, are echoing it and Fox News is providing a megaphone for it. So this is no surprise at all. What also needs to be noted is that many of the radio shows that are projecting this information and broadcasting these conspiracy theories about concentration camps for rightwing dissidents, mass gun seizures, death panels, are some of the most popular radio shows in the country. James Dobson of "Focus on the Family" is one of the top five radio hosts in the country. So is Michael Savage who accused Obama of trying to indoctrinate an "Obama youth corps" with his speech encouraging public school students to study hard and stay in school. Same with Sean Hannity. So all of the people who are introducing these conspiratorial theories about Barack Obama, suggesting that he's either Hitler or Stalin (or both!) command enormous audiences and are therefore taken seriously by the mainstream media which attempts this veneer of "balance" and entertaining both sides when one side is completely hysterical, conspiratorial and is leveling baseless attacks. Should it be taken seriously? What are the consequences of taking those attacks seriously in a democracy? I think those are questions that need to be raised.
TG: You went to a couple of gun shows in Reno, Nevada, and in Antioch, California. You write that you came away with "a portrait of a heavily armed, tightly-organized movement, incited by rightwing radio to a fevered pitched resentment of Obama and his allies in Congress." The Southern Poverty Law Center recently released a report that the militia movement, which had strengthened during the Clinton years organizing against the federal government, faded out in this decade with Republicans in power. But it's on the rise again. The militia movement is on the rise again. Did you see evidence of that at the gun shows that you attended?
MB: Absolutely. I think there is a perception, especially within the media, that Barack Obama could avoid inciting the kind of opposition that President Clinton did by implementing a moderate to liberal agenda. What I was able to witness at these gun shows -- earlier in the year, before the battle was brewing over health care and the government bailout -- was an incipient extreme opposition to Barack Obama building within the Republican grass roots and on the far right. It stemmed from conspiracy theories spread by radio hosts who are not very well known in the mainstream but who are extremely popular -- like Alex Jones -- that President Obama had a plan to put rightwing dissidents in concentration camps under the federal emergency management agency -- FEMA. When I spoke to people at gun shows, this conspiracy theory was really popular. The same with Obama's supposed plan for mass gun seizures. So people were buying as many guns as they could, including high power weaponry like 50-calibre semi-automatic rifles which have been shown to be able to down aircraft. Sniper rifles that can be easily disassembled and put into a briefcase that's concealable. I showed this in a video I did called "Gun Show Nation." The crowd you see at gun shows -- some people are just basic, apolitical gun enthusiasts. But it's a very political gathering. There are confederate flags. There are even Nazi flags being displayed throughout the conference. It brings in elements that are even considered extreme within the right wing grass roots, like neo-Nazis. Gun shows have become gathering place for people who are the most extreme opponents of Barack Obama's agenda and they're energized again by the battle over health care. We're seeing it across the board. It's not just the extreme militia-oriented elements. We're seeing it within the Christian Right. A recent poll showed that 7 out of 10 white evangelicals are extremely opposed to Barack Obama's proposed health care reforms. The Christian Right is raising a lot of money organizing against health care. It's across the board. The right is growing again. Those who pronounce the death of conservatism or the death of the Christian Right were premature.
TG: You say that at these gun shows -- in addition to conspiracy theories that Obama will put people who opposed him in concentration camps which would be another Hitler comparison -- there's also a lot of people who say Obama will usher in a Marxist dictatorship.
MB: There are. There are also a lot of people -- perhaps the majority of people I spoke to -- who didn't really seem to know the difference between fascism and communism. The goal is to paint Obama as a totalitarian, secret communist-fascist-terrorist-Muslim! Whatever they can do. A basic pastiche of rightwing hobgoblins, a multi-colored piñata of every "evil doer" they want to smash in order to delegitimize him and mobilize as much opposition as possible. As I discuss in my book, this began during the rallies after Sarah Palin was nominated as vice president. It began when Sarah Palin said (I'm slightly paraphrasing it): "Barack Obama is not one of us. His America is not our America. He's palling around with terrorists." At that point, we began to hear cries from the crowd that Barack Obama is a "traitor," that he is "treasonous," and so on. The campaign didn't end with Barack Obama's inauguration. Those rallies didn't end. They've extended into the health care debate, into the debate over the government bail-out, and into every element of Barack Obama's agenda. The more time that goes on, the more extreme the rhetoric becomes and the more diffuse the opposition to Barack Obama becomes. So it's not led by Sarah Palin or any conservative leader anymore. It's hard to pinpoint where the opposition is coming from -- from diffuse rightwing elements that are mostly within the Republican grass roots. It's spreading and it's growing more and more extreme -- to the point where Barack Obama is compared to Hitler, the "most evil man in history."
TG: One of the things your book does is give portraits of a lot of the people who helped create the right as we know it now. But along with people you profile in the book are people and groups whose names won't be familiar to most Americans. They are people who operate largely behind the scenes, who are known to insiders but not to outsiders. Let's do a bit of a Who's Who of the people you write about in your recent history of the right. Let's start with R. J. Rushdoony. I guess you would describe him as one of the founders of the extreme end of the Christian Right as we know it today.
MB: I would describe him as the man who gave the Christian Right its theocratic blueprint for the society and government it hoped to create in the US at a time when the movement was moving from the pews into the streets and becoming increasingly radicalized by federal government attempts to integrate public schools and even so-called "private Christian schools." R. J. Rushdoony was a survivor of the Armenian genocide who came to this country and became a theologian. He's the descendent of six generations of high priests. He laid out of a plan in several tomes for replacing the federal, secular, government with totalitarian theocracy in which functions like road building, medical care, and schooling would be provided by the church. The criminal justice system would be turned over to the church and run according to Leviticus case law. So disobedient children, adulterers, lose women, etc., would all be executed. And of course many of the people he influenced didn't take it as literally as Rushdoony did but he, as I said, provided the Christian Right with a blueprint for the society they hoped to create.
TG: Where do you most see R. J. Rushdoony's influence in the far right today?
MB: Most of the leaders of the Christian Right would deny that Rushdoony has any influence at all on them because of the controversial, radical nature of his work. However, Marvin Olasky -- who helped to inspire George W. Bush's faith-based initiative -- has footnoted and cited Rushdoony in some of his early work. You see some of Rushdoony's ideas reflected in the faith-based initiative which has replaced government social services with services performed by the church and funded groups -- including abstinence-only groups -- with taxpayer money. So Rushdoony has at least loosely inspired that initiative which continues into the Obama administration. I also see it in initiatives funded by one of Rushdoony's acolytes, his financial angel whom I write about in my book, Howard F. Amundson, Jr, who is the son of the famous philanthropist, Howard Amundson, from Southern California. At age eighteen, Howard F. Amundson, Jr., inherited $300,000,000 after his father died. His mother died soon after. He literally went crazy, spending two years in a mental institution. When he came out of the mental institution he became a born-again Christian. He encountered Rushdoony who became practically his surrogate father. In return, Amundson funded Rushdoony's political empire. Then he funded some very successful Christian Right initiatives. For example, the "intelligent design" movement. Howard F. Amundson, Jr., has donated at least $2.8 million to the Discovery Institute in Seattle which created the "intelligent design" curriculum. Howard F. Amundson, Jr., donated $1 million to Prop 8, the successful ballot initiative in California in 2008 to ban same-sex marriage. In 1985, Howard F. Amundson, Jr., said: "My goal is the total integration of biblical law into our everyday lives." And whether or not he's an avowed follower of Rushdoony anymore, I think that remains the goal of all these initiatives that he's funding. They remain successful even though some pundits are pronouncing the death of the Christian Right.
TG: What's another group or funder on the far right that you've been following that you think is important and powerful but unknown to most people?
MB: Well, I wouldn't call this individual "unknown." He's an important person in American life and history. I'm referring to James Dobson who's commonly (and wrongly) referred to by some pundits as "Reverend" James Dobson. In fact, he's not a religious leader. He's not theologian. He has no religious credentials even though he's the most influential leader of a religious movement, the Christian Right, and also the most popular. He's a child psychiatrist! James Dobson understands that behind the right's politics of resentment is a culture of personal crisis that he's been catering to and cultivating since he became a public figure in the early '70's. What Dobson does, and where he strength comes from is the correspondence department in his organization, "Focus on the Family," based in Colorado Springs. It rakes in about $150 million every year. The correspondence department there handles so many letters and so many phone calls that they have their own zip code in Colorado Springs. Letters basically are from people pleading for advice on basic problems from their child's bedwetting to marital strife. They will receive in short order Dobson-approved advice. But then their personal information is entered into a database and they're bombarded with political mailings telling them that the sources of these problems -- the source of social decay -- is liberalism, the homosexual "agenda," feminism, etc. Dobson's radio show, which is one of the top five radio shows in the country, operates the same way. So what Dobson has done and why he's a central character in my book is he has helped cultivate the sensibility of the movement that controls the Republican party. And with these people who view him not just as a political leader or religious leader but as a magic helper who's helped save them from personal problems. They will do whatever he commands at election time. He's been able to set his shock troops against Republican moderates and against vulnerable Democrats. He was credited for helping to reelect Bush in 2004. I credit him as a major reason why Sarah Palin was named vice presidential nominee of John McCain in 2008. It has a lot to do with the fact that James Dobson said on his radio show that he would not vote for John McCain unless he named a suitable vice presidential candidate.
TG: ... Which would be Sarah Palin.
MB: Which would be Sarah Palin. When Sarah Palin was named, Dobson gave McCain his full-throated endorsement and began promoting Sarah Palin to the Republican grass roots.
TG: Tell us about Tony Perkins.
MB: Tony Perkins comes from Louisiana. He was a state legislator there who wanted to become a senator. He wanted to be in the position David Vitter is in right now. Because of a scandal in which he signed a check when he was chief of staff for another senatorial candidate paying the Ku Klux Klan member, David Duke, for his mailing list, Tony Perkins was unable to make good on his ambitions. Tony Perkins, as I reported, also spoke to a white supremacist group, the Council of Conservative Citizens, in 2001 and has refused to disclose what he said there. So he went to Washington and was sort of tapped by Dobson to lead the Family Research Council after Dobson fell out of favor with his previous lobbyist, Gary Bauer. Perkins has emerged as a figure even probably more influential than David Vitter, the person he could have been had he made it into the Senate. He's able to dictate the Christian Right agenda to Republican senators who depend on the Christian Right grass roots to get reelected. He's incredibly involved in the town hall disruptions that we're seeing across the country. The Family Research Council posts weekly conference calls with hundreds of pastors across the country who are telling their congregations to go out to these town halls to create disruptions and to voice their discontent with Barack Obama's health care proposals. Perkins has also helped to introduce the rumor that Barack Obama's health care proposals contains a mandate for citizens to fund abortion. They're running commercials -- the Family Research Council -- making this claim and raising lots of money among their followers to broadcast these commercials throughout the country.
TG: You have managed to get into places and report on meetings where the press is not welcome. One example of that was about a year ago when you went to the church Sarah Palin had been baptized in, the Wasilla Assembly of God, a Pentecostal church in Alaska. She spent over twenty years there as a member. You were there on one of the days Bishop Thomas Muthee of Kenya was there. He's somebody who claimed to be able to expel witchcraft from deep within people -- exorcisms, I guess! Would you give us a sense of what it was like to be there when Bishop Muthee was there. Was Sarah Palin there that day too?
MG: Sarah Palin was campaigning that day and Bishop Muthee, the self-proclaimed "witch-hunter" from Kenya who had anointed Sarah Palin in 2005 when she was running for governor against the spirit of witchcraft, was there. It was a small house in Wasilla. It was pouring rain outside. I stumbled in and the entire congregation was speaking in tongues. I had heard from other reporters that no media would be allowed, that taking notes was forbidden, that filming was strictly forbidden. So I began speaking in tongues. I'd never done it before so I just started rattling off the names of the Jackson siblings! I insinuated myself into the congregation and watched Bishop Muthee as he referred to Sarah Palin as "the biblical Queen Esther" and then began leading the crowd in really intense prayer to cast out the spirit of witch-craft. Then another pastor came up, took the microphone, and declared that we would put our feet against the heads of the enemy and crush the python spirit by stepping on the enemy's neck. It was an instructive event to attend in terms of the theology that animated the congregation that Sarah Palin and her family had belonged to for twenty years and baptized into.
TG: Were you discovered there as actually being a reporter and not a true believer?
MB: Well, I couldn't resist pulling out a small digital camera and so I was sort of discovered. But afterwards I pulled out another digital camera and concealed it much better and was able to show some of the episodes I just described in a video that I have online called "In the Land of Queen Esther" along with some interviews I conducted around the Wasilla and Anchorage area, but especially in Wasilla which is considered the bible belt of Alaska, with people who consider Sarah Palin to be a biblical figure -- or at least biblically-inspired figure -- and who believe that Alaska, because it's shaped like a crown, was called upon by god to lead the nation and would be a refuge in the end times for everyone from the lower forty-eight who had escaped the rapture.
TG: The church meeting that you went to is just one where you've used a hidden camera. Are you 100% comfortable with going in under false pretenses and using a hidden camera to document what you see?
MB: That would be the only time I've used a hidden camera. Generally, I think I've never entered an event under false pretenses or concealed my identity. Which is why I get kicked out of so many places! Including violently as I was tossed out of the College Republican national convention in 2007 -- physically because of my disclosure that I was basically a member of the "liberal media." So it's always a risk. But I think it's best to be above board. The only reason I concealed my camera at Sarah Palin's church was that there was no other means of capturing what was going on.
TG: Your book, "Republican Gomorrah," is in part motivated by words written by Republican president Dwight Eisenhower. Would you leave us with some of what he said that, in part, inspired you to write this book?
MB: While I was writing my book, I discovered a letter from Dwight Eisenhower to a dying veteran of World War II. He had terminal cancer. The veteran, Robert Biggs, wrote to Eisenhower that he felt from his recent speeches a little hedging and a little uncertainty and that he waited for someone "to speak for us and we'll back him completely if the statement is made in truth." It seemed to me -- and to Eisenhower -- that Biggs was sort of suggesting that he would prefer a more authoritarian leader, at least a more heavy-handed leader. Someone more like George W. Bush. Eisenhower decided to respond to Biggs when he could have just tossed the letter in the trash can or issues a canned response. Eisenhower's response was, I think, really remarkable and somewhat eerie. At the time he was under attack from the radical right of his day, the John Birch Society, which had named him and many of his Cabinet members communist agents. Joseph McCarthy. He wanted to guard his Republican party and it's "big tent" philosophy against its right flank. So Eisenhower responded with his vision of the open society, remarking that the unity Biggs was asking for was only logical in a military organization. In a democracy, debate is the breath of life. Eisenhower bemoaned the fact that there are people who had experienced mental stress and burden, who viewed this form of government -- democracy -- as possibly dispensable because it places too much pressure on them. He recommended a book called "True Believer" by Eric Hoffer, a really interesting figure who was a self-educated philosopher and dock worker. The central thesis of Hoffer's book -- which is an analysis of the mentality of the true believer -- is that faith in a holy cause is really a substitute for lost faith in ourselves. This book was passed down through the Eisenhower family and helped inform Eisenhower as he warned against the rise of the radical right and its influence on the Republican party. I included this letter in my book because my book shows the Republican party ignoring Eisenhower's warning and realizing his worst fears.