Grand Old Pogrom

The rationale behind their approach is simple and time-tested. Over time repetitious lies begin to have the resonance of truth, no matter how far fetched.

The Republican Convention was going rather poorly. The crowd was homogenous, the speakers were flat and the enthusiasm in the room was manufactured at best. And Clint Eastwood hadn’t even begun a rambling conversation with a chair. The Republican Party’s best hope for the convention was for its candidate to appear “human.”

Although “Eastwooding” would eventually enter the American lexicon and Willard Romney would do his best to connect with his fellow Homo sapiens, it was a quiet delegate from New York who captured the essence of the modern GOP.

Wading in among his fellow delegates, billionaire industrialist David Koch smugly took in the proceedings. Though the convention offered little in the way of celebration, he told a group of supporters at a nearby reception later that he and his brother, Charles, were “in this for the long haul.” Indeed they are. The Koch brothers are part of a well-established movement designed to vilify liberalism and many of the core tenets of democracy.

They are hardly original. But they are unique in that they have elevated their insidious brand of propaganda to a high art form. Groups such as the nativist Know Nothings of the 1850s or the John Birch Society of the 1950s espoused similar hate-filled political messages as today’s GOP but they flamed out as quickly as their stars rose. In terms of longevity, the Kochs and their inspired think tanks such as Americans for Prosperity—busy these days attempting to deny Hurricane Sandy relief funds to our region—have succeeded where their predecessors have failed. For the first time in American history, a small band of angry white men has galvanized a vast number of Americans and irrevocably turned public policy on its ear. The modern American conservative movement has finally arrived. 

Much of this has been accomplished through the elaborate and coordinated messaging emanating from the right-wing propaganda machine. Theirs is a two-part strategy. The first is to consistently contend that the media have a liberal bias when the opposite is true. Talk radio is virtually owned by the right wing. Fox News has become an insanely biased juggernaut and the print media, with few exceptions, has essentially fallen in line with the conservative agenda. Even the majority of the New York newspapers—The Daily News, Wall Street Journal, Newsday and New York Post—endorsed Mitt Romney over Barack Obama. But to hear conservative pundits talk about media bias, one would think the New York Times is the only newspaper on the planet.

The second part of the strategy is to plant false information from seemingly credible sources with patriotic names such as the Heritage Foundation, Americans for Prosperity and the American Enterprise Institute. Representatives from these organizations, which are funded by billionaires such as the Koch brothers, routinely appear on right wing talk shows spouting bogus statistics. These sources are then quoted in newspaper articles that are again mentioned in on-air reports. This is what is known as “the echo chamber.”

The rationale behind their approach is simple and time-tested. Over time repetitious lies begin to have the resonance of truth, no matter how far fetched. Selling an idea as its exact opposite, a mirrored reality, via the continual amplification of such lies has been an effective strategy employed by tyrannical regimes since time immemorial. For example, Adolf Hitler extolled the virtues of physicality, and gushed over the domineering blond-haired, fair-skinned Aryan, who was tall, reasoned and even-tempered. But Hitler himself possessed none of these traits. He was short, pudgy, greasy, and ill tempered.

Likewise, the right-wing echo chamber has been successful in instilling a backward self-loathing belief system among its followers who blithely campaign on behalf of billionaires.

Witness the retired worker receiving Social Security and Medicare benefits carrying a sign bashing entitlements at a Tea Party rally. Or the middle-income wage earner resisting tax increases on the wealthiest Americans because they’ve been told it smacks of socialism. Or perhaps the enraged grandmother who believes “Obamacare” is a Communist plot, even though the concept was hatched in a conservative think tank and first passed into law by a Republican governor.

Brilliantly, there is no single face of modern conservatism, only a secret cabal of dangerous men such as Charles and David Koch, who work behind the scenes to pull the last remaining threads from our democracy. In another stroke of genius, the GOP has joined forces with Christian Fundamentalists to misappropriate scripture while wrapped in the flag to sell the American people on perverted interpretations of the teachings of Christ.

The GOP has wed itself to fundamentalist leaders such as Douglas Coe who, since 1969, as the head of a secret society known as “The Family,” has presided over several Washington “prayer cells” that have been linked to some of the most deadly despots in modern times such as Indonesia’s General Suharto, Haiti’s Papa Doc Duvalier and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda. Not only have Coe’s associates been linked to some of the most heinous genocidal acts in history, they were all at one time members of Family-sponsored prayer cells. Genocide, it seems, is easily overlooked in Coe’s movement so long as lip service is paid to Christ and oil and other natural resources are provided to well-heeled Family members. 

Beyond warping the Bible to suit the Republican ideology, there are secular issues that have been upended by its truth-twisting dogma. The vilification of labor in this country, for one, is sickening and self-defeating. To wit, only 12 percent of the American workforce is unionized, but conservative pundits would have the public believe that unions are wholly responsible for our employment woes and lack of competitiveness. They would also have us believe that Social Security is collapsing under its own weight even though it is, by design, self sustaining and fully funded.

Equally as disturbing is the malicious stance toward immigrants in the United States. The extent of Republican soul-searching post election was to examine strategies going forward that would deal with the problem of changing demographics: how to woo more Latinos into the fold instead of actually adopting more progressive policies.

In fact, Republicans were anything but contrite in the wake of electoral defeat. Forgotten were the insults to women, equating nearly half of America with system-sucking leeches, and the notion of self deportation. The GOP has built a platform based upon misogyny, fervent nationalism, elaborate propaganda, and suppression of intellectualism—each one a hallmark of fascism. Others include high levels of incarceration, secrecy, militarism, and anti-union rhetoric.

These are the enduring legacies of a party gone horribly wrong. The problem we face is that the men behind the curtain believe this past election was a momentary setback, a bump in the road. But this stands to reason. They are, after all, in this for the “long haul.” 

 

Illustration: Jon Moreno
Book Cover: The Family by Jeff Sharlet. The Family offers an in-depth and never-before seen look at the Christian Fundamentalist movement in America.

The Fundamentals of Fundamentalism

The circumstances that promoted the rise of the evangelical Christian doctrine in the 1920s and ’30s bear a striking resemblance to our current situation.

The sight of so many conservative Christian presidential candidates attempting to out-holy one another during the GOP debate this past weekend was curious but not without precedent. The role of Christianity in the American political system predates the formation of the nation itself, with the more fundamentalist aspects playing a larger part during difficult economic periods. While it can be said that religion informed the political ideologies of the men who established the framework of our nation, fundamentalism was largely relegated to the fringes of American politics until the first part of the 20th Century.

The circumstances that promoted the rise of the evangelical Christian doctrine in the 1920s and ’30s bear a striking resemblance to our current situation and help to explain—as history often does—why right-wing religious views are influencing the social, political and economic platforms of the GOP candidates.

Prior to the Great Depression, the evangelical set were more like babbling mystics than an influential political force. Think Jimmy Swaggart or Jim Bakker. The mainstream transformation came when successful, white Christian men who accumulated and maintained great wealth during this time were looking for absolution of the guilt they felt while their fellow countrymen fell upon hard times. Enter Abraham “Abram” Vereide, the man perhaps most responsible for the modern fundamentalist Christian movement in America.

Vereide was able to coalesce the successful strategies and teachings of other soul-surgeons and evangelists of his era. By rationalizing the financial success of his followers as the earthly manifestation of Christ’s will, he was able to mold a new Christian doctrine that recognized wealth, power and influence as deliberate and divine endowments. As it turned out, mass absolution and wider acceptance came in the form of Jesus Christ as seen through the lens of Bruce Barton’s bestselling book, The Man Nobody Knows.

Barton, who is more enduringly known as the second “B” in the ad agency BBD&O, which exists even today, published The Man Nobody Knows in 1925. It was an instant phenomenon. Barton’s Jesus was the ultimate winner, the consummate salesman. The book was a pocket guide to winning with Christ that helped extricate Christianity from purely religious constraints and bring it to a wider audience as only a professional adman could.

By 1933, when the nation was in the throes of the Depression, Vereide’s organization began to take shape. The political outgrowth of his movement was formalized in Seattle with the creation of the New Order of Cincinnatus. The parallels between the New Order and the Tea Party today are undeniable. Like the Tea Party, the New Order cherished free market ideals and conservative morality, and organized against taxes and big government.

Vereide’s followers heartily rebuked then-President Herbert Hoover for bailing out Wall Street bankers whom many Americans believed to be responsible for the stock market crash of 1929 just as the Tea Party chastised the Bush administration for doing the same with the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). Both groups found their footing, however, railing against the subsequent administrations for battling economic downturns with public works projects, specifically FDR’s New Deal and Obama’s Stimulus Package. Likewise they share similar views regarding social welfare programs, and were able to elect candidates to battle these reforms. Even the great adman Bruce Barton went on to secure a seat in Congress under the slogan “Repeal a Law a Day.”

Vereide’s organization lives on today through the efforts of a rather enigmatic figure named Douglas Coe, who took over the group upon Vereide’s death in 1969 and transformed it into one of the most influential and highly secretive organizations in the modern era. The only public recognition of the group known today simply as “The Family” is the National Prayer Breakfast held every year in Washington, where political and business leaders assemble to pay tribute to Douglas Coe’s cabal. Most of what transpired beyond the breakfast remained a complete mystery until Jeff Sharlet, a reporter and expert on religion, stumbled upon Coe’s secret world, which he unraveled in his 2008 book titled The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power and his 2010 follow-up C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy.

Sharlet painstakingly details the roots of fundamentalism in America and illustrates the many ways in which The Family’s perversion of Christianity as a doctrine of power has transformed modern political life in America. The ultimate testament to the work of The Family is fully on display in the platforms of candidates such as Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum—not to mention the political juggernaut waiting in the wings that is Sarah Palin. But before Bachmann there was Frank Buchman, founder of “Moral Re-Armament,” whose closeted reputation was more Marcus Bachmann than Michele, if you catch my drift. Before Palin there was Arthur Langlie, figurehead of the New Order of Cincinnatus, and before Perry there was Bruce Barton.

When placed in historical context, the great revelation of the Tea Party is that there’s nothing particularly innovative about it. As young as our nation is, we’re now old enough that everything old is new again. In Vereide’s time Vladimir Lenin was the Osama bin Laden of the day and Communism was today’s Islam. The rise of the German economy and the grand display of Nazism in the 1936 Olympics openly mocked America’s failing economy in the midst of the Depression just as China’s present-day ascension and the grand pageantry of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing taunted Americans during the Great Recession. And just as FDR became the bête noire of the New Order of Cincinnatus, so too is Barack Obama to the conservative, evangelical wing of the Tea Party.

What I find interesting about the parallels between our past and present circumstances is that there is room for both sides of the debate to find comfort. Christian fundamentalists can take heart in the notion that their wing of the Tea Party is an idea whose time has finally come while opponents of radical evangelicals may take solace in the fact that fundamentalism ebbs and flows with the vagaries of the economy. It’s simply a matter of perspective, or perhaps it’s a lack thereof.