American Taliban

Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party by Max Blumenthal, Nation Books, $25.00, 394 pages

Anyone who has followed Max Blumenthal's investigative writings on the far right's takeover of the Republican Party should not have been surprised when John McCain added Sarah Palin to the 2008 ticket. His running mate had to appeal to the Republican base, and the Grand Old Party has now become entirely captive to its fundamentalist wing. Next time, it is inconceivable that a figure even as moderate as John McCain will get the Republican nomination.

It is Blumenthal's great achievement to connect the dots between the truly scary figures of the lunatic fringe and today's mainstream Republican Party leadership. Along the way, he catalogs the ripe episodes of hypocrisy in which the party of Christian family values manages to forgive sinners for the most appalling of moral lapses as long as they do not involve lapses into liberalism. He also dispels comforting myths about the supposed ecumenism and moderation of figures such as Rick Warren and reveals truly frightening aspects of the teachings of James Dobson, a kingmaker who managed to mobilize the grass roots to destroy political moderates in the party and lead crude figures such as Tom DeLay to redemption.

Unlike most of the movement's leaders, Dobson is not a preacher but, of all things, a child psychologist, with "a best-selling book that urged beating children into submission." But, as Blumenthal traces, Dobson's Family Research Council has become the epicenter of the far right's machine-like ability to veto any form of Republican moderation.

You may not have heard of R.J. Rushdoony. He is a kind of American Talib, whose 1973 magnum opus, the 890-page The Institutes of Biblical Law called for literal application of all 613 laws described in the book of Leviticus, including as punishments flogging, slavery, sale into indentured servitude, and death by burning at the stake. Rushdoony also called for a Christian theocracy to replace American democracy. One of Rushdoony's acolytes was Jerry Falwell.

Howard F. Ahmanson Jr., another protégé of Rushdoony, organized other wealthy individuals to finance stealth campaigns by anti-gay, anti-abortion, and pro-business far-right political candidates in Republican primaries and thus facilitate the fundamentalist takeover of the GOP. Ahmanson also underwrote the improbable career of Marvin Olasky, whose 1992 volume, The Tragedy of American Compassion, became part of the playbook of Karl Rove and George W. Bush.

Blumenthal is superb at tracing and narrating how the various strands of the theocratic far right came together into a movement that was anti-abortion, anti-gay, often anti-school integration, pro-"traditional values," and, improbably enough, friendly to big business. This capture is now so complete that today's Republican Party would rather give up a safe seat, as it did recently in upstate New York when the congressional leadership drove out a sure winner in favor of a carpetbagger fundamentalist, than allow a moderate to assume office.

My one qualm about this indispensable book is that, right from the subtitle, Blumenthal is too optimistic. Notwithstanding the takeover by the radical right, the Republican Party is not in fact "shattered." It is alarmingly unified.

We at the Prospect have been publishing articles with titles like "The Coming Republican Crack-Up" almost since our first issue 20 years ago. Seemingly, the socially moderate Wall Street cosmopolitans, with their worship of mammon, have less and less in common with the Main Street fundamentalists -- who are now suffering the brunt of the economic catastrophe wrought by deregulated high finance. George W. Bush's defeat, logically, should have been the last embrace of the odd marriage of plutocrats and theocrats. With the complete takeover of the GOP by an American Taliban, the party should be doomed to minority status.

But think again. Despite the occasional principled libertarian such as Ron Paul, a Christian who equates the Federal Reserve with Satan, the marriage of religious fundamentalists and market fundamentalists is holding. Why? Because, in the favorite word of Church Lady, it is so convenient. The Christian far right hates big government, and so does the commercial right. It may be annoying to socially moderate financial elites that the religious right is so crazed on the subject of gays, guns, and God, but these views do not affect the business elite where it lives.

Also, the candidates backed by the religious right have gotten better and better at camouflaging their fundamentalist zealotry. Mainstream Democrats, alarmed at the declining popular support for Barack Obama, comfort themselves with the thought that however badly the Democrats are doing, Republicans are doing worse. Presumably, a Republican Party defined by Dobson and Pat Robertson, Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh, just can't win in most of the country. Well, take a closer look at election night 2009 in Virginia.

The winning candidate, Bob McDonnell, won the race against Democrat Creigh Deeds by 17 points. McDonnell is a far-right religious zealot, whose wacky 93-page master's thesis at Regent University, Robertson's school, contended that working women destroyed families; he even opposed a Supreme Court decision legalizing birth control for married couples. At the time The Washington Post surfaced the thesis last August, McDonnell's early lead had dwindled to a near tie. But McDonnell recovered by emphasizing pocketbook issues, sounding almost like a Democrat. In this supposedly blue-trending state, he carried young voters by a margin of 54 to 44. Watch for this man on the Republican national ticket.

Like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, far-right politicians have gotten ever shrewder at the art of speaking to the base in a dog-whistle language that goes over the heads of moderate voters but that signals coded allegiance with the far-right family. Except that since the era of Reagan, the far right has become even crazier.

In 1986, a young journalist also named Blumenthal published a prescient book titled The Rise of the Counter--Establishment. In that book, Sidney Blumenthal, Max's old man, wrote about the links that went from Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley's National Review to the neoconservatives who gave the intellectual weight to Reaganism and the modern conservative movement. That book was mainly about people like Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Nathan Glazer, George Gilder, David Stockman, and Jack Kemp. The volume, appropriately for the time, included just three pages on the religious right. The conservative cast of characters a generation ago was an intellectually serious and largely secular lot. At worst, they wanted to destroy the New Deal and the Great Society, not impose theocracy. Those were the days.

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