“The Backlash”: eye-opening field trip to the far right

Book Review

“The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters, and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama”
by Will Bunch
2010, Harper, hardcover, 368 pages, $25.99

The Obama administration plans to confiscate all firearms and gold bullion, and herd us into FEMA-run concentration camps! Obama is secretly a communist and his health-care reform package is the first step in a plot to euthanize the elderly!  Foreign troops with black UN helicopters are already occupying parts of the country!

Just when you thought you had heard the silliest paranoid urban myth circulating on the Internet, there comes along a book giving you a snapshot of those for whom such rants are the gospel truth. Philadelphia Daily News reporter Will Bunch, in “The Backlash,” takes the reader on an eye-opening field trip to the strip-malls, mountain hollows and exurban living rooms where these legends take root and grow.

Written with the vivid sociological detail that helped him win a Pulitzer Prize, this chronicle lays bare a resurgent reactionary populism which has, since Obama’s election in 2008, reared itself into the mainstream media.  Borne aloft by late night hate radio and given credence by that right-wing infomercial, Fox News Channel, this apocalyptic vision has galvanized an increasingly vocal brand of paranoia.

There has always been a right-wing fringe. The content of their fears is little changed since the days of the Know-Nothing party of the 1840s and ’50s or the Palmer raids of 1919-20.

Hostility toward the latest wave of immigrants to land stateside has blighted every generation that bought into the myth of class mobility only to have their dreams shattered by the endemic, cyclic paroxysms of capitalism.

The frustrated attempt by the petty bourgeoisie (not the obfuscated term “middle class” which tries to lump working class wage earners with landlords, middle managers and small capitalist entrepreneurs) to ape the airs of the social class to which they aspire, and the vehemence with which they castigate the working class and the poor, becomes incandescent when a pink slip arrives on the heels of a foreclosure notice. The classic capitalist myth suddenly evaporates in the face of the fact that that the banks have always owned most housing and that a mortgage is little more than rent in perpetuity: the illusion of ownership – the American Dream on layaway.

This uncertainty about the future has generated a bull market for loneliness and fear – and it is this fear, manipulated as a saleable commodity, that draws Bunch’s irate analysis. He cites the academic work of Richard Hofstadter (a onetime communist who later went to seed as a neo-con) on why the fear of financial and social failure (falling into the “under classes”) provides the animus for the paranoid style in American history. This is called in academic circles “theories of status deprivation.”

Hofstadter cataloged earlier epidemics of rampant fear in American history. The major difference, according to Bunch, is that, this time, the Internet and elements of the 24-hour news cycle have made fear-mongering a lucrative enterprise for the unscrupulous: case in point, the phenomenon of Glenn Beck.

Bunch covers Beck the same way he covers the 9/12’ers, the Oath Keepers, the John Birch Society, the Tea Party Express and the Obama “birthers.” Like the best of true investigative journalists, Bunch examines the social context and history and the economic tie-ins of those who give credence and voice to these viewpoints. Sometimes he questions them face-to-face, trying to tease out a logic to their often preposterous conclusions. Most of all he just listens and asks them about themselves.

And he watches them as they find others like themselves on the Internet or at machine-gun shootouts, gun shows, book signings and grassroots meetings. Besides fear, their major common characteristic is their loneliness. Heaven help them, but the closest thing they have to a friend is a talk-show host given to crying on mike, dubious history lessons, commissions on gold sales and the ridiculous pronouncements of a former radio “shock jock” who knows his ratings depend on titillating his audience.

Also in keeping with the best traditions of investigative reporting is Bunch’s refusal to spin the present movement in terms of a conspiracy like those so dear to the hearts of his subjects.

Anyone seeking a preview to “The Backlash” can check out his very popular Philadelphia Daily News blog on the net, Attytood.

For those on the right who would like to characterize themselves as lead actors in a reality re-run of the soupy 1940s film, “Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington,” let me suggest that they are much more likely crowd-scene extras in a work like “Citizen Kane” with Rupert Murdoch’s name on the marquee. Or maybe “The Great Gatsby” featuring Bernie Madoff.

Image: HarperCollinscatalogs.com



LaBarre Blackman
LaBarre Blackman

In the struggle since the '60s civil rights movement, Bar presently lives in Macon, Ga., with his wife and seven cats.