How is the Lunatic Fringe Hijacking America? John Avlon Explains in Wingnuts

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The culture wars pit the Democrats in the blue corner against the Republicans in the red corner in an epic battle featured by all major news outlets. This political pugilism is fought by hyper-partisan liberals and conservatives who claim victory by screaming louder than their opponents. In Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America,  John Avlon (a former speech writer for Rudy Giuliani) discusses how these extreme Democrats and Republicans, or Wingnuts, represent a small minority of people who care more for their political ideology than they do for their country as a whole.

Avlon documents how Wingnuts on the left and right sides of the political spectrum are actually quite similar to each other and use similar logic and tactics. This timely, engaging book is replete with interviews with liberals who attacked former President Bush as a “domestic terrorist,” a “Fascist,” and “an enemy of humanity” in the years before conservatives used similar attacks on President Obama. 

Application to Civil Politics
In the psychological research on group conflict, members of each group tend to exhibit mirror image perceptions of each other. Members of each group think that they are on the side of good defending the world from the evil perpetrated by the other side. Some of my past research argues that the most passionate defenders of belief systems are particularly likely to view themselves as righteous and all opponents as threats to the proper way of the world. Similarly, each group views themselves as arriving at their beliefs through a rational and objective evaluation of the facts. On the other hand, groups view other groups as arriving at their beliefs through an irrational or ideologically-biased evaluation of the facts.  

Detailed Chapter Summaries
Ch. 1 Introducing the Wingnuts

In the past few decades, extremists, or Wingnuts, have hijacked the political debate in the United States by screaming louder than everyone else. They divide the world into false dichotomies of “us” and “them,” “good” and “evil,” “black” and “white,” “Democrats” and “Republicans.” This tactic of division creates a sense of ingroups and outgroups which makes it easier to wish ill upon the other team, as elections are zero-sum contests where losses for one team are victories for another. This is exemplified by the change in the evolving aspirations for political opponents. Specifically, following the 1960 election of JFK, John Wayne stated, “I didn't vote for him, but he's my president, and I hope he does a good job." However, after the 2008 election of President Obama, Rush Limbaughstated “I hope he fails." Despite the decline in party membership and the fact that only 11% of Americans identify as liberal Democrats and 15% identify as conservative Republicans, these Wingnuts are increasingly commanding the political debate. In doing so, these extremes are echoing and confirming each other’s worst stereotypes of each other.

Ch. 2 Of Tea Parties and Town Halls

In this chapter, Avlon asserts that political “extremes end up resembling each other.” This point is perhaps best illustrated by the strategic playbook used by extremists across time. During the civil rights era, far-left activists adhered to the principles promoted in the classic text by Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, which suggests that on the political battlefield, the ends justify any means. In the summer of 2009 as elected officials headed home to their districts to discuss healthcare reform in town hall meetings, far-right activists had adopted Alinsky’s strategy. In a now-famous memo by Bob MacGuffie of Right Principles, he implored conservative wingnuts to “use the Saul Alinsky playbook of which the left is so proud: freeze it, attack it, personalize it, and polarize it.” He continued on telling the protestors at these town hall meetings to “put the Representative on the defensive…You need to rock the boat early. Watch for an opportunity to yell out and challenge the Representative’s statements early. If he [the Representative] blames Bush for something or offers other excuses—call him on it, yell back, and have someone else follow up with a shout-out… Look for these opportunities even before he takes questions.” As this movement gained steam, these town hall meetings became increasingly hostile. The hostility boiled over culminating in fist fights in Florida, scuffles between senior citizens, brawls between members of the Tea Party and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) with some participants being arrested and hospitalized, and even, in one particularly gruesome case in California, one healthcare reform opponent had his finger bitten off at rally.

Chapter 3: Obama Derangement Syndrome

Avlon describes “Obama Derangement Syndrome,” which is the conservative form of Bush Derangement Syndrome (recall when liberal wingnuts would say things like “Hang Bush for War Crimes,” “Save Mother Earth, Kill Bush,” and “Bush is the Only Dope Worth Shooting). In Obama Derangement Syndrome, conservative wingnuts began espousing similar rhetoric as liberal wingnuts had just years earlier. As news spread on election night that Obama had won, one commenter on the FoxNews website stated, “Let’s have a huge parade. How about November 22… in Dallas… Barack can ride in the back of a convertible with his wife… they could drive by the school book depository.” The day following his election a school bus full of second and third graders in Madison County, Idaho reportedly was chanting “assassinate Obama.” Ministers were making similar statements from their pulpits that Sunday, too. For example, Pastor Steven Anderson of Faithful Word Baptist Church gave a sermon titled “Why I Hate Barack Obama.” In this sermon he preached, “I hate Barack Obama. You say, well, you just mean you don't like what he stands for. No, I hate the person. Oh, you mean you just don't like his policies. No, I hate him… I am not going to pray for his good. I am going to pray that he dies and goes to hell.” He continued by offering to make an imprecatory prayer condemning Obama. This prayer read: “Break his teeth, Oh God, in his mouth; as a snail which molteth, let him pass away; like an untimely birth of a woman–that he thinks–he calls it a woman's right to choose, you know, he thinks it's so wonderful, he ought to be aborted. It ought to be, "Abort Obama," that ought to be the motto."

Chapter 4: The Birth of White Minority Politics

The 2008 Presidential Election made the existing racial differences between the Democratic and Republican parties more apparent. African American voters greatly preferred Obama, even more so than they usually prefer Democratic candidates. This strong support was a big factor in Obama’s success in some places that Democrats had not won since the civil rights era like Virginia. However, white, older voters in the Deep South greatly preferred McCain. In fact, in the 49 counties in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, and Mississippi where whites comprise more than 90% of the population, Obama did far worse than previous Democratic candidates and lost every single one of those counties. Avlon suggests that Obama’s race may have implicitly served as more fuel on the fire stoking conservative’s fears that their ideal of America was under assault and that it needed to be defended.

Chapter 5: Polarizing for Profit

In a tough media market where audience members have countless choices of places to get their news from, media corporations are competing for regular and frequent viewers. This premium audience tends to be more extreme than the overall population. Michael Medved suggests that in order to get this audience’s loyalty, “you have something of a push to be outrageous, to be on the fringe.” The media used to primarily use the “split-scream” approach where a wingnut from each side of the political spectrum would scream their talking points at one another. Today, however, media is increasingly partisan with its primetime programming being more akin to an “echo-chamber,” where angry people from one party incite each other to extremes while they demonize the opposition without letting anyone defend the oppositions’ view. This echo chamber media model may intensify groupthink and polarization, making it ever more difficult to understand people who disagree with your politics.

Chapter 6: Sarah Palin and the Limbaugh Brigades

Wingnuts on the left and right tend to assume the worst about the opposition and often wish for the other side’s failure. This is exemplified in Sarah Palin’s repeated statements that President Obama “is someone who sees America as being so imperfect that he's palling around with terrorists who target their own country.” Similarly, in the lead up to President Obama’s inauguration, Rush Limbaugh was asked to write 400 words for a magazine regarding his hopes for the Obama administration. Limbaugh responded, "I don't need 400 words; I need four: I hope he fails." This type of demonization is not limited to wingnuts on the right. Consider statements by the now-former Representative Alan Grayson who called the Republicans "foot-dragging, knuckle-dragging Neanderthals who think they can dictate policy to America by being stubborn," and later called them "the enemy of America" and "certainly the enemy of peace." Avlon notes that both parties hope to unite Americans, but implores the wingnuts who are trying to do so by first dividing Americans.

Chapter 7: Hunting for Heretics
Political extremists desire ideological purity for the members of their political parties. Following the 2008 elections where many Congressional Republicans lost their seats, Republican wingnuts argued that the losses were “a cleansing for the party. We got rid of some dead weight; we got rid of some RINOs–Republicans in Name Only. There are Republicans today, like myself that are rooting against Norm Coleman, hoping Al Franken wins, just so we can at least have a real Republican next time around. I mean, for me I'm like 'Let's kick 'em all out,' you know. The ones that act like they're real conservatives that weren't, hey, go on home." Democratic wingnuts, such as those at Revolution Books, challenge Democrats in Name Only (DINOs). For example, after the election of President Barack Obama, they described him as “the same Bush program rebranded.” This bookstore also marketed bottles of “Obamalade.”

Image of Obamalade

A list of ingredients was inscribed on each of their labels and contained such items as “massacres in Gaza, Rick Warren, escalation of the Afghanistan war, Hillary Clinton, bailout of big business, Rahm Emanuel, blaming black people for problems the system inflicts on them, the ‘coming together’ with those who hate gay people, Robert Gates, whitewashing torture by the Bush regime, and the Patriot Act.” Further, a surgeon general’s warning was printed on each label: “Obamalade causes massive loss of life in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Pakistan and many other countries; continued attacks on Black people, women, immigrants, gays & lesbians; political cowardice that is dangerous to the health of humanity. If, after drinking Obamalade, you find yourself accepting the crimes of this system–you should immediately take 2 doses of reality and report to the nearest movement of resistance against these crimes." These labels contained the basic description of the liberal wingnut worldview—America is the world’s prime oppressor.

Chapter 8: The Big Lie: Birthers and Truthers

Wingnuts tend to devise many theories that they can use to feed their fears and justify their hatred for the opposition. Two of the most discussed conspiracy theories of the decade are those proposing that the terrorist attacks on 9/11 were an inside job and those proposing that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Originally, those promoting the 9/11 conspiracy (the “Truthers”) were wingnut liberals wanting to attack President Bush. Oddly, though, most Truthers today are wingnut anti-government conservatives. We see a similar reversal among those promoting the Barack Obama birth certificate conspiracy (the “Birthers”). Originally, Birthers were mostly wingnut liberals during the Democratic primary campaign who did not think that Obama was liberal enough. However, today, most Birthers tend to be wingnut conservatives. Both of these conspiracy theories have gotten a great deal of media coverage and have disseminated to much of the American public. In 2006, 38% of Americans believed that the United States federal government either played an active role in the 9/11 attacks or the government took no action to stop the attacks so that the attacks could be used as a justification for going to war. More recently and in regards to the Birther conspiracy, a poll showed that 58% of Republicans did not believe that President Obama was born in the United States.

Chapter 9: The Hatriots: Armed and Dangerous

In this time of political division and increasingly hostile debate, there is a sense that the country is on the verge of crisis and can only be saved by drastic action. Clark McCauley describes this as a “psychology of crisis” that motivates people to engage in violent, and even murderous political action including terrorism. Wingnut conservative and Arizona sheriff Richard Mack said, "The greatest threat we face today is not terrorists; it is our federal government." One man at a Tea Party rally in Washington, D. C. was found carrying automatic guns with the phrases “NoBama” and “Christian Warrior” inscribed on them. In this environment, all that may be needed to provoke action may be the slightest spark.

Chapter 10: Conclusion: How Take America Back from the Lunatic Fringe

Wingnuts may get the most attention in the media, but they are not representative of America. Rather, the non-shouting people who care more about solving problems than screaming at political opponents are the vast majority of Americans. These ordinary Americans need to declare their disapproval for these tactics and make their views heard. The growing number of political independents (that is, those changing their voter registration from Republican or Democrat to unaffiliated or independent) may be seen as evidence for this hypothesis. Avlon reminds us that George Washington was the original independent who rejected the politics of demonization endorsed by wingnuts. In Washington's farewell address, he insisted that there was no greater threat to democracy than the partisan demagogue who "agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another." Avlon implores Americans to remember Washington’s warnings and to heed his suggestions of rejecting partisan demagogues.
Matt Motyl