Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama

GUEST: Will Bunch
AIR DATE: 04/30/2011
VTR: 10/18/2010

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And I rather doubt that I’m all that often turned on to a program topic or guest by a book review that summons up the names of quite as many teachers/friends/former Open Mind guests as one I read recently by the New York Times brilliant critic Michiko Kakutani.

Their names: Richard Hofstadter, Neil Postman, Cass Sunstein and William F. Buckley.

The book: The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters, and Paranoid Politics In The Age of Obama.

And its author, my guest today: Will Bunch, a senior writer at the Philadelphia News who shared a Pulitzer Prize for spot news reporting when he worked at New York Newsday.

Now, Ms. Kakutani writes about my guest and about The Backlash in this way, “The progressive journalist … serves up his own anatomy of the Tea Party movement, that loose agglomeration of right-wing insurgents, libertarians, conservatives, evangelicals, survivalists, gun-rights crusaders, anti-tax protesters, deficit hawks, antigovernment zealots, militia members, Ayn Randers, Limbaugh ‘ditto heads’, Glenn Beck fanatics, birthers, Birchers, and supporters of Sarah Palin and Rand Paul.”

And, of course, recording this program in mid-October, Will Bunch and I can’t know possibly now what YOU know now about what this Holy or Unholy alliance will have brought about on Election Day, 2010.

But, whatever it is, we would be foolish indeed to assume that this Backlash will go away soon now. And I would ask my guest to make his reporter’s surely well-informed educated guess about its future impact on our lives – political and otherwise. It’s not going to go away … what impact will it have?

BUNCH: Not absolutely not, it’s not going away. And I think we’re going to see it in a couple ways. 1) Obviously, as you said, we don’t know what the results are going to be on, on November … we can’t talk now about what the results have been November 2nd, 2010.

But we know from reports that … you know, as many as 30 Tea Party linked candidates are leading their Congressional races.

We know that quite possibly we will have Senators in 2011 like Rand Paul and Sharron Angle and they’re going to be pursuing a radical agenda.

You know in the last … in, in, in the Congress that’s just concluded during Barack Obama’s first two years as President we saw the Republicans, really through the influence of the Tea Party and, and through the fear of the Tea Party, just wield dramatic influence over the 41 Senate votes that the Republicans had, that they were able to block any kind of meaningful reform legislation on issues like immigration reform, on climate change, which everybody expected was going to be tackled by this new Congress and wasn’t because people like John McCain, like Lindsey Graham were either being challenged by people on the Right from the Tea Party or, or, you know … and you know, were so filled with fear that they might lose a primary or lose their seat … you know, that we saw this gridlock that really slowed Washington down.

How that’s, how that’s going to happen with increased Republican representation in Congress, in this new Congress is going to be something to see. How President Obama is going to work, you know, with these new members of Congress, when they’ve been elected basically, you know, promising no compromise … you know … or no, you know, they’re platforms have been completely anti-Obama. And so how he’s going to work with this new, new group is, is hard to see.

The other thing that I think is significant is and what I found in my reporting for the book, The Backlash, is this whole movement really, you know, rose up in opposition to Obama, so I think between now and, and through the summer of 2012 you’re going to see an aggressive effort by the Tea Party to find somebody that they think can be their savior to get Barack Obama out of the Presidency in the 2012 election.


BUNCH: So, so to think that we’ve seen the last of the Tea Party I, I think they’re just getting rolling on some level.

HEFFNER: Any guess about who that savior will be?

BUNCH: Well, I mean, the one to watch, I think, obviously is Sarah Palin. She’s somebody who clearly animates the Tea Party, she speaks their language, she knows how to tap into their resentment of, of intellectual elites, their resentment of Hollywood, their resentment of the media and you know, and, and she’s a very devise figure even within, even within the Republican Party and even within the Tea Party some people are very animated by her. Some people are, you know, don’t think perhaps she’s up to the job of the Presidency.

I mean to me the question with Sarah Palin is … does she really want to run for President? Does she really want to give up the income. I mean one of the things I found in my book is that she found it more appealing and more lucrative to be a media personality and a spokesperson making as much as $12 million a year writing books and going on TV than she found it to, to actually make policy as Governor of Alaska. And I think the same concerns might be, might be for President.

I mean I think the Tea Party is very personality driven, I think they’re looking for an exciting personality who I think they can be … who can be the anti-Obama.

You know short of Palin, I think the people that are out there haven’t excited people yet. So, so we’ll see. It’s going to, it’s going to be a long race, but I think, you know, I think the Tea Party is going to be looking for somebody who they think, you know, can restore their movement to the White House in 2013.

HEFFNER: Well, you used the phrase anti-Obama. What are you talking about here? Does the question of race that you hint at in your book … you’re never all that specific about it.

BUNCH: Well …

HEFFNER: Do you mean to be?

BUNCH: I think we live in an interesting time where I think things have changed a lot since the 1960’s and, and since the era that, that Richard Hofstadter was initially writing about … the paranoid style in American politics.

I mean at that time you had a lot more overt racism. You have people, you know, who would tell pollsters, for example, that they didn’t think a Black man was qualified to be President of the United States.

You know today in, in … today in 2010 or 2011, you’re not going to find many people who I think will say that.

But I think, I think what I’ve noticed and what I write about a lot in the book is that people find these kind of related concerns of … somebody came up with a great term for them, they called them “para-racial” issues, because they’re issues that make people think about the race of President Obama or make you think about racial issues without being overtly racial.

And, and the two that really get the most attention are the … what people have come to call the “birther theory” which is this notion that Barack Obama was … the story of his birth isn’t, isn’t right … that he wasn’t born in Hawaii, that somehow he was born in Kenya or outside of the United States, or, or somehow there’s some circumstance related to his birth that doesn’t qualify him to be the President of the United States.

And, you know, this is a theory that has been spreading on the Internet since 2008. You had supposedly responsible media people like Lou Dobbs, who used to be on CNN and, and several hosts on the Fox News Channel who’ve voiced this, you know, in front of their millions of viewers and given it legitimacy in the eyes of some people.

Another related notion I think also came out in the 2008 campaign and, and kind of much to my surprise has only grown in, in numbers since Obama became President … is this idea that, that he’s secretly a Muslim, that he’s, that he’s not a Christian. That, you know, that all his life he’s been a follower of the Muslim faith and he’s subverted this. I think, you know, in polls have shown that large numbers of Republicans and Conservatives believe this and their numbers have grown since Obama became President.

And I, I think what it is … I think, I think a lot of it is people’s deeper psychological unease perhaps with having an African American President. And I think going back, even taking that a step back further … I think a lot of that is rooted in just kind of broader concern about cultural change in America. About, about increasing multiculturalism in America.

You know we’ve seen, we’ve seen the demographic studies … you know, it’s widely believed that by the year 2050 or somewhere around there that Whites will no longer be a majority in America.

And I think, you know, and, and we … and we see signs of this in terms of immigration which has been a subject of anxiety on the Right for ten years or more, particularly in the talk radio environment.

And, and I think … I think with the arrival of Obama and his campaign in 2008 and then with this election, I think that was kind of a jolt to a lot of these people who had these concerns … that they, that their vision of America was a vision of America that was predominantly White, that would be predominantly Christian.

I think there were other aspects of social change, like, for example, groiwng approval of gay marriage would be one I would mention that I think caused a lot of anxiety and unease among people probably over the age … you know, particularly people over the age of 50; particularly people who are in kind of middle class areas, in, in the so-called “heartland” of the country.

And I think, I think these are really the reasons why you saw the Tea Party movement rise up so quickly in 2009. I think, you know, I think Obama was kind of the personification of this other that “they” were concerned about, whether it was Mexican immigrants, you know, I think, I think the Islam-aphobia that we’ve seen in the summer of 2010 with people protesting new mosques, people protesting this mosque that, that would be near the Ground Zero site in Manhattan.

You know I, I think all of this has been fomented by a lot of the economic anxiety that we’ve had in the last couple of years. And I think … you know, I think a lot of it is focused on the White House and Obama.

HEFFNER: Well, I’m so fascinated by the … by what you write about our friend Richard Hofstadter …


HEFFNER: First place you say that these people want their country back.

BUNCH: Right.

HEFFNER: And that’s what you’ve been saying here. You say, the thing people forget is that Hoafstadter’s words were supposed to be oddly reassuring, while some Americans were alarmed at the arrival of the John Birch Society, the gist of Hofstadter’s message in the 1960’s, the anti-intellectualism in American life, the paranoid style in American politics … those phrases that he used … the gist of Hofstadter’s message in the 1960’s was that these people have always been here and while the paranoid style is a fascinating historical case study, the Republic has never truly been threatened by these fringe groups. You seem to think now that we are threatened by these groups.

BUNCH: I do. I think things have changed. And what’s changed in, in the 50 years since Hofstadter wrote that, that … or 45 years … has been the media environment, frankly.

HEFFNER: The media environment?

BUNCH: Yeah, and I, I see that in two ways. I, I mean the Internet obviously has been revolutionary, you know, particularly in the last few years with, with social networking and Facebook and Twitter and the various ways that people can just interact so quickly from peer to peer. And what we’ve seen politically is that, you know political information, you know, that, that used to take days to get out there can now spread in a matter of minutes. And …

HEFFNER: You mean agitation as well as information.

BUNCH: Right. Exactly. I mean it can be good information or it can be bad information. You know this “birther” theory we can talk about. You know, originally went out through email blasts and people claiming to have information that Obama was not a citizen and these emails are forwarded and people are posting them on their Facebook sites.

And they spread rapidly. But, uhmm, the one thing that really concerns me even more though and I focus on a lot in the book … and, it’s part of the title of the book, this notion of the “hi-def huckster”, which is that, you know, it, it’s … it’s not just citizens using the Internet to spread bad information … although there is that.

But the other part of it is, is again people who work for large medias, like the Fox News Channel for example, which is owned by News Corporation … who are getting big salaries and are well educated and, you know, should know better to be responsible, but find, find that engaging in some of these, these conspiracy theories and, and some of this fear mongering … you know, make no … make no mistake, I mean fear is a giant part of what’s going on.

You have a public that’s very afraid and you have people who are, you know, entertainers, manipulators of public opinion, who I think know how to use fear to, to get ratings, to get profit, to get money, you know.

Glenn Beck is a, a big focus in my book. He’s somebody who, you know, used politics to re-invent himself from being a failed disk jockey ten years ago.

And, you know, in kind of the perfect storm, he moved over to the Fox News Channel the same week that Obama became President and the same week that the stock market had plunged down to, I think, about 6,600 … when people were really at their most afraid. And, you know, he’s a very skilled entertainer who can really emotionally connect with his audience and he emotionally connected, I think, with their fear at that time.

And, you know, used that, used that to work up excitement … it’s been an extremely profitable venture for him. He reportedly made $32 million dollars last year between his various books, insider packages, speeches, everything he sells based on his persona and his ability to connect with his audience. His message is very muddled and at times it can be very dangerous.

HEFFNER: Well, you certainly don’t express any good feelings about Beck and many of the others you include in the “hi-def” …

BUNCH: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … category, but it’s interesting to me that you, as you report the travels you’ve taken, the, the investigative reporting that you’ve done …

BUNCH: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … the visiting these different groups … you talk about respect … you talk about, particularly at the end of the book that what is missing here and what these people who are tyrannized perhaps by the “hi-def” people who are exploited, perhaps by them.

BUNCH: Right.

HEFFNER: You’re talking about a sense of respect for them … that’s missing. And I, I wish you’d, you’d develop that. Why use the word “respect”?

BUNCH: Ahmm … why … I, I do, I do think some of these people are being taken advantage of. You know, I mean the middle class in this country has been crushed over the last 30 years by, by jobs going overseas, by I think, you know, bad policies that have been in favor of the rich, you know, and by economics.

I, I … I think it’s … I think it’s an unfortunate quality of human nature that, that we’ve seen in this country, time and time again that, that a lot of these fears and anxieties that, that … of economics … seem to be directed towards people below, below them on the economic scale. Like we talked about whether it’s immigrants or, or whether it’s people who are on welfare or receiving food stamps.

You know, you know we, we see this resentment. And you know I, I, I think when you talk about respect and I think the way out, out … out of the problem is to make things more productive for the middle class again.

I mean, you know, if, if unemployment continues to hover at 9% or 10% we’re going to continue to have, you know, social, social unrest and unease.

I, I found in doing my reporting that so many of the people interviewed were … had a lot of time, either because their jobs had been taken away from them in their, in their late forties or their fifties and they, they retired when they weren’t ready to retire.

Some of them were older and some of them retirees. But I think, uhmm … what I found is I found a lot of people, you know, who perhaps weren’t able to contribute to a productive economy or society the way, the way they once would have been and in the meantime they find themselves in, in this media bubble that I write about, where they’re all listening to the same messages that are being conveyed over Fox News.

They’re all listening to the same radio shows like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. It gives them a form of solidarity and, and I think, I think that maybe is a substitute for respect, but I, I …

HEFFNER: How much of this did you find is a function of their changed social status rather than the changed economy, rather than, rather than unemployment … the importance of customs, patterns in this country relating to the place of women, the place of young people, sexuality, etc.

BUNCH: I, I, I found a lot of it. In fact, I, I think a lot of the, lot of the ideological policy stuff about, about debt, and getting government off people’s backs kind of, kind of came secondary. That I think it was more, more of these cultural reactions came first.

Ahemm, one, one thing that I think is really powerful also is, is just resentment of elites. You know, we live in a country where, you know, increasingly to be successful you have to go to college and yet, yet we also have a system in which college is not affordable or available to everybody in … you know I’ve seen this whole system, you know, kind of building resentment I think, you know, over the last fifty years where I think, I think people in the middle class who’ve been hurt by these decisions that have been made in corporate boardrooms or these decisions that have been made in Congress … are very angry and resentful toward elites.

I mean one thing I found, you know, a lot of the, you know … I, I mean the backlash against Obama isn’t all because of race. Some of the backlash against Obama is because, you know, he went to Columbia and Harvard and, and, and, you know, the feeling that these eggheads think they know all the answers in Washington or on Wall Street … and, and they didn’t.

And I think, I think a lot of the anger … I think a lot of the anger is because of that, as well, you know.

HEFFNER: To the degree that Hofstadter was right in saying “this has happened” before, do you find any solace in that? Knowing our history as well as you do?

BUNCH: No, because I, I think … I think … I think times have changed. You know, you know 2010 was a fascinating election year and one of the things is to see the influence that somebody like a Glenn Beck or, or, frankly in, in a different way … you know, if you look at Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, the same thing with, you know, from a different angle where they’ve been able to draw huge numbers of people to, to rally in DC.

We’ve become … we’ve become a very entertainment oriented society and, and I think the ability of entertainers and people like that to, to whip up dissent and, and, and whip up a crowd is something that didn’t exist in Hofstadter’s time, you know.

HEFFNER: So you come back to our friend Neil Postman and ….


HEFFNER: … entertaining or amusing ourselves to death.

BUNCH: Yeah, I, I can’t stress the importance … you know, Neil Postman was a, was a brilliant media professor at NYU. And, you know, basically his theory is that while many people were concerned that the biggest threat in the media would, would be censorship … kind of like a George Orwell 1984 … situation … his theory, his theory was instead that entertainment would … like you said … like the title of his famous books Amusing Ourselves to Death that we, that, that we could be led away from constructive politics and constructive solutions to our problems in society because we can be too easily distracted by mindless entertainment.

And I, I … to me that was almost the hidden story of the 2010 election. I mean the role of somebody like a Glenn Beck who … you know and, and I went to Glenn Beck’s August 2010 rally on the National Mall. You know which was two hours of, you know, kind of talk about God and getting away from politics.

And also two hours of promoting Glenn Beck and, and some of his friends, you know, that, that draw a huge crowd of over 100,000 people who are activists. You know, I mean we’ve come a long way, I think, from Martin Luther King’s 1963 march on Washington when people were talking about jobs, they were talking about social justice and, and people were actually pushing for, like, real change that would … that make people’s lives better. I, I think … I think now, you know we live in a political environment where people are very easily distracted and people are very easily looking for, for entertainment rather than solution.

I mean this is exactly what Neil Postman was writing about in the 1980’s when, when he wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death. And, and I think it’s a real threat to democracy that people, you know, can, can be, you know, are looking for laughs rather than looking for solutions, you know.

HEFFNER: But you keep coming back to the media. And you really mean the newer media, don’t you? The, the ability to communicate so rapidly. So what do we do?

BUNCH: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Silence.

BUNCH: Yeah. Well, well it’s tough. Like, like I said. I mean I think … I think … you know, I, I think we’ve gotten away … we’ve gotten away from reason in our politics and, and we’ve gotten away from solution oriented approaches. And I, I think, you know, I think the answer is, is to move forward, you know.

HEFFNER: Yes, but you, you’ve said we’ve frequently perhaps or in using Hofstadter we’ve, we’ve been there before. But what is different is that there is a little mechanism now, whether it is the computer, the cell phone, the … whatever … the new means of communications … you seem to be saying and you seem to feel that Hofstadter would have maybe noticed … that we can’t turn back now as we did turn back … I mean the Know-Nothingism of the past was handled in turn. There was a paranoid tradition, but we could move away from it at times. You seem to be saying the game is over because of these new …

BUNCH: Well …

HEFFNER: media …

BUNCH: … well, yes. But, you know, I mean there could be more leadership. You know, you mentioned, you mentioned also William F. Buckley in, in your introduction. And I think, I think there’s a very relevant example with that in that, ahemm, in the 1960’s when you saw the John Birch Society sort of rising up on the Right … which, which is really the movement that inspired Hofstadter to write about the paranoid style in American politics … the reason … I mean the reason the John Birch Society didn’t become more powerful … because the 1960’s were certainly a tumultuous time of social unrest.

But, you had, you had leaders in the Republican Party and William F. Buckley was perhaps the most prominent among them. You know, working, working with Barry Goldwater who was somebody who was popular with the John Birch Society and, and they agreed that this group was too extreme and to a threat … and, and leaders sought to marginalize this group.

You now compare that to the, to the way the leaders of the modern Republican Party have handled the Tea Party Movement which has been, you know, welcomed with open arms by the leaders of, of the Senate and the House and, and the Republican National Committee has welcomed the Tea Party and some of its most extreme candidates and some of its most extreme ideas whether it’s people like Shareon Angle in Nevada who talk about … quote “Second Amendment remedies to our problems”, or people like Rand Paul who came out and said they wouldn’t have supported parts of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. They’re, they’re not tamping these people down, they’re, they’re encouraging them.

And I, I think … I think courage is something … I mean I know that’s an abstract quality, but I think some courage by people who are in positions of authority and leadership … you know, and we just … we’re just not seeing that. We’re seeing a media environment where people like Glenn Beck are totally driven, you know, by, by the need for ratings and not to …

HEFFNER: All right. Let, let me stop you because …

BUNCH: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … we just have a minute or so …

BUNCH: … yeah, sure …

HEFFNER: … left. Now, as a reporter …

BUNCH: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … not as a person who knows what should be done …

BUNCH: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … or who believes this should happen … what as a reporter do you believe is likely to happen in terms of leadership? Do you see it anywhere?

BUNCH: I, I don’t. I don’t. I mean I, I see a system where, where people in both parties, I think, are more motivated by what they think they can best do to hold on to power. And I think that’s, I think that’s why you saw the GOP so eagerly embracing the Tea Party in the 2010 election. And, and on the Democratic side you saw, I think, a lot of fear and a lot of running away during the 2010 election where people … you know, I think, I think rather than confront the excesses of the Tea Party and the extreme rhetoric I, I think … I think there was a running away. So, you know, things may have to get worse before they get better. I mean if perhaps at some point things will get so bad that, that someone will rise up and say “Enough is enough”. But we certainly did not see that in this election cycle.

HEFFNER: Will Bunch, I think The Backlash is, as Ms. Katutani did … thought that The Backlash is a fascinating book and I wish you luck with it and thank you for coming on The Open Mind.

BUNCH: Oh, thank you so much for having me on to talk about it. It’s a pleasure.

HEFFNER: Thanks. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

And do visit the Open Mind website at

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

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