Not every liberal is eager to mingle with the angry populists who are the face of the anti-Obama backlash that has taken over the airwaves, the Internet, and the nation as a whole since the 2008 election. But Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Will Bunch isn’t any liberal. Bunch decided he had to know what was driving the crowds of Tea Partiers, Oath Keepers, birthers, gun lovers, and Glenn Beck fans to take up their cause with a grassroots fervor that the US hasn’t seen in years. So he went behind the scenes — to a marathon shootout in Kentucky; to an exurban home where two anxious retirees stoke their unease with their nightly Fox ritual; to a big-box bookstore signing where a line of Beck fans reaches longer than the queue at an unemployment office. Why? As he says in his book trailer, “All so that you didn’t have to.” But in some respects, Bunch takes all of us along . . .
Why did you decide to write Backlash in the second person?
I didn’t start that way actually. The first couple of chapters I worked on, I started writing in the more traditional first person. In order to report this book, I had to make a lot of choices and do a lot of traveling to find people. And you know, the logical thing is to write that, “I went here, I met this guy.” But I didn’t want this to be a book about this one guy Will Bunch discovering the Tea Party. I wanted to be more of a representative of a lot of people who have questions about the Tea Party movement, or these right-wing movements.
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I think all of us who are progressives and a lot of people who are moderates and middle of the road are as curious and perhaps in some cases troubled by this phenomenon as I was. And I thought by using the second person I was kind of more a representative, like we’re all on this quest to find out what’s motivating this backlash against Obama.
To research the book, you spent a lot of time with people whose versions of reality were often not only untrue but the exact opposite of the truth. Did you ever feel like you were losing your own sense of reality when you were immersed in their worlds?
I never lost my own sense of reality, but I guess there were moments when I became accustomed to being in that reality. I guess it’s more a case of acceptance, rather than buying into it. To me, the ultimate example was spending two whole days at the Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot outside of Louisville, Kentucky, where the default point of view of just about every single person in attendance was not only extreme anti-Obama-ism, if that’s a word. In reporting the issue that I was really there to get at, which was the gun issue and the Second Amendment, these widespread beliefs — that the Obama administration has this plan to somehow either confiscate guns from Americans or confiscate ammunition, or tax ammunition so that it’s unavailable — these are just the default views of everybody, and so you get to the point where it’s not like you’re going to ask every new person, “Really, you think Obama’s going to confiscate guns? Because he’s not doing that,” because that wasn’t my job as a journalist. To me it wasn’t about confrontation. I was trying to get as full a picture as I could about what these people believed and where those ideas were coming from. There certainly were times when people said things that were extremely unfactual, and I would try to ask them in such a way about it, like “Really, because I heard that . . .” and I’d tell them what the facts are, but I would never contradict people because they wouldn’t want to talk to me after that.
You document how social networking and the Internet are helping to spread paranoia and misinformation in a way that wasn’t possible before the online era. Why do you think there hasn’t been a parallel, “viral” response against the right-wing populist movement? Are the Tea Partiers and their cohorts using social media in ways that progressives are not?
I don’t think it really relates to the ways they use social media. I think it cuts to something deeper. I think they use social media in the same way, but I think the backlash against Obama is just such a unifying force for these people. They’re highly energized right now. The people who are most involved in the Tea Party movement are people who think that their culture is under assault by this guy who many of them think is an imposter. Many of these people are people who psychologically are vested in what Glenn Beck said, in a notorious moment, about “white culture” in America. I think a lot of people do not like the idea that studies are showing that America not only could but probably will become a majority nonwhite country by the middle of this century. Now most of these people won’t be around, but still the idea that the culture they’ve known all their lives is disappearing and may disappear altogether after they’re gone is kind of an electrifying force for a lot of people. One of the main points of my book is looking at how people like Glenn Beck or other people on Fox News, and right-wing politicians who basically act less like politicians and more like radio hosts, manipulate these emotions.
Racism appears in the book as both an undercurrent and as the main driver of the backlash. Can you talk about some of the ways the people you spoke with either acknowledged or denied racism’s role in their beliefs and in their movement?
As I point out in the book, obviously when it comes to race and racism things have changed a lot over fifty years. If it was still the sixties you might see a lot more explicit racism in the sense of perhaps people more often using racist terms to describe Obama or some of his minority supporters, or people who would flat-out say they didn’t think an African-American was qualified to be president. I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but certainly sizeable numbers of people believed that kind of thing to the point that they would tell that to a pollster in the 1960s. We’ve changed society to an extent, but also people who have beliefs about racism maybe don’t express them in the same ways.
When I was interviewing people for the book, several people told me a very similar story, which was that as they watched the 2008 campaign unfold, that they had memories of the first time they watched Obama give a speech, or realized he had a serious chance of becoming president. The phrase that came up several times was that they felt “uncomfortable” watching Obama, and they said they felt uncomfortable with some of the language he was using. The two words in particular were “change” and “transformation.” How much of this discomfort was because of race? Obviously it depends on the individual, but I think in some cases it’s not too hard to make a connection. And I think this is significant when you look at something like the birther theory because then I think what happens for a lot of people is, their emotional and visceral response to Obama is that, “I can’t see a person like this being the president of the United States of America.” Rather than deal with it on that level, I think people began looking for “facts” and “information” that they could cite to justify this emotional idea that Barack Obama wasn’t an American.
Race is a very important factor, but let’s not forget that people also resent Obama for a lot of the reason that conservatives have resented a lot of white liberals for 40 years — his education, going to Harvard law school. In his case it’s kind of a perfect storm, because a lot of the people involved in the Obama backlash see him as an African-American or dark-skinned man who benefited from affirmative action and who went to these elite universities where professors taught him these allegedly socialist ideas. He just kind of ties together a lot of resentments among middle class Americans that have been out there being stirred up by politicians and the media for the last 40 years.
What about the role of consumerism? There are points in the book where it seems almost as if that is the force in this movement, even though, as you also document, it also owes some of its success to high unemployment levels, which is kind of ironic.
Certainly it’s a broad enough movement that you see people who are active in the movement who are either unemployed or underemployed. Many of the people I profiled are people in their fifties who lost a job, sometimes directly because of outsourcing to China, but they’re not necessarily unemployed. One guy I met at the Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot, who goes around to gun shows and other events, sells conspiracy videos and other knick knacks. I mean, that’s a job, but he used to be working in a factory making plastic moldings, and his job was shipped out to China.
These are people who because of their unemployment have more time on their hands to live in this right-wing media bubble and be exposed to right-wing media messages. But on the other hand, there is a large, more traditional retiree component in the Tea Party movement. And some of these people are affluent or are doing well enough that they have disposable income, and one of the things I chronicle in the book is the way that people like Glenn Beck use fear to build their own popularity and build their ratings, and they wrap this political message of fear around the selling of products. A lot of times Beck is fleecing the people he claims to be fighting for.
I’ll give you a couple of examples. Glenn Beck is involved with this company called Goldline International, which is a seller of gold coins. They charge a lot more than their competitors, so they’re totally taking advantage of people that way. They’re also under investigation right now by the district attorney’s office in Los Angeles for high-pressure sales tactics, where people who hear these ads on Glenn Beck call in, and they’re told these are the same coins that Glenn Beck buys, and they get a very high-pressure pitch to buy them right away. Gold coins are not a good way to invest in gold. The price of gold would have to rise astronomically for people to make their money back. Beck has also talked a lot about food storage, this kind of survivalist notion that we need to stock up on food. The reason Beck does that is because he is an endorser of a company called Food Insurance, which sells freeze-dried food for that purpose.
Another case I chronicle in the book is Bill Heid, one of the primary sponsors on Beck’s web site. His company, Solutions from Science, has evolved into something that basically sells products to people who listen to Glenn Beck or who read web sites like WorldNet Daily, and who think that society is on the verge of some kind of collapse. So the main products he sells are these seeds that come in indestructible canisters that you can bury in your backyard, so that when society collapses you can grow a crisis garden to feed yourself while everyone else is running around like Mad Max scrounging for food. He also sells solar generators which he claims can power your whole house when society breaks down, when in fact they could maybe power one of your appliances for a couple of hours. Even if you’re somebody who’s highly not supportive of the Tea Party movement and is angry about what they’re doing, you still have to look at these people and say they’re being fleeced by their own leaders.
Two of the major backlash contingencies you follow are gun enthusiasts and the Oath Keepers, who are largely ex-police and ex-military. We’ve already seen several somewhat separate violent incidents that have in certain ways been linked to Glenn Beck’s commentary. Do you have a sense of whether there is something we can thank for so far keeping more widespread violence at bay, when a lot of these people are armed and seem to be ready for some kind of fight?
One good thing, as I write in the book, is that the majority of these angry people who are Tea Party supporters, they are angry, but also a lot of them are older. And anybody who studies violence, obviously there tends to be correlations between age and violence. Thankfully the vast majority of us become less prone to violence as we age, for whatever reason. So perhaps you could make the case that the older demographic of the Tea Party movement is something that holds violence in check. The most notorious cases of people who have been inspired by right-wing messages to commit violent acts tend to be the younger people.
In the book I profile the case of a guy in Pittsburgh who killed three police offers in April 2009. He was only 22 years old and he went through a series of failures, including a long stretch of unemployment, during which he started to listen to a lot of political talk radio and bought into a lot of paranoid theories by Glenn Beck and others, most significantly that the Obama administration wanted to take people’s guns away. He saw police as potentially the ones who would confiscate guns and became very distrustful of them. So, when there was a domestic dispute and the police came to his house, he put on his bulletproof vest and killed them as soon as they walked in the door.
I think the concern is that if unemployment continues to stay at these levels, which some experts are predicting, and things become more dire for a larger segment of society and you have more people who are young and perhaps more prone to these types of acts. Could it coalesce into an organized movement of violence? I still think some things would have to happen before things would get to that point, but just the danger of another Oklahoma City, for example, or that type of act, I think that’s enough to be very concerned about, the relationship between these paranoid messages and the possibility of violence.
You discuss the impact that the movement’s ideologies are starting to have on actual policy, specifically in Arizona. Are there other states where we might expect to see new policies reflecting the backlash’s thought doctrine?
I think there’s a number of red states where there’s a lot of interest in this principle of nullification, or the idea that states have the power to nullify or block federal laws that they think are unconstitutional. We’re absolutely seeing movement in this direction, for example with the health care plan signed by President Obama, where states are suing to try and prevent this from happening. Or in Texas, where you have a very conservative governor who’s running for re-election. He has a plan in the works to try and block anything having to do with global warming from taking effect. He wants to go to court to stop the EPA, for example, from taking steps that might be related to alleviating global warming.
It’s all rooted in their belief that that Tenth Amendment of the Constitution gives states this power, even though federal courts tend to say that’s not the case. I actually spent an entire day in Atlanta at something called the Tenth Amendment Summit, where leaders of right-wing groups were working actually with a few people on the left, such as people who support marijuana legalization. So it’s not all right-wingers, but when it comes to things like civil rights, for example, I think we should be very concerned about that.
To me, I think one of the more pernicious effects of the Tea Party movement is the way it very quickly altered the mindset of the Republican Party in Washington. I think John McCain is kind of exhibit A, because John McCain, on some issues, at least two years ago, he had the potential to be somebody who could cross the lines on a couple of things and make some things happen. Again, the most notable example was global warming. He ran for president on the platform that global warming exists and if I become president I’m going to do something about it. Then he lost the presidential election and realized that he had a real risk of being ousted by the Tea Party and their favorite candidate in Arizona, and he ran way from global warming as fast as he could. And his friend and ally, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina who was going to stand with him on global warming, basically did the same thing and for some of the same reasons.
This isn’t even the Tea Party electing people. This is just them threatening people in the primaries and getting them to move to the right. The Tea Party now has enough power to influence and arguably terrorize the Republican Party and has managed to, on some of these issues like global warming and immigration reform, become the tail that’s wagging the whole dog of the country. Nothing’s happening on these issues and it’s because the Tea Party was able to get unity from these 41 senators to walk in lockstep with talk-radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, and the majority is suffering.
It’s been said that Republicans are shooting themselves in the foot by running Tea Party candidates in the mid-term elections. Do you agree?
I think there are a couple of cases. So much can happen in eight weeks and it’s hard to predict what’s really going to happen, but it does seem like you can name three or four states where the Tea party has been successful in nominating people that are so extreme that in a few of these cases the Democrats have a chance of beating them when they didn’t have a chance of beating the establishment candidate. Alaska is one of these states where, while the Democrat is not very well known, a lot of people feel that the Tea Party nominee is so extreme that he may have problems. I think the Democrats have a competitive chance in Kentucky that they wouldn’t have had before. So I think the success of the Tea Party insurgency in nominating these four or five senate candidates could be the difference between the Republicans taking control of the senate and not.