Matt Taibbi is a Hunter Thompson-type outrageous and thought-provoking reporter and commentator. The Great Derangement, from 2008, presents his theory of what ails the American polity.
Americans, he contends, are rightly furious at their government. But their beliefs about why it is bad and what to do about it are completely insane.
First, the problem:
After spending a great deal of time on the Hill, I began to develop a theory about American politics as a kind of closed loop of inside players, an oligarchy of commercial interests who ran Washington in conjunction with their hired hands in Congress as a closed shop….A key point I took home from my examination of Congress was that both parties, Democratic and Republican, were equally guilty in what really was a conspiracy to run the government without outside interference….Excepting a few rogue, quixotic members who eschewed the usual campaign donors, Congress was mostly a highly advanced, finely tuned mechanism for turning favors into campaign donations and vice versa.
He says plenty to back up this characterization, providing an excellent summary of how horribly corrupt Congress is, and how its primary function has become to do the bidding of its corporate bribers in secret.
It’s not unlike the account provided by Aaron Swartz in one of the essays collected in The Boy Who Could Change the World that I read recently, which I was also highly impressed by.
People are at least somewhat aware the system is rigged like this, he says. They experience the world as increasingly dangerous and chaotic, with the threat of terrorism seemingly always increasing, and yet they perceive the institutions that should be on their side and responding appropriately to the situation—e.g., the government, the mainstream media—instead as incompetent, or really more evil and corrupt than incompetent.
Huge numbers of Americans make sense of this in disturbingly far-fetched, non-evidence-based, fanciful ways. On the right, they turn to Christian fundamentalism, seeing it all in supernatural terms, where those they disagree with are in league with Satan. On the left, they embrace 9/11 conspiracy theories, insisting that the Bush Administration and the Establishment in general got away with illegitimately increasing governmental power and diminishing liberty by murdering thousands of Americans in an extraordinarily clever, complex, barbaric crime.
The Derangement that I describe in this book kicked off when Americans finally figured out that they’d been betrayed by their mainstream political system, but still failed to abandon that old paradigm completely. The 9/11 “Truth” and Christian End Timer phenomena are both basically crude parodies of the same old left/right canned media Holy War. Adherents abandoned their former champions in the Republican and Democratic parties not because they realized they’d been conned into hating each other, but because they felt those champions of theirs had failed to act on that hate aggressively enough. So instead of having a political awakening, they just went further down the rabbit hole of geeked-up patriotic paranoia, into a place where the other side isn’t merely wrong, but made up actually of conspirator-killers or terrorists or agents of Satan, not even really human beings.
He then spends the bulk of the book studying these phenomena of Christian fundamentalism and 9/11 Truthism. He goes undercover for an extended period at John Hagee’s Texas fundamentalist church, not just attending regular church services, but participating in various related activities, socializing with some of the parishioners, etc.
He does a little bit of undercover stuff like that with a 9/11 Truth group, but mostly he studies those folks by talking and corresponding with them without concealing his identity, and by doing a massive amount of online research.
He finds that both groups are as goofy and sad as expected, probably more so. Let’s start with the fundamentalists.
One of his first experiences with them is a long weekend retreat, which turns out to be kind of a combination of a New Age or pop therapy type thing (he notes that well past the halfway point of the weekend just about all of it had been indistinguishable from the kind of seminar that might be run by Deepak Chopra or Tony Robbins), and a cult recruitment scam (people are gradually broken down by the long, exhausting hours of doing everything in unison as a group). Toward the end, when people are prone to go along with anything, they bring out all the more explicitly Christian stuff, like the speaking in tongues.
By the way, if nothing else Taibbi is an entertaining writer. As an example, here’s his description of “Dennis,” one of the other attendees of the weekend retreat:
[Dennis was] a somewhat vacant and medicated-looking man pushing forty with a bald head and stubbly beard. Dennis looked like a distantly menacing version of Homer Simpson after electroshock therapy. Seated just a few feet away from us in our tight circle, he gazed out at us like he could barely make out our faces. I was worried about him from the start.
In his time with the fundamentalists, he’s struck by how enthusiastically they embrace anything in the Bible and their religious leaders’ teachings that can be interpreted as an endorsement of hate and violence. Even when they acknowledge that technically they aren’t supposed to violently attack liberals and other evil people (not because violence toward them would be wrong, but because God is going to take more extreme vengeance on such folks than Christians are capable of and so the violence is best left to Him), it’s like they’re trying to top each other in boasting about just how difficult it is to resist that temptation, just how eager they are to make their enemies suffer as much as possible.
It’s interesting that the alliance between the fundamentalists and the political right wing is at times a crassly financial one. For example, Hagee has evidently been paid quite a lot of money over the years by AIPAC—the American lobbying arm of the Israeli right—to incorporate their political preferences into his preaching, and I’m sure he’s not the only one that organization has bought.
It’s hardly a natural alliance—fundamentalist Christians whose traditional biases include a heavy dose of anti-Semitism, and the most militarily aggressive and most religiously intolerant Orthodox segment of the Jewish state of Israel—but I guess money has a way of smoothing over what would otherwise be irreconcilable differences.
Taibbi notes while the rank-and-file fundamentalists never seem to question the mixture of right wing politics with their religion, or the mixture of support of the Israeli right with their religion (since it all comes from their pastor, who gets it from the Bible or directly from God, so it must be true), it doesn’t seem to be nearly as much of interest to them as the religious implications of the more mundane things from their lives and the lives of people like them.
So, yes, if asked they’ll unhesitatingly offer their support for Israel, detestation of liberals, etc. (At one point Taibbi mentions to one of the women of the church whom he had befriended that he had had a roommate in college who was involved with Greenpeace. She asks him what that is, and he tells her “An environmentalist group.” “Ewww!” she responds instinctively.) But he notices that in, say, their church-related group meetings in people’s homes, while they’ll listen politely to the preacher or his designate’s harangue about Israel or how Ahmadinejad is the Antichrist or whatever, they’ll then talk almost exclusively about the better jobs and cars and such that they’re praying for, and about their various personal battles with demons.
He figures out quickly how fundamentally irrational the fundamentalists are:
I realized how quaint was the mere suggestion that Christians of this type should learn to “be rational” or “set aside your religion” about such things as the Iraq war or other policy matters. Once you’ve made a journey like this—once you’ve gone this far—you are beyond suggestible. It’s not merely the informational indoctrination, the constant belittling of homosexuals and atheists and Muslims and pacifists, etc., that’s the issue. It’s that once you’ve gotten to this place, you’ve left behind the mental process that a person would need to form an independent opinion about such things. You make this journey precisely to experience the ecstasy of beating to the same big gristly heart with a roomful of like-minded folks. Once you reach that place with them, you’re thinking with muscles, not neurons.
I think a lot of what he finds out is epitomized by a confused guy at one of the Bible study meetings he attends. The subject of the death penalty comes up, and needless to say a hundred percent of the “Christians” are enthusiastically in favor of it. But this one guy then tries to make a point about how troubling it is that there has been DNA evidence in many cases in recent years that has reversed the convictions of people sentenced to death. What precise point he thinks he’s making isn’t clear, just that he thinks something very bad is going on, and that it’s the fault of “liberal judges.”
Taibbi talks to him one-to-one later in an effort to better understand what he had been driving at in the meeting, but it’s no clearer. Either the guy is really struggling to articulate what’s on his mind, or there is nothing coherent on his mind.
Is the suggestion that liberals are faking the DNA evidence and letting off people who are guilty? Is the suggestion that the judges in the original trials that condemned these defendants to death are liberals, and that they’re to blame for the mistakes? (Why would “liberals” overuse the death penalty, applying it to cases where it’s not appropriate, given that one of the evil things about liberals is precisely their opposition to the death penalty?) Maybe one, maybe the other, maybe both, maybe something else entirely—it’s never clear.
Really what it seems to boil down to is that this person is taking different elements of the fundamentalist dogma (that the death penalty is good, and that any unjust outcome in a court case is the fault of liberals), doesn’t know how to make them consistent with each other and with other facts, and so just reiterates them more and more insistently in the hopes that that will somehow generate coherence.
Moving on, Taibbi does a very good job demonstrating the absurdity of 9/11 Truth claims (other than perhaps the most mild versions). One of the highlights of the book is a hilarious 16 page section wherein he recreates the dialogue at a hypothetical meeting of Cheney, Wolfowitz, and various other conspirators—the kind of conversation that would have to have taken place if the 9/11 Truthers are correct—where they hatch their fiendish plot to make it look like planes fly into the World Trade Center, and then blow it up with concealed explosives instead, etc.
He doesn’t disagree with the general notion that there’s something evil about the rich and powerful, and that they’re quite ruthless in safeguarding their power and money, but he disagrees that the 9/11 conspiracy theories reflect at all how they operate:
The people who really run America don’t send the likes of George Bush and Dick Cheney to the White House to cook up boat-rocking, maniacal world-domination plans and commit massive criminal conspiracies on live national television; they send them there to repeal PUHCA and dole out funds for the F-22 and pass energy bills with $14 billion tax breaks and slash fuel-efficiency standards and do all the other shit that never makes the papers but keeps Wall Street and the country’s corporate boardrooms happy. You don’t elect politicians to commit crimes; you elect politicians to make your crimes legal. That is the whole purpose of the racket of government. Another use of it would be a terrible investment, and the financial class in this country didn’t get to where it is by betting on the ability of a president whose lips move when he reads to blow up two Manhattan skyscrapers in broad daylight without getting caught.
So massive numbers of people on the right and the left, in his view, have in effect gone insane, dogmatically insisting on the most ludicrous, implausible, magical explanations for the rot they sense in their society, especially at the top. Nothing makes sense anymore, it’s too hard to figure out something plausible to believe, beyond that everyone’s lying, so you may as well believe something completely ridiculous that at least fulfills some emotional need of yours. “Mainstream American society has never been designed to confront difficult or dangerous truths. In fact, our mass media has corrupted the idea of objective truth so badly in the past five or six decades that it is now hard to tell when anyone is being serious about anything—the news, the movies, commercials, anything.”
Certainly I agree with more that Taibbi has to say than I disagree with, but let me note some of the places where I either disagree or would not go as far as him.
At times I think he’s guilty of a false equivalence in condemning Republicans and Democrats equally for the outrageous corruption in the system.
Yes, both parties are guilty to a degree, but not to the same degree. Nearly all Republicans are bought and paid for by those who benefit from right wing policies. They’re really just shills for their paymasters.
Democrats vary a great deal. At the extreme, there are some who are indistinguishable from Republicans as far as doing the bidding of the corporations who wield the most power in contemporary America. But there are also a few Wellstone-types who consistently fight against such entities, and a far greater number in the middle who compromise between Republican-level corruption and mavericky stands on principle.
Take Bernie Sanders, for instance. Taibbi paints him as a disappointment because he won’t take a stand on insisting on a hard deadline for the removal of troops from Iraq, even though there aren’t the votes in Congress to make that happen. In that case, he says, you still go down fighting. There are many Republicans willing and eager to take such as stand on their issues, trusting that even if they don’t win in the short term (and by being obstinate they often do), they’ll at least shift the dialogue, shift the political center, rightward.
I don’t know that this is fair, though. Sanders is picking his battles, not going all in on everything he believes in every time. And he’s clearly, as Taibbi depicts, highly troubled by not seeing a realistic way to fight on every issue regardless of circumstances. He wants to stand on principle all the time, including on this particular Iraq War vote, but believes there’s no way to do that effectively.
Maybe Sanders is wrong about a specific case, and certainly I’m enough of a moral purist that I too wish he and people like him would come down more consistently on the side of principle regardless of the practicality, but he certainly doesn’t come across to me as a sellout rationalizing selling out, as someone wanting to keep the campaign contribution gravy train running because he loves holding office and doesn’t want to give it up. However imperfect he is, he’s not even remotely equivalent to Republicans in terms of an “I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine” relationship with the rich.
I also have never really thought of the 9/11 Truth and other such conspiracy theory movements as being specifically a left wing phenomenon. They seem to me to cut across the ideological spectrum, or perhaps be largely independent of it.
In thinking about it, I suppose that to the extent that the political preferences of 9/11 Truthers can be confidently identified, there are indeed more people of the left than people of the right amongst them, but there are plenty of both (and, again, plenty who don’t comfortably fit anywhere on that spectrum). And even insofar as numerically the movement is disproportionately leftist, I don’t see that as an indication that there’s something inherently leftist about such conspiracy theories. Indeed, I suspect a lot of that is the accident of which party happened to occupy the White House at the time of the attack. It happened on George W. Bush’s watch, so presumably people who already strongly opposed Bush and the Republicans on ideological grounds were more willing to entertain hypotheses that required them to be monstrous criminals. But imagine the attack had occurred instead on Barack Obama’s watch. Is there any doubt that in that case the most outlandish conspiracy theories would have been embraced disproportionately by conservatives?
I think it’s another instance of false equivalence. He wanted to write about one easy-to-ridicule group on the right and one on the left, so he fudged a bit—treating, say, the 99% conservative Hagee followers and the 70% liberal 9/11 Truthers as symmetrical.
As far as his overarching theory itself, I can’t say I find it convincing, at least if it’s taken in a strong, literal, sense. I mean, I think there’s something to it, but I can’t go all the way with him.
There have always been crazies. If anything the majority of the masses have always believed whacko things, including literalist interpretations of the supernaturalism of the Bible. It’s not like it just came along in the last few years.
For that matter, politicians have always been corrupt. Certainly the precise form of it has differed from one historical period to another, as has the extent of it, but contemporary politicians didn’t invent selling out.
So, yeah, I agree that the Establishment is horribly corrupt in the way that it serves the interests of the 1% to the detriment of the 99%, and I agree that Christian fundamentalists and 9/11 Truthers are for the most part nuts, but I don’t know that there’s more than a weak causal connection between these phenomena.
Taibbi closes his otherwise highly cynical, critical book on a somewhat more hopeful note, but here again I find myself inclined to quibble with him.
In the run up to the 2008 election, in 2007 and early in 2008, he observes a number of candidates, from Ron Paul to John Edwards to Dennis Kucinich to Barack Obama, making some of the same criticisms of the system that he has. Each in their own way is running as an outsider, not just trashing those of the other party indiscriminately, but distinguishing themselves from the corrupt insiders of both parties. Might this, he hopes, herald a time when people are better able to put aside their superficial differences and unite against the common enemy—the Establishment folks who are selling out conservatives and liberals both?
Well, frankly, no. Had he written this book a couple years later he could have included accounts of movements even more strongly anti-Establishment in rhetoric—the Tea Party and Occupy—but without the slightest diminution of antagonism between left and right. There’s no joining together against the common enemy of political corruption. The Tea Party, despite its phony claims to independence, is simply a rebranding of the most virulent elements of the Republican party—the Klansmen, Ayn Randians, Koch supporters, Birthers, and all the rest. And the 2016 presidential election was as hyperpartisan as any in memory.
Even if I don’t fully agree with the argument of The Great Derangement in all its particulars, this is an entertaining, revealing, and provocative book that I recommend.