Last March, the week that the health care reform was signed into law, I plopped down on a sofa and watched Fox News Channel's Glenn Beck for an hour with two of his biggest fans. I was nearing the end of an unlikely, months-long odyssey -- at least for someone like me, a longtime journalist with a progressive bent -- through noisy "machine gun shoots" and boisterous Tea Party confabs, trying to understand what really animated the right-wing backlash against Barack Obama -- and why Beck was such a potent political force.
For most Americans who've watched the rise of the Tea Parties, the 9-12ers and other more extreme types like the Oath Keepers, these Beck fans -- Al and Larraine Whayland of Chester County, Pa. -- may not fit into your pre-conceived box. They are not angry people -- at least not outwardly. Indeed, they are gracious hosts, petting the two cats they adopted from a local shelter even as Larraine is explaining her ideas about how Obama is tied to Chicago corruption. And until recently, these senior citizens were not involved in conservative politics -- Larraine Whayland said he'd even worked for a local pro-environmental Democrat.
But then Al Whayland -- an Army vet from the 1950s who worked most his life in mortgage banking -- lost his job in the financial crisis of 2008, at the age of 74. He was not at all ready to retire. Now, he wakes up and checks the want ads first thing, and then he turns to conservative media to explain what the hell hit him like a ton of bricks. Had he not lost his job, Whayland never would have become a Beck fan at 5 p.m. He would have still been at his desk, working.
The ways that Al and Larraine Whayland reacted to Beck's diatribes that night were not the same -- but were equally telling. Al confessed when the show was over that he's scared about what's happening and looking for "facts" to buck him up. "There is fear out there -- in fact, I'm scared to death -- but he's [Beck] not generating it," he insisted. "He's bringing things to our attention -- things that we ought to be aware of." His wife responded to Beck -- who ranted that night that "America is angry" -- with much more raw emotion, riled up by his words. During a commercial break, she told that in a deeply despairing voice that "I just feel we are on quicksand," that America is facing "death by drowning." She repeats those phases again -- and tears began to well up, just as they do so often for her favorite TV host.
As she wiped her eye, an ad on the TV screen was informing Beck's 2-3 million nightly viewers that they can protect themselves -- by buying gold coins from one of his sponsors.
Raw fear, an embrace of crude appeals to emotion and cultural pride -- and high-def hucksters from the media, the halls of Congress and financial sharks willing and eager to make a buck off those fears in the name of a political revolution. These were the hallmarks of what I learned spending time behind the lines of he anti-Obama backlash. My journey resulted in my book -- The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters, and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama -- which is now in bookstores and available in e-book formats this week (Facebook groups here and here).
I embarked on my quest last year -- around the time that a mysterious woman in red became an Internet sensation by confronting Delaware Rep. Mike Castle at a town hall meeting over Obama's birth certificate, shouting "I don't want this flag to change -- I want my country back!" (In the book, I track down the woman, a well-known caller to local radio dubbed "Crazy Eileen.) But the real significance wasn't Eileen -- America has always had its "paranoid style," first noted by 1960s historian Richard Hofstadter -- but the fact that a room packed with several hundred people cheered her on. How could a growing political movement be built atop such bogus ideas -- that the president of the United States was not born in America and perhaps a secret Muslim, ideas that continue to rise today in our troubled body politic. And how could a movement with such a paranoid style become the tail wagging the dog of American politics in 2010, playing a vital role in scuttling Obama-promised reforms on climate change or immigration by frightening would-be Senate dealmakers like John McCain and Lindsey Graham to move to the extreme right.
The main thing that I found in backlash country was the raw, unvarnished scent of fear, but that comes from several shifting currents. A huge factor -- and this is the one that movement leaders like Beck and Sarah Palin tap into so well -- is cultural anxiety among a self-appointed "pro-America" heartland that is predominantly white and middle-class and Christian, that their vision of what the country should look and feel like is melting away. There was a layer of general anxiety over the notion that America will become a majority non-white nation by the middle of the 21st Century -- and that may explain why the arrival of a dark-skinned man in the Oval Office was (sadly) like a punch in the gut for many.
In reporting the book, the constant refrain from the right-wing radicals was that the first time they saw Obama, they felt "uncomfortable," perhaps by his manner or the use of words like "change" or "transformation." Meanwhile, Tea Party and 9-12 activists started to grasp at reports on the Web -- endorsed by alleged big-media grownups like CNN's Lou Dobbs -- that somehow Obama was factually not an American, to match their gut reaction to the new president. They feel the same way about Obama voters. In one moment I will never forget, I sat in a Dover diner at the leaders of the Delaware 9-12 Patriots tried to convince me that Obama's victory in their state wasn't legit because his majority came from "the handout people" in urban Wilmington.
But now add a layer to the fears and prejudices that are already out there -- the meltdown of the American middle-class economy. Many of the right-wing radicals I talked to were people who planned to be working now and were not -- people like Celia Hyde, an ousted Massachusetts town police chief who became a national leader of the Oath Keepers, or Joe Gayan, who became an avid peddler of Obama birther videos after his manufacturing job in Wisconsin's Paper Valley was outsourced to China when he was only 48. Time is the secret ingredient of the Tea Party. These are people who have time to listen to Rush in the afternoon and to watch Glenn -- when Obama's younger supporters are still working at 5 p.m --, and they absorb the messages they are bombarded with inside that media bubble.
The sad irony is that this is a revolution where many of the foot soldiers are getting ripped off by the generals. Beck, who earned $32 million in 2009, is the high-def huckster in chief, selling his fans grossly overpriced gold coins or freeze-fried food backpacks in the event of another-but-worse-9/11, not to mention his books and his pricey public appearances -- followed close behind by Palin, who quit making policy so she could make millions. In The Backlash, you can also meet high-def hucksters you haven't heard of like Bill Heid, nailed by the feds in a cheesy 2000s diet scam who turned around to sell survival seed banks through Beck's website, and who even has a web page where he brags about the marketing power of fear.
That's almost comical, but the anti-Obama backlash is no laughing matter. In the long run, the evidence remains strong that the coalition that elected the president in 2008 -- more multicultural, more likely to be college educated and somewhat less likely to be religious -- is still ascendant. But the right-wing rebellion is already wreaking havoc on the short run, and not just in the Washington gridlock it has inspired. The angry voices adopted by the likes of Beck and other extreme voices like radio conspiracy-monger Alex Jones are reaching too many unhinged people who cannot handle them -- people like an unemployed young man in Pittsburgh named Richard Poplawski, who became convinced that police might confiscate guns on Obama's behalf and in April 2009 gunned down three officers.
So what can the rest of us do? The answers are not easy. It's clear to me that liberals -- especially the college-educated "elite" leadership of political progressives -- are determined to play a game not of "rock, paper, scissors" but "rock, paper," where paper is reason and rock are the raw emotional appeals that the Becks and Palins of the world routinely use to rip through rational ideas and win over the anxious middle-class Americans. The Tea Party movement wants that and it also wants a kind of an education -- but only the kind they can get from a Beck University.
On the other hand, there is this. The conditions fueling the Obama backlash may lift a little -- if we can somehow lift the conditions holding back America as a whole. In particular, a successful push for job creation would hopefully bring work and new purpose for many people now simmering in the toxic right-wing media bubble instead, and alleviate the anxieties that are now being prayed on by Beck and some of his more tawdry sponsors and allies. For the now-silent majority that elected Obama in 2008, that means forging ahead with solutions that the Tea Party avidly does not want right now -- spending on infrastructure and alternative energy, for example -- because those things are the right thing to do. Even for Americans who think Barack Obama was born in Kenya.