Hate waves nothing new in America

A history of fear and loathing on the populist right.
By Arthur Goldwag, Scribe, 368pp

Reviewed: 10 March 2012

Recently I’ve noticed more Australians voicing their disgust at the verbal violence and personal nastiness that pervade our public politics. Some blame whichever party or interest group they don’t support, and many blame our news media for fostering political violence (real or synthetic) for the sake of cheap ratings points or journalistic one-upmanship.

Much of our mainstream popular culture apes the loudest (not best) of America, and likewise American media and political role-models most influence our own “Washminster”political culture: structured after Westminster, but behaving quasi-Washington.

There are stark parallels between Republican oppositional strategy to the Obama presidency and the Abbott-led Coalition opposition strategy against our Labor minority government. The cry is “accountability”, but the apparent objective is to deny the government any chance of seeming effective, and to inflame public doubt as to the legitimacy of the government itself.

Arthur Goldwag’s The New Hate looks at a wide range of current Obama-haters, from Tea Party to rabid broadcasters to Islamophobes and bizarre conspiracy-cult websites. He places them in a context of hate-farming that traces right back to the earliest Puritan colonists. It seems there never was a time when American politics was not infected with conspiracy theories about unseen, powerful groups bent on subverting the Bible, the Constitution, or the apotheosis of the white race in American Exceptionalism.

Religious identity has often been the target, echoing the politico-religious purges that drove Puritans and many other waves of immigrants to America from their European homes. Freemasons, Roman Catholics, Jews, freethinkers, Communists, homosexuals, witches and innumerable real or imagined secret societies have been the object of hate campaigns embraced by high-level politicians as well as rabble-rousers and opportunists. Goldwag is a declared liberal Democrat, but provides admirably balanced accounts of many hate-merchants and their innocent or questionable targets.

One of the earliest American conspiracy theories starred the Illuminati, recently revived in a Dan Brown novel as an elite cult within the Church of Rome. In reality, the Illuminati were a rationalist secret society in 18th Century Bavaria, whose core ideas were progressive, anti-clerical and anti-monarchy – hence the need for secrecy in the Catholic monarchy of Bavaria. They went the way of most extremist cults and fell apart within a generation, but still gain attention in the conspiracy-hungry USA.

On his last page Goldwag admits what a reader might conclude on page one – he is talking about “not-so-New Hate”. Fear and hate motivate political action throughout the animal kingdom, let alone all human history. Goldwag collects a rich miscellany of anecdote and history that illustrates the range and variety of haters and the hated through the American centuries. In the years leading up to World War II, there were more than a hundred pro-fascist and white supremacist organizations in the USA, most of them openly sympathetic to Hitler and with total membership in the hundreds of thousands.

So why do nominally civilised humans, individually and collectively, keep returning to destructive behaviours based on falsehood, prejudice, and paranoid fantasy? Goldwag suggests that the common visceral element is a human yearning for a secure identity. Any perceived threat to that identity, whether religious, cultural, race, or economic, induces a natural fear that is easily fanned into rage and hate. The more that a relatively successful society has fostered a sense of entitlement and “rights” among its citizens, the easier it is to promote outrage and hatred whenever such entitlements may seem challenged.

It’s easy to construe some of Australia’s ugliest recent political events in those terms, but less easy to see how individual entitlement is balanced against social responsibility. Hence politics.

Goldwag can point out that present-day US media demagogues like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh have made themselves multi-millionaires through whipping up fear and loathing among the jealous, the credulous and the insecure. They follow in the profitable footsteps of sensationalist publishers and pamphleteers of previous generations. Again, Australian imitators among radio shock-jocks may come to mind.

What is missing from this book is much analysis on how hate and fear are deliberately mobilized by special interest groups for political or commercial purposes. The most contentious political debates of our era are characterized by demagoguery – whether climate change, taxation, education, industrial relations or refugee issues.

Charitably, Goldwag accepts that some hate-peddlers at least believe what they are saying. The current wave of anti-Obama “New Hate” in America expresses a desire to turn back the clock to a mythical golden age free of troublesome women, minorities and foreigners raining on America’s God-given parade, but it also embodies a cynical ploy to get more confused and apathetic Americans out to vote Republican. He concludes that the majority of those who claim to believe Obama is a foreign Muslim are less concerned about Obama’s identity than about America’s identity not being what it used to be, at home or abroad.

The Australian experience of politics steered by poll-driven marketing gurus may incline some of us to be more ready than Goldwag to see hate-movements as blatantly manipulated by vested interests. Cynicism may be, on average, a healthier mental state than credence in fantastical conspiracy theories. After all, it was Plato who warned that the fatal weakness of democracy is its susceptibility to manipulation by demagogues.

Richard Thwaites, when a broadcast current affairs producer and editorial executive, has struggled to balance coverage of punch-ups with coverage of policy.