The Blacklash: Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters, and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama. By Will Bunch. (New York: Harper, 2011. 362 pages.)
Do you really know why people hate Barack Obama? Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Will Bunch has the answer in his book, The Backlash. Not only does Bunch identify the ideological roots of the rage directed at Barack Obama, he takes you to the towns and homes of the people who started the anti-Obama movement. Bunch doesn’t stop there. He explains the political, social and economic events and trends that fomented the rise of Obama’s worst nightmare—the infamous Tea Party.
For most American citizens, Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike, the extreme anti-Obama campaign appeared out of thin air in 2010 when it was in full force. To the contrary, Bunch shows that it was the result of a slowly-forming social, political and economic storm of increasingly aggravated disgruntled individuals, fringe groups and militias lurking underneath the mainstream media since 9/11 and the ongoing Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, all of whom became even more distressed when the Great Recession hit in 2008.
The election of a progressive black man in 2008, however, was the tipping point.
Indeed, it sent a shockwave through the 47 percent of Americans who voted against him. But worse, it radicalized 26 percent of Americans who saw Obama as a sign of their cultural end times. These were the angry Americans and fringe groups that became anti-Obama factions, such as the Oath Keepers and the Delaware 9-12 Patriots.
Members of these associations were angry for different overlapping reasons. Some of the reasons were understandable while others were unfounded. Bunch notes that “old-fashioned racism” indeed was an enduring factor that “shadowed every discussion.” But there were “new and genuine” issues related to the economy among the working classes and to a power struggle with the elite class (p. 5, 11).
Bunch’s visits to various meetings and interviews reveal that the backlash was not entirely about Obama the person. It is a reaction to Obama as a symbol and leader of undesired change, which seemed to come out of thin air to many diehard right-wingers. What we see in the backlash is a clash of culture and demographics. Bunch explains that the majority of the anti-Obama zealots were baby boomers, post-war Americans, typically 55 to 64 years of age, disabled veterans and retired officers. This predominantly White America reacted to Obama and his constituency of a multicultural and youthful batch of people—and let’s not forget the illegal immigrants, who are taking American jobs, all the while proliferating crime.
Obama, of course, was enemy number one. Everything about him was demonized, from his dark skin and uncommon terrorist-sounding name to his Kenyan heritage.
It got worse. It wasn’t clear to many if Obama was a legal citizen. The Birthers demanded his birth certificate, which was confirmed. He was accused of plotting to subvert the Second Amendment, although he never made any attempt, and he was accused of authorizing FEMA death camps, but none were found. He was supposed to be the anti-Christ.
Believe it or not, these ludicrous claims are not the most shocking part of the backlash. It’s that they infiltrated mainstream media, reshaped the Republican Party, and shutdown the government. Fringe and radical groups have always existed. Backlashes to liberal trends, government and immigrants can be found in the John Birch Society in the 1960s and the Know-Nothings before that. But they did not receive the same national influence.
In this way the backlash that culminated in the Tea Party seems to be unprecedented. Bunch notes three factors responsible for this.
First, there was an authentic angst among everyday conservatives, who feared the growth of big government. Such a stance to the size of government can be traced back to some of the Founding Fathers. However, Bunch calls attention to the hypocrisy of this particular case. The Tea Party seems to be more concerned about who is running the government rather than its size. He points out their support for big government under George W. President—such as the Patriot Act, the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, and his expansion of Medicaid and other federal programs.
Second, the increased development and access to communications technology and social media—e.g. radio, web, Facebook and Twitter—disseminated information faster and farther. Some of the earliest vocal dissents against Obama were captured and propagated via social media and radio. For example, a video of a lady called Eileen M. ranting against Obama and hassling the moderate Republican Mike Castle went viral on YouTube and later on national news networks. It was one of the first significant developments of the backlash phenomenon.
Finally, the fact that the backlash phenomenon was exploited. Vulture capitalists, so to speak, tapped the anti-Obama grassroots movement and its “consumerist freedom fighters,” many of whom were good people who suffered the loss of jobs and experienced anxiety from the political and social remaking of their country. They were emotionally and ideologically vulnerable. And “ultimately," Bunch writes, “the participants in the powerful revival of paranoid politics in America are looking for someone to blame for their predicament in life—someone who is not themselves” (p. 340).
The conservative American television personality and radio host Glenn Beck stepped in as their gladiator. Bunch discusses Beck’s role in the backlash at length. In short, “inspiring a political movement was just the means to an end for Beck, and that end is what you are seeing today, a performance” (P. 346). Beck brought the isolated individuals and groups together and gave them someone to blame. Bunch reports: “Glenn Beck said famously on TV in the summer of 2009 that Barack Obama had ‘a deep-seated hatred’ of white people—and also something that he called ‘white culture’” (p. 56). Beck disguised entertainment and propaganda as political enlightenment. Calling attention to Beck’s previous radio gigs and his role models, this is not only something Beck has done in the past, rather it’s an improvement on his old communication tactics. Starting in 2009 Beck preached his “3 G system”—“God, Gold, and Guns.” And he would make millions of dollar selling books, endorsing emergency kits and encouraging the purchase of gold at marked up rates from Goldline International.
Others took advantage of the emotionally and financially vulnerable fringe groups, as well. After quitting her day job as Governor of Alaska for which she earned a little over 100K yearly, Sarah Palin made nearly 13 million dollars within 2 years. Gun and bullet sales skyrocketed. They doubled in 2008 and tripled in 2009. Gun owners, especially those who frequented Knob Creek (the Mecca for gun fanatics), believed that Obama was scheming to confiscate weapons. The increase in the purchasing of bullets led to a jump in the price for bullets. Of course Obama, the socialist, got the blame for the law of supply and demand. He was falsely accused of taxing bullets. And at the end of every day, Fox News raked in profitable ratings for hosting Beck’s paranoid propaganda.
Bunch is not concerned with the rise of the backlash only. He cares about its victims and the damage it caused. We should be aware that human beings are susceptible to manipulation by fearmongering and conspiracy theories, evidenced by the Fox News viewers he met in person.
He offers a solution to dealing with paranoid politics. He explains at length: “The solution is not to change human nature—good luck with that—but to tackle the root causes, providing citizens with the framework to work productively until the retirement day of their own choosing, as well as stable communities where people seek companionship and purpose from their neighbors instead of from a bombastic cable TV show. It would help if the new silent majority could offer a more compelling story line than the nightly opera of fearmongering on Fox News” (p. 340).
That is invaluable advice for two important reasons. First, Bunch explains that after the Tea Party made it clear that they were not retiring anytime soon in 2010, some liberals began to respond in kind. Others embraced the Tea Party as fellow Americans, only to spoil the good gesture with sarcasm and subtle insults. That only inflamed the political discourse.
Second, which I find to be another significant contribution of Bunch’s book, is that it forecasted the ascendancy of Trump in the 2016 presidential race. With the hindsight this book offers, Donald Trump's ascendancy becomes a logical outcome. The tenor of the Republican Party’s discourse has become harsher and cruder and their political position has been pulled too far to the right. When the Tea Party and Beck abated in 2011, Bunch observed a vacuum for which Trump was the perfect fit. His brief campaign to run in 2011 was an omen. Trump continued the lies and the Obama bashing, which quickly escorted him to the top of the GOP poll. Bunch holds the Republican Party responsible for what they perceive as an unwanted baby. “The episode raised the specter that the backlash still held enough juice within the party to nominate someone who would epitomize the monster that Republican Elders had helped to create—by allowing a multitude of lies about the nation’s first black president to fester unchallenged for two years” (p. 352).
In conclusion, Bunch succeeds in telling the story of the extreme right-wing minority as fair as a liberal can. Indeed, he occasionally commits slips of sarcasm that he advises liberals to avoid, but it is clear that his heart is in the right place—the health of America’s political system. America was not healthy long before Obama, so while Obama and the Democratic Party accomplished a historic achievement, it was a Pyrrhic victory for America.
American politics will deteriorate if it continues to harbor prolonged extremism on the Right or the Left, rather than getting to the heart of the issues that produce such discontent. But there is hope. Betraying his belief in the American Democracy and the meaning of Obama’s election, Bunch believes that if Americans simply respect and weigh each other’s differences and pros and cons, they would find common ground—humanity. He confesses: “One thing that writing The Backlash helped remind me is something we all need to remember, which is that we should always strive to see the humanity—even in those we profoundly disagree with” (p. 358).
Kasaun is a philosopher and intellectual historian, from Harlem, NY. He specializes in the intellectual history of American democracy and the American Dream, theories of secularization, and the history and philosophy of human rights. He also focuses on the "Obama Phenomenon" and "The Age of Obama."
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