When I was a newly elected Labour MP in Britain in 1974, I became aware of a rumour circulated by my opponents that I was not really a New Zealander, but instead a Russian spy who had been landed secretly by a Russian submarine with instructions to penetrate the British political establishment. Far-fetched though this may seem, it is as nothing compared with the flights of malign fancy that are current today in the further reaches of right-wing American fantasy. Arthur Goldwag has made himself something of an expert in such arcane matters, and in The New Hate he piles well-documented and horrifying – sometimes laughable – detail on horrifying detail, showing how extreme and fantastic the beliefs are of even relatively mainstream figures in American public life.
Indeed, so copious are the examples he cites that, after what seem to be thousands of instances of statements that in a normal society would qualify the speakers for free psychotherapy, he almost loses the power to shock. And that, indeed, is the main weakness of the book. He succeeds all too well in convincing the reader there is a serious degree of “fear and loathing” rampant in US public discourse. What is lacking is any real attempt to examine why. Where does such hatred, manifesting itself in such bizarre ways, come from? Is it a peculiarly American phenomenon (at least on this scale), and if so, why? What, if anything, can be done to correct or counteract it? What Goldwag does instead is, I suppose, in its own way reassuring.
Having laid bare the “birthers”, the “truthers”, those who oppose health care reforms on the grounds they will establish “death panels”, and other weird distortions of current American politics, he then shows these don’t really break new ground. They have a long, rich and dishonourable history, which he demonstrates by considering phenomena such as the John Birch Society, McCarthyism, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and many others – a veritable catalogue of the prejudice and hatreds that have disfigured American society over a long period. One can only despair.
Thomas Frank’s Pity the Billionaire deals with a related but quite different phenomenon – the success of the extreme right in America – against all the odds, one would have thought – in turning the global financial crisis and the failure of the free market to political advantage. He is, of course, right to marvel at this achievement; it is astonishing that at a time when public opinion might have been expected to revolt against the manifest failure of the unregulated market, many Americans have been persuaded the private entrepreneur is the victim and the regulator the criminal. Frank goes beyond simply documenting that this has happened. He is skilled at analysing the arguments, techniques and tricks that have been used to bring this about. He lays bare the paranoia and ignorance, but also the skill, ruthlessness and deep understanding of human weakness demonstrated by those who have manipulated opinion so successfully. He is particularly good at describing how those who hold extreme beliefs on the basis of prejudice rather than fact can insulate themselves against any information that might contradict their views.
The book is short and can be easily read in a single sitting, but it is packed full of careful analysis and penetrating insight. If knowing your enemy is the first step in a successful campaign, this is a highly recommended first port of call. It is perhaps no accident that several of those prominent in interpreting events to the American public appear frequently as significant figures in both these books. Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, for example, may not mean much to New Zealand readers, but they are prime examples of the hugely influential commentators who, through their radio and television shows, fan the distortions and hatreds that shape large swathes of American opinion. At a time when the Murdoch media empire has been in the spotlight, it is salutary to realise that – quite apart from phone-hacking scandals and the manipulation of politicians – a malign influence can be exercised by a Murdoch-owned Fox News, as these books demonstrate, through constantly feeding a distorted view of events to a gullible public.
We are not immune in New Zealand from such concerns. Not so long ago, a former editor of the Dominion Post advised his column readers that I had, after a political career in Britain, chosen to advance my views in New Zealand rather than North Korea, which would (by implication) have been a more suitable choice. A trivial example, but surely we don’t have to go down the American road, and can expect better than this?
THE NEW HATE: A HISTORY OF FEAR AND LOATHING ON THE POPULIST RIGHT, by Arthur Goldwag (Scribe, $40); PITY THE BILLIONAIRE: THE HARD-TIMES SWINDLE AND THE UNLIKELY COMEBACK OF THE RIGHT, by Thomas Frank (Harvill Secker, $39.99).
Bryan Gould is a former vice-chancellor of Waikato University.