Eric Alterman on "The right sort" - Part One
Source Dave Anderson
Date 01/12/18/01:50

Eric Alterman on "The right sort"--Part One...from London's Guardian

The right sort

George W Bush scraped to victory in the 2000 presidential election
thanks largely to an array of hugely influential rightwing lobbyists and
power-brokers. He knows what he owes them - and since September 11 their
grip has grown yet tighter. Eric Alterman analyses the individuals and
organisations that are calling the shots in the United States

The Guardian (UK)
Saturday December 15, 2001

We all know the whole world changed on September 11. We just don't know
exactly how. Before the attack, George W Bush was considered to be a
likable bumbler by most Americans and a potentially dangerous,
reactionary buffoon in much of Europe. Bush's disappearing act on the
day of the attack, replete with phoney cover story about a terrorist
threat to Air Force One, seemed likely to etch these images in stone.
Instead, Bush is now a hero to Americans, and at least a plausible
Leader of the Free World in Europe.

But America is still America. Since the September 11 attacks, some 500
suspects have been detained. The FBI thought it a good idea to check
whether any of them had bought weapons. But the justice department,
under attorney general John Ashcroft, is refusing to deliver the
relevant records. In other words, discovering whether or not the
detainees have purchased guns is somehow considered a greater violation
of their civil liberties than locking them up in jail without charge.

And still American politicians resist the notion of cracking down on
money laundering, even though it represents a powerful tool in the
terrorist arsenal: that is because the gambling industry, a powerful
special interest and large contributor to the Republican party, fears
that such laws might interfere with its profitable sideline in internet
gambling. The US is still a nation where an early reaction to the crisis
was to insist on billions in tax breaks for big business and the
wealthiest 1% of Americans, and next to nothing for the millions who
lost their jobs as a result of the attacks. As House Republican Whip
Richard Armey, of Texas, put it, "The model of thought that says we need
to go out and extend unemployment benefits and health insurance benefits
and so forth is not, I think, one that is commensurate with the American
spirit." Oh, and as evidence now demonstrates, Gore won not only the
national vote by nearly 540,000 but also a clear majority of all the
legally votes cast in Florida. In other words, in virtually every
counting scheme imaginable, save the one that the hapless Al Gore
happened to choose when arguing before the Supreme Court, George Bush
lost the election. Not that anyone seems to care...

Just before the attacks took place, Europeans participated in an opinion
poll in which they were asked what they thought of the current US
president. The answer shouted back was "not much". Vast majorities in
Britain and the continent told pollsters that his environmental policies
stunk, his support for the death penalty was immoral, and his desire to
build a missile defence deluded. Only 17% of British, 29% of Italians,
23% of Germans and 16% of French told pollsters they approved of Bush's
handling of foreign issues; Bush the Younger barely outpolled Vladimir
Putin on the question of who could be trusted "to do the right thing
regarding world affairs".

Such numbers were hardly surprising. Earlier this year, Guardian
columnist Jonathan Freedland described the stereotypical European view
of George W Bush as a "know-nothing fundamentalist fitness freak". This
is appropriate, one has to admit, for a president of a nation, described
(again, in stereotypical terms) by the Economist as "a gun-slinging,
Bible-bashing, Frankenstein-food guzzling, behemoth-driving,
planet-polluting [nation] in which politicians are mere playthings of
mighty corporations".

At the time of the poll, which now seems aeons ago, Bush couldn't have
cared less. Well, his feelings might have been a little hurt, but in
truth Bush was a conservative American politician in a unilateralist
age. As James Taranto, editor of the Wall Street Journal's wrote, "If the Europeans are right, this is great
news for America." The conservative gadfly PJ O'Rourke went a bit
further on the paper's editorial page: "We know what you other
foreigners are up to with your Faustian bargaining sessions, your
venomous covenants, lying alliances, greedy agreements, back-stabbing
ententes cordiales, and trick-or-treat treaty ploys. Count us out." Only
partially in jest, he invited readers to "count all the nations on the
face of the earth that really count. The number seems to be one."

The funny thing about all of these caricatures is that they do speak to
some genuine, albeit contradictory, truths about Bush's America, both
pre- and post-September 11. Remember, first, that even though his
popularity rating is at record highs for any American president since
polling began, Bush's political coalition is still a minority in its own
country. He lost the popular vote to Gore and Ralph Nader combined by a
veritable landslide. Before the war, when such things were still
believed to matter, Americans did not like Bush's decision to trash the
Kyoto treaty any more than Europeans do. They preferred
environmentalists to oil men. They even preferred improved schools,
better health care and safer neighbourhoods to wealth-tilted tax cuts.
Polls indicated unwavering majority opposition to almost every aspect of
the far-right agenda that the administration has attempted to push
through Congress since the Supreme Court greased its path into office.

Bush may be a dope in a lot of ways, but politics is not one of them.
The murder of nearly 5,000 innocents and the destruction of the twin
towers has temporarily transformed American politics in ways that favour
the conservatives at every turn. Democrats fear they risk appearing
unpatriotic merely by opposing Bush. There is no longer any significant
opposition to increased military spending, and even the opposition to
the dangerous and completely useless missile-defence boondoggle is lying
low. The areas where Bush is perceived to be politically vulnerable -
typically "soft" issues such as minimum wage, patients' rights, the
environment and a woman's right to choose - are off the table for now.
Nobody really knows how long this state of affairs will last. It would
not be prudent - to borrow one of his father's favourite words - for the
president simply to assume that the present wartime patriotic fervour
will carry him through the next three years with his popularity intact.

Given his all but unprecedented status as a minority president, Bush
knows (Texas-style) who brung him to this dance and he knows better than
to let them down. He owes his election almost entirely to the
conservative coalition that, even before the terrorist war, managed to
rule the American political system in spite of its relatively small
numbers. He will do everything possible to keep them happy.

Today, Bush is reported to believe that he has been charged by God to
win the war against terrorism. But that is a relatively new vocation.
Before September 11, it was hard to know what Bush truly believed about
anything, or if he had any fixed beliefs at all. According to friends,
he chose to run for Congress for the first time in 1978, because he
"thought that it would be cool to be a congressman", while the rest of
his career options appeared to be petering out.

As late as 1988, when he worked in his father's presidential campaign,
according to then press secretary Marlin Fitzwater, "We almost never
showed interest in politics or policy." Rather, he preferred to chat
about "what was in the newspaper or about sports". This is all of a
piece. In the noblesse oblige world of the Bush family, politics is what
you feel you have to say to get elected. Over the years, as the family
torch has passed from the socially liberal Wall Street Republicanism of
grandfather Prescott through the Connecticut/Texas schizophrenia of
George HW to the Texas-through-and-throughness (by way of Harvard, Yale
and Phillips Academy) of George W, the impetus has become ever more
conservative. But believing what you say, or anything at all for that
matter, in the Bush family business has always proven pretty much beside
the point. What matters is winning.

Unlike liberals, conservatives have no problem supporting a leader whom
they believe lacks a pure heart. Grover Norquist, head of Americans for
Tax Reform, a grassroots group he founded at the request of President
Reagan in 1986, is almost certainly the most important conservative
activist in the US. But even he does not pretend to know whether Bush's
conservatism is heartfelt or opportunist. Nor does he much care. What
Norquist does know, he says, is that Bush "understands" what Norquist
calls "the centre-right coalition". Bush knows his dad lost his
presidency because he upset true believers by revisiting his pledge
never to raise taxes. It did not matter then and it does not matter now
what most Americans believe about anything. Most Americans do not have
political action committees, paid armies of lobbyists or their own
television talk shows. And those that do, those that have control of the
money, the single-interest lobbying groups and the television talk shows
that influence politicians, are on the right.

Do not make the mistake of believing that the rightwingers who ran US
politics before September 11, and whose grip is now even tighter,
constitute anything remotely resembling a monolithic entity. The right
is comprised of an extremely disparate collection of groups that
stretches on a continuum from Nobel laureate economists to neo-Nazi
skinheads, from southern Democratic governors to the late, unlamented
Timothy McVeigh. Most do not even agree with one another on basic
matters of theology or philosophy. What they do agree on is a list of
their enemies. With the recent addition of Osama bin Laden, this would
include: the media, liberals, homosexuals, feminists, the Clintons, the
Kennedys, bureaucrats, "one-worlders", secular humanists, atheists,
abortionists, New Yorkers, big-government, the 1960s, Hollywood,
professors, do-gooders and the media.

Because so many conservatives seem to believe that almost everything
that happens in America is the result of a secret conspiracy between an
ever-shifting combination of the above, there is never any rest for the
weary. Yes, they are riding high today, but decades in the political
wilderness in the years before the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan taught
them not to leave their political fortunes to chance. They understand
the value of both patience and teamwork. They don't necessarily like one
another. They may not even like themselves. But they've been rich and
they've been poor, and guess what? Rich is better. They like running
things and they are willing to do whatever is necessary to ensure that
they keep running things. (Witness the "bourgeois riots" in Florida to
shut down the vote count when it looked as if Al Gore might take the

Meet the men and women who, now more than ever, run the American
political system:

The religious right

With the recent announcement that Jesse Helms will be retiring from
politics and with Strom Thurmond tottering his way through his final
term at age 98, the larger-than-life superstars of southern Christian
fundamentalism are passing into history. Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson,
Gary Bauer and even Ralph Reed have receded from view as well. But the
quiet is deceptive. George Bush would almost certainly have lost the
Republican nomination to John McCain had it not been for the efficiency
of the Christian soldiers deployed by these organisations in the deep

The politics of religious fundamentalism suffered a significant setback
on September 11, making it the only constituent member of the Bush
coalition to do so. Its problems were twofold. First, the attacks gave
religious zealots of all kinds a bad name, as it tended to remind people
of the atrocities committed in the name of God. Second, Falwell and
Robertson returned to the public arena with astonishingly tin ears. A
mere day after the attack, the two men appeared together on the
Christian Broadcasting Network's 700 Club, hosted by Robertson, where
Falwell announced, "God continues to lift the curtain and allow the
enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve." "Jerry, that's
my feeling," Robertson responded. Falwell then proceeded to blame "the
abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are
actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU [the
American Civil Liberties Union], People for the American Way [the
liberal group founded by television producer Norman Lear], all of those
who have tried to secularise America, I point the finger in their face
and say, 'You helped this happen.'" Robertson nodded his head quietly in

The White House quickly distanced itself from these comments, and both
men issued apologies, but not actual retractions. And Bush, who had
campaigned hard for the blessings of both men during the primary season,
was happy to let the matter drop. But while Falwell and Robertson may
have inadvertently revealed the distance between their beliefs and those
of mainstream America, they remain atop an incredibly powerful political
machine of committed Christian activists. Tom DeLay, the Republican
powerbroker in Congress, recently appeared on Robertson's programme to
announce legislation that "allows us to come together and get on our
knees before God". Robertson pronounced DeLay "a great guy. Well, he's
very adroit in terms of the legislative process, but also is a very
sincere believer. Thank God for him." He instructed viewers to "pray for

Actually, Robertson's loyal viewers have a great deal more to offer
politicians such as DeLay than mere prayer. To focus on national or even
state politics is to miss the genius of the religious right. In direct
contrast to, say, Ralph Nader, who prides himself on leading leftwing
activists out of the Democratic party and into oblivion, the God squad
has taken to heart Mao's dictum for guerrilla warfare. They swim with
the fishes. They run candidates for their local school boards, town
councils and other offices where hardly anybody shows up on election
day. They can therefore take over these offices, and their local
Republican Party organisations, with as little as 10% of the eligible
vote. And as McCain learned, any Republican politician who crosses them
will do so at the peril of his entire political future.

What do they want? Ideally, it would be an entire House and Senate made
up of politicians who follow the lead of their standard-bearer, Jesse
Helms. Nicknamed "Senator No", Jesse was known abroad for his ability to
screw up virtually any international agreement to which the US is a
part. But Helms's real importance lies in what he represented
domestically. Born in rural North Carolina in 1921, he was raised in an
apartheid-divided society, where the old verities about people of
colour, women, homosexuals and anti-patriotic subversives (read
"liberals") were frequently invoked and rarely questioned. The world
changed, but Jesse never gave an inch. Younger conservatives evolved
into media-savvy, blow-dried talking heads who speak in code when
appealing to racist, sexist or anti-homosexual biases, but Jesse never
bothered. He turned his back rather than shake hands with Nelson
Mandela. He opposed a holiday in honour of Martin Luther King. As for
gays, Helms liked them even less than blacks. He called them "weak,
morally sick wretches", and their sexual behaviour "revolting". He was
perhaps best loved by his minions for his hatred of the media, a
prejudiced shared virtually everywhere on the right. In Helms's case, it
coalesced with his distaste for gays. "The New York Times and the
Washington Post are both infested with homosexuals," he has charged.

For all of Jesse's retro-appeal to die-hard confederacy types, his
genius for communications technology was what separated him from the
pack. Like Ronald Reagan, Helms was a radio pioneer before becoming a
politician. After winning his senate seat in 1972, he hired the
direct-mail wizard Richard A Viguerie to send millions of "personalised"
letters to supporters of Barry Goldwater's 1964 campaign, thereby
generating millions of dollars to deploy as a kingmaker. This national
fund-raising base allowed him vastly to outraise any local opponents and
hence win elections. None of these strategies is likely to disappear
with the retirement of their most effective primogenitor. America's
"Taliban faction" is not going anywhere.

Non-religious conservatives

Secular conservatives share many goals with religious conservatives, but
little of their divine inspiration. Their definition of liberty rests
more on unregulated free markets than inaugurating the Kingdom of Heaven
on Earth. Friedrich Hayek, the Austrian economist, wrote in The Road To
Serfdom that economic freedom is inseparable from all other notions of
freedom because economic power "is the control of the means of all our
ends". This is the secular conservatives' first commandment. Their
second commandment has to do with guns.

Norquist's organisation asks all candidates to sign the Taxpayer
Protection Pledge against raising taxes under virtually any
circumstances. To date, 209 Congressmen, 41 Senators and 1,100 state
legislators have signed, and George Bush Senior learned the consequences
of changing his mind on this count. Not that there was anything remotely
progressive about Bush's tax rise, however, for even he understood that
any attempt to redistribute wealth by taxation would be resisted with
all available energies including, potentially, force. This threat is
significant because the people who resist the government's right to tax
are the same people stocking up on guns. In fact, some gun-owners
actually argue their case as being even more important than economic
freedom. The National Rifle Association's (NRA) president, Charlton
Heston, says he believes that, "The right to keep and bear arms is the
one right that allows rights to exist at all... It alone is the one that
protects all the others."

This ideology flows from deep reservoirs in American history and
culture. George Washington was forced to put down three near rebellions
by well-armed local militias against what was then almost negligible
federal taxation. Alas, prior to the Civil War, most Americans had
little or no contact with the federal government. In the view of Hegel,
the early 19th-century German philosopher, America's sorry excuse for a
government in those days did not even qualify as a "state" in the
European sense of the word. As a result, the notion of a national
community was slow to develop and continues to be resisted today,
particularly among conservatives. Few go as far as the revered
confederate leader John C Calhoun, who insisted, "The very idea of an
American People, as constituting a single community, is a mere chimera."
But many conservatives continue to distrust anything the federal
government undertakes, particularly now that the cold war is over and
the common enemy dissipated.

The National Rifle Association, the most ferocious and effective lobby
on Capitol Hill, keeping congressmen in a state of permanent terror,
does not pretend to scholarship or even popularity, yet George Bush
probably owes his election to the organisation's
get-out-the-vote-efforts among its four million-plus members. The
organisation's leadership put out the message that Al Gore and the
Democrats planned not only to ask them to register their handguns, as
Gore had actually proposed during the campaign, but also planned to take
away their rifles, assault weapons and assorted anti-personnel mines and
hand them over to the fellows in the black helicopters coming to rape
their daughters and chickens.

The strategic brilliance of the gun-nuts lies in their insatiable greed.
No matter how many concessions they extract from the politicians they
control, it's never enough. In late August, for instance, the Utah Gun
Owners Alliance caused a small stir when vice-president Richard Cheney,
a fellow prairie-born-and-bred anti-gun-control fanatic, was scheduled
to address the Republican party's state convention. It seems the secret
service deemed that firearms would not be welcome inside the hall where
the Veep was speaking. The group termed this "completely unacceptable",
apparently because leaving their Uzis in their trucks would force "a
choice between personal safety and voting on important party business".
Mark Shurtleff, Utah attorney general, tried to defuse the crisis by
providing lockers for the weapons. Not good enough. The gun-owners
picketed and two knives, 25 guns and countless ammunition rounds were
confiscated and later returned.

This combination of fanaticism and organisational discipline buys the
right concession after concession from a political system in which most
people prefer disengagement. Polls consistently demonstrate a
three-to-one majority in favour of the legal registration of all guns
and handgun-owners, and more than nine-to-one in support of a mandatory
waiting period before buying a gun. Meanwhile, the NRA and its allies
give more than eight times as much money as their pro-gun-control
opponents do to candidates for Congress, spending $4.4million in the
1998 congressional elections alone. This combination of cash and
craziness allows gun-owners to prevent almost any gun restrictions from
passing, democracy be damned. (According to current law, guns cannot
even be regulated as consumer products in the manner of, say, toys.)
Moreover, these people tend to have a great deal of time on their hands
and they use it to call, write, email and generally harass any elected
official who fails to follow their lead. One of the movement's most
important communications devices is a website called
During the Clinton impeachment crisis, this publicised every rumour
imaginable and some that weren't.

Its supporters organised demonstrations everywhere Bush spoke and
provided shock troops to impede the vote recount in Florida last
November. Occasionally, one of the website's 16million visitors tends to
go overboard. While posts terming Gore a "traitor" are commonplace, as
are the publication of the addresses and phone numbers of liberal
politicians and judges, a UPI story not long ago found one poster who
sympathised with Timothy McVeigh and another who called him a
"modern-day Paul Revere". But here's the really scary part: according to
measurements published in the New York Times recently, the average
amount of time a Freeper (as they call themselves) spends at the site is
four hours 22 minutes. (At one time!) While September 11 had little or
nothing to do with any of these issues, these organisations have done
everything possible to exploit the moment for their own benefit. Shortly
after the attacks, a writer in National Review magazine insisted that
the fatal hijackings could have been avoided if only passengers on the
plane had been invited to carry their own weapons on board.

It looked like a proverbial no-brainer when the Senate voted,
immediately after the crisis, by a 100-0 margin to federalise the
business of protecting our airports. Not so fast, said Tom DeLay. He,
the Washington Post reported in late October, "summoned nearly 20
lobbyists from the airline and airport security industries to the
basement of the Capitol" and instructed them to join his fight to
replace the Senate's plan with this own, mandating the use of only
private security firms. When some resisted, his deputy reminded the
lobbyists how quickly he and his minions had rushed through Congress the
recent $15billion funding to stave off bankruptcy in the airline
industry. We can only wonder if anyone at the meeting thought it prudent
to bring up the current status of a federal review of Argenbright
Security, the country's largest airport-screening contractor.

Having previously been found guilty of hiring convicted felons to screen
baggage at Philadelphia International Airport, the company was
nevertheless discovered by the department of transportation and the
Federal Aviation Administration to be in violation of federal
regulations at 14 airports, including the employment of illegal
immigrants, and this was after September 11. DeLay's ploy to prevent the
addition of 28,000 people to the federal payroll, thus strengthening the
union movement, which passing security over to government would involve,
was roundly denounced by editorial pages and virtually everyone not
directly associated with it: everyone, that is, except George W Bush.
Remember, he knows who brung him. It took a month for the compromise
deal to be reached on November 16, which, by the way, allows airports to
opt out of the newly imposed federal programme after three years.


Neo-conservatives are difficult to pigeonhole. Most were old-fashioned
liberals until the early 1970s, when they decided, as a group, that
America was going to hell in a hand basket and that 1960s-style
radicalism was to blame. Like the vulgar Marxists a number of them had
once been, the newly minted rightwingers soon detected an unspoken
conspiracy ruling American political and cultural life. Harvard and
Yale, feminism and taxes, school prayer and Soviet power, abortion and
pornography, communist revolution and gay rights: all of these social
ills and more stemmed from the same source, namely the post-Vietnam
victory of the "New Class" and the "permissive" culture it has foisted
upon the nation.

This New Class, with its ready access to the media, the educational
structure and the world of foundations, was able to manipulate Americans
into believing that they were an evil people who rained death and
destruction on Vietnam to feed their own sick compulsions. Watergate,
where the media carried out a successful "coup d'état" (in Norman
Podhoretz's judgment), only increased its appetite. New Class radicals
had swallowed the entire political and academic establishment and
annexed the Supreme Court.

The Neocons turned to big business to finance their counter-attack. With
tens of millions of dollars solicited from conservative corporations,
foundations and zillionaire ideologues such as Nelson and Bunker Hunt,
Richard Mellon Scaife, Rupert Murdoch, Joseph Coors and the Reverend Sun
Myung Moon, they created a new conservative counter-establishment, aping
the institutions of the establishment and replacing them with its own.
They not only succeeded in this endeavour, they also helped to move the
old establishment to the right, as its denizens went in search of the
same sources of cash.

It is a Neocon tradition to fall madly in love with a politician, only
to be disillusioned when he or she fails to follow their advice. The
most recent object of their affection was senator John McCain. With him
out of the picture, sulking, the Neocons have a problem. The president
gives every impression of never having finished a book in his life,
including the autobiography he claims to have written. It is depressing
for people who fancy themselves to be intellectuals to have to genuflect
before someone who so clearly demonstrates contempt for the world of
ideas. On the other hand, two things the Neocons like are well-paid
government jobs and war, and George Bush is the only man who can give
them both. Since September 11, they have been clamouring for attacks not
only on Bin Laden and the Taliban, but also on Saddam Hussein and Iraq,
Haffez Assad and Syria, and, unsurprisingly, Yasser Arafat and the
Palestinians. At this point, they need Bush more than he needs them, so
the anguish on their side will be palpable and, for liberals, one of the
few enjoyable spectator sports in American politics right now.


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