The right-wing congressman made for the Obama age

Paul Broun is the perfect embodiment of the right-wing backlash that has greeted Barack Obama's presidency

Published August 31, 2010 11:01AM (EDT)

On Oct. 17, 2009, there was a black-tie gala dinner at a luxury hotel in Atlanta, Georgia, where guests dined on balsamic-laced flank steak and mango coulis. After dessert was served, the mostly men in black ties and dinner jackets, and a few women in their Saturday-night best, in the ballroom leaned back in their seats to hear the night's main event -- a speech by a member of the United States Congress. Nothing remarkable about that ... in theory.

Except that the gala was held to celebrate the notorious, conspiracy-minded right-wing political group the John Birch Society, the band of Commie hunters made famous in the early 1960s, who’d seemingly vanished, only to burst back onto into the newly mainstreamed paranoid fringe within months after the election of Barack Obama as president. Rather than back away from its divisive views -- most notably that popular U.S. president and World War II hero Dwight Eisenhower was somehow an agent of international Communism -- the Birchers were doubling down in the age of Obama, still maintaining that a planet-wide conspiracy hatched some 200 years ago by the ultra-secret Illuminati in search of a so-called "New World Order" continues to flourish today.

The congressman addressing the John Birch Society get-together was a relatively obscure Georgian in his first full term in office -- Paul Broun Jr. of the state’s 10th Congressional District, which starts in the liberal-for-the-Deep-South bastion of Athens, Broun’s hometown, but fans out into northeast Georgia across rolling red Appalachian foothills over some of the most conservative real estate in the United States. Amid the thundering hooves of a 24/7 news cycle, Broun has achieved about 45 minutes' worth of fame here and there, especially when amid the mostly raised hopes in the days following Obama’s election he stunned some people -- even in his Georgia district -- when he remarked that the president-elect’s ideas for a national service corps smacked of Adolf Hitler. But with much less fanfare, Broun has been working quietly with a coalition of extreme right-wing outfits -- not just the Tea Parties but even with groups on the more out-there fringe like the John Birch Society and members of the Oath Keepers. In doing so, Broun is now in a race with the libertarian Ron Paul of Texas to be the most extreme right-wing member of the 111th Congress. And in 2009-10, that is quite an achievement.

In fact, the John Birch Society grew so fond of Broun that there was even talk of paying him to speak at its 2009 gala. In an online announcement of the event, a Birch Society activist named Jim Sandman from Tennessee asked attendees to consider an additional donation of $100, $250 or $500 for the event, in part because it "will help with the honorarium for Dr. Broun." Congress had in fact moved to ban such honoraria during its ethics reforms of the 1990s. When contacted by telephone, Sandman confirmed there was an initial understanding he was raising money for such a payment but after checking with Birch higher-ups he called back to report that no payment was offered or made.

Meanwhile, Broun’s fall 2009 speech to the Birch gala is a pretty good overview of where the congressman’s head was at in the first year of the Obama administration. What was happening in the nation -- the government bailout of banks and efforts to save the auto industry and create jobs through an $800 billion spending plan -- was not a response to the worst economic crisis in 80 years, Broun said, but rather "the steamroll of socialism that’s being driven by Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid and that is fueled by Barack Obama." Larded with quotes from and references to the Founding Fathers -- especially George Washington -- Broun’s speech to the John Birch Society argues that the system of taxation that the American government uses to raise revenue is socialist to the core. Our government, he argued, "is taxing those it believes make too much money, and redistributing it to other people. We must stop that trend."

The way to do that, according to Broun, is to enact policies that would make George W. Bush’s tax cuts for the rich look like chump change. "It is not the government’s place to redistribute wealth," he told the men in their tuxedos and women in evening gowns. "I believe that death taxes should be zero, I believe that corporate taxes should be zero, that dividend taxes should be zero, and that all taxes should be very low."

Broun’s economic theory -- which would destroy government as, for better or worse, we have come to know it in 21st-century America -- is kind of like the National Review on steroids, a brand of anti-tax talk that had lost its ability to shock in an era of Reagan revisionism. But it is nothing compared to Broun’s embrace of conspiracy mumbo jumbo -- implying that even a former Republican president, George H. W. Bush, was part of a plot to destroy America from within. Broun started with an indictment of man-made climate change theory, adding:

They used to talk about global warming -- y’all might remember a few years ago they were talking about an ice age was coming. It’s the same folks, the folks who want to change America, want to rule America. They want to change us to a New World Order. President George Herbert Walker Bush, remember, very openly said he wanted to have a New World Order. And all of these things are a progression of their outward efforts to destroy America, to destroy our freedom ... The John Birch Society is trying very hard to get the right people elected to Congress. There are very few of us --very few.

Broun -- who when he’s not hobnobbing with Birchers is just as likely to be speaking at a Tea Party rally or talking to members of far-right fringe groups as doing the traditional meet-and-greet grunt work of a congressional district -- may be an extreme case, but he’s also very much part of a rhetorical three-step to the far right among many Republicans in Congress in the Obama era. That is the willingness of so many elected officials to go on national TV and move the boundaries of political dialogue, to the point where a year into Obama’s presidency the term "socialist" now seemed tame compared to the other things that were being said or implied about the commander-in-chief or some of his Democratic allies. In 2008, before Obama’s election, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann -- en route not just to reelection but status as a heroine to the soon-to-arise Tea Party movement -- caused a stir when she said on MSNBC’s "Hardball" that Obama "may have anti-American views" and even called upon journalists to investigate whether or not members of Congress were "pro-American."

The rise of cable TV-friendly-but-governing-averse pols like Broun and Bachmann has become a hallmark of the backlash against the Obama presidency. After the GOP lost control of the government over the second half of the 2000s, the party’s direction and indeed its very life force has been seized by a new breed of political huckster -- who saw that the paranoia and anger of the extreme political right is the only thing passing for a pulse in the modern conservative movement these days. This cynical ambition of high-ranking elected officials not to tamp down the paranoid style but to adopt its latest fashions was a successful strategy ... for the politicians who might have been unknown back-benchers if they had acted more responsibly. Their mainstreaming of the political fringes made them into darlings of cable television and helped ensure reelection within their deep-red conservative districts.

In the wake of election debacles for Republicans in 2006 and 2008 that put Obama in the White House and created large majorities of Democrats in Congress, there was a GOP leadership vacuum, and talk radio -- with its message of no compromise, as celebrated in Rush Limbaugh’s famed pre-inaugural wish for Obama that "I hope he fails" -- raced to fill it. Republican back-benchers who felt that Limbaugh and his colleagues, like the up-and-coming Glenn Beck, were moving their party too far to the right, too fast, found themselves flattened in the stampede. When one of Broun’s Republican colleagues in the Georgia delegation, Rep. Phil Gingrey, made the mistake in the first week of Obama’s presidency of saying that entertainers like Limbaugh weren’t real leaders and that "it’s easy if you’re Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh or even sometimes Newt Gingrich to stand back and throw bricks," he soon found himself backpedaling faster than an NFL cornerback. The very next day, Gingrey called Limbaugh’s show to grovel on live radio, pledging to the audience that he "actively opposed every bailout, every rebate check, every so called 'stimulus.' And on so many of these things, I see eye-to-eye with Rush Limbaugh."

Arguably, no member of Congress has ridden anger and paranoia against Barack Obama from the back bench of the Capitol to the front of the headlines louder than Paul Broun Jr. Practically no one outside the winding tin-roof-rusted highways east of Athens had even heard of Broun, until the days that immediately followed the election of that first African-American commander-in-chief. In early November 2008, Broun -- who’d only been in office for about 18 months -- told a reporter for the Associated Press that he was worried that President-elect Obama had the potential to put America on the path to a dictatorship in the style of Marxist Russia or Nazi Germany.

"It may sound a bit crazy and off base ..." Those are nine words that a congressman should never say to a journalist, but now Broun was rolling. He insisted he was alarmed by a suggestion that then-candidate Obama had uttered that summer for a national service corps, and that he was worried that such a corps could be used to take away guns from citizens. "You have to remember that Adolf Hitler was elected in a democratic Germany," he said. "I'm not comparing him to Adolf Hitler. What I'm saying is there is the potential of going down that road." The comments created a minor, brief firestorm with all the usual hallmarks -- liberal blog outrage, and Broun’s statement that he apologized "to anyone who has taken offense at that," quickly followed by his insistence that his apology wasn’t really an apology. In fact, Broun had achieved maybe the greatest accomplishment of his congressional career, which was shifting the so-called Overton window -- a political theory on how extreme statements can shift the boundaries of what become acceptable speech (adopted by Glenn Beck as the title of his 2010 novel) -- on what could be openly said about the new president.

Meanwhile, some people around the country -- joined by some voters in Broun’s own 10th District -- were starting to ask, just who is this guy, anyway? There was a time when Paul Broun Jr. asked the same question of himself. It happened in 1986, when the 40-year-old baby boomer was into booze and into his fourth marriage already -- and having problems with both. Broun was at an NFL football game and drinking heavily when he noticed the fan who was a quasi-celebrity back during the Reagan years, the guy with the crazy rainbow-haired wig who stood in the end zone seats with the sign, "John 3:16." Broun said in a speech on the floor of Congress after his election to Congress two decades later that he was captivated by this "gentleman with this big type hair wig on." A few weeks later, after another fight with his new wife, he took out a Bible, read the verse, and decided to dedicate his life to Christ. (Ironically, it was the exact same year and at the same age that George W. Bush quit drinking as well.) Broun now considers his odyssey to the corridors of power the result of Jesus’ calling. He fails to add the kicker to the story, that the wig-wearing fan, a fellow named Rollen Stewart, is currently serving three life sentences for kidnapping.

But the creation story of Paul Broun Jr. is also a powerful illustration of the political evolution that has taken place in the Deep South. His father, Paul Broun Sr., who died in 2005, was a Democrat who served in the Georgia Senate for 38 years, arriving in Atlanta in 1962 as a moderate from the university town, in the era of segregation and Lester Maddox. Broun Sr. was a Southern populist who fought to have government dollars spent inside his district to build up the infrastructure for a booming economy. One of his greatest bricks-and-mortar achievements is the perimeter highway that now circles the congested downtown of Athens; today that road is named the Paul Broun Sr. Highway. The father’s success and those road signs provided priceless name recognition and a kind of free advertising for Paul Broun Jr. -- even though the son is an ultra-conservative Republican who is dedicated to fighting to kill the types of government projects that his father had championed.

Today, Paul Broun Jr. talks of his dad as someone with whom he differed politically at times but for whom he had enormous respect. The favor wasn’t always returned. "His father denied him," a Democratic state lawmaker from junior Broun’s congressional district -- Alan Powell of Hartwell, Georgia -- says. Powell was a close friend of the father who initially doubted the two men could even be related to each other when he heard of the Republican Broun’s extremist views in the 1990s. "That’s my crazy-ass son," Powell says his colleague sighed after he asked Broun Sr. about it at lunch one day.

A family doctor who treated Jimmy Carter’s relatives in South Georgia for a number of years, Broun declared bankruptcy in the early 1980s. A federal judge ruled -- according to news accounts in Athens -- that Broun "falsified financial documents in an effort to obtain a loan and misrepresented his assets and debts during bankruptcy proceedings" and ordered him to pay nearly $70,000 to an Americus bank. According to a bankruptcy complaint, the young family doctor "has a reputation of having an extravagant lifestyle evidenced by the acquisition of a number of expensive rare hunting books, expensive rare ceramic items related to hunting, safari to Africa, expensive gun collection and the acquisition of the very best in everything purchased." He had to pay more than $61,000 in back taxes to the IRS, and one of his ex-wives even took him to court for alimony and child support. There was a time when that kind of résumé would have sunk a would-be politician, but the 21st century has proven to be remarkably kind to past sinners who adopt the language of 12-step recovery -- just ask Glenn Beck how that works -- and even awards bonus points when Christianity is involved.

Broun joined the Baptist Church, sobered up, but failed dismally in his early efforts in GOP politics, losing two congressional primaries and receiving a dismal 3 percent in a 1996 bid for the U.S. Senate. Still, Broun entered a 10-candidate special election when that district’s longtime Republican congressman, Charlie Norwood, died of cancer in 2007. He gained the runoff with a surprising second-place finish, but was universally predicted to face crushing defeat by the Republicans’ handpicked candidate, a state senator named Jim Whitehead. In fact, Whitehead -- from Augusta at the other end of the district -- was so cocky that he didn’t campaign in Athens for the runoff, even after it was dredged up that he’d once joked he’d like to see all of the University of Georgia bombed, except for the football team. Broun won a stunning narrow upset thanks to 90 percent of the vote from Athens. The most liberal city in Georgia had just unwittingly elected the most conservative congressman in America. Conservative-watching journalist David Weigel, then with Reason magazine, called Broun "the accidental congressman."

Voters soon found out just how conservative Broun really was. He was one of only four member in Congress to vote against a $20 million program to help kids in drug-infested neighborhoods and even joined just two other colleagues on opposing money for a registry for Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS. Asked about that by Weigel, Broun whipped out his pocket Constitution and insisted there was nowhere that it was written that the federal government could do these things. "I’d say most of the things this Congress does, we don’t actually have the authority to do," the freshman insisted.

There was one thing, however, that the born-again congressman did think the government had the authority to do -- ban the sale of Playboy and other racy magazines on U.S. military bases. Broun’s Military Honor and Decency Act -- which an aide boosted by touting the congressman’s medical qualifications as an "addictionologist" -- was the only piece of legislation that he authored in that first term. What’s more, it turned out that Broun’s aversion to government spending applied to legislation but not to taxpayer dollars that could help him out politically. In 2008, during his tough reelection battle, Broun spent so much on taxpayer-funded mail to his constituents that his office nearly ran out of money to pay staff and maintain district offices.

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The 10th District of Georgia that Broun represents is hurting in the Great Recession more than many of its neighbors. During a three-day visit to the district in March, talking to many frustrated unemployed workers and small businessmen -- the real-estate appraiser with a history degree who is now looking for a supermarket checkout job, the copy center owner who’s laid off everyone except his own daughter -- they voice concern and even anger at Broun’s shunning of practical politics for the paranoid style. Catching up with Broun himself is not easy, until a rare public event appears on his calendar -- the annual Eggs and Issues Breakfast of the Hart County Chamber of Commerce, where about 80 small-business types and local pols are here in the basement learning center of the public library, piling cheesy scrambled eggs and biscuits onto plastic plates and gulping down coffee from Styrofoam cups before the politicking begins in earnest.

Rep. Paul Broun Jr. ambles down the steps a few minutes after 8, making sure that everyone knows he was on a very late flight back from Washington. He declares he wants Georgians to know that he knows that they’re hurting. He relates that an official in Lincoln, Georgia, told him that unemployment dropped there from 14 percent to 10 percent but when he asked what jobs had been created, he learned the answer was none. "People have just stopped looking because there aren’t any jobs," Broun says.

For about 15 minutes, Broun stands in front of this breakfast club while he verbally dances in circles -- zigzagging back and forth between touting his bill that he believes would create jobs by the two-year elimination of capital gains and dividend taxes and deep cuts in payroll taxes as the same time he is sponsoring a balanced budget amendment. "We’ve got to stop the outrageous spending," he says. He attacks Obama and Democratic leaders for putting the focus onto health care and away from jobs -- but then he keeps doing the exact same thing. He also seeks to reconcile his Bircher-inspired views on the Constitution with his own lifelong struggle against addiction and for control that he finally answered for himself with Jesus Christ. "Liberty is freedom bridled by morality," he explains, adding that "we have to have something to control our freedom -- which is morality."

Who defines what is moral was not clear.

"I apologize -- I have to run, I have to go to Atlanta," Broun says, but then stops to talk to reporters outside the rear entrance. He makes it sound like what is happening in the Tea Parties is a lot more energizing than his duties in Congress: "The sleeping giant is rising up and I’m excited because freedom-loving Americans all across this country are saying no to this huge growth of government," says Broun, who speaks repeatedly of the backlash movement as "lighting grassfires" and calls himself at one point "a freedom fighter."

He acknowledges that he’s certainly aware of the Oath Keepers but is unable to elaborate much -- "I look more across the board and not at specific groups." He is more explicit in his defense of the John Birch Society: "The thing about the John Birch Society is they’ve been promoting constitutional government for a long, long time -- so yes, I think they have a very strong place to play to try to educate the American people."

And how does he view Obama now? He seeks to explain away the Hitler controversy but also insists that the president has changed little from his college days, when Obama had written in his autobiography that he was drawn to Marxist professors. He also cites "[h]is mention in speeches of basic Marxist doctrine -- 'from each to his own ability to each according to his need' -- which came right out of Karl Marx’s writing," although there is in fact no evidence that Obama has ever cited that passage. You ask if Obama is an authoritarian, and Broun launches into a monologue about the auto takeovers, his aide who’s been described as a "car czar," and on health care. "So, yes, I see that he wants to set up authoritarian rule. Whether it’s based on Marxism or purely socialistic, I don't know." He goes on to add his displeasure that the president (in Broun’s worldview, anyway) seems to believe that America is part of a family of nations, that it is not special. "We’re the only superpower in the world -- we’re the only exceptional country."

Back inside the Eggs and Issues breakfast, the citizens of "the only superpower in the world" are still beseeching their local elected officials for help, trying to figure out how Georgia would cope with the looming massive cuts in higher education, or whether any local companies might be expanding instead of laying people off for a change, or why their state spends more money on incarcerating citizens than other states.

Meanwhile, Congressman Broun misses most of his constituents’ economic complaints by heading off -- even though his event in Atlanta actually isn’t until 3 o’clock that afternoon. It's a Tea Party rally organized by the pro-business FreedomWorks on the steps of the state capitol -- 90 minutes removed from where the economically battered constituents of Broun’s 10th Congressional District live and look for work.

By Will Bunch

Will Bunch is a senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News and author of the political blog Attytood.

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