Beck & Limbaugh's twisted mythology: What's really behind right-wing delusions

Prejudice and bigotry are still major influences on our politics, but they can be overcome, an expert tells Salon

Published July 31, 2014 12:30PM (EDT)

Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck           (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Reuters/Chris Keane/Photo collage by Salon)
Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Reuters/Chris Keane/Photo collage by Salon)

As anyone even slightly familiar with the rantings of Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck and many other right-wing pundits and entertainers knows, despite the progress made over the last 50-plus years, there's still plenty of hatred, ignorance and bigotry in American politics. But unlike days before, when appeals to ethnic resentment or other forms of illiberal thinking were made clearly and unashamedly, the way bigotry works in U.S. politics now is a bit more cryptic — and perhaps all the more insidious for it.

Indeed, as professor, author and political theorist Stephen Bronner argues in his new book, "The Bigot: Why Prejudice Persists" (recently excerpted by Salon), bigotry today hides its true self through euphemism and appeals to seemingly innocuous touchstones like tradition or religion. But while that makes it harder to "prove" that an appeal to hatred is just that, the role bigotry plays in supporting unethical public policy is still too large to be ignored. Hoping to hear more about his book, as well as his recommendations for how activists can help weaken political bigotry's power, Salon recently called Bronner. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

What inspired you to write this book now?

I first began thinking about writing this book not long after the electoral victory of President Obama in 2008. It seemed from the start that Sen. Mitch McConnell and much of the Republican Party claimed that their primary purpose was to block any chance that President Obama might have for reelection, and it seemed to me that action at the grass roots, the rise of the Tea Party, accompanied that agenda or substantiated it.

On top of that, there was the rhetoric of the media pundits — Fox News and people like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and Mark Levin and Michael Savage as well as a kind of evangelical fundamentalism that verged on intolerance — [in which] Obama started being called “the Food-Stamp President,” “the Affirmative-Action President,” "an Imam," "a foreigner," even an "anti-christ." I saw posters that identified him with Hitler, placed his head and his wife's head on the bodies of chimpanzees and portrayed the White House with rows of watermelon on the lawn ...

It also seemed to be the case — and this is perhaps the most important thing — that the bigot is no longer the same as he was in the 1950s. It’s no longer Bull Connor. It’s no longer simply the person who explicitly embraces the inferiority of people of color or women or the inherent perversity of homosexuals. It seems to be today, the policies that are directed against these groups are covered by the language of freedom, the language of liberty, the language of individualism. I thought it was time to write a work on the bigot, or a work on prejudice, that emphasized as much what people do in opposing the strivings of previously excluded groups as what they say about them.

Ever since Obama became a national figure, conservatives have complained that his supporters conflate opposing his agenda with being a bigot. Since part of your motivation to write this book was the response to Obama, do you think that criticism is mistaken?

I say in my book that the bigot isn’t always white, he’s not always male, he’s not always rich, and he’s not always conservative. But having said that, historically, the fact of the matter is that there’s been a marked tendency that links bigotry with right-wing movements. I think that’s empirically true.

Now, conceptually, I would put this in three ways. Some conservatives aren’t necessarily prejudiced, or aren’t bigots. But conservatives tend to emphasize three things, in my view: Tradition, and tradition’s fine if it doesn’t simply work for their interests and their particular privileges. In other words, the issue is, is one willing to embrace tradition simply because it exists? So for example, there is talk in the South about the great heritage of the Confederacy. One criticizes the Confederacy for its racism and the response is, “That’s a part of our tradition!” Well, so what? The tradition itself may very well be tainted by bigotry, whether racial or gender or what have you. So I think the issue there is, is tradition taken up in a critical way or is it simply used as a kind of blanket excuse for the maintenance of privilege?

The second thing is conservatives tend to embrace the idea of community, which has its values. There’s a certain gentility, politeness, and you have a pretty good idea of what goes with it —neighborhood and things go with community. But what we have in regards to the bigot is a vision of community that’s fundamentally exclusionary and provincial. And it seems to me that this kind of view is one which maintains the set of barriers for excluded groups to participate. If you think of those old television shows from the 1950s, things like "Father Knows Best" or "Leave It to Beaver," women are in the home, blacks don’t exist or exist in completely subservient roles, gays don’t exist either. There’s vision that the appropriate world — the world of the white picket fence and the small house — was that of the white man. And I don’t think there’s much doubt about that. The extent to which community is identified with this ideal and with an exclusionary set of practices, I think, makes it a perfect ideal for the bigot.

And finally, there’s the question of religion, which I think is taken up and used as a justification for too many forms of intolerance. I think that’s one of the most important things to consider. ... There are many genuinely religious people who are fundamentally decent, tolerant, open-minded; Gandhi, Martin Luther King are the most famous. However, I speak in my book about the "true believer." It’s a term that’s come up often in the literature but I think it’s very appropriate. The true believer is one who thinks not simply that his faith is legitimate, but that all other faiths and beliefs are illegitimate. He works from the assumption that his reading of the Bible or the Quran or any other religious text is the absolute one. When it is questioned, to that extent, his faith is threatened and blasphemy is brought into the world. This kind of attitude — especially when it involves support for certain political policies that don’t accord with those outside his faith — that’s where the intolerance and the bigotry begin. Let me put it to you this way. The question for the true believer and for the conservative is: Is he willing to support policies that allow those other true believers and those who don’t believe in anything at all to express their positions and forward their views as equally as he does?

The three basic categories I try to use to talk about how the conservative or how someone of a conservative or even an authoritarian mind-set can turn into a bigot and that is: The true believer, the elitist ... and, finally, what I call the chauvinist or the provincial (he who believes in that exclusionary notion of community).

One thing I thought of while reading your book is the cliché that "Hate has always been with us" — or something like that. Basically, the idea that the kind of prejudice and intolerance we see from some today is nothing new, is the same old story. You argue the bigot's relationship with modernity is more complicated than that, though.

The bigot, as I see him, is a person who feels himself threatened by modernity. What I mean by modernity is a world that’s becoming bigger, more nations, more groups, entering the public sphere. It’s becoming more cosmopolitan. It’s becoming less Eurocentric. It’s becoming less tradition bound. It’s becoming more individualist in orientation and in the choices it offers. To this extent, I think, the bigot feels psychologically and existentially threatened by tolerance, by cosmopolitanism, by democracy and the open society. And also by ideas of social equality. ...

In a certain way, progress is a modern concept, just like humanity is. It comes out of the Enlightenment, which I also wrote about. And in the pre-modern times, you didn’t really think about, for example, fundamentalism as it’s now talked about. In a way, fundamentalism — the retreat to orthodoxy, the retreat to the past, this entire reactionary outlook — is a reaction to something. And what it’s a reaction to is the progressive dimensions of modernity.

Later in the book, you write about what you call "mythological thinking." What is it, and what role does it play in the bigot's thought process?

The key thing about myth is that it rests on fixed principles. In other words, fate is something that takes away the responsibility of individuals for what they do in everyday life. Part of the dishonesty of the bigot is that he constructs for himself a fixed world in which people can’t change, and this is particularly true for the disadvantaged, for the targets of his bigotry. “Blacks are lazy. Women can’t do mathematics. Gays are obsessed with subverting our children.” This kind of talk, these kind of images, justify the bigot’s belief that nothing can be done to help these people. Policies are useless, or policies that would improve their circumstances are useless. ...

With mythological thinking, one has the stereotype which justifies a certain form of behavior that is close to criticism. It also justifies irrational criticism. It fixes attributes for different groups and it also justifies a kind of projection that often produces the double standard. Let me give you an example of that: In the 1920s, Jews in Germany were accused of conspiratorially engaging in assassinations, perversions, manipulation of the media, and having undue influence not only on the economy, but on the legal system in Germany. In fact, that’s exactly what right-wing undercover groups were doing at the time — not just in Germany but also elsewhere. They engaged in assassinations, the propaganda and the media were deeply tainted by popular works like "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion." The judiciary was directed against left-wing rather than right-wing groups in Weimar Germany. So in other words, the right-wing was doing what it was accusing the left-wing of doing ... That’s what I mean by projection.

How often do you think that kind of projection is part of political bigotry?

I think it’s almost endemic. Let me also suggest something else to you in this regard: If you think of the way in which reactionary groups speak of blacks and women and gays, with regard to their policies, it’s as if they’re always doing them a favor. Really, what these groups want, what reactionary groups like the Tea Party are offering them is cuts in the state, constriction of voting rights and a kind of white male American narrative in the educational system. ... But what’s interesting is that these groups empirically don’t seem to support those demands. From the standpoint of the bigot, that doesn’t matter for various reasons — either too ignorant, too naive, or too foolish to bother to ask anyway.

To return to something you brought up earlier, I wanted to ask you about how you understand the recent, controversial Hobby Lobby ruling from the Supreme Court. The conversation about it — and about the intersection of religion, tradition and gender roles — was very fraught and yet at the same time it was, at least on the surface, sort of disconnected from a more obvious and straightforward debate about women's sexuality. Did you see the Hobby Lobby debate as an example of how traditionalism, modernity and bigotry can clash?

I don’t think there’s any question about this. Let me put it more broadly: When one thinks about the attacks on Planned Parenthood and women’s health clinics and the like, it’s not just a question of abortion, it’s a question of allowing women — and especially poor women — the rights and advantages of a health system from which they’re basically excluded. And that’s how I would begin to talk about Hobby Lobby. The kind of true believer certainty that exists with the question of abortion is also a perfect example of intolerance.

At some level, one has to be willing to take seriously the position of women on this — that they’re responsible people, that they have good interests at heart, and they have a right to make determinations for themselves. It’s one thing to talk about abortion morally; it’s another matter to talk about it legally. A woman can choose to have an abortion, or not choose to have an abortion and given different circumstances, you really don’t know who’s right and who’s wrong. You may not be able to extrapolate from a position of one woman to another. That’s why I think it has to come down to a question of personal choice — because nobody has the answers or the absolute truth, and that’s where pluralism begins. This doesn’t mean you’re a simple relativist, but it means you’re willing to engage different positions and different flows of argumentation and recognize that there’s something to them.

I don't know if you've seen this, but a kind of talking point that's become popular on the left — especially during the Obama years — is that many conservatives seem to think being accused of bigotry is worse than actually being a bigot. How do you explain that phenomenon?

If one thinks about very simple things, if one thinks about the desire to cut food stamps, the scandal about things like aid for Hurricane Katrina, the curtailment of voting rights, the attacks on the cosmopolitan educational system, there it’s just, “Well, it’s one opinion against another.” And the outrage seems to dissipate. In other words, we’re more concerned about the symbolic expression of bigotry than its actual practice.

That reminds me of Cliven Bundy, who infamously said a bunch of ignorant stuff about black people and slavery and the deleterious impact of public assistance. He talked about "the Negro" and was swiftly and roundly criticized — even on the right — as a bigot. And yet, what Bundy was arguing was not that different from what some politicians, like Paul Ryan, say about "culture" among certain populations. It's just that Ryan and the like know how to say these things without causing a tornado of outrage, while Bundy doesn't.

Right. Let me give you one more example of this that might be useful. If you recall, Reagan spoke about and condemned "special interests." Well, who are those special interests? They were the most disadvantaged people in society, especially at that time — people of color, blacks, latinos, women, gays, union members ... Those were the special interests.

I'd be remiss if I didn't bring up the role class plays in your book, which is substantial. As I'm sure you know, there's been a debate raging on the left for some time now between those who think a concentrated focus on class politics would be better for the left and those who are more supportive of what we call identity politics. Do you think it's an either/or situation or that there's another approach possible?

First of all, I think a commitment to liberal ideals and the liberal rule of law is the precondition for furthering social equality and the exercise of diversity. Without civil liberties, the entire discussion about the exercise of identity is moot. It seems to me that, historically, outside the communists, the connection between liberal principles and socialism and social equality are relatively clear from the standpoint of socialism. That would be the entry point.

This leads to the next position. It seems to me that to a certain degree, the argument about identity politics and class politics being rigidly opposed to one another is a mistake. The majority of people within each group are not part of the 1 percent. At some level, what we’re concerned about today is, objectively, the great mass of working people who have so little control over wealth in this country ... Here’s what I suggest: I suggest a class ideal, and the class ideal ironically (or dialectically) is a practical one. That is to say, what it’s essential for activists to do is to raise issues which speak to the interests of class constituents within each of the identity movements and interest groups without privileging anyone. At the same time, it’s obviously the case that I or you can’t go into some women’s organization and say, “Well, look here, what we need is solidarity with black males or white males” or what have you. This is going to be up to activists within those identity groups themselves. Does that make sense?

It is interesting that while progress has been made on the level of identity and on the level of the cultural recognition of so many different groups and traditions, including issues like interracial dating and the like. Even while progress is being made on all those cultural fronts, in economic terms, there’s been the greatest upward shift of wealth in American history since the 1960s.

How do you explain that seeming contradiction?

I think the reason is because you can’t deal with class contradictions from the standpoint of identity. But you can think about the issues from identity of the standpoint of class.

To your point that activists within these communities will be best-served to organize and communicate, I'm reminded of one of my favorite sayings (I can't remember exactly where it comes from, unfortunately): Rights are claimed, not given.

Yes, but at the same time, we have to be clear that in procuring those rights, one doesn’t — even among subaltern groups — fall into or don’t allow themselves to be led by true believers, by elitists, and by chauvanists of their own sort. Because I think it’s an enormous mistake to believe that the exploited are somehow preserved from bigotry.

While your book is an analysis of the way bigotry functions in politics today, you also have some recommendations for how people who want to fight against entrenched prejudice can best go about doing so. What are some of your proposals?

Firstly, what we need to do is be clear about what our tradition is. Our tradition is ultimately that of the Enlightenment and the tradition of libertarian-socialism. It’s essential to specify those and be concentrate on teaching those. In the first instance, James Baldwin once said the reason white people should learn something about black people is because that’s the only way in which they actually learn about themselves. So I think fostering what I call the cosmopolitan sensibility is absolutely crucial, and that’s especially true since the bigot is never simply concerned with one group. Bigotry always works with clusters of targets — women, blacks, different ethnicities.

Second, we have to begin to talk about issues of politics in terms of which groups are economically and politically privileged by those policies — and it’s in that way that we should be able talk about the relation between interests and principles when it comes to the bigot.

It’s also essential ... that we work under the assumption that conservatives aren’t complete idiots; they know these benefits offered by Planned Parenthood are helpful to women in general and poor women in particular. Conservatives know convicts can’t vote and that privatizing the prison system is going to affect primarily people of color. Roughly 70 percent of people in jail are people of color. In short, we have to begin to talk about bigotry in practical economic and political terms rather than simply focus on crude language and cultural anachronisms and the like. ....

Antisemitism, patriarchy, elitism, racism, religious intolerance — all of these prejudices continue to exist. What it’s important for us to do is to see how they’re connected to real policies and to highlight that practical element. It seems to me that to build unity in that regard, among the disadvantaged, that is our primary concern and that will involve recognizing something obvious: Freedom has never been a problem for the bigot, because the bigot already possesses it. The problem is for those who don’t. Solidarity is built upon guaranteeing reciprocity among those who don’t experience that freedom. The way we build that is culturally through cosmopolitanism, politically through a commitment to fundamental liberal principles and economically through a commitment to social equality and socialist tradition. All of it involves a very different educational process than the one we have now.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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