Chip Berlet, "Putting the Right Under a Microscope"

Putting the Right Under a Microscope:

An Interview with Chip Berlet, Political Affairs

[Editor's note: Chip Berlet is a senior analyst at Political Research Associates and has written, edited and co-authored numerous articles on right-wing activity and government repression for The Boston Globe, The New York Times, The Progressive, The Nation, The Humanist, and The St. Louis Journalism Review. Berlet edited Eyes Right! Challenging the Right-wing Backlash (PRA and South End Press, 1995). He is also co-author with Matthew N. Lyons of Right-wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort (Guilford Press, 2000).]

PA: What are the main political forces that compose the right?

CB: You can probably divide up the right into three broad categories: the secular right, the Christian right, and the xenophobic right. Everyone to the right of the Republican Party is sometimes lumped together in a variety of ways. And although they overlap, they really make up different sectors that sometimes can agree on an agenda and sometimes can’t. So coalition-building is crucial to their success.In the secular right you have the standard Republican corporate internationalists, the Rockefeller wing of the corporate right. They think that trade barriers are bad and moving capital and property across borders is fine, but people should be restricted. Then there is a group of people who don’t like that. They are business nationalists. They like strong borders, lots of sovereignty, and trade restrictions. That is the Buchanan wing of the Republican Party. Then there are economic libertarians who don’t like any kind of government regulation except the most basic. They often come into alignment with the corporate internationalists around trade, but end up opposing all kinds of government regulations that the corporate internationalists would support. They’re separate. Libertarians are basically right-wing anarchists for want of a better term. They’re very Darwinian, Ayn Rand-type people. The purists will argue that she’s not really a libertarian, but close enough. Then there’s the national security military establishment. They’re ultra patriots and support unilateral US intervention around the world. Finally, the neo-conservatives are new conservatives because they were liberals and in many cases socialists in the 1950s and 1960s. They developed a backlash against the liberation movements and the anti-war movement of the 1960s. Some of them aligned with cold war liberals like Humbert Humphrey and Scoop Jackson and people like that. They are a group of people who are really offended by gay rights, by the feminist movement, by the idea that America should rein itself in in terms of intervention when its needs, as perceived by the elites, are threatened. So they really are an unusual group of people.

A lot of people note that there are some high profile Jews and a handful of Catholics in the neo-conservative movement. While that’s true, you have to be careful not to step over that line into saying it’s a Jewish movement, because it’s not. A lot of people confuse the issue. The LaRouche people will talk about the neo-conservatives and they use phrases on their pamphlets like "children of Satan." That’s kind of an old medieval anti-Semitic kind of framing. People need to be careful here.

PA: So you’re emphasizing that it’s secular?

CB: It really is secular. It’s rooted in a Judeo-Christian morality, but it’s really a secular movement. It combines a metaphysical demand for the morality of the American way of life, as they define it, which is basically capitalism that is unregulated. But it’s a secular movement. It has a base of support that should not be overlapped with phrases like the "Jewish lobby," which is a problematic term because it simply erases the fact of Jews who struggle for justice in the Middle East and for Palestinian rights. That’s just a caution that a lot of people are being sucked into this LaRouchian and anti-Semitic view of the neo-conservatives as Machiavellian.

The Christian right, of course, everybody’s heard of because they are very powerful. The Christian right is the largest single voting bloc within the Republican Party. It is really significant force that needs to be given patronage by the Republicans. People get appointed to federal agencies, and their legislative agenda gets put on the front burner. But even within the Christian right you have two sectors. One would be Christian nationalists. They see America as God’s chosen land, but they draw the line and work within the system. Whereas the Christian theocrats, the harder right wing of the Christian right, are people who think that only Christian men deserve to rule American society. Theocracy means rule of the godly as represented by a particular religious viewpoint. They’re a pretty scary group. The Christian Coalition would be like the Christian nationalists and groups like the Christian Reconstructionists are Christian theocrats.

What a lot of people call the extreme right or the ultra right is part of a larger sector that we call the xenophobic right, which is made up of the folks in the militia movement, the patriot movement, or groups like the John Birch Society. They are very anti-globalist and often work with the Buchanan wing of the business nationalists.

Then there is a group you might have heard of that call themselves the paleo-conservatives. They were a backlash against the neo-conservatives. This is the old-fashioned, usually nativist, usually anti-Semitic, often elitist groups of people who really think the Republican Party is way too liberal. By "paleo" they mean they’re the dinosaurs, they are the old form of conservatism, which, prior to FDR’s election, would have been typical of the Republican Party. But most of the slightly racist, slightly anti-Semitic, elitist brand of Republican Party politics that was popular before World War II got shelved after World War II because it just couldn’t be sold to any kind of mass audience.

Then there are white racial nationalists. They are always worried about the immigrants coming in and alien cultures destroying America. Some of them are biological racists who think whites are genetically superior – that would be the people who liked the book The Bell Curve. And there are also cultural supremacists who say that it is not race so much as the proper culture. Of course the culture they are promoting is white. An example of that in some way are the Promise Keepers. They represent a form of cultural supremacy because while they work with a lot of Black members, the price you pay for being allowed into the club of men in the Promise Keepers is abandoning the Black Protestant tradition, which is liberationist. There’s a codicil: you can join the boys club but you have to give up Black culture in order to do it. You have to become more white culturally.

Then of course, the ultra right, the extreme right, the neo-nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, the pagan neo-nazis, the creativity movement, and the National Alliance. This is a range of groups that want to overthrow the current system and replace it with a kind of authoritarian dictatorship that promotes white rights and either expels or murders people of color, Jews and for the most part homosexuals.

PA: How does Bush knit this complex picture together to get enough votes to win an election. To be more specific, is he a Christian theocrat or is he just playing politics?

CB: He’s a Christian nationalist. On paper he belongs to a fairly mainstream Protestant denomination, but he considers himself born again. That makes him a conservative Christian evangelical. What’s interesting here then is he has knit together two groups around foreign policy and domestic policy, and that would be the Christian evangelical right and the neo-cons.

Those are two very interesting groups. They both have a kind of apocalyptic view of the world. By apocalyptic I mean there’s a confrontation coming between good and evil. We have to act now because time is running out and this will shape the history of the world. And when it’s dualistic as in this "us-them and "good-evil" rhetoric that you do hear form George Bush, it leads to confrontation obviously. Now the Christian evangelicals who are apocalyptic have a script written in the Bible in the book of Revelations and other books of the Bible in which the Middle East plays an important role in the return of Jesus Christ, specifically Israel, Jerusalem and the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which is currently known by another name by the Muslims who have the mosque there.

Most people realize that capitalism as a political system isn’t like six guys drinking bourbon in a basement on Wall Street pulling puppet strings.

For Christian Nationalists, who are part of the Bush coalition, their apocalypticism is rooted in this biblical prophecy in which Jews have to hold Israel and then rebuild the temple on the temple mount. I don’t think Bush is caught up in this particular apocalyptic mindset, yet apocalyptic thinking has spread all throughout American culture since the days of the Puritan colonists and the idea of the American Promised Land and the coming apocalyptic struggle. I think Bush has picked up a secular apocalyptic worldview from this religious background. That allows him to develop a rhetoric that really resonates with Christian evangelicals who believe in this dualistic form of apocalypticism without him having to believe the specific prophecies.

At the same time, the neoconsevatives in their own way have a secular apocalyptic viewpoint. They saw the antiwar movement as subversive and undermining America in the 1960s and 1970s. They saw the social liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s destroying the moral fiber of America. And they developed a secular apocalyptic view that America had to clean house, straighten up, and take control of the world before things fell apart. The neocons are coming from this secular apocalypticism that is elitist in its root. When people talk about the influence of people like Strauss on the neocons their talking about this elitist aggressive assertion of dominance. That happens to fit, even though it comes from a different place, with the prophetic apocalyptic dualism of the Christian evangelicals. So Bush can get away with networking them both through apocalyptic rhetoric and the neocons hear it as a secular apocalyptic and dismiss the end times stuff, and the Christians hear it as a religious apocalyptic and embrace the end times stuff.

But it allows Bush to use the same rhetoric to reach two audiences. Along the way he picks up the national security establishment, he picks up corporate internationalists who are worried about radical Islam closing off sources of goods, profit, raw materials and consumers, and the business nationalists who are xenophobic and are worried about Muslims and Arabs.

PA: Why do so many former administration officials and military officials come out against Bush’s agenda?

CB: There’s a split in the elite. Most people realize that capitalism as a political system isn’t like six guys drinking bourbon in a basement on Wall Street pulling puppet strings. It’s much more complicated. There are all sorts of conflicting forces here. What’s happening is that among the corporate internationalists and among some national security militarists there’s a sense that Bush is a little out of control. These people want American hegemony, but they also know that if you keep hitting people with a stick often enough, they’re going to grab the stick and hit back. This is a common theme among multinational corporations and those military people worried about over committing, over-stretching the American ability to use military force in a strategic and limited manner. So for those people Bush has gone to far. He’s creating a global backlash in both the Arab world and the Islamic world that could last decades. He’s stripping the number of people who are able to mobilize in the military down to dangerously low levels by committing so many forces in Iraq and in other places – so much so that tours are being extended against the wishes of the soldiers who are over there. He’s looting the treasury to pay for this. A lot of corporate internationalists are keeping an eye on how you can cut taxes and increase the national debt and at the same time spending billions on adventures overseas.

So he’s got a number of constituencies splitting. That would include the corporate internationalists, the national security militarists and even some Christian nationalists are starting to get worried about the civil liberties dimensions of what’s going on under Ashcroft. Even though Ashcroft himself is a right-wing evangelical who’s very apocalyptic, there are some Christian right activists, primarily folks at the Free Congress Foundation, but others, who are afraid that the government has too much power and it is instituting a form of political repression which worries even them.

PA: Why dissect the right this way? Why not just lump them all together and say, "Let’s make sure they all are out of power and can’t dominate the country"?

CB: We do need oppose them and we don’t want them to run the country. People who are progressive should be running the country. They’d be doing a better job, at least in my mind. So the answer is that progressives can use this understanding of these different factions to develop strategies and tactics that can be effective at a grassroots level, on the state level and on the federal level in building tactical coalitions – not strategic coalitions. You can build a tactical coalition around certain issues, knowing that there are people who can be made to break away from supporting Bush. Even though you might not get them to vote Democratic or for a third party candidate, sometimes its useful, if you are trying to take back institutional power and give yourself more breathing room within the current political and social system, to get those people who might reelect George Bush to stay home. To know which groups might be willing to do that because they are fed up is an important piece of knowledge to have in order to build an effective strategy.

PA: How did the right come to dominate?

CB: It goes back to a backlash against social welfare and the FDR administration. Capitalism was in such a crisis during the Depression that substantial concessions had to be given to working people and the impoverished in order to stabilize the political and economic system. As far as a lot of people in the Republican Party are concerned this was state socialism – gasp. So, after World War II, a lot of people on the right decided that they had to clean house from the more overt white supremacy, anti-Semitism and the kookier conspiracy theories and really try and rebuild the Republican Party that would roll back the government. In fact today the slogan is literally "starve the beast." Basically, they wanted to unravel the government in terms of the bureaucracies, to get rid of support for things like public education, and social welfare, and all sorts of social safety net and public good kinds of activities that the government had taken on over many years, since the 1800s with things like public education, which becomes solidified in people’s minds as appropriate under the Roosevelt administration.

World War II intervenes. After World War II, people like William F. Buckley are trying to build a new consensus on the political right. And he does that. He puts together moral traditionalists, anti-Communists, big business people, and even some libertarians and says look, we can agree that we have to unravel the federal government and get it out of our lives. They began to organize. The first time they tried to take over was with the Goldwater campaign in 1964. That turned out to be a pretty big disaster. So they developed a broad strategy that said this is going to take longer than we thought.

They began to build all these right-wing think tanks inside Washington to promote ideas like the Heritage Foundations for the corporate internationalists, the Cato Institute for the libertarians, Free Congress Foundation for the Christian right, the American Enterprise Institute and other places like that. They begin to dominate the discussion about policy formation. At the same time there were a group of operatives who wanted to take over the Republican Party, people like Paul Weyrich, Howard Phillips, Jerry Falwell, Richard Viguerie, Robert Billings and Ed MacAteer, people involved with the Christian right, but also people who’d seen the George Wallace campaign get a lot of votes and also the Goldwater campaign. They basically knitted together the mailing lists from both the Wallace campaign and the Goldwater campaign, recognizing, of course, that the first set of Wallace campaigns were pretty racist. They were trying to put together a new white voting bloc essentially.

If you’re a political party that really represents wealthy elites — let’s call the Republican Party for what it is — you don’t have a lot of votes. So how do you get a voting base to support wealthy elitism? First, you repackage it as saving America from all these threats and you develop a kind of apocalyptic view that America is going to hell, literally or figuratively, religiously or secularly. Then you build an alliance with televangelists. These are Christian preachers who are building a huge following on television as well as radio and print media. Then these people literally came up with the idea of the Moral Majority and the idea was to try and drive a wedge — especially in the South with white working people and white middle class people — around a whole set of cultural issues.

In the South, for a variety of reasons having to do with white racism, a lot of people who are relatively conservative vote the Democratic Party line, are Southern Democrats. There’s an attempt around the first Reagan election to put together a new voting bloc of folks. What happens is a lot of relatively conservative people who previously had not voted were pulled into the polls and were mobilized to vote for Reagan in 1980. In 1984 this process of recruitment and mobilization got a lot of Southern white democrats and other white Democrats to shift parties and begin to vote for the Republican Party because of promises around things like prayer in public school or stopping abortion rights or not giving away the Panama Canal. I could never figure that one out. It was a sop to the militarists. They said, it is ours we built it, and even it’s another country, it’s still ours — ultrapatriotism.

Essentially by keeping the pressure on, they outmaneuvered the Democrats whose absolutely suicidal decision of the muckety-mucks in the Party then was to see if they could be more like Republicans, which, of course, is always a losing strategy. So they began to move to the right. As the Democrats moved to the right, the Republicans moved further to the right and said, we do it better. And of course they do. So the destruction of the Democratic Party has been the seizure of it by wealthy elites who just happen to Democrats who developed a policy of moving to the right to match the Republicans when there’s no evidence that that attracts votes.

So the question is, whether or not Kerry, who seems to be saddled with this centrist baloney put forth by the Democratic Leadership Council, can inspire enough people to move back into the voting booth and vote Democratic. The one thing that might save him, because he is a very dull person who is known locally in Massachusetts as one of the most irritatingly arrogant and aloof people on the planet, is that Bush is so much more repulsive that it might be enough to overcome people’s natural resistance to vote for somebody like a Kerry.

PA: Why does the right seem to have appeal for "middle America" when its main goal is to end programs that benefit "middle America"?

CB: One reason, quite frankly, is unexamined white racism and a kind of phobia around the feminist movement and the gay rights movement. There was a backlash and a lot of people backed away from the Democratic Party. As that happened, instead of trying to educate people why this would be the new New Deal coalition, or the Fair Deal — we could have rebuilt that coalition, including working people of all colors, middle class people who are vaguely liberal or progressive, feminists, gay rights, a whole range of folks concerned with the environment, concerned with peace. This could have been a winning coalition. Instead the people in Washington panicked and said, we’re losing some of the traditional blue collar white vote. Rather than develop a campaign to educate people about why a broader coalition was not just necessary but good. They began to push people out of the party, tightened up the procedures for participation and decided to move to the right to see if they could get their traditional core voters back. In doing so, they lost all the new voters coming in. Or at least they alienated them enough so they no longer saw themselves as loyal to the Democratic Party. Many of them stopped voting.

What did the Republicans do right? Well, they developed a rhetoric of apocalypse. They developed a rhetoric of what Jean Hardisty, who founded Political Research Associates, called "mobilizing resentment." Whatever you’re resentful over, there’s a Republican candidate willing to peddle it to you for votes. The shameful thing is that as this started out as panic peddling for votes around issues like immigration, terrorism, taxes, the so-called collapse of public education (by which private entrepreneurs get enriched by setting up schools that cost more and educate fewer people). They developed a whole rhetoric by which people would vote against their own interests.

Now this goes back to old theories about false consciousness and how do you get people vote against their own interests? Historically, it’s not because people are stupid or uneducated or deranged. It’s that people are convinced through carefully crafted rhetoric that there’s something scarier than their economic or class self-interest or other kinds of self-interest that would be evident if they weren’t being pushed around by scary stories.

PA: Should the left and progressive movements simply mimic that process? Or do we do something new?

CB: Some things are worth mimicking and some things are not. It’s wrong for people who consider themselves progressive to use resentment as a mobilizing tool. It’s wrong to scapegoat, to demonize, to spread conspiracy theories about some faceless, nameless other. It’s wrong to scare people into voting for you. If we want to build a more democratic society, we have to use different tools. On the other hand should we try to mobilize a broader base and build coalitions? Yes. We should try to get more foundations that see themselves as liberal or progressive to fund more strategic research, more framing of messages, train young people, and people from a broad range of constituencies to be forceful public speakers, put more people in the field to do organizing. If the progressive movement is going to rebuild itself, it can’t be rebuilt by top-down structures. If it’s really built from the ground up and really represents a democratic form, then it’s going to include a lot more people of color, lot more women, gay people, and immigrants. And some of the straight, white Christian men, just like me, are going to have step aside and listen to some new voices. When that energy is mobilized not through resentment but through hope, you’re going to see coalitions that are egalitarian and motivated by a sense of participation that can draw both votes and the energy a social movement needs to begin to push the culture back to where it needs to be.

PA: Do you see that as a long process or something that can happen quickly?

CB: I see it happening all over the country now and it’s interesting that it’s not getting reported. It’s very telling. A good example is when the Democratic National Convention was here in Boston all of the reporters were running around looking at a handful of demonstrators running around Boston, but there were thousands of people at the University of Massachusetts Boston campus at something called the Boston Social Forum. There are some legitimate criticisms there. The turnout was predominantly white, but it was a huge number of people compared to the demonstrators who were engaged in activism downtown. You look around the country in all sorts of communities and there are community-based organizations doing a really good job. It just doesn’t look like the movement of the 1960s, and people need to get over that. They need to see the organizing that’s being done in immigrant communities, in queer Asian communities, around the environment that put eco-activists and labor union people together to talk about the future of an environment that can sustain both nature and jobs. These are exciting things. You look at groups like the Western States Center up in the Pacific Northwest, the Center for Third World Organizing in the Bay area, the Highlander Center, which has been reinvigorated with all kinds of new ideas down in Tennessee. All over the place people are doing really amazing things. I’m an optimist otherwise I wouldn’t be an organizer. I think it’s going to take awhile, but a movement that’s built from the ground up with real diversity and democracy is going to be much more likely to take back America for most people than a top down imposition of some celebrities whose time has come and gone.

But it isn’t useful to misanalyze repressive capitalism as fascism because the trick is fascist movements are quite willing to look at repressive capitalism and say, it’s not enough.

PA: Do we need to fear that fascism is on the way?

CB: We always need to keep an eye open for fascism, because it moves quickly and is devastating. I think the mistake people make is in misunderstanding the idea of Italian corporatism. There’s this quote floating around: fascism is corporatism. It’s attributed to Mussolini, but no one can find him saying it. But here’s the problem. Fascism as a social movement is anti-regime and appears to be anti-capitalist. It’s important to draw a distinction between fascism and state power which forms an alliance with capitalist elites versus fascism as a social movement which appears to involve elements from both the left and right and appeals to working people and appeals to stopping the corruption of the regime. The dilemma here is: Bush is a militarist, he’s imposing all sorts of repression, he’s engaged in all sorts of military operations overseas, but you can do that under capitalism. You don’t need fascism to do that. And as bad as what he is doing is, it’s not fascism.

Yet around the world there are fascist political movements. There are fascist movements in the US. The most militant elements of the Christian right like the Christian Reconstructionists are pretty much accurately called fascistic. But you look at groups like the Taliban and Al’Qaeda and they’re as much a form of theocratic fascism as any of the others. Look at Hindutva in India, the Hindu nationalist movement, and there clearly are elements of fascism there. Whenever you combine xenophobia, anti-regime politics, and apocalyptic dualism with a form of militant nationalism, you have the basic elements to build fascism.

So we need to be opposing both US imperialism and unregulated capitalist aggression and we need to be opposing the rise of ethno-nationalist militant movements that want to wipe out their enemies completely. That’s a balance that’s hard for people to find. But it isn’t useful to misanalyze repressive capitalism as fascism because the trick is fascist movements are quite willing to look at repressive capitalism and say, it’s not enough. We need a firmer hand at the helm to fix things. So there is something worse than what we have now. That would be a murderous, militant, dualistic apocalyptic theocracy. I know that for a lot of people of color and immigrants, things are very bad now, but, in fact, things could get worse.

PA: Some on the left use the label of fascism and deliberately confuse the picture to say, well Bush and Kerry are both fascists, so it doesn’t matter what we do in this election.

CB: If you had your choice would you rather walk across hot coals or jump into a blast furnace? They are both forms of fire. The answer is there is relative repression, relative aggression, there are relative kinds of cultural oppression. Insofar as things are going to be opened up more by defeating Bush at home and abroad – to give people some breathing room here, some time to recover from the dramatic assaults that we’ve seen on the Constitution and on international law and other things. I think it is an entitled and privileged point of view that says well I can say Bush and Kerry are both fascists, but if you’re locked up in Guantanamo, or you’re being deported against your will, or you’re facing military arms carried by US soldiers in Iraq, the argument might be that we have a better opportunity to stop that when Bush is out. I recognize all the flaws of Kerry and he doesn’t represent my goal, but we have been pushed so far back under Bush that just to have a little breathing room to recover and have the chance to counter organize would be a useful moment even if that is only a small opening that we’re being given, it is better than what we’re facing now.

PA: So it’s more than, to paraphrase somebody else, "a dimes bit of difference"?

CB: Of course it is. It’s enough of a difference that for some people their lives will be made significantly better, and for all of us, it will give us an opportunity to build a broad coalition to turn things around.