Retired Republican House and Senate staffer Mike Lofgren spoke with Truthout in Washington, DC, this fall. Lofgren's first commentary for Truthout, "Goodbye to All That: Reflections of a GOP Operative Who Left the Cult," went viral, drawing over a million unique views.
Although Mitt Romney used the word "conservative" 19 times in a short speech at the February 10, 2012, Conservative Political Action Conference, the audience he used this word to appeal to was not conservative by any traditional definition. It was right wing. Despite the common American practice of using "conservative" and "right wing" interchangeably, right wing is not a synonym for conservative and not even a true variant of conservatism - although the right wing will opportunistically borrow conservative themes as required.
Right-wingers have occasioned much recent comment. Their behavior in the Republican debates has caused even jaded observers to react like an Oxford don stumbling upon a tribe of headhunting cannibals. In those debates where the moderators did not enforce decorum, these right-wingers, the Republican base, behaved with a single lack of dignity. For a group that displays its supposed pro-life credentials like a neon sign, the biggest applause lines resulted from their hearing about executions or the prospect of someone dying without health insurance.
Who are these people and what motivates them? To answer, one must leave the field of conventional political theory and enter the realm of psychopathology. Three books may serve as field guides to the farther shores of American politics and the netherworld of the true believer.
Most estimates calculate the percentage of Republican voters who are religious fundamentalists at around 40 percent; in some key political contests, such as the Iowa caucuses, the percentage is closer to 60. Because of their social cohesion, ease of political mobilization and high election turnout, fundamentalists have political weight even beyond their raw numbers. An understanding of their leaders, infrastructure and political goals is warranted. Max Blumenthal has done the work in his book "Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party." Blumenthal investigates politicized fundamentalism and provides capsule bios of such movement luminaries as James Dobson, Tony Perkins, John Hagee and Ted Haggard. The reader will conclude that these authority figures and the flocks they command are driven by a binary, Manichean vision of life and a hunger for conflict. Their minds appear to have no more give and take than that of a terrier staring down a rat hole.
Blumenthal examines the childhoods of these religious-right celebrities and reveals a significant quotient of physical and mental abuse suffered at the hands of parents. His analysis of the obvious sadomasochistic element in Mel Gibson's films - so lionized by the right wing - is enough to give one the creeps. But the book is by no means a uniformly depressing slog: the chapter titled "Satan in a Porsche," about fundamentalist attempts to ban pornography, approaches slapstick.
According to the author, the inner life of fundamentalist true believers is the farthest thing from that of a stuffily proper Goody Two Shoes. They seem tormented by demons that those in the reality-based community scarcely experience. That may explain their extraordinary latitude in absolving their political and ecclesiastical heroes of their sins: while most of us might regard George W. Bush as a dry drunk resentful of his father, Newt Gingrich as a sociopathic serial adulterer and Ted Haggard as a pathetic specimen in terminal denial, their followers on the right apparently believe that the greater the sin, the more impressive the salvation - so long as the magic words are uttered and the penitent sinner is washed in the Blood of the Lamb. This explains why people like Gingrich can attend "values voter" forums and both he and the audience manage to keep straight faces. Far from being a purpose-driven life, the existence of many true believers is a crisis-driven life that seeks release, as Blumenthal asserts, in an "escape from freedom."
An observer of the right-wing phenomenon must explain the paradox of followers who would escape from freedom even as they incessantly invoke the word freedom as if it were a mantra. But freedom so defined does not mean ordinary civil liberties like the prohibition of illegal government search and seizure, the right of due process, or the right not to be tortured. The hard right has never protested the de facto abrogation of much of the Bill of Rights during the last decade. In the right-wing id, freedom is the emotional release that a hostile and psychologically repressed person feels when he is finally able to lash out at the objects of his resentment. Freedom is his prerogative to rid himself of people who are different, or who unsettle him. Freedom is merging into a like-minded herd. Right-wing alchemy transforms freedom into authoritarianism.
Robert Altemeyer, a Canadian psychologist, has done extensive testing to isolate and describe the traits of the authoritarian personality. His results are distilled in his book "The Authoritarians." He describes religious fundamentalists, the core of the right-wing Republican base, as follows:
They are highly submissive to established authority, aggressive in the name of that authority and conventional to the point of insisting everyone should behave as their authorities decide. They are fearful and self-righteous and have a lot of hostility in them that they readily direct toward various out-groups. They are easily incited, easily led, rather un-inclined to think for themselves, largely impervious to facts and reason and rely instead on social support to maintain their beliefs. They bring strong loyalty to their in-groups, have thick-walled, highly compartmentalized minds, use a lot of double standards in their judgments, are surprisingly unprincipled at times and are often hypocrites.