A Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2012
From the author of -Isms and -Ologies and Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies, here is a deeply researched, fascinating history of the role that organized hatred has played in American politics. The New Hate takes readers on a surprising, often shocking, sometimes bizarrely amusing tour through the swamps of nativism, racism, and paranoia that have long thrived on the American fringe. Arthur Goldwag shows us the parallels between the hysteria about the Illuminati that wracked the new American Republic in the 1790s and the McCarthyism that roiled the 1950s, and he discusses the similarities between the anti–New Deal forces of the 1930s and the Tea Party movement today. He traces Henry Ford’s anti-Semitism and the John Birch Society’s “Insiders” back to the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and he relates white supremacist nightmares about racial pollution to nineteenth-century fears of papal plots.
Written with verve and wit, this lively history is indispensible reading for anyone who wants to understand the recent re-ascendance of extremism in American politics.
Birthers, Birchers, and Death Panels
On February 18, 2010, The New York Times ran a story about a significant undercurrent within the Tea Party movement. “Urged on by conservative commentators,” it said, “waves of newly minted activists are turning to once-obscure books and Web sites and discovering a set of ideas long dismissed as the preserve of conspiracy theorists. . . . In this view, Mr. Obama and many of his predecessors (including George W. Bush) have deliberately undermined the Constitution and free enterprise for the benefit of a shadowy international network of wealthy elites.”
It wasn’t exactly news to me. In the fall of 2009, I published a book called Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies. I had written it to satisfy my curiosity about, as one of my blurbers put it, “the wilder reaches of human belief”—and, more particularly, about totalizing systems of thought and faith, a subject I had become interested in while I was researching my previous book, ’Isms & ’Ologies. By the time I finished writing it, I’d learned all I thought I’d ever need to know about the New World Order and its demonic financiers, from the Templars of the twelfth century to the Illuminati, the Elders of Zion, and the Bilderberg elites today.
I delivered Cults to my publisher just after Election Day 2008. When the copyedited manuscript came back to me in January, I couldn’t help noticing that the controversy about the president-elect’s birth certificate wasn’t fading; in fact, it was beginning to gain some real traction. I considered adding a paragraph or two to bring the book up to date but after due reflection decided that references to such a transitory political derangement might just as easily date it. “Who will remember any of this in six months?” I thought.
Had I ventured to define birtherism back then, I would have called it the wishful notion, cherished by a hard core of Obama haters, that he is a citizen of Kenya or Indonesia and hence ineligible to be president. Birthers believe that a sinister cabal created a false identity for Obama that would enable him to be elected president despite his foreign birth, one that was sophisticated enough to pass muster at the highest levels yet so shoddy that anyone with a modem and a few minutes to spare could crack it. His Social Security number, for example, had originally been assigned to a Connecticut resident who was born in the 1890s, and it was just one of the dozens that Obama was purported to have used; the computer-generated shortform birth certificate that he did provide was said to lack the raised seal that would have ensured its authenticity. And why, they asked (until April 27, 2011, when he did), didn’t he release the handwritten long-form certification of live birth that was signed by the doctor who delivered him? Such a conspiracy would have required either supernatural forethought or time travel, as not only is a birth certificate with a raised seal and signature on file in Hawaii’s office of vital records but contemporaneous announcements of Obama’s birth were printed in two Honolulu newspapers.
But citizen or not, who’s to say that Obama’s not a Communist sleeper, a Manchurian candidate who wasn’t just destined for the presidency but literally bred for it? Lisa Schiffren—who made her name writing speeches for Dan Quayle when he was vice president, most famously the one that attacked television’s Murphy Brown for having a child out of wedlock—played with these notions in a piece she wrote for National Review Online in February 2008. “I don’t know how Barack Obama’s parents met,” she noted, before going on to pointedly assert that mixed-race children of Obama’s age tend to be “the product of very culturally specific unions . . . For a white woman to marry a black man in 1958, or 60, there was almost inevitably a connection to explicit Communist politics. . . . It was, of course, an explicit tactic of the Communist party to stir up discontent among American blacks, with an eye toward using them as the leading edge of the revolution.” Other bloggers have speculated that Obama’s real father was Malcolm X or the Communist writer Frank Marshall Davis.
By the time my book hit the stores, I’d seen the words “Where’s the Birth Certificate?” printed in ten-foot-tall letters on a billboard beside Interstate 78, not far from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Not just birthers but Tea Partiers were ubiquitous on talk radio, cable TV, and conservative Web sites like Newsmax, Townhall, and World-NetDaily. Rumors of one world government, creeping Socialism, and Latin American plots to conquer and annex the southwestern states, once the stuff of cheaply printed samizdat publications and shortwave radio broadcasts from backwoods compounds with biblical names, were being trumpeted by big-name pundits and even some elected officials. The Five Thousand Year Leap: 28 Great Ideas That Changed the World, a thirty-year-old book by the late anti-Communist conspiracy theorist W. Cleon Skousen, was perched atop the Amazon best-seller list with a new foreword by cable TV and talk radio’s Glenn Beck.
Now best remembered in far-right-wing Mormon circles, Skousen drew a straight line from the biblical patriarchs through America’s founding fathers and found them equally inspired, but in general he took a more dire view of things; most of the time he seemed convinced that he was living in the Republic’s last days. “There is an extremely high-powered, well-financed campaign afoot to abolish the United States Constitution,” he wrote in 1971 in Law & Order (a trade magazine for policemen that he edited), sounding uncommonly then as Glenn Beck does now. And as long as we’re on the subject of the then hugely popular, agenda-setting Beck (with the expiration of his contract with Fox News, Beck’s future as a TV personality is up in the air), most of his September 2, 2009, Fox News show was devoted to an exposé of the subliminal propaganda that he’d discerned embedded in art deco sculptures, murals, and wall friezes at Rockefeller Center—stunning proof, for those who know how to see it, that its builder, John D. Rockefeller, was a crypto-Communist. It was hardly a coincidence, Beck insinuated, that Fox News’s archrival MSNBC—the employer of Beck’s ideological adversaries and ratings rivals Keith Olbermann (who has since left the network) and Rachel Maddow—would be headquartered in a place so replete with images of hammers and sickles. Oddly enough, Fox News’s headquarters is also located in Rockefeller Center, albeit in a newer, more reliably capitalistic precinct of the vast complex. Walled off from its neighbors’ insidious influences, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, one can only presume, is the West Berlin of television news.
But it wasn’t just conspiracies that people were talking about as my book went out into the world; secret societies and cults were enjoying a renaissance too. Stewart Rhodes’s Oath Keepers, which enlists soldiers and policemen to swear to disobey any orders they deem unconstitutional, was just getting off the ground. Some of the most vociferous early opponents of health-care reform—the ones who first started painting Hitler mustaches on pictures of Barack Obama—turned out to be not Tea Partiers exactly but followers of Lyndon LaRouche.
On the wider cultural front, the novelist Dan Brown, whose megabest-selling Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code had revived some of the most egregious anti-Catholic stereotypes of the Know-Nothing era, was getting ready to launch his next blockbuster. Instead of scheming cardinals and Opus Dei hit men, The Lost Symbol focused on Freemasons in Washington, D.C., with all of their esoteric secrets and hidden histories. In Brown’s telling, the awesomely powerful Masons—billionaires, politicians, and paradigm-changing scientists—not only quaff rare vintages from human skulls but are on the brink of discovering the secret of eternal life.
Ingenious deconstructions of videos by rappers like Jay-Z, Rihanna, and the cult star Lady Gaga were popping up all over the Internet, exposing their cultic and conspiratorial content. The 2009 MTV Music Awards, the Web site the Vigilant Citizen reported, was “a large scale occult ceremony, complete with an initiation, a prayer and even a blood sacrifice.” Millions of people were downloading documentaries like Zeitgeist: The Movie (2007) and Zeitgeist: Addendum (2008), which a reviewer for the Web aggregator Boing Boing likened to “the John Birch Society on acid.” We were living in strange times.
Excerpted from The New Hate by Arthur Goldwag. Copyright © 2012 by Arthur Goldwag. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Arthur Goldwag is the author of Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies, and of -Isms and -Ologies. He lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife and family.
Q: You talk about the fervor over Obama’s birth certificate as one of the factors that made you want to write this book. What else led you to write a book about the role of conspiracy and hatred in America?
A: America’s Founders were men of ideas. But some of the most powerful tropes in the American identity are borne of faith rather than reason. America is the New Jerusalem, blessed and chosen by God; America is Exceptional, it has a Manifest Destiny. But Eden had its serpent—and the obverse side of blind faith is blind hatred. Our long-time adversaries in the USSR were so dangerous because they subscribed to an absolutist ideology, in which the ends always justified the means. American religiosity can be equally dangerous, because it so often devolves into scapegoating.
You know what really got me going, though? It was when I started to read about myself online as a paid tool of the Zionist-Rockefeller-funded New World Order. These people knew nothing about me, but they thought they knew everything. They believed that the world was run by a secret cabal but that somehow it was transparent to them.
I started to read America’s historic haters in a continuous present tense—and I began to see that there has never not been a New Hate of one sort or another.
Q: Did you find that the patterns of conspiratorial thinking and the quest for scapegoats have been most prevalent in times of recession and hardship?
A: Yes, and it’s even more important to recognize that economic hardships have rarely been equally shared. Foreclosed farmers have long felt victimized by eastern bankers—as why wouldn’t they? Unemployed blue collar workers feel victimized by the internationalist fat cats who off-shored their jobs. Societies’ economic winners have always worked hard to deflect the anger of the left-behind onto someone more exotic and sinister-seeming than themselves (Jews, Catholics, immigrants, secular Masons, intellectuals, uppity blacks, homosexual activists, anarchists or, at the outer edges, even semi-hallucinatory factions: devil-worshipping Bilderbergs; billionaire Communists, baby-killing feminists). It’s a vulgar shell game, and it makes me furious that the people who have the most to be angry about let themselves be misled.
Q: Which groups and individuals do you consider to be the largest promoters of The New Hate today?
A: What astounds me is how determined the mainstream media is to NOT acknowledge how much hatred is out there. Ron Paul, a long time Bircher, has appeared countless times on Alex Jones’s conspiratorial 9/11 denialist radio show and signed his name to undeniably racist, homophobic, and conspiracist screeds. Pundits furrow their brows and say, “yes, but he doesn’t seem hateful.” In the meantime, as seemingly disparate groups as white nationalists, Christian dominionists, and Ayn Rand libertarians claim him as their own.
Herman Cain’s basic brand proposition was that he was the antidote to Obama—his own black skin would magically cancel out whatever advantage Obama had gained from affirmative action. He embraced the role of being one of “our blacks,” as Ann Coulter so charmingly put it. Newt Gingrich leapt into the presidential race calling for a ban on Shariah law and mosque-building with the same zeal that Henry Ford attacked the Jewish kahal in the 1920s; Rick Perry tried to revive his foundering campaign with an appeal to defeat the homosexual agenda and beat back the people who declared war on Christmas. Rick Santorum promises us that the day will come when women will be forced to give birth to their rapists’ children. And Mitt Romney, the benign pragmatic businessman, told a rally in Iowa just the other day that “President Obama wants to make us a European style welfare state, where instead of being a merit society we’re an entitlement society, where government’s role is to take from some and give to others….If they do that, they’ll substitute envy for ambition, and they’ll poison the very spirit of America and keep us from being one nation under God.” In another day, they might have called that McCarthyism.
Q: In today’s politics, many mainstream Republicans are trying to court these extremist fringe groups stir up anger and regain power, even if they don’t necessarily support their messages. Could this backfire on the party?
A: I dearly hope so. Occupy Wall Street arose out of frustration with Republican hubris and Obama’s exasperating fecklessness. Now that Obama seems to be adopting some of OWS’s combativeness, his reelection campaign seems less hopeless. Certainly the spectacle in Iowa that just came to such an inconclusive conclusion hasn’t covered the Republican brand with glory.
I think it’s one thing to tell people that Obama wants to kill your grandparents or to rail about Cadillac-driving welfare queens. It’s much harder to take back the few entitlements
that your own constituency has left—and if the Republicans do win in 2012, they will roll back Obamacare, privatize social security and Medicare, and maybe even take us into another unfunded war. I think the Republicans have seriously underestimated the extent of economic misery that’s out there. Reagan’s blue collar Democrats still had good-paying jobs. Today’s blue collar workers are deeply distressed. Obama hasn’t delivered on his promises to them, but neither have the Republicans.
Q: Readers will be surprised by some of the history you present in THE NEW HATE, such as the revived Ku Klux Klan in the 1910s and 1920s, which was run on a for-profit basis. What were some other forgotten histories that you uncovered?
A: One of my favorite anecdotes happens in 1798, when Samuel Morse’s father stands up in the pulpit of his church and says, just like McCarthy would about the Communists a century and a half later, “I have, my brethren, an official, authenticated list of the names, ages, places of nativity, professions, &c. of the officers and members of a Society of Illuminati (or as they are now more generally and properly styled Illuminees) consisting of one hundred members, instituted in Virginia, by the Grand Orient of FRANCE.”
I grew up in the certainty that Eisenhower was a reactionary. It was something of a revelation to me when I learned how potent the forces on his right were, and how hard he worked to hold them in abeyance. Unfortunately, the ideological heirs of people that Eisenhower and Nixon would have regarded as troglodytes are now calling most of the shots.
Q: You write that what’s new about The New Hate is how widespread and mainstream it has become thanks to the internet and the 24-hour news cycle. Had these resources been available to hate groups in America’s past, how do you think our history would have been different?
A: We had a very active press and a cheap and efficient postal service—people could read broadsides that were brimming with anti-Masonic, anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, pro-temperance, abolitionist, Confederate, Silverite, Populist, Radical sentiments, and there were paperbacks and pamphlets that put sites like ConspiracyPlanet and InfoWars to shame. People were bigger joiners in the old days too—there was a whole panoply of single issue political parties for people to join.
But all of that involved a lot of self-selecting. If you were going to join a Know Nothing group, you had to make some effort—maybe you had to buy a uniform and learn a secret handshake and some doggerel, and go to long meetings every week. Nowadays people can pick up crazy conspiracy theories just by clicking on WorldNetDaily’s site—stories that are ratified by Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin when they listen to the radio in their car, or tune into Fox News before dinner. Politicians can reference them, directly or indirectly, with codewords like “Socialism” and “Soros” and “Bill Ayers” and “Saul Alinsky.” The funny thing is that Ron Paul—who is the most deeply steeped in conspiracy theory and who clearly believes his fringe economic theories—is less manipulative in some ways than a cynical, opportunistic figure like Newt Gingrich, who is a much more practiced demagogue.
Q: In addition to your book, you maintain a blog. Do you frequently encounter conspiracists in this forum? How do you communicate with them? Do you try to reason with them?
A: I never reason with them. We might have a common language, but we have no common ground. I don’t censor their posts and I try to do justice to their ideas when I write about them—I’m not into ad hominems—but I don’t engage with them directly, in the same way that I try not to make eye contact with people who preach on subways.
Q: Is there any hope for us to break the cycle of hate?
A: We’ll never break it if we don’t call it what it is. That’s what I’m all about—getting people to recognize the proverbial elephant in the room.
Praise for The New Hate:
"Titillating, shocking, brilliant, and often hilarious . . . a mesmerizing tour through the landscape of nutbaggery in the US."
"The most up-to-date. . . . The best written and the least paranoid [book] about paranoid haters."
—In These Times
"Arthur Goldwag’s dig through the history of American hate groups and haters . . . finds plenty of demented, paranoid, vitriolic dirt. . . . Goldwag is at his best when finding xenophobic parallels between anti-Catholic nativists and flamboyant anti-Semites, or language shared by extremist critics of FDR and Obama."
—The Portland Mercury
"A provocative, intellectually rigorous book written clearly and with an admirable lack of hatred."
—Kirkus Reviews (starred)
"Goldwag has performed a valuable service in tracing the history of the new hate to the old."
—Ron Rosenbaum, author of Explaining Hitler and How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III
"A comprehensive history of hatred—it’s a history of misunderstanding fueled by a brand of ignorance so unbelievably irrational, so egregiously wrong, so utterly antihuman, that it staggers the imagination of thinking adults. What Goldwag shows clearly is that the new hate is the old hate of anti-Semitism, overt racism, and paranoid conspiracy warmed up and served cold."
"Fantastic—well written, clear-headed, sober. . . . Arthur Goldwag’s The New Hate helps lay bare and make excruciatingly clear why the populist right is what it is at present. . . . A riveting read. . . . If you’re just coming to (socio-political) consciousness and want to understand how we’ve moved in the ways we have for the past decade+, this book’s where to go."
—Weston Cutter, Corduroy Books
“Loaded with insightful and obscure information about groups and movements, from the John Birch Society and the Freemasons to the tea partiers and ‘Birthers’. . . . If you are easily roused into rage by the blind ignorance of others, this is not a book for bedtime reading.”
“A lucid and detailed account of the irrational and bigoted right-wing populists and their conspiracy theories of power in the United States. These conspiracists are like intellectual vampires sucking the blood out of the body politic and leaving behind a weakened democracy in a fading twilight for civil society. Goldwag illuminates the conspiracists to reverse their trajectory of increasing influence, which is a periodic problem for our nation.”
—Chip Berlet, co-author of Right-Wing Populism in America
“Arthur Goldwag confronts conspiracist fantasies and paranoia with reason and humanity–not to mention the briskness and drama of great historical storytelling. [His] dissection of how the political fringe has edged into mainstream culture deserves the attention and admiration of everyone who is concerned about the coarsening of our politics.”
—Mitch Horowitz, author of Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation
“The New Hate is a timely examination of the deep roots of the conspiracy theories that have animated the American radical right for more than a century. This important book gives readers the background they need to understand the astounding extremist rhetoric that now passes for mainstream political debate.”
—Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center
“This exhumation of the deep and gnarled roots of the American conspiratorial tradition could not be more timely. Combining a sweeping historical eye and sharp contemporary analysis, Arthur Goldwag explains not just why American politics in the Age of Obama is infected by a virulent strain of right-wing conspiracism–but why it has always been thus. . . . The New Hate covers everything you need to know about the paranoid style in American politics.”
—Alexander Zaitchik, author of Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance
“An informative and lively history of organized hate groups and their role in U.S. politics. . . . A witty narrator, Goldwag combines his research with contemporary analysis to explain what conspiracy theories all have in common and to show how the new hate is the same as the old, though it’s now ‘hiding in plain sight’. . . . Exhaustively well researched and passionately written. . . . Goldwag excels at showing how the obsessions of the past connect with those of the present.”
“Wide-ranging narrative. . . . A useful primer on the nation's ‘long-standing penchant for conspiratorial thinking, its never-ending quest for scapegoats’. . . . [Goldwag’s] thoroughness in exploring this subject is impressive.’”
“A well-reported study of disaffected groups who hate other groups whose members look or think differently than the haters.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“Goldwag’s book makes a wonderful complement to Frank’s more openly polemical analysis [in Pity the Billionaire]. While Frank stresses the unique aspects of the Tea Party movement, Goldwag stresses its continuity with the past (the ‘new hate,’ he argues, is the old hate repackaged). Between them, they get to the heart of a movement that it’s all too easy to dismiss out of hand. Both books are excellent, but together they’re essential.”