Book Review: Over the Cliff: How Obama’s Election Drove the American Right Insane
I know I am not the only person to ask themselves “Why are these people completly insane?” while watching the news (or, while watching the bits of Fox News crazy that The Daily Show cherry picks for our amusement). I know this because John Amato and David Neiwert wrote Over the Cliff. Surely, they started with the same “What the hell?” sentiment that so many non-conservatives—and probably quite a few fiscal conservatives have felt since this century began and George W. Bush took office. What happened? How did we get here? More importantly, how can we get out?
Over the Cliff was published in 2010, so while a few things have changed since it came out, the analysis and coverage of the events leading up to Obama’s election and his first year in office are on point. Amato and Neiwert are both internauts of the original liberal blogosphere (do we have a better word for this yet?), with Amato being the creator of the Crooks and Liars blog. They both seem to have a fair bit of news watching street cred and, hey, they lived this period—and more importantly they were paying attention (unlike me, finishing college and having an existential crisis).
The first thing that stood out to me from reading the coverage of the Obama campaign was just how racist it was. I remembered that it had been racist, but seeing the vitriol compiled in text was alarming. I’m used to racism operating in its normal, insidious way, but seeing flat out racism is, for me, really shocking. Of course, much of the blatantly racist quotes are stated in that crazy, nonsensical way that we have come to know and love from Republicans. For a fine example: “Obama wins, I’m gonna move to Alaska. Haven’t you heard that the United States is gonna be taken down from within? What better way to get taken down from within than having the President of the United States be the one that’s going to do it?” Irrefutable logic, truly.
As much as it is fun to giggle at the apparent stupidity of some of these people, Over the Cliff makes the point that when networks like Fox News prominently feature incendiary rhetoric, people who hold these same beliefs feel validated, like their beliefs are correct and right because someone on national television is sharing in the same sentiments. As such, the book takes aim at people like Glenn Beck, in particular, for giving a forum to this militant fringe crazy bullshit.
A lot of these right-wing extremists subscribe to the “lone wolf” ideology, which is a form of “leaderless resistance.” By operating alone, it is difficult to pin down some kind of hierarchy that could be targeted by law enforcement, but it also means that a quite often crimes or terrorist acts committed by extremists often aren’t connected with the ideology because they appear to be a one-off event by a crazy person. In fact, the “oh, that guy is just crazy!” defense seems to be a popular one. The book discussed a few instances where there was a shoot-out or someone reacted with what was an apparently disproportionate response for the situation, at least based on the way the news reported it. Whereas in many such cases, the perpetrator can be connected with extreme right wing ideology, either via activity on the Stormfront forums or similar sites. What’s really convenient about that for the people on TV fanning the flames of these people is that they can just say “He’s a crazy person! Not my fault!” and move on from the subject. Glenn Beck did this pretty often. Unfortunately, unless you’re paying extremely close attention (or you are in on the right-wing extremist secret handshakes) they do seem like unrelated crazy people flying off the handle, making things seem just insane, when they represent a pattern of violence based on an extreme ideology.
Another theme of the book is Fox News’ promotion of the Tea Party. It seems like they never would have gone anywhere if it hadn’t been for Fox promoting their events and really signing on with the message (anyone remember the Tea Party Express?). With the emergence of the Tea Party movement, the “Birther” issue and the “Obama is a socialist/Marxist/Hitler” rhetoric took on a life of their own in the insane signage that many of the participants carried. Again, Amato and Neiwert make it clear that this is really a function of racism. These people did not have a cogent message other than “Oh no, black man!” Thus, they equated Obama with all the worst political things they could think of and continually tried to cast doubt on his legitimacy. Racism all the way.
When the issue of passing some health care legislation came up in is when the Tea Party found its voice. The authors express that after the initial tax day protests and the 9/12 foolishness, the Tea Party was losing momentum and lacked any kind of focus, but unfortunately for the rest of us, the health care debates invigorated them. The Tea Party leadership actually distributed guidelines to people on how to be maximally disruptive during town hall events so that there could be no civil discourse. From a rational point of view, it is really hard to understand why you would want to shut down a discussion where people might be sharing actual information. Even after reading this book, I still don’t totally understand that, but it seems to be fueled by racism and the espousal of just really extreme beliefs. I’m sure there’s a certain element of mental instability as well, but I’ll go ahead and admit that’s mostly speculation.
It ends on a not very hopeful note, cautioning us against being dragged down by right-wing madness, but also giving a call to action to everyone else. I think now, a few years down the line, things are more optimistic in some ways, but the same in some others. First of all, Glenn Beck—the book’s villain—no longer has a show on Fox News. For this, we all rejoice. I think that Obama’s landslide re-election beat back some of the crazier sentiments that emerged during his first term. The people have spoken! We’ve now elected a black man to the presidency twice, any person of color who comes after Obama will not have it as bad as he did. He has made it possible for everyone else. In news that is both hopeful and profoundly depressing, Mother Jones offered this article on the outcome of adopting many Tea Party policies in Florida. The state cut taxes, 4 million people are without health care, $3 billion was taken from education, and agencies that serve disabled people were hugely cut. While there is nothing hopeful about this news for Florida, I hope that everyone else in the country sees this and realizes that this is the “logical” extension of the policies of the Tea Party. Hopefully, over the next few election cycles, Florida digs its way out of this madness and the rest of us can let the Tea Party become a historical footnote.