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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The 5 Dumbest Right-Wing Reactions to Hurricane Irene


Government planning and preparation helped keep Irene's damage from being even worse than it was. No wonder right-wingers are going nuts.

Surveying damage from Irene in New Jersey.
Photo Credit: Agence France-Presse

As Hurricane Irene leaves the East Coast behind, residents are assessing the damage.

While some areas, like big cities on the Eastern seaboard including New York, suffered perhaps less destruction and danger than expected, inland mountainous regions like New York's Catskills and nearly all of Vermont suffered terrible devastation and flooding. Many people lost their homes, while buildings from century-old covered bridges to giant ski lodges were destroyed. Several towns remain cut off from the outside due to roads being turned into rivers.

In addition, the AP reports that "Hurricane Irene led to the deaths of at least 27 people in eight states," not counting Vermont which is still reporting at least two dead and several people missing as of mid-day Monday.

So while the storm took a slightly unpredicted path, the projections of devastation, precautions taken by government officials, and media blitz undoubtedly saved lives and paid off. The response to the storm, and the relative public calm during it, is one of the most compelling pieces of evidence we have that government works. From early warning systems and federal safety guidelines to updates provided by the National Weather Service and emergency funds that will come from FEMA, state, local and federal agencies protected people, alerted people and are now helping mitigate and repair the damage from a major weather event.

So why, then, is it no surprise that comments and positions from the glib to the evil to the downright bizzarre have already been proliferating in the media, feeding into right-wing frames about goverment not being a good thing? Here's an example: the Beltway media's dismissal of "Hurricane Irene Hype." Media critic Howard Kurtz took to the Daily Beast to bemoan what he claims was overblown media attention to Irene, surmising that because of the need for ratings and the need for government officials to appear competent, this weekend it was all Irene, all the time on TV. I don't know about Kurtz, but personally I tuned in every few hours to actually find out what I was supposed to do, whether I could leave my apartment, and whether my friends and relatives were in the storm's path (I also saw other world events being covered in the media, including on cable TV).

Kurtz prompted a furious response from Brad Friedman, worth reading including depressing pictures of the damage in New York and Vermont which was occurring while or after Kurtz's glib wrap-up piece was filed on Sunday:

Really, Howard, I am sorry that your reliably regular Sunday morning show on CNN was preempted this morning and you were unable to bring us important planned coverage, including "NYT’s Tom Friedman on lame political coverage; the media scrutinize Rick Perry, and the breaking of UMiami’s football scandal," as 14 people had already inconveniently died by showtime today from the hypehurricane.

Without the serious media attention given to the incoming storm --- featuring, as usual, the standard sensationalism that all corporate media, including CNN's Sunday morning shows, routinely bring to the news every single day --- it's likely that many more lives would have been lost.

While it's true that the cable news shows were being sensationalist, I don't think the people who lost their homes were inclined to agree with the over-hyped claim. And the statistics bear out, too. Nate Silver also crunched the numbers to show that the media "hype" was directly proportional to the damage.

For once, the 24-hour news cycle served us well. As for the government wanting to appear competent, it's highly likely that the government wanted to be competent, and avoid the disaster that arises from being incompetent, as it was in 2005 with Katrina.

More insidious than this posturing is the fact that dismissive rants like Kurtz's feed into conservative talking points that try to twist the real practical usefulness of government into something negative or wasteful, as the examples below show.

1) Rush Limbaugh indeed sounded a lot like Kurtz when he said that "the media" had been engaging in "hysterical reporting on Irene. They couldn't wait for this storm..." he said on his show. Meanwhile, he averred that Obama was "hoping this was going to be a disaster" so he would have an "excuse" for the sagging economy.

"This one just didn't measure up," said Limbaugh of the storm. "The hysterical reporting on this hurricane has exposed the media to many people who might not have really noticed it before." Exposed it as what? Loud? Concerned? Limbaugh completely dismissed legitimate concerns--and though his comments are always extreme, they inevitably are a signifier of what's going to bounce around the right-wing echo chamber for days and weeks to come. One need only look to the way the Republicans in Congress are discussing the storm to see that attacking Obama for blowing its threat out of proportion--and attaching it to the economy-- is going to be a pattern.

2) This brings us to the fact that Eric Cantor and John Boehner's budgetary nitpicking continues right through these disasters. After the earthquake last week which hit his own congressional district, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor made an anemic statement declaring that if "monies" were needed for relief, "monies" would have to be taken out of the budget, ending a longstanding bipartisan tradition of rushing relief funds through without budgetary quibbling. As Irene advanced, Cantor's behavior prompted this response from Louisiana Congressman Rep. Cedric Richmond on Huffington Post:

"It is sinful to require us to cut somewhere ... in order to provide emergency disaster assistance for American citizens" ...

"I have been one who has been preparing for the hurricane, trying to give people some comfort. One thing they need to know is the federal government can come to their aid," Richmond said. "I don't think we're in a position, given the rules set up by the majority, that we're going to be able to come to their aid quickly."

As FEMA runs low on funds due to an unprecedented number of big and small natural disasters this year (many worsened by the climate crisis), it will be important to watch and see whether the GOP really does haggle over Irene relief, and how many Americans have to suffer for it, or whether a fear of seeming utterly indifferent will prevent an extra-nasty measure of fiscal extremism.

3) Fox News talking heads: "Do We Really Need a National Weather Service?" The NWS was on the case, providing information all weekend long, helping predict the path of the storm every few hours as conditions changed constantly. Nonetheless, two pundits at Fox News' Web site decided to take this timely opportunity to call for its abolishment on the grounds that it interrupts local programming with news that purports to save lives, or something.

Steve Benen takes this line of thinking down: "The Fox News piece touts private outlets, including AccuWeather, without alerting readers to a key detail: these private outlets rely on information they receive from the National Weather Service. Indeed, the NWS makes this information available to the private sector for free, since the NWS is a public agency and the data it compiles is public information."

Again, NWS is an example of government producing information the public relies on, which freaks conservatives out, apparently, so they choose to attack these vital institutions just as millions of Americans are counting on them for their safety.

4) Ron Paul's extremist take: abolish FEMA. If abolishing the National Weather Service isn't enough, then how about getting rid of FEMA? Ron Paul has advocated that, explaining that digging yourself out of disaster is good for the national character. Paul pointed to the Galveston Texas, hurricane of a century ago--one of the most gruesome disasters in American history, in which hundreds of bodies were brought in by the tide and burned on the beach--as a good example of American do-it-yourself wherewithal.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates said of the unapologetic race-baiting Paul, "Ron Paul's thoughts on FEMA, like his thoughts on black people, are the spoutings of a nihilistic reactionary."

And Amanda Marcotte warns us to take Paul's ranting seriously, because it pulls the Republican narrative much further to the right:

He runs out and denounces efforts to keep people alive and idealizes a situation where 8,000 people died. That gives other conservatives space to demand a defunding of FEMA and National Weather Services, because hey, at least they aren't open[ly] praising a situation where thousands drown to death. Also, by focusing attention on 1900, Paul can distract from people comparing the excellent government response to Irene with the piss-poor government response to Katrina.

5) Michele Bachmann: God did this so we'll reduce spending. At a rally in Florida, while people were still bracing themselves against Irene, she had this to say:

"I don't know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We've had an earthquake; we've had a hurricane. He said, 'Are you going to start listening to me here?' Listen to the American people because the American people are roaring right now. They know government is on a morbid obesity diet and we've got to rein in the spending."

Whether or not this remark was in jest, it was, as Julianne Escobedo Shepherd noted, "callous," unfeeling and out of touch.

Sometimes in these dire emergencies, it can feel like damned if you don't, damned if you do. If the government assumed the storm would blow over and did nothing a la "Heckuva job, Brownie," the damage might have been unimaginably worse and government inaction and inattention would justly be blamed.

But because there was a "better safe than sorry" approach that relied on government spending, even from Republicans or fiscal conservatives like New Jersey's Chris Christie and NYC's Mike Bloomberg, these agencies are now being mocked and ridiculed by the right wing and even those in the center.

If you hear someone taking this position, show them pictures of roads being washed away in Vermont and remind them that if there had been no calls for evacuation, no media announcements, no government involvement, no rescue squads at the ready, there would have been a lot of people on those roads.

Sarah Seltzer is an associate editor at AlterNet, a staff writer at RH Reality Check and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published in Jezebel.com and on the websites of the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal. Find her at sarahmseltzer.com.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Founding Fathers Believed in Redistributing Wealth -- Why Do Tea Party Heroes Like Perry and Bachmann Vilify It?


Redistributing the wealth is a defining function of the modern state, just like defending its borders or maintaining a judicial system.

American conservatives have lurched so far to the right they're now trying to re-litigate questions about the role of government that have been settled for hundreds of years.

The redistribution of wealth is a perfect example. Listening to today's Republicans, one would think it is some kind of pernicious and un-American leftist principle – an idea only embraced by foreigners, socialists and assorted freaks.

During the waning days of the 2008 campaign, John McCain jumped on Barack Obama telling “Joe the Plumber” on the campaign trail that we need to “spread the wealth around” a little bit. It became the heart of the case that the decidedly centrist Obama is a “socialist.” A feverish video blaring the headline, "Obama Bombshell Audio Uncovered. He wants to Radically Reinterpret the Constitution to Redistribute Wealth!!" appeared on Youtube soon after. The offering, from a conservative blog called Naked Emperor News, promised: "This video exposes the radical beneath the rhetoric." (As the Washington Post's “Fact-Checker” noted, “On closer inspection, the 'bombshell audio' turns out to be a rather wonkish, somewhat impenetrable, discussion of the Supreme Court under Earl Warren.”)

Last year, after BP's DeepWater Horizon rig blew up, polluting the Gulf of Mexico, Rep Michele Bachmann, R-Minnesota, slammed the president for pushing the oil giant to establish a fund to pay claims to Gulf residents impacted by the disaster. "The president just called for creating a fund that would be administered by outsiders, which would be more of a redistribution-of-wealth fund," said Bachmann. “If I was the head of BP,” she added, “I would let the signal get out there -- 'We're not going to be chumps, and we're not going to be fleeced.'"

The common response to this kind of blather is to point out that conservatives like Bachmann are absolutely in love with policies that redistribute wealth, as long as they shift it from working people upward to the investor class. Whether we're talking about trade policy, labor rules that make it difficult for workers to organize or shifting the tax burden from corporations to the backs of American families, the results of the right's long class war from above are plain to see.

The top 1 percent takes in more than twice the share of national income today than they did 30 years ago. Paul Buchheit, a professor with City Colleges of Chicago, crunched some numbers using IRS data and found that “if middle- and upper-middle-class families had maintained the same share of American productivity that they held in 1980, they would be making an average of $12,500 more per year.” At the same time, top earners pay far less in taxes than they did when Ronald Reagan was in office.

That's certainly a valid and factually accurate argument, but it misses a larger point: conservatives are demagoguing what political scientists call a “defining function” of the modern nation-state. Redistributing wealth is every bit as integral to what governments are supposed to do as defending a country's borders or maintaining a functional judicial system. Every government, whether it leans right, left or somewhere in between, redistributes wealth, and they do it constantly.

The right portrays wealth redistribution to the denizens of Fox Nation as the government “stealing” the cash of hard-working Americans and then sending checks to the “undeserving” poor. But “transfer payments” are just one form of wealth redistribution, and in this country, they make up a tiny fraction of the whole.

Every time a public road is built, a forest fire is extinguished or publicly funded research unearths a new medical innovation, wealth is also redistributed. As long as we don't make people pay their exact share of the cost of laying that road, extinguishing that fire, or researching that therapy, wealth is being redistributed. In rough terms, our military budget costs every tax-payer in the United States about $4,000 per year. But not everyone pays $4,000 or more in federal taxes – every year, the Pentagon budget represents a significant redistribution of our national wealth. But when conservatives say they hate redistributing wealth, they're not talking about cutting military spending.

Like every country, we've been redistributing wealth since the birth of our republic. In his book, Fed Up!: Our Fight to Save America From Washington, Texas governor and newly minted presidential candidate Rick Perry wrote that the 16th Amendment, which gave birth to the federal income tax, was “the great milestone on the road to serfdom” because it represented “the birth of wealth redistribution in the United States.” That's the kind of ahistoric gibberish that's become typical of the far-right these days.

In reality, we've actually been redistributing the wealth since before the founding of the nation. The American colonies imposed “faculty taxes” – which combined the characteristics of income and property taxes – on their citizens. And after the country was founded, we never stopped redistributing the wealth – while federal taxes on income came about with the ratification of the 16th Amendment in 1913, the government collected taxes, mostly in the form of tariffs, from the very beginning. By 1796, 14 of the 15 states then in existence levied property taxes; Delaware also taxed any income people derived from their property.

These taxes financed federal and state governments – they redistributed wealth from property owners and importers to the population as a whole. So it's a simple, indisputable fact that, like Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan, the Founding Fathers so revered by the Tea Partiers and politicians like Bachmann and Perry were very much in favor of wealth redistribution.

Given that it's a defining function of the nation-state as we know it, in a country with a sane discourse, taking place among an informed populace, we'd only be debating whose redistributive policies have what effect on our political economy. But that's a discussion conservatives don't want to have. They don't want to oppose popular programs like Medicare on mere ideological grounds. So, like deficit hysteria or blanket claims that every progressive program is unconstitutional, they're trying to avoid that debate by vilifying the bedrock concept behind modern government – taxing the population based on what people can afford to pay, and providing public goods that are available to all, regardless of their fortunes.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

How the Political Right Bullied the Department of Homeland Security Into Ignoring the Threat of Right-Wing Extremism


After right-wingers freaked out about a report detailing the rise in right-wing extremism, Homeland Security effectively dismantled a unit tasked with tracking it.

In the wake of the terrorist attack in Norway by right-wing Christian extremist Anders Breivik, conservative media pundits rushed to vilify anyone who brought up the underlying far-right ideology that fueled Breivik’s violence.

The uproar that follows any suggestion that right-wing extremism is on the rise works to silence the conversation about the danger of right-wing militancy. According to disturbing revelations by a former Homeland Security Intelligence Analyst, the consequences of this dynamic extend to the highest branches of the US government.

For six years, Darryl Johnson headed a Department of Homeland Security team tracking domestic extremist groups. Now Johnson, who is no longer with DHS, says that conservative furor over the report's findings pressured Homeland Security to abandon reporting on and monitoring the rising threat of right-wing extremism for the past two years.

In April 2009, DHS issued an intelligence assessment, co-authored by Johnson, titled "Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment." The document was one of many threat assessments shared between DHS and state and local law enforcement agencies to keep them apprised of potential and looming threats, and warned of a surge in right-wing extremism due to the election of the country's first black president and the economic recession.

Although the report was intended only for distribution to law enforcement agencies, it was immediately leaked to the media causing a political firestorm among conservative pundits, who wrongly suggested that it labeled all conservatives as potential terrorists.

DHS initially defended the report, but within days caved to political pressure and practically disowned it, with Secretary Napolitano apologizing to the American Legion for the report's mention of military veterans. But DHS did more than just publicly buckle under the political weight of conservative critics. According to Johnson, the department effectively dismantled his intelligence team following the right’s uproar.

In an in-depth interview published in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report, Johnson reveals the level of sway the political right had in thwarting intelligence work on right-wing extremism. He says DHS deliberately mischaracterized the report as unauthorized, even though it had passed through proper channels and instituted restrictive policies that brought the important work of his unit to a virtual standstill. As a result, Johnson left DHS in dismay and was followed by almost all the members of his team, leaving a single analyst where there had been six. In comparison, there are at least 25 analysts devoted to tracking Islamic terrorism.

When questioned about Johnson’s claims -- which have been confirmed by current and former department officials in the Washington Post – DHS officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have repeatedly disputed his account and insist that the level of activity by right-wing extremist groups has remained consistent over the past few years. In addition, they claim the perception of increased extremist activity may be due to increased awareness of the threat by the government and the public. But the numbers beg to differ.

Right Wing Extremism on the Rise

Johnson’s report was consistent with data from the Southern Poverty Law Center, which finds that hate groups topped 1,000 for the first time since SPLC began counting such groups in the 1980s. The most dramatic growth was seen in antigovernment "Patriot" groups — militias and other extremist organizations that see the federal government as their enemy — which came roaring back to life over the past year after more than a decade out of the limelight. SPLC's Intelligence Project identified 824 anti-government "Patriot" groups that were active in 2010, up from just 149 in 2008.

According to Mark Potok, director of SPLC's Intelligence Project, these groups are driven by resentment over changing racial demographics, which he describes as, "The idea that the country is becoming less white every day and in fact the prediction by the census bureau that whites will lose their majority about the year 2050 in the United States is very important. Virtually every white supremacist in America knows that date." Other drivers include frustration over the economy, and the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories and propaganda aimed at various minorities.

Potok told AlterNet that events following the 2009 DHS report have proved it to be prescient.

In May 2009, just one month after the report’s release, an anti-abortion zealot murdered Dr. George Tiller in Kansas. In June 2009, neo-Nazi James von Brunn murdered a security guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. In March 2010, nine members of a Michigan militia were charged with seditious conspiracy and attempted use of weapons of mass destruction in connection with an alleged plot to murder police officers.

On May 20, 2010, two West Memphis Arkansas police officers were shot to death during a routine traffic stop by a father-son duo of “sovereign citizens,” a group of US residents who believe the government has no authority over them. West Memphis Police Chief Bob Paudert, whose son was one of the officers killed, told me that prior to the loss of his son, he had never heard of sovereign citizens, nor had any other law enforcement officials he spoke to about the matter. After some digging and research he discovered that his son's murder was not an isolated incident, and in fact sovereign citizens were responsible for dozens of police officer deaths around the country.

Paudert was particularly surprised to learn that the Sovereign movement is estimated at 300,000 people strong and growing, which is why he was disappointed in the federal government's failure to alert state and local law enforcement that such a threat existed. Paudert says he is absolutely positive that had they been alerted and trained to recognize sovereign citizens, “my son would still be alive today."

Conservatives Throw a Temper Tantrum

The loudest outcry came from the right-wing shock jocks like Rush Limbaugh, who claimed that Janet Napolitano and Barack Obama were "portraying standard, ordinary, everyday conservatives as posing a bigger threat to this country than al-Qaeda terrorists or genuine enemies of this country like Kim Jong-Il." Sean Hannity warned his Fox News viewers that “if you have a pro-life bumper sticker on your car, if you have an 'America is overtaxed' bumper sticker, if you have a pro-Second Amendment bumper sticker, they're viewing you potentially as a radical.”

In possibly the most deranged interpretation, conservative blogger Michelle Malkin wrote that the report was a “hit job on conservatives” and “one of the most embarrassingly shoddy pieces of propaganda I’d ever read out of DHS. I couldn’t believe it was real….the piece of crap report issued on April 7 is a sweeping indictment of conservatives.”

In a sad sort of irony, Johnson told SPLC that the conservative media personalities who misinterpreted and attacked his report “would have been shocked to know that I personify conservatism. I'm an Eagle Scout. I'm a registered Republican. I'm Mormon. In fact, I was helping the Boy Scouts with a fundraiser when I heard the report being attacked on the news."

Outrage over the report's findings quickly spread to Congress, where several conservative lawmakers demanded the ouster of DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano. Among them was Rep. John Carter, R-Tex., who remarked, "We shouldn't even give her the respect of letting her resign. She should be fired by the administration for accusing honest, American citizens — because of their political beliefs — of being domestic terrorists."

The self-described conservative and Christian non-profit Thomas More Law Center went even further and filed a lawsuit against Secretary Napolitano on behalf a Michigan-based anti-abortion group, claiming the DHS report was all part of a conspiracy between the Obama administration and liberal groups to violate their constitutional rights.

The section of the report that stirred the most controversy referred to “disgruntled military veterans” and cautioned that “rightwing extremists would attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans to boost their violent capabilities.”

This did not sit well with David Rehbein, the commander of the veterans' organization American Legion, who wrote in a letter to Secretary Napolitano, “To continue to use McVeigh as an example of the stereotypical disgruntled military veteran is as unfair as using Osama bin Laden as the sole example of Islam.” Had Rehbein actually read the full report he would have discovered that this specific concern was based on factual data collected by the FBI.

The DHS assessment cited a July 2008 report by the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division under the Bush administration, titled “White Supremacist Recruitment of Military Personnel since 9/11.” Based on its findings the 2008 FBI report observed that “some returning military veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have joined extremist groups,” and that “military experience is found throughout the white supremacist extremist movement as the result of recruitment campaigns by extremist groups and self-recruitment by veterans sympathetic to white supremacist causes.” Furthermore, based on analysis of FBI case files from October 2001 to May 2008, the report identified 203 military personnel or veterans who were active members in white supremacist organizations during that period.

It's not surprising that conservatives threw a fit. What's disturbing is that these conservative complaints prompted DHS to withdraw the report.

Pretending the Threat Doesn’t Exist

I spoke with Johnson, who has been following right-wing extremism in a professional capacity since the early ‘90s. Upon the Democratic nomination for president of then Senator Obama, Johnson says that based on his experience and expertise, he immediately recognized that "this would be a huge recruiting tool for groups like white supremacists, militia extremists, sovereign citizen extremists, those extremists groups that are on the fringes of the right of the political spectrum, which we refer to as right-wing extremists in the counterterrorism community."

When it was clear that Barack Obama would win, Johnson became worried about the "potential radicalization factor" that would ensue following the election of America's first black president. "It would agitate people to go beyond their mainstream and law-abiding protest activity to more criminal activity and violence because people would see that these 'enemies' so to speak, these minorities in America are actually integrated in society and they’re actually fulfilling the American dream."

All of this prompted the drafting of the report in the early months of the Obama administration.

He chose to go public because “the conditions that existed back in 2008 and 2009 when we drafted this document still persist today….the climate in this country from a political standpoint and economic standpoint has not changed. The economy is still sluggish, unemployment’s still flirting with 10 percent, and there’s this anti-government sentiment and agitation out there in this country. That’s one thing that concerns me is that we’ve had two years now where these people have been boiling in this environment that could possibly agitate somebody to carry out a violent act.”

Mark Potok told AlterNet that DHS’s handling of the report's criticism was “nothing more than an act of political cowardice,” but it doesn’t change the report’s disturbing accuracy.

The Southern Poverty Law Center keeps a detailed and unsettling list of major terrorist plots and racist rampages that have emerged from the American radical right in the years since Oklahoma City, a pattern Potok says continues to this day. That prompted SPLC’s president, J. Richard Cohen, to send a letter to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano two months ago, urging her to reassess the level of resources that DHS is devoting to the threat of non-Islamic domestic terrorism.

The letter highlights several recent examples of thwarted attacks, one of which occurred this past January, when a neo-Nazi activist was arrested for planting a bomb along an MLK Day parade route in Spokane, Washington. That same month, another neo-Nazi was arrested on his way to the Arizona-Mexico border and later charged with possessing explosive devices packed with ball bearings – to “maximize human carnage,” as a federal prosecutor put it. In March, authorities arrested five members of a militia in Alaska and charged them with plotting to murder or kidnap police officers and judges if their leader, who was then fleeing prosecution on weapons charges, were arrested or killed. Unfortunately, Secretary Napolitano has yet to respond to SPLC’s letter.

That the right’s outrage over the report managed to influence the Department of Homeland Security should raise alarm bells for anyone who is concerned about homegrown extremism. It's frightening that the US government bowed to political pressure. The atrocity that took place in Norway is a reminder of the brutality that ideological extremists are capable of dishing out.

According to Johnson, Anders Breivik "was under the radar, he acquired relatively unsophisticated weaponry and was able to go and target people that he opposed because of his ideology and beliefs and was able to kill close to 80 people, and it was done effortlessly. He didn’t go to some place in Pakistan and learn how to build a bomb. He learned how to do this on the Internet, and he was able to acquire these materials legally. And I know for a fact that that is going on here in this country, people are stockpiling weaponry.”

Potok believes the right’s ability to silence the conversation about right-wing extremism will have fatal consequences, warning, “The danger of pretending this movement doesn’t exist is that it will grow more and more deeply entrenched in our society and more dangerous. There’s an immediate criminal danger. Timothy McVeigh murdered 168 men women and children in 15 seconds. It absolutely could happen again. It hasn’t because we are lucky and because law enforcement has done a fine job overall.”

Similarly, Daryl Johnson fears that, "These incidents are starting to add up. Yet our legislators, politicians and national leaders don't appear too concerned about this. So my greatest fear is that domestic terrorists in this country will somehow become emboldened to the point of carrying out a mass-casualty attack, because they perceive that no one is being vigilant about the threat from within. This is what keeps me up at night."

Rania Khalek is a progressive activist. Check out her blog Missing Pieces or follow her on Twitter @Rania_ak. You can contact her at raniakhalek@gmail.com.

Monday, August 15, 2011

America's Hard Right Turn and The Alarming Revival of Ayn Rand



A passion for the prose and philosophy of Ayn Rand tells us a great deal about an individual, none of it good.

The Republican Party’s slapstick search for a leader would be heartwarming and sidesplitting, but for the tragic knowledge that one of these scrambling midgets will collect tens of millions of votes in the presidential election of 2012. Never have so many amounted to so little, talked so much rubbish, dreamed of an office so far above their abilities. Blood pressures rose among party elders when Donald Trump, marginally Republican and one of the greatest fools in the solar system, momentarily tossed his hairpiece into the ring and became the instant favorite.

The GOP dilemma — a golden opportunity to rule but nothing to say and no one to say it — is so desperate that my instinct is to help them sort it out. Could we make a start, at least, by dismissing candidates who called for President Obama’s birth certificate or raised the specter of Sharia law in America, followed briskly off the stage by lunatics who dismiss global warming as a socialist plot?

That would leave plenty of unbalanced extremists still in the running, yet reduce the stench of sheer evil and madness. The “birther” and Sharia cults reek of cheesy talk-radio racism; climate-change denial is a stranger faith yet, a political assault on basic science that insults a ground squirrel’s intelligence and casually threatens the survival of life on earth.

The party that produces birthers and global-warming deniers no doubt harbors End-of-the-Worlders, too, Christians who packed their bags for heaven with the senile prophet Harold Camping on May 21. Though none of them, I suppose, would commit to the time and expense of a presidential campaign just to preside over a nation of sinners expiring in fire and pestilence. Leo Rangell, the prominent Freudian analyst whose obituary is in this morning’s Times, once lamented that the American public is “gullible or easily seduced, and susceptible to leaders of questionable character.”

Dr. Rangell wrote that in 1980, long before gullibility became such an epidemic that we began to doubt the value of our schools, before media demagogues made a billion-dollar industry of manipulating our most credulous citizens, before the Republican Party dedicated itself to gathering most of them into its fold. Before Rush Limbaugh, before Fox News, before the Tea Party.

“Finally, people’s stupidity will break your heart,” observed my father, a small-town politician and a loyal Republican of the moderate traditional strain that has been systematically exterminated by the radical Right.

My father lived long enough to vote for George McGovern and against Ronald Reagan, but the rhetoric GOP candidates churn out to charm this Tea Party would sound extraterrestrial to most Republicans of his generation.

The odious hypocrite Newt Gingrich, who considered himself a serious presidential candidate until his entire staff abandoned him in disgust, rests his appeal on his intellectual superiority to Sarah Palin and Rick Perry — a distinction much like being a faster runner than Dom DeLuise. In his obligatory pre-campaign book Gingrich claims that Barack Obama, a cautious centrist if there ever was one, drives a “secular-socialist machine” that “represents as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did.”

Michael Savage, Rush Limbaugh, Father Coughlin, move over. Newt is just full of Shariah, among other things, and accuses Obama of “Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior,” a blatant pitch for the racist vote the Tea Party has re-energized. A colossal irony — demonstrating how hopelessly divided America has become — is that the radical philosopher Cornel West, a black Princeton professor, calls Obama “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats.” This is not helpful of Dr. West, nor even responsible. He and Newt Gingrich are equally useless if a calmer, more logical and coherent political culture is what we’re after. But if I had to say which of these two hostile portraits of our president is less preposterous, I’m sure I’d choose West’s. Virtually all the valid criticism of Barack Obama has come from the left.

When Tea-stained legislators gut environmental laws to protect corporate profits, when they sneer at climate change while America bakes in its bedrock like a big green casserole — when Republican educational reform means classrooms with fewer teachers and more guns — there’s a temptation for reasonable Americans to throw up their hands and succumb to despair. Is it a death wish or a scheme to kill the rest of us, when “conservatives” fight against clean air laws, or legislate to place a loaded pistol in every yahoo’s holster? I’ve reached the second half of my seventh decade, and I’ve never seen such an intimidating swarm of fanatics and fools marching under one banner. The election of a non-white president has brought out the worst in the worst of us. But who guessed that there were so many, or that their worst was so awful?

The late Albert Einstein, of my father’s persuasion if not of his party, once wrote despairingly, “The tyranny of the ignoramuses is insurmountable and assured for all time.” But the coalition that poisons this struggling republic is an unnatural one, made up of rich cynics who supply the money and poor ignoramuses who supply the votes. They have nothing in common, except that the cynics will say anything and the morons will believe it. There must be something, optimists insist, that could drive a wedge between the exploiters and the exploited — some irresistible revelation, some fraud or contradiction so flagrant that the most obtuse voter could see how callously and criminally he’s being used.

How about Ayn Rand? The latest Republican poster boy, congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, stole the media spotlight with a slash-to-the-bone budget proposal that Fox News heralded as the Magna Carta of fiscal responsibility in America. I lack the expertise to take on Rep. Ryan’s budget digit-for-digit, but I place considerable confidence in the opinion of the Times’ Paul Krugman, who won a Nobel Prize for Economics in 2008. “The proposal wasn’t serious at all,” Krugman wrote. “In fact, it was a sick joke. The only real things in it were savage cuts in aid to the needy and the uninsured, huge tax cuts for corporations and the rich, and Medicare privatization. All the alleged cost savings were pure fantasy.”

That sounds about par for the current Republican course, with fresh infusions of Tea Party belligerence and unreality. But what frightened me most about Rep. Ryan was the report that he is an avowed disciple of the writer/philosopher Ayn Rand, and has declared in public that Rand is “the reason I got involved in public service.” Good grief, she’s back. She died in 1982, but someone neglected to drive a stake through her heart.

A passion for the prose and philosophy of Ayn Rand tells us a great deal about an individual, none of it good. There are few surer signs of a poor reader, a poor thinker and an unpleasant person than a well-thumbed copy of Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead.

In 2005, Rand’s acolytes gathered in Washington for a symposium to celebrate her 100th birthday — the occasion for Rep. Ryan’s disturbing confession — and I admit I’d give anything to see the seating chart. If there was some way to ban everyone in that room from holding public office, we could probably turn the United States of America back toward the generous light of reason.

She was to literature what Rod McKuen was to poetry, what Fabian was to rock n’ roll, what Guru Maharaj Ji was to religion. Look them up. Like them, she once enjoyed a huge audience of admirers. Unlike them, she was never harmless and she’s enjoying an alarming revival.

Since Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957, it has sold seven million copies. It’s possibly the most polarizing book ever written. For every Paul Ryan who finds it life-shaping, a dozen readers are mystified and a dozen more appalled. Few actually finish the 1,200-page novel, which ends with the mysterious Galt drawing a dollar sign in the air with his finger. If you wade into this stuff up to your ankles — the hokey melodrama, the backlit macro-characters posed like Easter Island monoliths, the cruel and obvious message stamped on every page—-you begin to fear that you can never wash it off.

At times her critics oversimplify Rand’s beliefs, which embody any number of contradictions and opacities. But essentially she glorifies the will and celebrates Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, the superman whose blazing passage through the world need never be impeded by the interests or opinions of mediocrities like you and me. It’s the same string of arrogant assumptions that spawned the Master Race theories of Herr Hitler: ego-deification, social Darwinism, arbitrary stratification of human types. Adapted for capitalism, it becomes the divine right to plunder — a license for those who own nearly everything to take the rest, because they wish to, because they can. Because the weak don’t matter. Let the big dogs feed. This repulsive theology was the work of a fairly repulsive person.

For an eyewitness portrait of Ayn Rand in the flesh, in the prime of her celebrity, you can’t improve on the “Ubermensch” chapter in Tobias Wolff’s autobiographical novel Old School.

Invited to meet with the faculty and student writers at the narrator’s boarding school, Rand arrives with an entourage of chain-smoking idolaters in black and behaves so repellently that her audience of innocents gets a life lesson in what kind of adult to avoid, and to avoid becoming. Rude, dismissive, vain and self-infatuated to the point of obtuseness — she names Atlas Shrugged as the only great American novel — Rand and her hissing chorus in black manage to alienate the entire school, even the rich board member who had admired and invited her.

What strikes Wolff’s narrator most forcefully is her utter lack of charity or empathy, her transparent disgust with everything she views as disfiguring or disabling: a huge wen on the headmaster’s forehead, the narrator’s running head cold, the war injury that emasculated Hemingway’s Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises.

To the boy, she appears to be exactly the sort of merciless egotist who might have designed a fascist philosophy that exalts power and disparages altruism. Rand is wearing a gold pin in the shape of a dollar sign. After meeting her, he can no longer read a word of The Fountainhead, which as an adolescent romantic he had enjoyed.

This division of the human race into the elect few who are destiny’s darlings and the “second-rate” multitudes above whom they soar—-this Ubermensch nonsense—-is perilously thin ice on which to rest a philosophy (Nietzsche, you recall, went hopelessly mad.)

Since there’s no agency that rates human beings the way we rate bonds, the elect are always self-elected supermen and superwomen. Super, says who?

If it’s supposed to be intellect as much as will that sets them above us, I sense a critical problem. Whenever a person of superior intelligence begins to comprehend the human condition, the first fruits of his knowledge are humility and irony—-those two things Rand and her heroes most spectacularly lack.

Personally, I never feel more superior than when I see someone carrying a copy of Atlas Shrugged. What actually sets the self-styled super race apart is an unrepressed infantile id, a raging “I want” that defies socialization. These are damaged children, people of arrested development drawn to an ugly philosophy that legitimizes narcissism and socially unacceptable behavior. Donald Trump would be a perfect example. For an apostle of self-willed happiness, the goddess of greed led a troubled life, marked by depressions, amphetamine addiction, messy love affairs and betrayals. But you could say that she had a capacious mind, if not a healthy or an orderly one.

She was well educated, she had actually read Aristotle and Nietzsche before she hobbled them and hitched them to her wagon. Her unlikely 21st-century resurrection is the work of much smaller, often almost invisible minds that cherry-pick the vast creaking structure of her oeuvre for their own ends, just as they cherry-pick the Bible or The Wealth of Nations.

If corporate feudalism is your dream for America, she’s the prophet for you. Her naïve faith in capitalism and contempt for “the welfare state” are just what the right-wing doctor ordered.

Much of the rest, alas, will never fly in Alabama. Pundits have been delighted to note that the heroine of the new Republicans was a pacifist who opposed the Vietnam War, a feminist who supported abortion, an adulteress who preached free love, a bohemian who mocked family life and child-bearing, an elitist who sneered at the common man, and, after all her “nanny state” rhetoric, a recipient of Social Security and Medicare and a late, sick convert to the benefits of socialized medicine.

Worst of all, for tea-stained Christian Republicans, she was a militant atheist. In Rand’s ideology religious faith was the most abject form of weakness, a sniveling retreat from the hardheaded, self-centered “objectivism” her heroes impose on the world. She not only would have rejected Jesus and his gospels, she actually did—-repeatedly. Christ’s message that the poor are blessed and the meek will inherit the earth is antithetical to Rand’s belief that the poor and meek are no more than mulch where the dreams of the mighty take root.

So adamantly did she denounce the altruism and self-sacrifice at the center of the Christian message, it’s no exaggeration to call her the intellectual Antichrist.

It’s no great exaggeration to say that praising her is like spitting in Christ’s face.

How do Paul Ryan, Ron and Rand Paul and company manage to pass off this radical atheist, this subversive Russian Jew (born Elisa Rosenbaum) as an iconic role model for Christian conservatives?

Apparently they don’t think they need to get into the details, not with their particular constituency. Assuming that they know the details themselves. The careless condescension of their leaders is not yet a scandal to the tea-baggers of America’s unlettered hard Right. But Ayn Rand seems like the biggest joke of all, one that might yet blow up in the party’s face.

The plutocrats she worshiped are so few, the plebeians she scorned are so many. The GOP’s little people can’t all be totally illiterate, and Limbaugh and Glenn Beck actually urge them to read this woman’s books. It’s in-your-face deception that reminds me of the old stage villain, the silent-movie heavy with the waxed mustache, cackling behind his cloak and inviting the audience to share the cruelty he’s about to inflict on his innocent victims. It’s as if Wall Street is surreptitiously giving the finger to Main Street Republicans, laughing at the gullible recruits as they march to the polls to lower corporate taxes and deregulate markets. Ayn Rand, indeed. She would have applauded the big dogs’ ruthlessness but rolled her eyes at the Christian-family rhetoric they’re obliged to use for bait.

She wasn’t one of them, of course; she certainly wasn’t one of us. She was one of a kind, thank god. In her defense, you might argue that her love affair with capitalism was rooted in a Russian Jew’s horror of the totalitarian systems that devastated Europe in the 20th century.

That offers her a gravitas she doesn’t share with ultra-light Midwestern reactionaries like Paul Ryan or Michele Bachmann. But the more Americans read her books, the better for liberals and the worse, I think, for Republicans.

Her work illustrates conclusively what a few brave clergymen and a few ink-stained relics like me have been saying for years to anyone who would listen, and to Republicans who refuse to listen — that Christianity and the wolverine capitalism of a John Galt are totally incompatible systems, two mutually exclusive human possibilities. They cancel each other out. Any political party that pretends to integrate them is a party of liars, and doomed.

Hal Crowther’s most recent book is Gather at the River. Write him at 219 N. Churton St., Hillsborough, NC 27278.

Texas Miracle a Lie

The Opinion Pages

Op-Ed Columnist

The Texas Unmiracle

As expected, Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, has announced that he is running for president. And we already know what his campaign will be about: faith in miracles.

Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

Paul Krugman

Some of these miracles will involve things that you’re liable to read in the Bible. But if he wins the Republican nomination, his campaign will probably center on a more secular theme: the alleged economic miracle in Texas, which, it’s often asserted, sailed through the Great Recession almost unscathed thanks to conservative economic policies. And Mr. Perry will claim that he can restore prosperity to America by applying the same policies at a national level.

So what you need to know is that the Texas miracle is a myth, and more broadly that Texan experience offers no useful lessons on how to restore national full employment.

It’s true that Texas entered recession a bit later than the rest of America, mainly because the state’s still energy-heavy economy was buoyed by high oil prices through the first half of 2008. Also, Texas was spared the worst of the housing crisis, partly because it turns out to have surprisingly strict regulation of mortgage lending.

Despite all that, however, from mid-2008 onward unemployment soared in Texas, just as it did almost everywhere else.

In June 2011, the Texas unemployment rate was 8.2 percent. That was less than unemployment in collapsed-bubble states like California and Florida, but it was slightly higher than the unemployment rate in New York, and significantly higher than the rate in Massachusetts. By the way, one in four Texans lacks health insurance, the highest proportion in the nation, thanks largely to the state’s small-government approach. Meanwhile, Massachusetts has near-universal coverage thanks to health reform very similar to the “job-killing” Affordable Care Act.

So where does the notion of a Texas miracle come from? Mainly from widespread misunderstanding of the economic effects of population growth.

For this much is true about Texas: It has, for many decades, had much faster population growth than the rest of America — about twice as fast since 1990. Several factors underlie this rapid population growth: a high birth rate, immigration from Mexico, and inward migration of Americans from other states, who are attracted to Texas by its warm weather and low cost of living, low housing costs in particular.

And just to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with a low cost of living. In particular, there’s a good case to be made that zoning policies in many states unnecessarily restrict the supply of housing, and that this is one area where Texas does in fact do something right.

But what does population growth have to do with job growth? Well, the high rate of population growth translates into above-average job growth through a couple of channels. Many of the people moving to Texas — retirees in search of warm winters, middle-class Mexicans in search of a safer life — bring purchasing power that leads to greater local employment. At the same time, the rapid growth in the Texas work force keeps wages low — almost 10 percent of Texan workers earn the minimum wage or less, well above the national average — and these low wages give corporations an incentive to move production to the Lone Star State.

So Texas tends, in good years and bad, to have higher job growth than the rest of America. But it needs lots of new jobs just to keep up with its rising population — and as those unemployment comparisons show, recent employment growth has fallen well short of what’s needed.

If this picture doesn’t look very much like the glowing portrait Texas boosters like to paint, there’s a reason: the glowing portrait is false.

Still, does Texas job growth point the way to faster job growth in the nation as a whole? No.

What Texas shows is that a state offering cheap labor and, less important, weak regulation can attract jobs from other states. I believe that the appropriate response to this insight is “Well, duh.” The point is that arguing from this experience that depressing wages and dismantling regulation in America as a whole would create more jobs — which is, whatever Mr. Perry may say, what Perrynomics amounts to in practice — involves a fallacy of composition: every state can’t lure jobs away from every other state.

In fact, at a national level lower wages would almost certainly lead to fewer jobs — because they would leave working Americans even less able to cope with the overhang of debt left behind by the housing bubble, an overhang that is at the heart of our economic problem.

So when Mr. Perry presents himself as the candidate who knows how to create jobs, don’t believe him. His prescriptions for job creation would work about as well in practice as his prayer-based attempt to end Texas’s crippling drought.

Dominionism: A 'Christian' Plot for World Domination

The Daily Beast

A Christian Plot for Domination?

Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry aren't just devout—both have deep ties to a fringe fundamentalist movement known as Dominionism, which says Christians should rule the world.

With Tim Pawlenty out of the presidential race, it is now fairly clear that the GOP candidate will either be Mitt Romney or someone who makes George W. Bush look like Tom Paine. Of the three most plausible candidates for the Republican nomination, two are deeply associated with a theocratic strain of Christian fundamentalism known as Dominionism. If you want to understand Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, understanding Dominionism isn’t optional.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

GOP: What Middle Class?


From last night's "debate," all you need to know about these people's priorities. Alarming.

How Fox News Is Making Americans More Right-Wing, More Ignorant and Ever More Terrified


Even his boss Rupert Murdoch is afraid of Roger Ailes.
At the Fox News Chrismas party the year the network overtook arch-rival CNN in the cable ratings, tipsy employees were herded down to the basement of a midtown bar in New York. As they gathered around a television mounted high on the wall, an image flashed to life, glowing bright in the darkened tavern: the MSNBC logo. A chorus of boos erupted among the Fox faithful. The CNN logo followed, and the catcalls multiplied. Then a third slide appeared, with a telling twist. In place of the logo for Fox News was a beneficent visage: the face of the network's founder. The man known to his fiercest loyalists simply as "the Chairman" – Roger Ailes.

"It was as though we were looking at Mao," recalls Charlie Reina, a former Fox News producer. The Foxistas went wild. They let the dogs out. Woof! Woof! Woof! Even those who disliked the way Ailes runs his network joined in the display of fealty, given the culture of intimidation at Fox News. "It's like the Soviet Union or China: People are always looking over their shoulders," says a former executive with the network's parent, News Corp. "There are people who turn people in."

The key to decoding Fox News isn't hosts Bill O'Reilly or Sean Hannity. It isn't even News Corp chief Rupert Murdoch. To understand what drives Fox News, and what its true purpose is, you must first understand Chairman Ailes. "He is Fox News," says Jane Hall, a Fox commentator for 10 years, who defected over Ailes's embrace of the fear-mongering Glenn Beck. "It's his vision. It's a reflection of him."

Ailes runs the most profitable – and therefore least accountable – head of the News Corp hydra. Fox News reaped an estimated profit of $816m last year – nearly a fifth of Murdoch's global haul. The cable channel's earnings rivalled those of News Corp's entire film division, which includes 20th Century Fox, and helped offset a slump at Murdoch's beloved newspapers unit, which took a $3bn writedown after acquiring the Wall Street Journal. With its bare-bones newsgathering operation – Fox News has one-third of the staff and 30 fewer bureaus than CNN – Ailes generates profit margins above 50%. Nearly half comes from advertising and the rest is fees from cable companies. Fox News now reaches 100m households, attracting more viewers than all other cable news outlets combined, and Ailes aims for his network to "throw off a billion in profits".

The outsize success of Fox News gives Ailes a free hand to shape the network in his own image. "Murdoch has almost no involvement with it at all," says Michael Wolff, who spent nine months embedded at News Corp researching a biography of the Australian media giant. "People are afraid of Roger. Murdoch is, himself, afraid of Roger. He has amassed enormous power within the company – and within the country – from the success of Fox News."

Fear, in fact, is precisely what Ailes is selling: his network has relentlessly hyped phantom menaces such as the planned "terror mosque" near Ground Zero, inspiring Florida pastor Terry Jones to torch the Qur'an. Privately, Murdoch is as impressed by Ailes's business savvy as he is dismissive of his extremist politics. "You know Roger is crazy," Murdoch recently told a colleague, shaking his head in disbelief. "He really believes that stuff."

To watch even a day of Fox News – the anger, the bombast, the virulent paranoid streak, the unending appeals to white resentment, the reporting that is held to the same standard of evidence as a political campaign attack ad – is to see a refraction of its founder, one of the most skilled and fearsome operatives in the history of the Republican party. As a political consultant, Ailes repackaged Richard Nixon for television in 1968, papered over Ronald Reagan's budding Alzheimer's in 1984, shamelessly stoked racial fears to elect George Bush in 1988, and waged a secret campaign on behalf of Big Tobacco to derail healthcare reform in 1993. "He was the premier guy in the business," says former Reagan campaign manager Ed Rollins. "He was our Michelangelo."

In the fable Ailes tells about his own life, he made a clean break with his dirty political past long before 1996, when he joined forces with Murdoch to launch Fox News. "I quit politics," he has claimed, "because I hated it." But an examination of his career reveals that Ailes has used Fox News to pioneer a new form of political campaign – one that enables the Republican party to bypass sceptical reporters and wage an around-the-clock, partisan assault on public opinion. The network, at its core, is a giant soundstage created to mimic the look and feel of a news operation, cleverly camouflaging political propaganda as independent journalism.

The result is one of the most powerful political machines in American history. One that plays a leading role in defining Republican talking points and advancing the agenda of the far right. Fox News tilted the electoral balance to George W Bush in 2000, prematurely declaring him president in a move that prompted every other network to follow suit. It helped create the Tea Party, transforming it from the butt of late-night jokes into a nationwide insurgency capable of electing US senators. Fox News turbocharged the Republican takeover of the House last autumn, and even helped elect former Fox News host John Kasich as the union-busting governor of Ohio – with the help of $1.26m in campaign contributions from News Corp. And by incubating a host of potential Republican contenders on the Fox News payroll – including Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum – Ailes seems determined to add a fifth presidential notch to his belt in 2012. "Everything Roger wanted to do when he started out in politics, he's now doing 24/7 with his network," says a former News Corp executive. "It's come full circle."

The 71-year-old Ailes presents the classic figure of a cinematic villain: bald and obese, with dainty hands, Hitchcockian jowls and a lumbering gait. Friends describe him as loyal, generous and funny. But Ailes is also, by turns, a tyrant: "I only understand friendship or scorched earth," he has said. One former deputy pegs him as a cross between Don Rickles, the venomous comic, and Don Corleone. "What's fun for Roger is the destruction," says Dan Cooper, a key member of the team that founded Fox News. "When the lightbulb goes on and he's got the trick to outmanoeuvre the enemy – that's his passion." Ailes is also deeply paranoid. Convinced that he has personally been targeted by al-Qaida for assassination, he surrounds himself with an aggressive security detail and is licensed to carry a concealed handgun.

Ailes was born in 1940 in Warren, Ohio, a manufacturing outpost near Youngstown. His father worked at the Packard plant producing wiring for GM cars, and Roger grew up resenting the abuse his father had to take from the "college boys" who managed the line. Roger spent much of his youth in convalescence. A sickly child – haemophilia forced him to sit out breaktime at school – he had to learn to walk again after getting hit by a car aged eight. His mother worked, so he was raised in equal measure by his grandmother and TV. "Television and I grew up together," he later wrote.

A teenage booze hound – "I was hammered all the time" – Ailes said he "went to state school because they told me I could drink". In fact, his father kicked him out of the house when he graduated from high school. During his stint at Ohio University, where he studied radio and television, his parents divorced and left the house where he had spent so much of his childhood recovering from illness and injury. "I went back, the house was sold, all my stuff was gone," he recalled. "I never found my shit!" The shock seems to have left him with an almost pathological nostalgia for the trappings of small-town America.

In college, Ailes tried to join the Air Force reserve officer training corps but was rejected because of his health. So he became a drama geek, acting in college productions. The thespian streak never left Ailes: His first job out of college was as a gofer on The Mike Douglas Show, a nationally syndicated daytime variety show that featured ageing stars such as Jack Benny and Pearl Bailey in a world swooning for Elvis and the Beatles. In many ways, Ailes remains a creature of that earlier era. His 1950s manners, martini-dry ripostes and unreconstructed sexism give the feeling, says one intimate, "like you're talking to someone who's been under a rock for a couple of decades".

Ailes found his calling in television. He proved to be a TV wunderkind, charting a meteoric rise to executive producer by the age of 25. Ailes had an uncanny feel for stagecraft and how to make conversational performances pop on live television. But it was behind the scenes at Mike Douglas in 1967 that Ailes met the man who would set him on his path as the greatest political operative of his generation: Richard Milhous Nixon. The former vice-president – whose stilted and sweaty debate performance against John F Kennedy had helped doom his presidential bid in 1960 – was on a media tour to rehabilitate his image. Waiting with Nixon in his office before the show, Ailes needled his powerful guest. "The camera doesn't like you," he said. Nixon wasn't pleased. "It's a shame a man has to use gimmicks like television to get elected," he grumbled. "Television is not a gimmick," Ailes said. "And if you think it is, you'll lose again."

The exchange was a defining moment for both men. Nixon became convinced that he had met a boy genius who could market him to the American public. Ailes had fallen hard for his first candidate. He soon abandoned his high-powered job producing Mike Douglas and signed on as Nixon's "executive producer for television". For Ailes, the infatuation was personal – and it is telling that the man who got him into politics would prove to be one of he most paranoid and dirty campaigners in the history of American politics. "I don't know anyone else around that I would have done it for," Ailes has said, "other than Nixon."

Like Nixon, Rupert Murdoch found Ailes captivating: powerful, politically connected, funny as hell. By the time the two men teamed up in 1996 both had been married twice and both shared an open contempt for the traditional rules of journalism. Murdoch also had a direct self-interest in targeting regulation-minded liberals, whose policies threatened to interfere with his plans for expansion.

Even before he hired Ailes, Murdoch had several teams at work on an early version of Fox News that he intended to air through News Corp affiliates. The false starts included a 60 Minutes-style programme that, under the guise of straight news, would feature a weekly attack-and-destroy piece targeting a liberal politician or social programme. "The idea of a masquerade was already around prior to Roger arriving," says Dan Cooper, managing editor of that first iteration of Fox News. Murdoch envisioned his new network as a counterweight to the "leftwing bias" of CNN. "There's your answer right there to whether Fox News is a conventional news network or whether it has an agenda," says Eric Burns, who served for a decade as media critic at Fox News. "That's its original sin."

Before signing on to run the new network, Ailes demanded that Murdoch get "carriage" – distribution on cable systems nationwide. In the normal course of business, cable outfits such as Time Warner pay content providers such as CNN or MTV for the right to air their programmes. But Murdoch turned the business model on its head. He didn't just give Fox News away – he paid the cable companies to air it. To get Fox News into 25m homes, Murdoch paid cable companies as much as $20 a subscriber. "Murdoch's offer shocked the industry," writes biographer Neil Chenoweth. "He was prepared to shell out half a billion dollars just to buy a news voice." Even before it took to the air, Fox News was guaranteed access to a mass audience, bought and paid for. Ailes hailed Murdoch's "nerve", adding: "This is capitalism and one of the things that made this country great."

Ailes was also determined not to let the professional ethics of journalism get in the way of his political agenda. To secure a pliable news staff, he led what he called a "jailbreak" from his old employers, NBC, bringing dozens of top staffers with him to Fox News.

Ailes then embarked on a purge of existing staffers at Fox News. "There was a litmus test," recalled Joe Peyronnin, whom Ailes displaced as head of the network. "He was going to figure out who was liberal or conservative when he came in, and try to get rid of the liberals." When Ailes suspected a journalist wasn't far enough to the right for his tastes, he'd spring an accusation: "Why are you a liberal?" If staffers had worked at one of the major news networks, Ailes would force them to defend working at a place such as CBS – which he spat out as "the Communist Broadcast System". To replace the veterans he fired, Ailes brought in droves of inexperienced up-and-comers – enabling him to weave his own political biases into the network's DNA. Reporters understood that a rightwing bias was hard-wired into what they did from the start. "All outward appearances were that it was just like any other newsroom," says a former anchor. "But you knew that the way to get ahead was to show your colour – and that your colour was red." Red state, that is.

Befitting his siege mentality, Ailes housed his newsroom in a bunker. Reporters and producers at Fox News work in a vast, windowless expanse below street level, a gloomy space lined with video-editing suites along one wall and cubicle offices along the other. In a separate facility on the same subterranean floor, Ailes created an in-house research unit – known at Fox News as the "brain room" – that requires special security clearance to gain access. "It's where the evil resides," says Cooper, who helped design its specs.

It was the election of Bush in 2000 that revealed the true power of Fox News as a political machine. According to a study of voting patterns by the University of California, Fox News shifted roughly 200,000 ballots to Bush in areas where voters had access to the network. But Ailes, ever the political operative, didn't leave the outcome to anything as dicey as the popular vote. The man he tapped to head the network's "decision desk" on election night – the consultant responsible for calling states for either Gore or Bush – was none other than John Prescott Ellis, Bush's first cousin.

In any newsroom worthy of the name, such a conflict of interest would have immediately disqualified Ellis. But for Ailes, loyalty to Bush was an asset. "We at Fox News," he would later tell a House hearing, "do not discriminate against people because of their family connections." On election day, Ellis was in constant contact with Bush himself. After midnight, when a wave of late numbers showed Bush with a narrow lead, Ellis jumped on the data to declare Bush the winner – even though Florida was still rated too close to call by the vote-tracking consortium used by all the networks. Fox News called the election for Bush at 2.16 am – a move that spurred every other network to follow suit, and led to "Bush Wins" headlines in the morning papers.

"We'll never know whether Bush won the election in Florida or not," says Dan Rather, who was anchoring the election coverage for CBS that night. "But when you reach these kinds of situations, the ability to control the narrative becomes critical."

After Bush took office, Ailes stayed in frequent touch with the new Republican president. "The senior-level editorial people believe that Roger was on the phone every day with Bush," a source close to Fox News tells me. "He gave Bush the same kind of pointers he used to give [his father] – delivery, effectiveness, political coaching." In the aftermath of 9/11, Ailes sent a back-channel memo to the president through Karl Rove, advising Bush to ramp up the war on terror. As reported by Bob Woodward, Ailes advised Bush that, "the American public would tolerate waiting and would be patient, but only as long as they were convinced that Bush was using the harshest measures possible".

Fox News did its part to make sure that viewers lined up behind those harsh measures. The network plastered an American flag in the corner of the screen, dolled up one female anchor in a camouflage-print silk blouse, and featured Geraldo Rivera threatening to hunt down Osama bin Laden with a pistol. The militarism even seemed to infect the culture of Fox News. "Roger Ailes is the general," declared Bill O'Reilly. "And the general sets the tone of the army. Our army is very George Patton-esque. We charge. We roll."

Ailes likes to boast that Fox News maintains a bright, clear line between its news shows, which he touts as balanced, and primetime hosts such as O'Reilly and Hannity, who are given free rein to voice their opinions. "We police those lines very carefully," Ailes has said. But after Bush was elected, Ailes tasked John Moody, his top political lieutenant, to keep the newsroom in lockstep. Early each morning, Ailes summoned Moody into his office and provided his spin on the day's news. Moody then posted a daily memo to the staff with explicit instructions on how to slant the day's news coverage according to the agenda of those on "the second floor", as Ailes and his loyal cadre of vice-presidents are known. "There's a chain of command, and it's followed," says a former news anchor. "Roger talks to his people, and his people pass the message on down." (Ailes and Fox News declined repeated requests for an interview for this piece.)

The more profits soared at Fox News, the more Ailes expanded his power and independence. In 2005, he staged a brazen coup within the company, conspiring to depose Murdoch's son Lachlan as the anointed heir of News Corp. Ailes not only took over Lachlan's portfolio – becoming chair of Fox Television – he even claimed Lachlan's office on the eighth floor. In 2009, Ailes earned a pay package of $24m – a deal slightly larger than the one enjoyed by Murdoch himself. He brags privately that his contract also forbids Murdoch – infamous for micromanaging his newspapers – from interfering with editorial decisions at Fox News.

Many within Murdoch's family have come to viscerally hate Ailes. Murdoch's third wife, Wendi, has worked to soften her husband's politics, and his son James has persuaded him to embrace the reality of global warming – even as Ailes has led the drumbeat of climate deniers at Fox News. PR man Matthew Freud, Murdoch's son-in-law, recently told reporters: "I am by no means alone within the family or the company in being ashamed and sickened by Roger Ailes's horrendous and sustained disregard of the journalistic standards that News Corporation, its founder and every other global media business aspires to."

"Rupert is surrounded by people who regularly, if not moment to moment, tell him how horrifying and dastardly Roger is," says Wolff, Murdoch's biographer. "Wendi cannot stand Roger. Rupert's children cannot stand Roger. So around Murdoch, Roger has no supporters, except for Roger himself."

Ailes begins each workday buffered by the elaborate private security detail that News Corp pays to usher him from his $1.6m home in New Jersey to his office in Manhattan. Travelling with the Chairman is like a scene straight out of 24. A friend recalls hitching a ride with Ailes after a power lunch: "We come out of the building and there's an SUV filled with big guys, who jump out of the car when they see him. A cordon is formed around us. We're ushered into the SUV, and we drive the few blocks to Fox's offices, where another set of guys come out of the building to receive 'the package'. The package is taken in, and I'm taken on to my destination."

Ailes is certain that he's a top target of al-Qaida terrorists. Inside his blast-resistant office at Fox News headquarters, he keeps a monitor on his desk that allows him to view any activity outside his closed door. Once, after observing a dark-skinned man in what Ailes perceived to be Muslim garb, he put Fox News on lockdown. "What the hell!" Ailes shouted. "This guy could be bombing me!" The suspected terrorist turned out to be a janitor. "Roger tore up the whole floor," recalls a source close to Ailes. "He has a personal paranoia about people who are Muslim – which is consistent with the ideology of his network."

Ailes knows exactly who is watching Fox News each day, and he is adept at playing to their darkest fears in the age of Obama. The network's viewers are old, with a median age of 65. Ads cater to the immobile, the infirm and the incontinent, with appeals to join class action hip-replacement lawsuits, commercials for products such as Colon Flow and testimonials for the services of Liberator Medical ("Liberator gave me back the freedom I haven't had since I started using catheters"). The audience is also almost exclusively white – only 1.38% of viewers are African-American. "Roger understands audiences," says Rollins, the former Reagan consultant. "He knew how to target, which is what Fox News is all about." The typical viewer of Sean Hannity's show, to take the most stark example, is a pro-business (86%), Christian conservative (78%), Tea Party-backer (75%) with no college degree (66%), who is over 50 (65%), supports the NRA (73%), doesn't back gay rights (78%) and thinks government "does too much" (84%). "He's got a niche audience and he's programmed to it beautifully," says a former News Corp colleague. "He feeds them exactly what they want to hear."

From the time Obama began contemplating his candidacy, Fox News went all-out to convince its white viewers that he was a Marxist, a Muslim, a black nationalist and a 1960s radical. In early 2007, Ailes joked about the similarity of Obama's name to a certain terrorist's. "It is true that Barack Obama is on the move," Ailes said in a speech to news executives. "I don't know if it's true that President Bush called Musharraf and said: 'Why can't we catch this guy?'" References to Obama's middle name were soon being bandied about on Fox & Friends, the morning happy-talk show that Ailes uses as one of his primary vehicles to inject his venom into the media bloodstream.

The Obama era has spurred sharp changes in the character and tone of Fox News. "Obama's election has driven Fox to be more of a political campaign than it ever was before," says Burns, the network's former media critic. "Things shifted," agrees Jane Hall, who fled the network after a decade as a liberal commentator. "There seemed suddenly to be less of a need to have a range of opinion. I began to feel uncomfortable."

Most striking, Ailes hired Glenn Beck away from CNN and set him loose on the White House. During his contract negotiations, Beck recounted, Ailes confided that Fox News was dedicating itself to impeding the Obama administration. "I see this as the Alamo," Ailes declared. Leading the charge were the ragtag members of the Tea Party uprising, which Fox News propelled into a nationwide movement. In the buildup to the initial protests on 15 April 2009, the network went so far as to actually co-brand the rallies as "FNC Tax Day Tea Parties."

According to recent polls, Fox News viewers are the most misinformed of all news consumers. They are 12 percentage points more likely to believe the stimulus package caused job losses, 17 points more likely to believe Muslims want to establish Sharia law in America, 30 points more likely to say that scientists dispute global warming, and 31 points more likely to doubt President Obama's citizenship. At the height of the healthcare debate, more than two-thirds of Fox News viewers were convinced Obamacare would lead to a "government takeover", provide healthcare to illegal immigrants, pay for abortions and let the government decide when to pull the plug on grandma. In fact, a study by the University of Maryland revealed that ignorance of Fox viewers actually increases the longer they watch the network. That's because Ailes isn't interested in providing people with information, or even a balanced range of perspectives. Like his political mentor, Richard Nixon, Ailes traffics in the emotions of victimisation.

"What Nixon did – and what Ailes does today in the age of Obama – is unravel and rewire one of the most powerful of human emotions: shame," says Perlstein, the author of Nixonland. "He takes the shame of people who feel that they are being looked down on, and he mobilises it for political purposes. Roger Ailes is a direct link between the Nixonian politics of resentment and Sarah Palin's politics of resentment. He's the golden thread."

Fox News stands as the culmination of everything Ailes tried to do for Nixon back in 1968. He has created a vast stage set, designed to resemble an actual news network, that is literally hard-wired into the homes of millions of America's most conservative voters. Republican candidates then use that forum to communicate directly to their base, bypassing the professional journalists Ailes once denounced as "matadors" who want to "tear down the social order" with their "elitist, horse-dung, socialist thinking". Ironically, it is Ailes who has built the most formidable propaganda machine ever seen outside of the Communist bloc, pioneering a business model that effectively monetises conservative politics through its relentless focus on the bottom line. "I'm not in politics," Ailes recently boasted. "I'm in ratings. We're winning."

The only thing that remains to be seen is whether Ailes can have it both ways: reaching his goal of $1bn in annual profits while simultaneously dethroning Obama with one of his candidate-employees. Either way, he has put the Republican party on his payroll and forced it to remake itself around his image. Ailes is the Chairman, and the conservative movement now reports to him. "Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us," said David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter. "Now we're discovering that we work for Fox."

Tim Dickinson is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and also writes its political blog.