Book Critic Kakutani: Beck Fans Moved by Threat of Black President

Times book critic Michiko Kakutani really liked liberal Philadelphia Inquirer journalist Will Bunch's book "The Backlash," his paranoid-sounding attack on Tea Party America.

Kakutani's liberal views are well-documented, as is her propensity to quote huge chunks of text from books she approves of. And Tea Party mocker Bunch got the big-chunk treatment on the front of Tuesday's Arts section, "The Engine of Right-Wing Rage, Fueled by More than Just Anger."

In his new book, "The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters, and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama," the progressive journalist Will Bunch serves up his own anatomy of the Tea Party movement, that loose agglomeration of right-wing insurgents, libertarians, conservatives, evangelicals, survivalists, gun-rights crusaders, antitax protesters, deficit hawks, antigovernment zealots, militia members, Ayn Randers, Limbaugh "ditto heads," Glenn Beck fanatics, birthers, Birchers, and supporters of Sarah Palin and Ron Paul.

Bunch's book must be truly inflammatory, because even Kakutani showed a few misgivings regarding his tone. Still, she's clearly on board with Bunch's characterization of Glenn Beck as a fear-monger and Rush Limbaugh as a menace.

Although Mr. Bunch - a senior writer at The Philadelphia Daily News and a senior fellow at the left-leaning research group Media Matters for America - tries hard in many of his interviews with various Tea Party-affiliated individuals to understand where they are coming from, he occasionally lapses into snarky put-downs that undercut the mostly reasoned tone of his book and his many persuasive observations....Mr. Bunch invokes Neil Postman - who argued in his seminal 1985 book, "Amusing Ourselves to Death," that the entertainment values promoted by television are subverting public discourse - to explore the phenomenon of Mr. Beck and his shameless emotional appeals to his audience's deepest fears about change and the threat of the Other (be it a black president, Mexican immigrants or East Coast liberals).

Kakutani took up Bunch's offensive idea that Rush Limbaugh is a extremist rightwinger of the Birchist persuasion:

For many decades, Mr. Bunch observes, "there were grown-ups involved in the conservative movement who tamped down the flames of extremism rather than fanning them."

"Ironically," he continues, "the main reason that the John Birch Society" - which went so far as to suggest that President Dwight D. Eisenhower was a Communist sympathizer - "failed to gain much traction in the early 1960s was because mainstream Republican politicians turned against them, even though the party was at low ebb in the Kennedy-Johnson years. Barry Goldwater, the leader of the so-called New Right movement who won the G.O.P. presidential nomination in 1964, did have considerable support from the Birchers, yet not only did he not embrace them but secretly authorized the intellectual leader of 1960s conservatism, William F. Buckley Jr., and his National Review to go after the organization, successfully marginalizing it and helping to keep its Richard Hofstadter-described paranoid style in the shadows, even as that decade grew more tumultuous."

Today things are different. Republicans are reluctant to speak out against Mr. Limbaugh's invective. Representative Michele Bachmann, Republican of Minnesota, has suggested that President Obama "may have anti-American views." And Sharron Angle, a Republican Senate candidate from Nevada, has spoken of citizens arming themselves "against a tyrannical government."