When I was in high school, I was an insufferable young Republican. I’ve talked about this on my podcast and on the blog, so it’s not any sort of revelation. Like a lot of kids who self-identify as conservative, as soon as I left home and began to learn about the real world, among other things via higher education in the field of political science, my personal values and politics rapidly shifted leftward simply because, as Stephen Colbert famously said, “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.”
But in the late 1980s, like many confused, awkward conservative kids, I also was totally addicted to the Morton Downey Jr. Show. Downey was the television Patient Zero who spawned both the Jerry Springer talk show circus format and the Bill O’Reilly Fox News pundit format. He was a far-right, cigarette-smoking screamer who hosted a syndicated telecast that was set up like a daytime talk show, complete with an audience and a panel of on-stage guests, and the topics, at least initially, were all wafer-thin political issues. Needless to say, 17-year-old political junky me in 1988 and 1989 absorbed it like a really shouty drug.
So when I watched a new documentary about Downey titled ÉVOCATEUR: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie, released to coincide with the 25th anniversary of Downey’s show, I was both surprised and not surprised at all to learn that it was essentially a political broadcast specifically designed for 17-year-olds boys with every topic simplified into digestible good-or-evil, right-or-wrong, with-us-or-against-us ultimatums. And of course it was. Post-Reagan conservatism is largely based on stunted, undeveloped, childish, contra-empirical ideas about the world — ideas that both confirm and enable simplistic notions about the role of government in society. The success of the Downey show was due to the carefully choreographed delivery of the ideas from an authoritative, alpha-male role model who wasn’t afraid to throw down like a testosterone-possessed teenage boy. He was a heavy metal political rocker without the hair and leather and he used the persona to tap into that politically immature mindset.
The movie artfully carries us through Downey’s career and, augmented by animation sequences that reminded me of Gerald Scarfe’s work on Pink Floyd’s The Wall, illustrates what compelled Downey’s ambition and what contributed to his crash-and-burn disintegration. It seems as if Downey was always seeking to escape from his famous Dad’s shadow (Morton Downey Sr. was a popular crooner). The challenge to live up to his father’s success perpetually haunted him, especially when it became clear he didn’t quite have his Dad’s talent for singing. But Downey kept trying and trying to make it in the music business which eventually led him into Top 40 radio in the 1970s. Like many of the modern conservative talkers, the transition from music to right-wing talk seemed more of a career move rather than any real interest in changing public policy. There’s money in conservative entertainment, so… why not? Later, Downey was fired from a Sacramento, California radio station after referring to an Asian caller as a “Chinaman.” He was replaced by newcomer Rush Limbaugh.
Throughout the film, various interviewees hint at the fact that Downey’s on-air persona was mostly an act. Talk show host Richard Bey came right out and said in the movie, “It was an act, just like Sean Hannity is an act. It’s television.” Downey’s lifelong friend Lloyd Schoonmaker said of Downey’s politics, “He would seem to go in either direction, whatever would seem to work at the time.”
The act involved a pumped up studio audience; a topic — usually political; a panel of tomato can guests who Downey could easily destroy with the help of 180 superfan accomplices; a lot of cigarette smoke; a lot of shouting and in-your-face confrontations; a cartoon parody version of political debate; Downey’s gigantic mouth full of capped chompers and ultimately no real resolution. Pat Buchanan describes the atmosphere of the show as “the angry voices of people left behind.” “Angry” tends to understate the emotional content of the show.
The tone and style that made it a ratings hit ultimately destroyed it, just as Downey’s obsession with showmanship — the act — ultimately destroyed his reputation. In the documentary, Downey’s former producers recalled how, after a while, they were simply unable to book legitimate guests because no one wanted to endure the abuse. In one segment which I had totally forgotten about until I watched the movie, Downey rips into Ron Paul who was struggling over the studio chaos to talk about his support for drug legalization. Downey shouted him down and implied that Ron Paul’s high, plaintive voice was due to Paul’s shrunken testicles. (If Downey had been interested in nuance he would’ve realized that Ron Paul was and is farther to the right than Downey and would go on to become the most conservative member of Congress.)
So the show’s producers relied almost entirely on both Al Sharpton (also portrayed in the documentary as a showman first and foremost) and the African American activist’s involvement in the controversial Tawana Brawley case, interspersed with panels that would become Jerry Springer fodder six years later: freaks, KKK guys, strippers and nutbags. During a particularly shocking scene in the movie, Downey confronts a stripper with the misogynistic threat, “I’d show you how to kick the living shit out of a broad!” The producers of the show also describe how Downey offered another stripper from the same panel a job as a producer on the show. The next day, Downey called the woman into the men’s room and asked her to hold his penis while he urinated. “Conservative” values indeed. Suffice to say, the movie reveals Downey’s obvious sociopathy and anger toward women. Years later, the infamous feminist lawyer and activist Gloria Allred, who was also a guest on his show, attended Downey’s funeral.
The show was canceled after existing for less than two years. But Downey wasn’t finished with “the act.” In a fit of desperation, perhaps for publicity or perhaps to win the sympathy of his third wife, Downey staged a publicity stunt in which neo-Nazis accosted him in a bathroom, cut his hair and drew a swastika on his face with a magic marker. Of course he did it to himself — the swastika drawing was hilariously botched, among other things (if there’s one thing neo-Nazis are familiar with, it’s swastikas). The year after his show was canceled, he filed bankruptcy, hosted two random shows on CNBC and in 1996 he was diagnosed with lung cancer (four packs of cigarettes a day!) which eventually killed him in March of 2001.
I can’t help but to imagine that if Downey had remained healthy, he would’ve fit perfectly into the Fox News line-up, especially followng the 9/11 attacks when the simplistic 17-year-old-teenager “you’re either with us or with the terrorists” brand of patriotism infected the entire nation. In fact, I believe part of the reason Downey’s show failed so rapidly was because it was presented out of the context of right-wing cable television which wouldn’t appear until ten years after Downey. If it had been nestled within a channel that featured other like-minded shows, who knows? Maybe it would’ve continued a little longer. But ultimately, as the movie discusses, Downey’s unsustainable style killed his show. Fox News pundits on the other hand have learned to modulate the frequency and volume of their apoplectic freak-outs, unlike Downey.
He was the botched prototype that led to thousands of media ideologues who deliver Downey-inspired conservatism to low information voters — discarding the bits of the carrion that didn’t work while horking all of the good stuff, including a prominent degree of deception. I feel like 17-year-old me was taken by a well-crafted scam artist. Likewise, I firmly believe that Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and the others are doing the same to their audiences — the only difference being that the audiences of today’s conservative talkers are old enough to know better.
The documentary, to be released theatrically by Magnolia Pictures on June 7, is a fantastic companion to Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story, which documented the life and times of another influential conservative menace from the 1980s. Lee Atwater was to Karl Rove and Republican politics what Downey was to Bill O’Reilly and Fox News. Both succumbed to cancer after infecting politics with viruses that are still being transmitted years after their deaths. ÉVOCATEUR is required viewing if you’re at all interested in the evolution of the conservative entertainment complex and, more importantly, the development of the modern conservative movement with all of its accompanying showmanship, hyperkinetic jingoism, simplicity and bumper sticker sloganeering.
Downey wasn’t the first right-wing talker, but he was the first right-wing talker to attain superstar celebrity status. He was a wanna-be rock star who burned out with the same shooting star rapidity as a one-hit wonder. But the echoes of his loudmouth voice resonate today, and even though 17-year-old me was really into it, I see Downey’s influence as purely bad for America. Sadly, in spite of its chronological adulthood, the audience for Downey-style conservative punditry has yet to grow up.
Few things are more irritating than stupidity. What makes this even more annoying is knowing you are paying for it. Congressman Eric Cantor has scheduled a vote this week repealing “Obamacare.” His proposal’s chances of passing the Senate and/or being signed into law by President Obama are pretty much the same. Talk about exercises in futility.
The House cut its operating budget in 2011 by five percent. More info on that can be found here. That amounts to nearly $33 million a year. Legistorm has information on how much each office spends on salaries for members and staffers. One sure thing cam be said of all the offices from the big spenders to the most frugal is the source of the funding. Paying for Eric Cantor to drag te House through this flight of fancy/political posturing at its most absurd. No one — even Cantor himself, sees this as becoming law — at least not with the current Senate and White House.
This is shameful and not our founding fathers had in mind when they crafted our constitution.
Fox News Channel amplified its crusade against the president yesterday, implying that the same administration that killed Bin Laden and much of al-Qaida’s leadership, and the same administration that boasts a considerable record of killing terrorist operatives with targeted attacks using an escalating number of drone strikes is composed of terrorist sympathizers who are only concerned with enabling and sympathizing with the “jihadis.”
The network’s mission on this front is to engage in a Southern Strategy-style campaign to exploit conspiracy theories around president’s name and background in order to confirm the paranoia of Fox News’ viewers who believe the president is connected to al-Qaida and the Muslim Brotherhood while spearheading the effort to usurp the Constitution with Sharia law. Actually, the Fox News approach is more or less the “lite” version of unmitigated cage-crapping on the extreme right: Alex Jones and his cult recently accused the president of being the official leader of al-Qaida.
In its most recent manic episode, however, Fox News suggested that the president and his attorney general, Eric Holder, care more about preemptively thwarting hate crimes against Muslims than condemning perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing.
Some background. During a speech to the Anti-Defamation League, an organization that’s committed in part to preventing hate crimes, Holder spoke about the Boston Marathon bombing and then, naturally, segued into a section about preventing hate crimes against Muslim Americans in the wake of the tragedy — a kneejerk and deadly reaction we’ve seen too many times before. Among other things, Holder said:
“I also want to make clear that – just as we will pursue relentlessly anyone who would target our people or attempt to terrorize our cities – the Justice Department is firmly committed to protecting innocent people against misguided acts of retaliation.”
As you can plainly see, Holder is with the terrorists. At least, that’s what Fox News wants its people to believe. In a FOX NEWS ALERT! HOLY SHIT: JIHAD! segment yesterday, Megyn Kelly asked one of her guests the following question — a question that wasn’t a question at all, of course, but a statement about Holder’s obviously outrageous condemnation of attacks against innocent people:
“Um. Jay [Sekulow of the American Center for Law & Justice], if you take those remarks and put them on paper and just disconnect them to the Boston marathon bombings they’re not controversial at all. But to have the attorney general of the United States get up and focus on backlash against Muslims?!”
Later, Kelly brought in anti-Muslim bigot Michelle Malkin clearly because the network hadn’t sufficiently crapped all over the idea of protecting innocent Americans from being assaulted by anti-Muslim bigots. Malkin, for her part, endorsed an earlier anti-Holder rant by human-sinus hybrid Mark Levin, and continued by saying that Holder should’ve praised the “restraint” and “fairness” of the American people for not resorting to terrorist attacks against Muslims — the technique, Malkin said, that “jihadis” used against Americans. Put another way, Malkin is proud of the fact that Americans evidently don’t resort to terrible violence against “jihadis” (except that we’ve been at war against jihadists for 12 years now).
Nevertheless, the following Holder remark attracted the harshest rebuke from Kelly, Malkin and Levin:
“America rejects bigotry. We reject every act of hatred against people of Arab background or Muslim faith America values and welcomes peaceful people of all faiths — Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and many others. Every faith is practiced and protected here, because we are one country. Every immigrant can be fully and equally American because we’re one country. Race and color should not divide us, because America is one country.”
Whoops! Correction. That wasn’t a Holder quote. It was spoken by President Bush on April 30, 2002, and no one at Fox News Channel or the conservative entertainment complex criticized him for it because, among other reasons, any such criticism was considered to be a treason-worthy trespass during the months following 9/11, according to, well, everyone. Fact: President Bush condemned violence against Muslim Americans and defended the Islamic faith on at least 25 different occasions between September 17, 2001 and the end of 2002.
Meanwhile, hate crimes against Muslim Americans increased dramatically throughout the last 12 years in spite of remarks from Bush, Obama and Holder. Contrary to Kelly’s anecdotal observations, law enforcement is correctly worried about retribution against Muslims for more than just Boston, but for Boston plus 9/11 and other attacks. So, yes, anti-Muslim violence is real. In December, a man named Sunando Sen was waiting for a subway in New York City when an assailant shoved him onto the tracks where he was struck and killed by a train.
The culprit, Erika Menendez, later confessed to the police, “I pushed a Muslim off the train tracks because I hate Hindus and Muslims… Ever since 2001 when they put down the Twin Towers, I’ve been beating them up.”
Sen was an Indian immigrant and wasn’t even Muslim, but he made the deadly error of looking like one. Is Holder supposed to wait for more of these tragedies to occur and only then use the FBI and other agencies to prevent further attacks? Within the frightened walnut-sized lizard-brains of Kelly, Malkin and Levin, yes — Holder should wait until after more attacks happen before condemning them. And what does that say about these Fox News anti-Muslim fire-eaters? We have to seriously question whether they’d prefer to see Muslim Americans targeted by vigilantes like Menendez, and therefore we have to seriously question whether Fox News is contributing to anti-Muslim hate crimes by demanding that our government turn a blind eye.
I’m old enough to remember when country singer Natalie Maines said during a Dixie Chicks concert, “We’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” She wasn’t broadcasting a political demand for impeachment or a half-baked conspiracy theory to anyone outside of the auditorium — no audiences of millions on AM radio or cable news. Just a few thousand people in a closed setting. But based on the bug-eyed, flag-molesting outrage that followed you’d think she had colluded with Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and the ghost of Khrushchev to shank George W. Bush with a prison shiv. The nation exploded in a collective hissy fit that included a conga-line of scolding conservatives and more than a few witch-hunt style protests in which Dixie Chicks CDs were smashed by heavy machinery or burned, all to the tune of the familiar warning: don’t undermine the commander-in-chief or else.
And that was in March of 2003, years after the 9/11 attacks and long after the high-water mark of unwavering, luxuriant god-worship of George W. Bush.
In the days and months after 9/11, even hinting that Bush had acted poorly in the wake of the attacks or had perhaps not done enough to prevent them (he was warned — a lot) was immediately beaten down as unpatriotic or “with the terrorists.” The sentiment was universal. Democrats and Republicans alike agreed to lay off the president for a while, an attitude that definitely lasted for way too long and enabled a long list of craptastical laws that passed with unanimous bipartisan support — laws that we’re still trying to unravel today. It’s not a stretch to attribute this reaction to both Republican partisanship and jingoism and the strange Democratic psychosis involuntarily forcing them to be easily suckered into coitus with political enemies.
Conversely, none of the same courtesy has been extended to our current president following the Boston Marathon bombing. Not so shocking, considering how it likewise didn’t happen in the aftermath of the Great Recession, or after the killing of Bin Laden, or after the end of the Iraq War. It certainly didn’t happen following each of the various gun massacres — terrorist attacks at gunpoint. And, as we’re all aware, an outright conservative inquest was launched following the consulate attack in Benghazi, in spite of the fact that 11 similar attacks took place during the Bush years with considerably greater body counts.
Suffice to say, if another attack were to occur at or even below the level of September 11, this president would likely be impeached within a week.
Worse, the conspiracy theories first marketed by Alex Jones last week are being mainstreamed throughout the conservative entertainment complex. In the Bush post-9/11 context, imagine not only broad liberal and Democratic attacks against President Bush within a week of the attacks, but also the mainstreaming of the various 9/11 Truther conspiracies.
Both Alex Jones (naturally) and Sean Hannity launched a conspiracy theory by anti-Islam crackpot Steve Emerson involving the Obama administration’s alleged cover-up of the connection between the bombing and Saudi Arabia via the Saudi student who was questioned and released immediately following the marathon bombing.
On Friday, Glenn Beck said America should “demand impeachment” over the Saudi conspiracy theory.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) accused the president of “leading from behind.”
The Tea Party Nation not only suggested that the president was to blame for this attack, but he’s also to blame for the next attack which will happen “sooner than later.”
Fox & Friends co-host and miraculous talking monkey Brian Kilmeade said on his radio show, “So like it or not, this president has left [the Middle East] alone. And guess what happens? Now the IEDs are blowing up in our streets.” Yep, the Boston bombing was the president’s fault. 100 percent. Why? Because of the Middle East, even though the Tsarvaev’s are from, you know, Chechnya.
Rush Limbaugh attacked the president’s handling of the bombing by invoking Benghazi, the New Black Panthers (all two of them at that polling place in Philadelphia) and Rev. Wright of all people — all in the context of the Obama government’s refusal to tell the truth.
Former Bush attorney general Michael Mukasey attacked the president for apparently downplaying the motives of the Tsarnaev brothers, “There is also cause for concern in the president’s reluctance, soon after the Boston bombing, even to use the ‘t’ word—terrorism—and in his vague musing on Friday about some unspecified agenda of the perpetrators, when by then there was no mystery: the agenda was jihad.”
I think you get the idea. It’s been just over a week and all of the usual suspects are engaged in nonsense far worse than anything Natalie Maines ever said. In fact, I’m waiting for Dinesh D’Souza to release another movie about how the president’s “anti-colonialism” caused the bombing. Just wait another few days and it’ll be in wide release. Actually, I wouldn’t be shocked if the Republicans elevated the Saudi conspiracy theory into another Benghazi-style coverup plot.
It’s all yet another case study in how the Republicans too often comport themselves in the wake of a disaster — these self-proclaimed “patriots” are merely selective, fair-weather patriots, only willing to lend their unified support when the president is from their own party and prepared to bomb the hell out of brown people somewhere. They will not give an inch on anything. They will contradict themselves, ignore their own records, jump to paranoid conclusions, risk embarrassment and generally do whatever it takes to disrupt and sabotage the Obama presidency. And they’re willing to brazenly and unapologetically exploit these tragedies as a means of doing so.