A gonzo survey of the political landscape
Ever since Hunter S. Thompson graced the pages of Rolling Stone, many young reporters have decided that his brand of gonzo journalism was something they wanted to emulate. Combine a liberal worldview, a flair for detailed narrative based on participatory journalism, and maybe some outrageous personal behavior, and who knows what will come out of the computer.
Matt Taibbi is a worthy filler of Thompson's shoes. He infiltrated organizations of both the far left and far right and shows how nutty and dangerous some at the furthest reaches of the political divide can be. In the enjoyable, albeit somewhat overwritten result, "The Great Derangement," Taibbi takes a critical, at times condescending, look at his subjects.
The strongest section is his portrayal of the services and spiritual boot camp that are John Hagee Ministries. Taibbi's views of fundamentalist Christians are similar to those expressed decades ago (far more elegantly) by H.L. Mencken. "The fundamentalist formula is much less a journey from folly to wisdom than it is from weakness to strength. They don't want a near-complete personality that needs fine tuning -- they want a human jellyfish, raw clay they can transform into a vigorous instrument of God," Taibbi writes. (And to think, Taibbi spent time in the presence of Hagee, best known for his marshalling of fundamentalist Christians on behalf of Israel, before his outbursts got so bad that John McCain tossed him from the straight-talk express.)
Taibbi's eye for detail and love of pop sociology make for a compelling narrative, but he teeters awfully close to being as intolerant as those he scorns, who include people with strong religious beliefs. Ethicists will have trouble with some of his reporting techniques; Taibbi says he gave a fake name and lied about his beliefs to blend in with fellow worshipers.
Taibbi, a contributing editor of Thompson's very own Rolling Stone whose other two books were collections of articles from that magazine and other publications, goes back to traditional-reporter mode when writing about Congress. He explains the legislative process (including the method of assigning bills to committees and the amendment process) in an amusing way. He updates the humorous look at Congress that P. J. O'Rourke did (albeit from the right side of the political divide) in "Parliament of Whores."
Taibbi takes a liberal's view of interest-group politics (i.e., big business is out to undercut the public and uses its campaign contributions to induce representatives and senators to do its bidding), and he can find almost nothing good to say about Republicans and many Democrats. He also says most politicians are out of touch with average people. "Washington politicians basically view the People as a capricious and dangerous enemy, a dumb mob whose only interesting quality happens to be their ability to take away politicians' jobs," he writes.
One of the few exceptions is Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who Taibbi contends is a special kind of lawmaker because of his willingness to take on the establishment (within limits) and stand up for everyday people. Taibbi fails to mention several key negatives about Sanders, including that his abrasive manner and extreme views have made it hard for him to attain real achievements on anything but relatively minor issues. Fortunately, Taibbi doesn't fall in love with everyone on the left. He has real contempt for those conspiracy theorists who say President Bush knew the people who planned the 9/11 attacks.
Taibbi's adventures among this cross section of America have resulted in an engaging literary tour d'horizon. "The Great Derangement" would have been even better if he had taken some of the sneering and condescension down a few notches.
Claude R. Marx is the author of a chapter on media and politics in "The Sixth Year Itch."
The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics & Religion at the Twilight of the American Empire, By Matt Taibbi, Spiegel & Grau, 288 pp., $24