08.27.10

Hunting the 'American Taliban'

In his new book, Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas offers a liberal’s attempt at a conservative bestseller—complete with savage dismissals, unfounded assumptions, and a lack of coherent argument about the opposing side, argues Ben Crair. It would make Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter proud.

Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas has long been open about his admiration for the scorched-earth tactics of the conservative movement. So it should not come as a surprise that, after a trip through the looking glass, his new book American Taliban might have just as easily been written by Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter. This is a liberal’s attempt at a conservative bestseller.

Perhaps we should have expected as much. In an interview in 2004 with ABC News, Moulitsas said:

The Rush Limbaugh[s] and Ann Coulter[s] created the world we live in, and for too long, Democrats tried to keep the high ground. ‘Oh well, we're not going to go down in the muck with them.’ …

It's because they were aggressive, they promoted their side very effectively, they riled up the troops, they motivated their supporters, they made sure their base was well-nourished. And, we're not seeing—we haven't traditionally seen anything like that on the Democratic side.

Moulitsas isn’t simply using an overheated metaphor when he refers to the “American Taliban.” He means it literally.

Through Daily Kos, Moulitsas made it his mission to create a movement on the left similar to the one that Limbaugh and Coulter helped to build on the right. He founded the blog in 2002 with the goal of what he has called “comprehensive reformation of the Democratic Party.” The so-called Netroots movement that Kos helped lead was essential in liberal victories like the defeat of Joe Lieberman in the 2006 Democratic primary, not long after which Jonathan Chait at The New Republic wrote, “the netroots are the most significant mass movement in U.S. politics since the rise of the Christian right more than two decades ago.” In a way, then, American Taliban can be seen as the fruits of Moulitsas’ labors: Readers on the left can now enjoy a book as simpleminded, moralizing, and pedantic as the crap Republicans have been boosting to the top of bestseller lists for years.

I should say that, this book aside, I am a fan of Moulitsas. I enjoy his writing on Daily Kos, and I admire the role he played in the health-care-reform debate, helping to hold together the left’s support for the legislation while some of his Netroots compatriots, like FireDogLake’s Jane Hamsher, did everything in their power to tear it apart. Daily Kos is part polling operation, part grassroots campaign, and part ball-busting liberal journalism outfit, with posts by both Moulitsas himself and a team of “diarists.” Moulitsas is at his best when he snarks about the inanities being passed along the airwaves and through the halls of Congress. In a recent post about Senator Chris Dodd’s doubts about Elizabeth Warren’s viability as the head of a new consumer-protection agency, Kos wrote, “Really, for a guy that could lay claim to a decent legacy in the Senate, he sure is going out as an asshole.” In another post, Moulitsas called Illinois’ lesser-of-two-evils contest for the former Senate seat of Barack Obama “a big pile of suck.”

It’s not that Moulitsas’s witty impudence is absent from American Taliban. I chuckled when he endorsed some recent conservative calls for secession by writing, “I’m partial to ceding a portion of the Texas Panhandle to these wackos, naming it Dumbfuckistan, taking it off the federal dole, building a wall around it, and arresting anyone trying to enter America illegally.” The problem with American Taliban is that these savage dismissals, which are well-suited to blog posts, never add up to any kind of coherent argument about the right.

The title of his book pretty much says it all. Moulitsas isn’t simply using an overheated metaphor when he refers to the “American Taliban.” He means it literally. “In their tactics and on the issues, our homegrown American Taliban are almost indistinguishable from the Afghan Taliban,” he writes in the introduction. And yet his evidence never amounts to much more than putting something an American conservative said beside something similar an Islamic radical said, and declaring that they are “clearly” or “obviously” connected: “That fear clearly binds the American Taliban to their Islamic cousins,” or “That sentiment is obviously no different than O’Reilly’s view” (emphasis mine). Moulitsas frequently uses adverbs in place of argumentation, and sometimes you wonder, if everything is so clear and obvious, why Moulitsas felt the need to write the book in the first place.

I suspect the answer to that question has something to do with watching writers like Jonah Goldberg and Dinesh D’Souza grow fat in recent years by painting liberals with as broad a brush as possible in their books Liberal Fascism and The Enemy at Home (the latter of which Moulitsas correctly calls “a dirty bomb in the national conversation”). American Taliban reads like Moulitsas’s game of “I’m rubber, you’re glue.” Who, you might ask, is a member of the “American Taliban”? Well, Goldberg and D’Souza, for starters. More prominently, there are the Tony Perkinses, Pat Robertsons, and Jerry Falwells—Christian Right boneheads who might rightfully be described as being more comfortable, with a change of iconography, in Riyadh than Manhattan. There’s also Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI and Orly Taitz, who is Jewish. At times, George W. Bush is “one of their own American Taliban members”; at other times, he is an “ally” of the American Taliban; and at yet other times, he is seemingly opposed to it, as when he defends Islam against hateful right-wing attacks. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rep. Ron Paul also fall under the Taliban umbrella, as do local obscurities like the vice-chairwoman of the Committee on Elections and Local Government in the Kansas State Senate. Throughout the book, Moulitsas keeps widening the group until you realize that he means it to include nearly every conservative.

By then, the gig is up. Moulitsas is less interested in making any kind of analytical point about conservative rhetoric than he is in hammering a simple association into his readers’ brains: conservatives equal bad guys. At times he is shameless in his tactics, as when he leads you to believe that a quote about blind faith is by a member of his American Taliban, only to tell you after you’ve read it that it’s actually by the Ayatollah Khamenei.

Conservative bestsellers have always attempted to smear liberals as traitors, whether it be the aforementioned Liberal Fascism and The Enemy at Home or Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity’s many tomes. Meanwhile, the best liberal pundits like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Al Franken have steered clear of such sledgehammer rhetoric, instead using humor to expose the absurdity and hypocrisy of many conservative ideas. It’s a way of solving Moulitsas’ conundrum—how to battle crazy rhetoric?—without being crazy yourself. For example, Moulitsas addresses Rep. Pete Sessions' suggestion in 2009 that the out-of-power Republican Party model itself on the Taliban insurgency with a simple equivalency, concluding, “Yes, the Republican Party, and the entire modern conservative movement is, in fact, very much like the Taliban.” Stephen Colbert, on the other hand, followed Session’s logic to its ludicrous conclusion: “Once the Republicans start to act like the Taliban, hopefully President Obama will start acting like President Bush and ignore them. That will give the GOP time to regroup in their secret mountain lairs.” Which lampoons Sessions more effectively?

Of course, Moulitsas, unlike Colbert, is primarily concerned with building a movement. And he may be right to suggest that the right’s rhetoric is sometimes so intemperate that mockery and reason are insufficient to fight it. Fine. If the Democrats run the country for the next 50 years because Moulitsas has taught them to fight fire with fire, then I guess I won’t complain. I just wish reading American Taliban didn’t make me feel like a member of the Conservative Book Club.

Ben Crair is the Deputy News Editor at The Daily Beast.