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Return of an Imaginary Menace

In our New Oxford Note “The Last Rhetorical Refuge of an Intellectual Scoundrel” (June), we asked the rhetorical question: “Remember all those insults about the ‘American Taliban’ hurled at religious conservatives in the 2000s?”

Kevin D. Williamson remembers, and he takes us back to that time, ten years ago, when Chris Hedges, a “leading moralist of the Left,” as The New Republic called him (Jun. 11, 2014), could author a book titled American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, and that book could earn rave reviews on its way to becoming a New York Times bestseller. Hedges’s book claims, in Williamson’s words, that “a secretive movement of authoritarian Christians organized along the lines of the great totalitarian movements of the 20th century was on the verge of seizing power through violence” (National Review, Sept. 12).

That a Christian cabal bent on recreating America in its own image was poised to ascend to power wasn’t merely the product of Hedges’s fever dreams. Progressive political blogger Markos Moulitsas also entertained the notion. Kos, as he is widely known, might have been the one to popularize the term American Taliban when he posted an incendiary piece bearing that title (www.DailyKos.com, Mar. 11, 2005), in which he argued that “the Taliban/Al Qaida/Hezbollah/Jihadists of the world” are “exactly what we see in the Republican Party as the GOP continues to consolidate power — creeping theocracy, moralizing, us versus them, embrace of torture, the need to constantly declare jihad on someone, hysterics over football-game nipples, control over ‘decency’ on the airwaves, lyrics censorship, hostility to women freedoms [sic], curtaling [sic] of civil liberties, and so on.” Five years later, Kos would capitalize on the concept by releasing his own book on the topic, American Taliban: How War, Sex, Sin, and Power Bind Jihadists and the Radical Right.

In the interim, a kind of cottage industry had spawned, and the term American Taliban — and all that it represented — had taken on a life of its own. Soon, any number of reputable publishers and mainstream organizations, from The New York Times to Oprah Winfrey, were seriously considering the possibility that an influential group of highly placed Christian dominionists was operating behind the scenes of American political and cultural life, forming opinions, influencing policy, and biding its time until it could step out from behind the curtain and impose its beliefs first on a fractured and distracted America and eventually on a bewildered and unsuspecting world.

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