Book Review: The Great Derangement by Matt Taibbi

As you can tell from the tone of some of the political posts here, I’m fed up. I’m tired of politics and politicians and revolted by how they elevate self-interest over public interest. It can be therapeutic to see you’re not alone. And Matt Taibbi’s The Great Derangement, also indicates there’s a lot of people out there who feel the same way. It’s just that the disaffection manifests itself in different, at times somewhat deranged, ways.

Often scathing, frequently humorous and usually insightful, Taibbi sees Americans as becoming deranged by the state of political and national affairs. He explores this derangement but what he views as analogous counterparts at either end of the political spectrum — the end times-tinged evangelical movement and the 9/11 Truth Movement. To him, they are prime examples of the factionalization of the so-called blue-red divide stemming from an underlying and growing distrust of politics and government.

The main storyline here is Taibbi joining Cornerstone Church, founded by Pastor John Hagee, the evangelical minister whose endorsement John McCain so proudly trumpeted and then distanced himself from. We follow Taibbi to a church “encounter weekend” which culminates in participants vomiting out the demons that possess them, prayer groups with leaders who make sure to incorporate the church’s political viewpoints, and even street (actually shopping mall) evangelism. While The Great Derangement provides insight to such activities, equally fascinating is Taibbi’s discovery of how he adapts to the culture. He begins to grasp how and why the feelings it creates in members has helped churches like this grow and succeed, politics aside.

Taibbi also joins a meet up group of the 9/11 Truth Movement, which believes the Bush Administration was involved in — or at least aware of and did not stop — the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Although classifying the movement as “a narcissistic pipe dream for a dingbat, sheeplike population,” Taibbi casts it here as a left wing counterpart to the ideas of Hagee and similar evangelicals on the right.

Interspersed with these focal points are trips behind the scenes of the budget process in Washington (which should be required reading for every American) and time Taibbi spent with American troops patrolling the streets of Baghdad. And while Taibbi is no fan of the evangelical right or the Bush Administration, he is an equal opportunity critic. Both parties and the media are frequently excoriated. For example, here’s part of his take on when, nine days after September 11, Bush said America was attacked because of its democracy:

“They hate our freedoms” was possibly the dumbest, most insulting piece of bullshit ever to escape the lips of an American president. As an explanation for the appalling tragedy of 9/11, … it was insufficient even as a calculated effort to snow an uneducated public — it was too stupid even to hold up as that. And yet when he said it, Bush was not savaged by the mainstream media for blowing off the biggest security question of our time. …. Instead, he was cheered as a hero by members of both parties and virtually all the country’s commercial media, which engaged in a kind of frantic race to see who could more enthusiastically compare Bush’s speechmaking to that of Winston Churchill.

Taibbi recognizes that this, sadly, may be par for the course in today’s America. He points out that although the Democrats swept into office in 2006 in response to the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina and other Bush policies, they have done little or nothing with (or to keep) that mandate. He notes those midterm elections simply produced “a period where the Democrats would prove absolutely that it is possible in America to govern entirely on the appearance of principle — while changing absolutely nothing.” And the key word there is “appearance.” The Democrats have done nothing to change things. Their positions on Iraq, post-9/11 civil liberties and the like were nothing more than hollow rhetoric masquerading as principles. Instead, it remained politics as usual.

While Taibbi ultimately wants to offer at least a ray of hope, I fear the subtitle’s reference to “the Twilight of the American Empire” may be too accurate. And although I share his disgust and dismay, this isn’t going to be the quintessential work for the disaffected. It at times feels somewhat cobbled together from a variety of subjects Taibbi explored as possible book topics and as national affairs correspondent for Rolling Stone magazine. Likewise, while Taibbi decimates the ideas of the 9/11 Truth Movement with his account of an imaginary conspiracy meeting led by Dick Cheney, his reason for categorizing it as a faction on the left seems to go no further than its hatred of Bush. Closer examination of what factors other than disaffection with government gives rise to the popularity of this movement yields to his recounting of arguments with movement proponents.

It may be unlikely The Great Derangement will find a significant audience beyond those already in the choir. (It reached No. 25 on the NYT nonfiction list before disappearing in the latest rankings.) But what the book illustrates is that there is a very large choir out there. It’s just that some are using an evangelical hymnbook, others are singing of grandiose conspiracies and many just go home to watch TV. Unfortunately, the twilight represented by our deranged and broken political system may just become darker and darker.

If there’s one thing you can always count on, it’s that a lefty political activist will find a way to convince himself that he’s changing the world by watching a movie.

Matt Taibbi, The Great Derangement

2 comments to Book Review: The Great Derangement by Matt Taibbi

  • I love this book (along with Taibbi’s Rolling Stone columns), particularly because he is not afraid to criticize both sides. Too many political books these days act like their side is the angel and the other is the devil.

  • What I find amazing about the sense of powerlessness people feel towards the political process is that they tend to go off and join splinter groups rather than working in the mainstream political process. Isn’t that what democracy is supposed to be about? We may rail against our current politicians, yet how many actually get involved in changing the political landscape at their local levels? Grassroots involvement in small ways can make a difference …but maybe that’s the idealist in me. The danger to me in failing to get involved, for the majority of ‘rational’ people, is that there is a vacuum created that history has shown (e.g. Nazi Germany) can be filled by a ‘saviour’ who promises to fix everything that people are complaining about. This same jadedness toward politicians is in Canada as well – but so few people get involved – as is the idea behind democracy.