Getting Scary Out There

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What we shall take as a given is the incredible vacuity of the opposition. By now, everyone is surely familiar with the dishonest, fear-mongering arguments peddled by opponents of health care reform; it shouldn't be necessary to rehearse (or refute) them here.  I don't mean to suggest there weren't reasonable arguments to be made, merely that, by and large, and for whatever reason, they weren't.  Instead, the other side chose the route of hyperbole and hysterical misrepresentation.  Maybe because it had worked for them in the past.

Over-the-top opposition to President Obama has by no means been restricted to that one issue, of course.  From the very start of this presidency --- from before the very start --- a moderately liberal Democrat whose political views (as distinct from his personality) are actually rather safely conventional, has been portrayed as a radical, a socialist, a communist, a crypto-terrorist, a Muslim, and of course an illegal alien pretender in our midst.

For elected officials who spew this line, it's hard to explain their behavior except by suspecting that they are exceptionally sore losers.  It's just not credible that they don't know better.  They lost control of the House and Senate in 2006, and they lost the presidency in 2008.  Did they not expect there would be policy consequences?  They can't seriously contrive to feel cheated --- to feel there was some sort of legislative legerdemain --- when a Democratic majority voted in favor of a policy advocated by Democrats for almost a century and proposed by a Democratic president.  What did they think was going to happen?  Opposition is one thing, but outraged accusations of Solonic malpractice are another.  To the extent that they believe their own cant --- and it's quite likely that much of the indignation is feigned --- they must believe the country and its direction are theirs by divine right, and that any government, regardless of how legitimately elected and installed, with a different set of policies, constitutes a usurpation.  Such a feeling would go some way toward explaining the grotesquerie of the Bush v. Gore decision back in 2000, as well as Republican responses to President Obama's recent attempts at bipartisanship, which their leadership appeared to interpret as an offer to cede decision-making in toto to the opposition caucus.  And to feel aggrieved when that did not occur.

More disturbing still is the behavior of the Tea Partiers and their fellow-travelers.  Their importance, and certainly their numbers, are absurdly exaggerated by the media.  Why not?  They make for a great story.  But their capacity for mischief isn't dependent on the existence of vast hordes of like-minded comrades.  Nor even on a coherent set of beliefs: one of the more disturbing things about the Tea Party movement is how ill-defined its credo actually is.  Once you get past the slogans --- many of them drawn verbatim from Fox News talking points --- you look in vain for serious content.  Yes, these people are mad as hell and they aren't going to take it anymore.  No argument there.  But they don't seem able to define with any precision what "it" is.

Those pictures of Obama with a Hitler mustache, or decorated with a hammer and sickle, or sporting a lipsticked Joker grin, do not exactly suggest a sophisticated understanding of either politics or history, nor a desire to engage in serious forensics.  This very morning on NPR, I heard several interviews Ina Jaffe had conducted with people who had traveled to Searchlight, Nevada, to attend the big weekend Tea Party rally.  One participant said of Harry Reid, "He's a traitor, really.  He hates America, really."  (Those "reallys" sure make his inanity more persuasive, don't they?)  With someone like that, there isn't much point in sitting down for a frank exchange of views;  reality itself is just a pesky inconvenience to such people.  And if you factor in the recent death threats, and drawings of nooses sent to House and Senate members, and the spitting, and the shouts of "Nigger" and "Faggot," you begin to grasp that this inchoate anger is all the more dangerous precisely because it isn't wedded to a recognizable set of political principles.  It's just rage, free-floating and ready to blow.  Rage that's been cultivated, guided, and validated by some of more irresponsible media stars on the right.  With the shameful assistance and connivance of some elected officials.

Why is this scary?  Haven't there always been nuts among us?  Has not the invocation of Richard Hofstadter's "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" become a trusty, rusty cliche of liberal journalism, especially by those who haven't read it?  Well, yes.  But for those of us who recall President Clinton's first term, there is nothing innocuous about this sort of thing.  A similar taint of illegitimacy had been attached to the Clinton presidency in some circles, with all sorts of wild rumors (no, not those rumors, I'm talking about ones that weren't true) given much wider currency than they ever merited.  The flames were similarly fanned by voices in the right-wing media (some of them the same people who are active and influential today), and given official imprimatur by the likes of the late Congressman (her preferred title) Helen Chenoweth, who affirmed the existence of black helicopters being flown over Western skies by secret government agents, and Congressman Dan Burton, who famously put a lethal bullet through a cantaloupe to prove Vince Foster had been murdered (unless the melon had in some way insulted his honor, but if that's the case, he kept it to himself), to President George H. W. Bush, to Pat Buchanan, to Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

Small wonder that these beliefs began to seem plausible to the credulous, the alienated, the politically disappointed, and yes, thank you, Richard Hofstadter, the paranoid.  And they gained momentum --- and a growing simulacrum of respectability --- during the first 15 months of Clinton's presidency, by which time they had reached a high-water mark.  And what finally checked their growth and re-routed their course?  Do a time line if you doubt me.  It was Timothy McVey's bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.  The reality of where all this anger could lead was a wake-up call, and America did wake up.  We heard less of those insane fantasies after that.  Until recently.

Would I blame the enablers if something terrible were to happen?  Of course I would.  They might bear no legal liability, and in any case, I'm enough of a First Amendment absolutist to feel great hesitation about criminalizing any speech that doesn't violate the "clear and present danger" doctrine.  But would there be moral culpability?  You bet there would.  And maybe more...as far as I know, Slobodan Milosevic didn't personally pull any triggers either.  It's a reckless game these people are playing.

And it's time to stop it.  We shouldn't have to wait for the next Oklahoma City to dial things back.  Because I'm willing to bet that at this very moment, creative variations of that Oklahoma City bombing are being planned all over the country, planned by people who believe that the Rush Limbaughs and the Glenn Becks of the world, and maybe the Sarah Palins and the Rick Perrys and the Joe Wilsons too, are secretly urging them on.

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Erik Tarloff is a novelist, screenwriter, and journalist.

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