I always thought that we wouldn't see the true extent of right-wing craziness until the Democrats were back in power. To some extent, I've been surprised that there hadn't been more seething vitriol from the farther reaches of the right through the first fourteen months of the Obama presidency; in fact, I was thinking about this recently and concluded that this president likely inspired less visceral loathing than Bill Clinton had--perhaps because Clinton, as a white southerner, was perceived as somehow treacherous, or perhaps because his personal flaws seemed, from a certain perspective, to embody hippie self-indulgence and Baby Boomer excess.
But those conclusions were obviously premature. In the three days since the House of Representatives passed health care reform, the full dimension of the rage on the right has revealed itself. Democratic members of Congress have seen their offices vandalized and received death threats, this days after the civil rights hero and Georgia congressman John Lewis was called the n-word and Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank endured anti-gay slurs.
Hopefully this is a short-term reaction, fueled by the recency of the outcome and perhaps the surprise that a measure which many in the press had left for dead in fact became the law of the land. But I'm not sure about that--any more that I'm now sure the opposition to Obama is more restrained and substantive than it was to Clinton:
A new Harris poll that reveals some shocking things about how Republican voters view President Obama.
67% believe Obama is a socialist.
57% believe Obama is a Muslim.
38% believe Obama is "doing many of the things that Hitler did."
24% believe Obama "may be the Antichrist."
Probably anyone with strong partisan feelings is at least occasionally prone to excessively demonizing public figures of divergent views. But I'm honestly trying to think what the parallels would be for someone of my views considering the right-wing figures I most deplore: Tom DeLay, Dick Cheney, Sarah Palin. I can't. I think they're all deeply wrong on just about everything, I find them vicious and hypocritical, and at least in the cases of DeLay and Palin I can see how their basic views of Christianist identity politics, the unlimited national security/militaristic state, and the effective fusion of big business with government-- taken (I'm glad to say) to far more of an extreme than anything they've directly expressed--could inform a fascist structure. But I wouldn't call them overt fascists, much less someone like George W. Bush who seemed less personally driven by pure hate for his opponents. (Disdain? Certainly. But not hate. Maybe it's a class thing; I think it's more of a stretch for anyone born wealthy to hate in the manner that a Palin does or a Nixon did.)
I don't know how we de-hyperbolize our politics, especially given that the most active partisans are also now the ones least likely to leave the echo chambers--and I doubt Fox News, Redstate.org or other outposts on the right are going to send the message to cool it down and act like grownups. Sadly, the Republican leadership probably won't either, in the belief that the Tea Party folks who feed on raw rage might write them off altogether. But it's absolutely a necessity if we're ever going to move on the big items left on the national agenda in this period: tax and entitlement reform, getting a handle on our finances, mitigating the effects of climate change. We need to get back to what I remember American Conservative Union leader David Keane said a few years when interviewed by Bill Moyers and asked if he agreed that liberals were traitors: "Bill, you're not a traitor. You're just wrong." It has to be possible to regard opponents as "just wrong," rather than irreconcilable enemies who pose an existential threat to America, freedom, puppies and life itself.