Republicans are now benefiting from the tens of thousands of angry white people who descended on Washington over the weekend—but they’ve tapped into something ugly that they can’t control, says John Avlon. Avlon is the author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America.
The weirdness of the Wingnut summer isn’t over. The anger has metastasized into the body politic, and it’s going to get a lot uglier from here.
Obama Derangement Syndrome is establishing itself as a potent political force, able to rally tens of thousands of citizens to the Washington Mall after Glenn Beck’s call. Joe Wilson’s outburst isn’t an embarrassment of incivility to these folks; it is a rallying cry for an army of useful idiots. But Republicans will soon find that they cannot contain or moderate this strain—while Democrats won’t understand what hit them.
The wave of white people that descended on Washington, D.C., this Saturday wasn’t motivated by simple racism, as some liberals might wish—at least that’s what the lady waving the Confederate flag told me. No, this was something else: a pent-up frustration at unprecedented Washington overspending and an individualistic resentment of the welfare state, all mixed with a dose of self-referential patriotism and a spicy dash of paranoia.
The Confederate flag, Becky said, “has nothing to do with slavery…That’s not what it stood for. It stood for the Union.” Somewhere, Lincoln just threw up.
These are the American flag-brandishing patriots who dare to call the president a communist and a would-be dictator. As more than one T-shirt put it, they are exercising their First Amendment rights so they don’t have to exercise their Second Amendment rights—yet.
It was hard to tell whether the pictures of the Founding Fathers on T-shirts and posters outnumbered references to Hitler or Lenin, but these folks are riffing off history. They know their Constitution and their Tom Paine, via Glenn Beck.
“It’s wonderful to see so many patriots here!” shouted one speaker from the podium atop Capitol Hill looking west to a chorus of cheers—and he started to list off U.S. battles from Guadalcanal on, won by courageous patriots, not the government, to defend a freedom that he said is now under threat from inside the White House.
• Watch Glenn Beck’s craziest moments.• Glenn Beck talks to The Daily Beast.The photos tell the story but only hint at the feeling. There is the giddy glow of those who feel they are speaking truth to power, a reversal of fortune that has left conservatives who demanded fealty to the former president now recycling some of the Dems’ favorite lines from the Bush era: “dissent is patriotic” (which it is), “Obama is a domestic terrorist,” and the proliferating Obama-as-Hitler. This last represents a particularly neat trick: Conservatives have delinked the Third Reich from the right and aligned it with the left, providing instant ideological absolution.
They are convinced via the echo chamber of the Internet, talk radio, and cable news that they are the last line of defense against a socialist takeover of our country and its freedoms. They believe that the Constitution is in clear and present danger and that the Founding Fathers would not only have smiled upon their resistance but recognized it as a struggle against a tyrannical government.
They’ve got a new folk hero—South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson, who shouted out “You lie!” at the president during his speech to the joint session of Congress. Wilson apologized later that night and might well have been influenced by a pre-dinner cocktail or two, but now he is the voice of the resistance. “Joe Wilson told the truth” read several signs; “Joe Wilson speaks for me” read another—“Palin/Wilson 2012” read others. I’d pay to see that race. So would the DNC.
One man sat with his family on the rim of a reflecting pool, brandishing a homemade red Soviet-style flag complete with hammer and sickle, with the words “United States Socialist Republic” on it. He was a Vietnam vet from the Shenandoah Valley who gave his name only as Bob.
“I was always afraid of my country being attacked from the outside by bombs and rockets and missiles,” Bob said. “Now I’m watching it being destroyed from right here. I’m scared for my country.” But does he think Obama is a communist? “I think he’s a direct threat to my country, but it’s not just him. It’s the Congress. I think this is all part of a plan. I don’t know what he is. I do believe he has socialist tendencies.”
Scattered among the crowd were folks who’d responded to an online call to wear Revolutionary War-period garb, so as to make their deeper allegiance clear. I went up to one woman dressed as a cross between Betsy Ross and Mrs. Claus and asked her what message she was trying to send.
“I was in Cuba at the age of 12 when Castro took over,” she said. “He promised a change just like this president is promising us, and right after that he began to do certain things that I see very familiar now, the same steps toward total control. So I had no choice but to leave my country as a child without my parents…I never saw them again, and here I am 50 years later with concern that our children here might run into the same problems that we had.”
So do you really think there are parallels between Castro and Obama? I asked. “Yes,” she said.
I saw one sign with Joe McCarthy holding a photo of Obama. “Vindicated,” it read. Its creator was a 24-year-old from Pennsylvania named Brad. “When I was younger, I always heard right-wing speech from my grandfather about Joseph McCarthy and the communists, but now you come to realize that there are a lot of socialists not only in Hollywood but in the public-school systems, and they’ve taken over the media and sort of hijacked democracy, so I figured this was good,” he said.
But did Brad think Obama is a communist? “Not a communist. I’d say he’s a socialist, but communist is debatable. That might be a little strong. It was more just to make a point.”
But back to the woman with the Confederate flag. She gave her name as Becky. I asked her why she was carrying the Stars and Bars to the rally. “Because I’m from the South…It has nothing to do with slavery. People think it means slavery. That’s not what it stood for. It stood for the Union.”
Somewhere, Lincoln just threw up. A guy named Norm decided to step in and help her out: “I don’t think it’s so much that anybody would advocate any secession-like movement, or that anybody wants to remove a star from the flag. I think if anything, the Confederate flag serves to remind me of where we’ve been and where we would not like to go again.”
There is a “don’t make me shoot this dog” aspect to this logic: an angry, divisive protest designed to stop the divisions they see erupting from Washington’s policies. The date of the protest provides the ultimate irony—it was pitched by Glenn Beck as a day to reflect the national unity and patriotism that was evident on 9/12/01, the day after the terrorist attacks. And yet this protest celebrated the deepest domestic political divisions we’ve seen since, with unhinged accusations of traitors and despots in the White House and talk of resistance and revolution.
Liberals who want to ignore the populist anger do so at their political peril—the frustration at Washington overspending is real, a reflection of bailout backlash. People are frustrated because they are expected to pay their bills and balance their budgets, but both big business and big government seem arrogantly exempt.
But Republicans are playing a dangerous game. They are benefitting from all this anger in the short term, but they have tapped into something deep and ugly that they can’t control. Calling the president a communist or even Hitler is something far beyond simple incivility or street theater—it is an accusation that intentionally stirs the crazy pot. It is ultimately an incitement to violence.
John P. Avlon is the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. He writes a weekly column for The Daily Beast. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.