Rush and Robertson: Shameless Haiti Wingnuts

Tragedies like the earthquake unite most of us—except the Wingnut fringe, who can’t understand the suffering of those outside their tribe. That’s why Limbaugh and Robertson put such a nasty spin on the devastation, says John Avlon.

01.14.10 8:04 PM ET

Tragedies like the earthquake unite most of us—except the Wingnut fringe, who can’t understand the suffering of those outside their tribe. That’s why Limbaugh and Robertson put such a nasty spin on the devastation, says John Avlon. Avlon is the author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America.

With the horror in Haiti’s true dimensions dawning on Americans, leave it to the Wingnuts to find the ugliest possible spin on the devastation.

The Rev. Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh rushed to the ramparts immediately. It’s a reflexive reaction—after all, they’ve found ways to blame Katrina on abortion and the 9/11 attacks on the American Civil Liberties Union. In the wingnut world, fundamentalism beats compassion, and politics trumps principle every time.

As the sun was coming up on the destruction Wednesday morning, Pat Robertson used his televised pulpit on The 700 Club to warm up a fire-and-brimstone chestnut—Haiti deserved it because the country made a deal with the Devil, and the politically correct crowd wants to keep this truth from coming out.

Don’t bother trying to donate to relief efforts. “We’ve already donated to Haiti. It’s called the U.S. income tax,” Rush bloviated.

Full coverage of Haiti Clinton to Haiti’s Rescue “Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it,” he said while his co-host, Christie, looked reverently on. “They were under the heel of the French. And they got together and swore a pact to the Devil…They said, ‘We will serve you if you get us free from the prince.’ True story. And so the Devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal.’ They kicked the French out, the Haitians revolted, and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other, desperately poor.”

Slave rebellions are the work of the Devil—that’s something you just don’t see in textbooks anymore. But not to worry, in an earlier interview, Robertson declared that the quake was “a blessing in disguise” because it would give Haiti a chance to rebuild its physical and spiritual infrastructure.

If you’re slack-jawed with surprise, you shouldn’t be: Robertson has offered similar riffs in the past. Two days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he took to the airwaves of the Fox Family Channel with his Christian coalition colleague Jerry Falwell and they proclaimed that God had given us “probably what we deserve.” Falwell laid out the litany of blame while Robertson nodded on: “The pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and lesbians, who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, the People for the American Way—all of them who have tried to secularize America—I point a finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.”

After Katrina put New Orleans under water, Robertson found a similar explanation: abortion. “We have killed over 40 million unborn babies in America,” he said, recounting how Leviticus says that “the land will vomit you out” if you shed innocent blood—which he took to mean that a country would not be able to defend itself. “We are unable somehow to defend ourselves against some of the attacks that are coming against us, either by terrorists or now by natural disaster,” he concluded. “Could they be connected in some way?” But as with Haiti, he found a blessing in disguise: antiabortion Supreme Court nominee John Roberts could “be thankful that a tragedy has brought him some good,” because he would be less likely to face confrontational questioning in his Senate hearing.

When Rush Limbaugh looked at Katrina, he saw the chaos as a result of the liberal welfare state: “If your city believes it's entitled...‘The government needs to protect us, the government needs to feed us, the government needs to transport us… the government needs to build the levees’… and then something like this happens and then you start, you know, wringing your hands: ‘Oh, look how poor the population’—well, what do you expect when you have a welfare state mentality as your city government?” Who says blaming the victim is just a liberal impulse?

El Rushbo couldn’t resist the partisan impulses with Haiti, either: “This will play right into Obama’s hands—humanitarian, compassionate. They’ll use this to burnish their, shall we say, credibility with the black community in the both light-skinned and dark-skinned black community in this country.” Whether he was echoing or mocking Harry Reid’s clueless racial comments, Rush couldn’t help but stay classy.

Don’t bother trying to donate to relief efforts. “We’ve already donated to Haiti. It’s called the U.S. income tax,” he bloviated. “It is a simple matter of self-reliance—nobody takes that approach down there because this has always been a country run by dictators, incompetent ones…” (Got to appreciate his distinction between the value of competent and incompetent dictators—I wonder where he would place Saddam?) And, of course, those who disagree with Rush must prepare to be demonized, now with extra misogyny, as when he told a caller who complained about his Haiti comments that she had “tampons in [her] ears.”

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Wading through all this wingnuttery, it’s easy to throw up your hands and dismiss the comments as the deranged ramblings of a few well-placed cranks. But there is a consistent undercurrent: After Katrina, Glenn Beck complained that what he called the “scumbags” in New Orleans were getting all the attention, while the good people of Alabama and Mississippi were being ignored by the media. Michael Savage looked at the Christmas tsunami and said, “We shouldn’t be spending a nickel on this, as far as I’m concerned… I am sick of being bled to death by every damn incident on the earth.”

The common ground beneath all this callous craziness is a belief that charity begins at home. And for Wingnuts, home has a very narrow definition: fellow fundamentalist Christians or political conservatives, Americans in general, or white Americans in particular. It’s a form of neo-isolationism—a resistance to identifying with the suffering of those outside your narrow tribe. And it’s often accompanied by a bizarre feeling of being misunderstood by the outside world: They isolate themselves and then complain about how lonely they feel.

Too often we wait for a tragedy to unite us. But when those moments occur, most of us remember that what unites us is far greater than what divides us. Addicted to division, Wingnuts can’t drop the posture. They cannot transcend their tribalism. So let them be angry and let us take action.

John P. Avlon writes a 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. He the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America, published by Beast Books, which can be ordered here.