Time to suit up: Tomorrow, the 2010 Wingnut Super Bowl kicks off on the Washington Mall. Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and special guests like Ted Nugent will be entertaining at the "Restoring Honor" rally in front of an anticipated crowd of 100,000 true believers. It promises the politics of incitement wrapped up in the American flag and the Bible, offered from the national pulpit where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech exactly 47 years before—a coincidence Beck modestly chalks up to "divine providence."
Beck's been pumping up this super-patriot smorgasbord since last November. It was supposed to be the date when he unveiled his "100-Year Plan for America"—with companion book and seminars—that would tell people how to take back the country and find God while filling Beck's pockets, adding to the $32 million he made fear-mongering last year.
One of the last effective leaders of conservative populist tradition that Palin and Beck represent was George Wallace.
But the ambition to turn from talk-radio rodeo clown to movement Moses has been toned down, with the event now presented as a thoroughly unobjectionable salute to the troops. Even the mention of partisan politics has been unconvincingly forbidden. But still, some smell trouble. Most elected Republican leaders are keeping their distance. Supporters have been asked to keep their signs—and their firearms—at home.
One of Beck's new goals is to "reclaim the civil-rights movement" and "pick up Martin Luther King's Dream that has been distorted." But for all his self-help insights, Beck can't seem to understand why civil-rights leaders are upset with his attempt to carry MLK's mantle.
Calling President Obama a "racist" who has a "deep-seeded hatred of white people" is a good place to start looking for explanation. Repeated references to health-care legislation as "reparations," and a relatively new riff on black liberation theology's home in the White House, is another. Oh, and Beck's repeated denunciation of "social justice" is at odds with just about all of King's theology and activism.
But the problem runs deeper than incendiary language deployed for ratings—it's rooted in philosophy. The fellow travelers Sarah Palin and Beck are now calling "constitutional conservatives" are, knowingly or not, resuscitating some of the same constitutional arguments advanced by the pro-segregationist forces that Martin Luther King spent his life fighting.
For example, in the "Dream" speech, King denounced segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace, "his lips dripping with the words 'interposition' and 'nullification.'" Those are the same policy methods being pursued as remedy to what some see as the over-reach of the federal government under Obama (see, for example, former Southern Partisan contributor Thomas Woods' new book Nullification: How to Resist Federal Tyranny in the 21st Century). Indeed, one of the last effective leaders of conservative populist tradition that Palin and Beck represent was George Wallace himself, who wrapped his hatred of liberal-led change in professions of deep patriotism and piety.
Republicans are absolutely right to point out that most of the pro-segregationist forces in the Jim Crow South were Democrats, like Wallace. The consistency comes from the fact that those Constitution-citing opponents of civil rights were proud conservatives—and the pro-civil rights Republicans came from a nearly extinct progressive tradition that dates directly back to Abraham Lincoln, in whose symbolic shadow the rally will sit. The last true advocate of that progressive Republican tradition, Theodore Roosevelt, has been labeled by Beck a "socialist."
But the problem is not just a matter of misapplied history. Palin's latest misadventure was the defense of Dr. Laura Schlessinger's dropping of the n-bomb 11 times on constitutional grounds. Ted Nugent, who increasingly lives up to his nickname, "the Motor City Madman," just this past week epitomized the paranoid hate of the president that undergirds much of the protest's super-patriotism. In an interview with a Washington state radio station, Nugent denounced Obama's "Islamic, Muslim, Marxist, communist and socialist agenda." And when asked if he believed the president is a Muslim, Ted Nugent replied, "You're damn right I do! He says he's a Christian so he can continue with his jihad of a America-destroying policies." So much for Restoring Honor.
Taken together, its no surprise that at least three competing rallies and counterprotests will be held by civil-rights groups on the same day. It is a combustible atmosphere of mutual suspicion, the enflaming of faction that the Founding Fathers warned against and which Lincoln ultimately fought.
There is a direct line between Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, whose words are written on the wall of his memorial, and Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Both promised a new birth of freedom, an inclusive vision of how America could evolve toward a more perfect union. In contrast, the self-righteous conservative populism that Beck and Palin have pumped up and profited from is predicted on a fundamental vision of division—"real Americans" versus subversive secular socialists; true patriots versus the president. By dividing our country into us against them, sowing the seeds of hate and condemning the concept of a big tent, Beck and Palin represent the opposite tradition in American history as Lincoln and King—they are dividers, not uniters. We can take them at their word: They want to take our country back, not help it move forward.
John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. 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.