This week saw a rising threat of violence from America's right-wing militias and underground hate groups. John Avlon tallies 25 signs of trouble brewing. Avlon is the author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America.
Hate is a cheap and easy recruiting tool, but it can be murder on a democracy.
As Tea Partiers hijack town halls and Democrats deploy counteroffensives, we are seeing hyperpartisanship proliferate in what was supposed to be the post-partisan age of Obama.
For those who see politics as an ideological blood sport, this is a victory—the triumph of cynical experience over hope. For the Obama administration, it’s a setback from its aim to change the tone in Washington by building a broad governing coalition on the momentum of its election win. This rupture is in part a reaction to a liberal triumphalism that has resisted attempts at substantive policy outreach, but more forcefully a resistance on the part of the far right by folks who want to deny the legitimacy of President Obama’s election by any means necessary.
The increasing heat of the chatter this summer should be a cold wakeup call. We are courting a season of violence in America.
And so wingnuts are on the march across the country; armed with the loss of perspective that comes with hyperpartisanship, they demonize and dehumanize their political opponents. With their unhinged armies focused solely on faction, it’s the country we should be most concerned about. There is nothing more American than civil disobedience, but uncivil disobedience and hate-fueled politics becomes a cancer that can consume our body politic.
Summer is when violence erupts, murders spike and cities burn down. There always seems to be an August surprise that changes the political calculus overnight in unwelcome ways. Just Wednesday, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a report saying Timothy McVeigh-style militia groups are on the rise, fueled by the stress of a bad economy and a liberal administration led by a black president.
In the nine weeks since Kansas Dr. George Tiller was murdered in a church, allegedly by antiabortion activist Scott Roeder, we’ve seen a serious serial degradation in our civic discourse, pumped up by professional polarizers in the media and politics. In the world of counterterrorism, this could be considered the equivalent of increased “chatter”—indicators of an increased likelihood of attack. In this case, the chatter is proliferating across the Internet, trickling down to a motley crew of unhinged activists. We don’t know where this will end, or what hot August surprise may be in store. Below is a partial tally of the hate-fueled chatter in our summer to date.
• Abdulhakim Muhammad, a Muslim convert from Arkansas, was arrested for shootings outside an Army recruiting station in Little Rock that killed Private William Long and wounded another solider. He told police that “he was mad at the U.S. military because of what they had done to Muslims in the past.”
• Orange Country (Calif.) Pastor Wiley Drake—the 2008 vice-presidential nominee of Alan Keyes and the first plaintiff in Orly Taitz’s “birther” lawsuits— announced that he was praying for the death of “the usurper that is in the White House…B. Hussein Obama.”
• Former Rep. Tom Tancredo weighed in on the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor by characterizing the Hispanic civil-rights organization La Raza as “nothing more than a … Latino KKK without the hoods or the nooses.”
• Liberal cartoonist and columnist Ted Rall called on President Obama to resign because he has not been liberal enough, writing: “With Democrats Like Him, Who Needs Dictators?...Obama has revealed himself. He is a monster, and he should remove himself from power.”
• Playboy.com posted a list of the top 10 conservative women “we hate to love”—complete with a “hate-fuck” rating.
• Former South Carolina State Election Commissioner Rusty DePass posted a comment on Facebook saying that a missing gorilla from a local zoo was related to first lady Michelle Obama.
• Eighty-eight-year-old white supremacist James Von Brunn attacked Washington’s Holocaust Museum, killing a security guard.
• Ann Coulter weighed in on George Tiller’s murder on The O’Reilly Factor, saying, “I don’t really like to think of it as murder…It was terminating Tiller in the 203rd trimester.”
• Audra Shay is elected chairman of the Young Republicans after it is revealed by The Daily Beast that she not only laughed at a supporter’s racist online comments about Obama but that her Web posts are littered with comments that the president is “anti-American,” as in: “I think that you are ignorant if you believe this man is anything but anti-American.”
• U.S. Army reserve major Stefan Frederick Cook refuses deployment to Afghanistan on the grounds that President Obama might not be a natural-born citizen and therefore constitutionally ineligible to be considered commander in chief.
• In Paris, Texas, a riot breaks out between the KKK, neo-Nazis, and the New Black Panthers.
• Glenn Beck announces that in addition to putting America on a road to socialism that will lead to communism, the president has “a deep-seated hatred for white people” and is a “racist.”
• Republican Rep. Mike Castle’s town-hall meeting becomes the first to be hijacked by the "birthers," as a woman in red screams: “I don’t want this flag to change. I want my country back!” The clip quickly goes viral.
• Texas Rep. Louis Gohmert becomes the ninth Republican member of Congress to co-sponsor the so-called birther bill.
• A Long Island, New York, woman named Nancy Genovese is arrested outside an Air National Guard base with an XM-15 assault rifle, a shotgun, and 500 rounds of ammunition in her car. She had cased the base before—apparently in the belief that a FEMA concentration camp was being built there.
• Liberal talk-show host Mike Malloy indulges in an on-air fantasy about Glenn Beck committing suicide and having it become popular viewing on YouTube.
• Grassroots conservative activist Bob MacGuffie circulates a memo urging activists to disrupt town halls using “the [Saul] Alinsky playbook of which the left is so proud: freeze it, attack it, personalize it, and polarize it.”
• Maryland Rep. Frank Kratovil is hung in effigy outside his office.
• Protesters against Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd suggest that he commit suicide with whiskey and painkillers as a treatment for his newly diagnosed prostate cancer.
• North Carolina Rep. Brad Miller receives a death threat phoned into his office and cancels his summer town-hall meetings.
• Arizona Rep. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ aides call the cops after one town-hall attendee drops a gun at the event.
• Rep. Brian Baird of Washington State is faxed a death threat addressed to President Obama and declares, “What we’re seeing right now is close to Brown Shirt tactics.”
• Sarah Palin jumps the shark by posting on her Facebook page: “my baby with Down syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.”
• Rush Limbaugh compares President Obama to Adolf Hitler.
• A swastika is spray-painted outside the office of Rep. David Scott’s office in Georgia.
The increasing heat of the chatter this summer should be a cold wakeup call. We are courting a season of violence in America. We are eroding our common sense and common decency. By pumping up hyperpartisanship as a means of gaining market share or as a recruitment tool, we are playing with forces that can easily get out of control. We are giving cover—and sometimes a sense of purpose—to the crazy among us.
We have enjoyed a relative period of innocence in American politics. We have been mercifully free of assassination in recent years—even as we have pumped up hyperpartisanship and coarsened our civic dialogue. But we are not immune from the larger cycles of violence that occasionally erupt and shock even the most stable societies in history. 1968 is 40 years and one bad day away. That’s the problem with hate; it ultimately leads 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.