Liberals pose a more dangerous threat than terrorists to America, say several prominent Republicans. John Avlon on the newest unhinged attack from the fringe right. Avlon is the author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America.
In the aftermath of the thwarted Christmas bombing, Republicans have been getting their spikes on for a game that I’d hoped would be retired after the Bush administration: terrorism righteousness as a partisan football.
But conservative congressional candidate Allen Quist from Minnesota somehow screwed up the playbook. At a recent campaign stop, he proclaimed that “every generation has to fight for freedom”—but that “terrorism” wasn’t “the big battle.” No, “the big battle is in D.C., with the radicals. They aren't liberals, they're radicals. Obama, Pelosi… they're not liberals, they're radicals. They are destroying our country.”
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Conservatives usually portray clueless moral relativism as the domain of liberals, and they sometimes have a point, as when Code Pink, a women’s group founded to oppose the Iraq War, recently asserted that the Fort Hood killing “demonstrate how even our military officers are opposed to U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.”
But on the wingnut fringe of the GOP, Quist’s “worse than terrorism” claims have been recurring with increasing frequency. In June, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) announced that “the greatest threat to America is not necessarily a recession or even another terrorist attack…The greatest threat to America is a liberal media bias.” Not to be outdone, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) took to the House floor in November, resplendent in her curly white mane, to state “I believe the greatest fear that we all should have to our freedom comes from this room—this very room—and what may happen later this week in terms of a tax increase bill masquerading as a health-care bill. I believe we have more to fear from the potential of that bill passing than we do from any terrorist right now in any country.”
• Gallery: Wingnuts of the Year And we shouldn’t leave out Oklahoma State Rep. Sally Kern ,who made a national name for herself as a member of the wingnut brigade in March 2008 by saying that gays were a bigger threat to the USA than terrorists: “Studies show that no society that has totally embraced homosexuality has lasted more than, you know, a few decades. So it's the death knell of this country. I honestly think it's the biggest threat our nation has, even more so than terrorism or Islam—which I think is a big threat, OK? ‘Cause what's happening now is they are going after, in schools, 2 year olds... And this stuff is deadly, and it's spreading, and it will destroy our young people, it will destroy this nation.”
In all these cases, what you’re hearing is the sound of the curtain coming back. These folks aren’t making mistakes; they are saying what they really believe. Terrorism is a serious but distant threat to them—but the far more clear and present danger is the subversion of our culture through liberal legislation or lifestyles.
This is consistent with the talk-radio drumbeat that trickles down to the non-fiscal-driven Tea Party protesters. They see centrists in general, Democrats in particular and Obama specifically as ushering in an era of permanent cultural decline. And some present the stakes in such histrionic terms. They’ve been fed a steady diet of all-or-nothing hysteria, where opposing views—let alone legislation—threaten the future of our constitutional republic.
The reason these particular unhinged statements deserve to be picked out from the din isn’t only because they come from elected officials—although that would be enough—it’s because they unintentionally gave lie to the cynicism of using national-security threats as partisan talking points. These voices diminished the very real threat we face from the “us against them” ideology of radical Islamic terrorism in favor of false equivalencies that offer shallow and short-term political impact. If you’re someone who takes the non-optional war on terrorism seriously, then the elevation of partisan concerns above that threat should offend.
“The greatest threat to America is not necessarily a recession or even another terrorist attack,” says one GOP representative. “The greatest threat to America is a liberal media bias.”
Rep. Lamar Smith’s assertion that “liberal media bias” constitutes a greater threat than terrorism shows a total disconnect from reality—and it’s one that should provoke an apology if not outright repudiation by his conservative war-on-terror colleagues. The Taliban might agree with the demonization of free-press dissent, but all self-respecting Americans should kick back. Yet there was almost no notice taken when he made the comments in June and no real outcry.
Likewise, when Rep. Foxx called health-care legislation a bigger threat to freedom than terrorism, she was perpetuating the techniques of fear into an absurd new realm. There are plenty of rational reasons to oppose the unintended consequences of health-care legislation, but once you’ve invoked terrorism, you’ve done far worse than jump the shark—you’ve shown a callous cluelessness that precludes you from ever being taken seriously. Again, where’s the outrage?
And as for State Representative Kern, she’s reaching back to an argument made most recently and notably by Richard Nixon. But by updating it to equivalency with terrorism, she is siding herself with the Taliban & Co., who punish homosexuality with death. Societal stability depends on building a civil society—not driving difference out.
At the heart of some wingnut anxieties seems to be a belief that America is weak—so weak that disagreement or opposition legislation can lead to the end of the American experiment. Our trump card against the terrorists is the opposite—a belief that the oft-cited freedom that comes from the essential pluralism of American democracy is what makes us strong. Their careless and callous use of moral equivalencies exposes the shallow, hyper-partisan nature of their claims.
We should all, Democrat and Republican, call them out, remembering what Tom Kean, the co-chairman of the 9/11 Commission, said: “We should dismiss the partisan bickering over the security failures over this issue.” Or, if some need to reach further back to another long war that straddled administrations of different parties, listen to Senator Vandenberg during the Cold War: “Partisan politics should end at the water’s edge.” Let’s wake up and grow up. What’s left of the mainstream GOP needs to denounce these stupid and self-defeating partisan games.
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.