August 18, 2009

Costs of War: Paranoid Populism

18 Aug 2009

The loud, occasionally violent protests at public meetings held by US lawmakers to discuss health care reform highlight a deep, powerful and rather ugly current of angry, paranoid populism in American politics, Shaun Waterman writes for ISN Security Watch.

By Shaun Waterman in Washington, DC for ISN Security Watch

The angry scenes - by now familiar to anyone who watches TV news - of lawmakers being heckled or shouted down by chanting protestors in their own districts, have spilled over into violence at only a handful of events, but passions are running high enough that some observers are dubbing the congressional recess 'The Summer of Hate.'

One of those jeered, Arlen Spector, the Pennsylvania senator who recently defected from the Republicans to the Democrats, echoed the views of many commentators when he blamed the anger on the fear the horrendous state of the economy is inducing in blue collar America. “Millions of people have lost their jobs,” Politico quoted him as saying, “and millions of others are afraid of losing theirs."

Whatever its cause, the outrage is real - and it is being deliberately stoked by misinformation from opponents of the president’s plan for health-care reform.

Even a respected senior Republican senator like Iowa’s Chuck Grassley, who has declared himself committed to a bipartisan reform bill, told an audience last week that a proposal to get the government to pay for voluntary consultation with a doctor about living wills and end-of-life care is a mandate for Washington bureaucrats to “pull the plug on grandma.”

The health care issue is not the only one stoking the visceral anger of the American right - and it is not the only one fed by internet-spread misinformation, either.

Despite having its origin in an urban myth which has been successfully and repeatedly debunked by major media organizations, the ‘birther movement’ - which claims President Barack Obama was not born in the US and therefore should not be president - has gained traction on cable news channels and among GOP members of Congress.

But as political historian Rick Perlstein points out, the health care protesters and ‘birthers’ are just the latest in a long line of angry right-wing conspiracy theorist movements with a powerful narrative of victimization.

To ask whether the protests are spontaneous and genuine, or manipulated 'Astroturf' - a fake grassroots plan supported up by front organizations determined to kill the president’s plan for reform - is a false dichotomy, he argues.

“If you don't understand that any moment of genuine political change always produces both, you can't understand America, where the crazy tree blooms in every moment of liberal ascendancy, and where elites exploit the crazy for their own narrow interests.”

But the crazy tree is also blooming with another dangerous fruit - the resurgence of the American militia movement with its racial underdog ideology and strategy of leaderless terrorism.

A report last week from the Southern Poverty Law Center warned that “Militia rhetoric is being heard widely once more, often from a second generation of ideologues, and conspiracy theories are being energetically revived or invented anew.”

The last time the militia movement was in its ascendant was during the 1990s - and it ended with the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people.

The most important difference today, the report notes, is that "the federal government - the entity that almost the entire radical right views as its primary enemy - is headed by a black man," adding racist rage of white supremacists to the heady mix of militia ideology.

Veteran Washington commentator David S Broder recently recalled an incident in the lobby of a Dallas hotel a few days before the presidential election of 1960, when then-vice presidential candidate Lyndon Johnson and his wife were “reviled and jostled” by an angry mob of right-wing protesters.

“The backlash was instant and powerful,” Broder notes, arguing that it helped swing Texas and other southern states behind the 1960 Democratic ticket - led of course by the young Senator John F Kennedy.

“In 1964,” Broder continues, “when Johnson headed the Democratic ticket, he got even: His coattails swept [...] out of office” a Texas GOP congressman who had been part of the crowd.

The comparison with the angry scenes at recent health care town halls is indeed interesting, although perhaps not for the reason Broder thinks, because he inexplicably fails to mention what happened in Dallas in the interim - on 22 November 1963, to be exact, when President Kennedy was murdered there.

Protesters who turned out to greet President Obama in Arizona on Monday openly carried firearms, including one semi-automatic rifle.

Prior to the president’s visit to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to attend a health care town hall meeting, a man arrested for “sneaking past security officials” turned out to have a loaded, unlicensed handgun in his car, according to the local paper. During the visit, as MSNBC recorded, one of the protestors, carrying a placard referring to Thomas Jefferson’s admonition to water the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants, also displayed a holstered sidearm.

This is legal in New Hampshire apparently - the gun was registered and not concealed, and the man was on private property - and as the New York Times has noted, the two incidents in Portsmouth are not the only ones where firearms have turned up, legally or otherwise, in the hands of anti-health care reform protesters. All of which underscores a fact about the American right which bears repeating for a foreign observer: These people are armed.

Let’s be clear: No one is predicting the assassination of President Obama, or anyone else.

In the much-maligned and now withdrawn DHS intelligence assessment that warned earlier this year of the potential threat posed by resurgent right-wing extremists, there was no mention of assassination, and indeed the authors state that though “Rightwing extremists have capitalized on the election of the first African American president [...] they have not yet turned to attack planning” of any kind.

And yet, when one considers the availability of firearms to protesters with an angry narrative of victimization, and the growing influence of a movement which glorifies violence against African-Americans, one can hardly avoid a sense of foreboding.

Shaun Waterman is a senior writer and analyst for ISN Security Watch. He is a UK journalist based in Washington, DC, covering homeland and national security.

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