As part of an event designed to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Murrah Building bombing in Oklahoma City, former President Bill Clinton made some remarks yesterday [PDF file] that got right-wingers all upset again:
Before the bombing occurred, there was a sort of fever in America in the early 1990s. First, it was a time, like now, of dramatic upheaval. A lot of old arrangements had changed. The things that anchored peoples’ lives and gave a certainty to them had been unraveling. Some of them, by then, for 20 years. ... And there were more and more people who had a hard time figuring out where they fit in. More and more people who had a very difficult time living with confidence and optimism in the face of change. It is true that we see some of that today.
... But what we learned from Oklahoma City is not that we should gag each other or reduce our passion from the positions we hold -- but that the words we use really do matter, because there's this vast echo chamber and they go across space and they fall on the serious and the delirious alike. They fall on the connected and the unhinged alike. And I am not trying to muzzle anybody.
But one of the things that the conservatives have always brought to the table in America is a reminder that no law can replace personal responsibility. And the more power you have and the more influence you have, the more responsibility you have.
Look, I'm glad they're fighting over health care and everything else. Let them have at it. But I think all you have to do is read the paper everyday to see how many people there are who are deeply, deeply troubled. We know, now, that there are people involved in groups – these “hatriot” groups, the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters, the others – 99 percent of them will never do anything they shouldn’t do. But there are people who advocate violence and anticipate violence.
One of these guys the other day said that all politics is just a prelude to the ultimate and inevitable civil war. You know, I’m a southerner. I know what happened. We were still paying for that 100 years later when I was a kid growing up, in ways large and small. It doesn’t take many people to take something like that seriously. So I don’t want the whole story of this retrospective just to be about this, and trying to turn everything into politics.
And I guess that’s naïve, me being in Washington and all. I still have some memory of it. (Laughter.) But I think that the point I’m trying to make is, I like the debate. This “tea party” movement can be a healthy thing if they’re making us justify every penny of taxes we raised and every dollar of public money we spend. And they say they’re for limited government and a balanced budget; when I left office, we had the smallest workforce since Eisenhower and we had four surpluses for the first time in 70 years.
... Yes, the Boston tea party involved the seizure of tea in the ship because it was taxation without representation. This fight is about taxation by duly elected representatives that you don't happen to agree with and can vote out at the next election -- and two years after that, and two years after that, and two years after that. That's very different.
... By all means, keep fighting. By all means, keep arguing. But remember words have consequences as much as actions do. And what we advocate commensurate with our position and responsibility, we have to take responsibility for. We owe that to Oklahoma City.
We owe it to keep on fighting, keep on arguing. They didn’t vote for me in Oklahoma in 1996. It was still a Republican state. But I loved them anyway, and I will till the day I die, because when this country was flat on its back mourning their loss, they rallied around the employees of the national government and they rallied around the human beings who had lost everything, and they rallied around the elemental principle that what we have in common is more important than our differences. And that’s why our Constitution makes our freedoms last – because of that bright line.
Naturally, such eminent reasonableness upset the talking heads at Fox News very much indeed:
Charles Krauthammer: "I think it's disgusting. ... This is really disgraceful."
Stephen Hayes: "But to link it to Tea Parties, to suggest that there's some bridge, that there's some connection, I think is grossly irresponsible."
Chris Wallace: "Why is he bringing up the Tea Party and Oklahoma City in the same sentence or the same paragraph in the first place? And again, it seems to me to be an effort to marginalize these people."
Byron York: "I think this is more of an effort to sort of pre-tar the Tea Party movement with the label of being violent when, uh, nothing in fact has actually happened."
Gee, we wonder where Clinton could have gotten the idea that the Tea Parties were connected to the militia movement of the 1990s.
You don't suppose it could have had anything to do with the saturation of Tea Party events with Patriot movement ideas and agendas, as well as its many conspiracy theories, embodied in all those Patriot movement and militia leaders appearing at Tea Party events, do you?
I wonder if the reports from traditional conservatives at the Nashville National Tea Party Convention could have influenced that view:
Within a few hours in Nashville, I could tell that what I was hearing wasn't just random rhetorical mortar fire being launched at Obama and his political allies: the salvos followed the established script of New World Order conspiracy theories, which have suffused the dubious right-wing fringes of American politics since the days of the John Birch Society.
And the massive revival of the militia movement almost certainly had nothing whatsoever to do with the Tea Party movement -- even though all you have to do is spend a little time at Tea Party websites like Tea Party Patriots and ResistNet to get your daily dose of Patriot/militia conspiracy theories, as well as your daily news about upcoming Tea Party events (which of course were similarly promoted heavily at Patriot/militia websites).
As the SPLC noted in its report:
The anger seething across the American political landscape — over racial changes in the population, soaring public debt and the terrible economy, the bailouts of bankers and other elites, and an array of initiatives by the relatively liberal Obama Administration that are seen as "socialist" or even "fascist" — goes beyond the radical right. The "tea parties" and similar groups that have sprung up in recent months cannot fairly be considered extremist groups, but they are shot through with rich veins of radical ideas, conspiracy theories and racism.
Similarly, the Anti-Defamation League observed:
What characterizes this anti-government hostility is a shared belief that Obama and his administration actually pose a threat to the future of the United States. Some accuse Obama of plotting to bring socialism to the United States, while others claim he will bring about Nazism or fascism. All believe that Obama and his administration will trample on individual freedoms and civil liberties, due to some sinister agenda, and they see his economic and social policies as manifestations of this agenda. In particular anti-government activists used the issue of health care reform as a rallying point, accusing Obama and his administration of dark designs ranging from “socialized medicine” to “death panels,” even when the Obama administration had not come out with a specific health care reform plan. Some even compared the Obama administration’s intentions to Nazi eugenics programs.
Some of these assertions are motivated by prejudice, but more common is an intense strain of anti-government distrust and anger, colored by a streak of paranoia and belief in conspiracies. These sentiments are present both in mainstream and “grass-roots” movements as well as in extreme anti-government movements such as a resurgent militia movement. Ultimately, this anti-government anger, if it continues to grow in intensity and scope, may result in an increase in anti-government extremists and the potential for a rise of violent anti-government acts.
Of course, the folks at Fox have steadfastly denied that either they or the Tea Parties they fomented have had anything to do with the extremist rhetoric, and resulting violence, that has erupted in tandem. But then, conservatives have been trying to whitewash out the existence of right-wing extremist violence for a long time now.
Thus you had Chris Wallace telling Bill O'Reilly last night, describing the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville: "This is America, Bill. ... They're not extremists. It's like a meeting of the Rotary Club."
That's true only if your local Rotary Club indulges in an endless array of far-right conspiracy theories, such as the one about the president's birth certificate. Here's one of the speeches from the National Tea Party Convention, by Joseph Farah of WorldNetDaily:
Of course, Bill O'Reilly has been among the most adamant in insisting that associating the far-right kooks with the Tea Parties is unfair. As were observed then:
The cold hard fact is that the Tea Parties are a giant magnet for kooks because so many leaders in the movement, from Glenn Beck on down, regularly tell their audiences that provably untrue things are true. They foist nuttiness upon their mass audiences, and the nuttiness then manifests itself in violent extremist groups rising and coalescing with mainstream-right groups.
All of the Fox talkers refer to the apparent normality of the Tea Partiers -- but that is, in fact, not appreciably different than what the militia folks were doing in the 1990s. That's because these movements are all about mainstreaming extremist beliefs in the first place:
The hyper-normality is a kind of intentional camouflage. The Patriot movement, and militias in particular, were a very specific and intentional strategy adopted in the 1990s by the white supremacists and radical tax protesters of the American far right -- and the whole purpose of the strategy was to mainstream their belief systems and their agendas. The tactic was to adopt the appearance of normal, "red-blooded" Americanism as a way of pushing out the idea that their radical beliefs are "normal" too.
In the process, they often adopted time-worn "patriotic" sayings and symbols, such as the "Don't Tread On Me" flag Beck wears, as their own -- though with a much more menacing meaning.
Bill Clinton isn't fooled by the camouflage. But because the Tea Parties are so much a creature of Fox News' invention, they're invested now in protecting them from efforts like Clinton's to strip it away.
The worst thing that could happen to the ideological programmers at Fox is for the public to wake up and realize the nature of the beast they've created. So they did their duties Friday.