September 16, 2009

Rachel reminds us that all that's old is new again.

But we begin tonight with a dramatic day in D.C. Republican Congressman Joe Wilson of South Carolina officially reprimanded by the House of Representatives today for screaming, “You lie!” at President Obama as the president addressed a joint session of Congress nearly a week ago. By a vote of 240 to 179, the House passed a formal resolution of disapproval for Congressman Wilson‘s breach of decorum. Now, that‘s the mildest form of punishment the House can administer, and they did it not for what Congressman Wilson said to the president but for when and where he said it.

It was not a party line vote against Mr. Wilson. Five Republicans voted for the resolution. A dozen Democrats voted against it. And another five Democrats just voted present, including Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank, who said in advance of today‘s vote that, quote, “I think it is bad precedent to put us in charge of deciding whether people act like jerks.”

Beyond the disapproval vote against Congressman Wilson vote today in Congress, the political importance of this “You lie!” incident is probably more evident in the reaction to it outside the House chamber, where Joe Wilson is being hailed as a hero by a lot of the conservative movement right now. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Minnesota repeatedly telling a tea party crowd in Minnesota this past weekend, and I quote, “Thank God for Joe Wilson.”

Congressman Steve King of Iowa, circulating a letter of support for Joe Wilson, telling him, quote, “We, your colleagues in the House, stand beside you. We urge that you hold your ground against those who seek partisan advantage and reject all demands for additional redress. Like you, we will not be muzzled!” If there‘s one thing these folks are not, I would say it‘s muzzled.

Congressman Wilson has also been exulted by movement conservatives like Dick Armey, the former Republican House majority leader. Mr. Army‘s organization, FreedomWorks, organized the 9/12 march on Washington this weekend that at times seemed like it might evolve into singing for Joe Wilson‘s a jolly good fellow.

Conservative Web sites have taken up Wilson‘s cause as a merchandising opportunity. The Palmetto Scoop has made, “I‘m with Joe Wilson” t-shirts. The far-right Web site WorldNetDaily is peddling “You lie!” bumper stickers, quote, “With a rebel yell, Wilson fired off the shout heard around the world.” For just $5.95, you too can own the top-selling bumper sticker at the WorldNetDaily superstore and thereby yell “You lie” at everyone behind you in traffic.

By screaming at the president during a joint address at Congress, Congressman Joe Wilson—this previously unknown, backbench Republican congressman—has become sort of a mascot on the right for incivility. What‘s being celebrated is the extent to which he broke the bounds of heretofore acceptable civic behavior.

As the fringy and uncivil and at times unhinged character of the opposition to President Obama has not abated and has, in fact, intensified since the campaign, the White House has started making sort of a sotto voce argument, that this shouldn‘t be seen as unexpected. They started arguing quietly, that this sort of thing is just what happens in U.S. politics when you have a popular and relatively effective Democratic president.

And in fact there is historical precedent for what we are seeing here. In the 1930s, a little-known Catholic priest became hugely influential, a hero of the right, as well as of the Nazis and fascists who he rather liked in Germany and Italy at the time because his ruthless—because of his ruthless opposition to Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Father Charles Coughlin used his radio broadcast to inveigh against FDR as a great betrayer and as a liar.

Less than a generation after Father Coughlin, Democratic President Harry Truman saw the ascendants of Republican Senator Joe McCarthy in the 1950s, who made headlines, of course, for accusing President Truman‘s state department of harboring commies and then seeing that get a rise out of people, he moved on to spotting communists everywhere in America.

John F. Kennedy‘s administration was met on the right by the rise of the Birchers, the ultraconservative John Birch Society, which said liberalism was treason.

During the Clinton administration, there was the vast right-wing conspiracy that held that Bill and Hillary Clinton secretly murdered White House deputy counsel Vince Foster, who actually committed suicide. The unhinged anti-Clinton right in the ‘90s also brought us the “Clinton Chronicles,” a film financed by groups with ties to evangelist Jerry Falwell, that purported to expose a whole lot of unexplained murders around the Clintons‘ political rise. The fringy mcfringerson opponents of President Clinton also accuse him of running an elaborate cocaine smuggling operation out of an airport in Mena, Arkansas.

There‘s a case to be made that right-wing paranoid extremism rises in America to meet the challenge of effective, relatively popular Democratic presidents. And it‘s not just that it is a predictable pattern. It‘s also sort of a way of life for some conservative activists now. Some of the same people who were part of the conspiratorial wing-nut opposition to President Clinton are now doing it to President Obama. It‘s some of the same folks.

Take Joseph Farah, he‘s co-founder of the Web site WorldNetDaily, the one that‘s currently selling the Joe Wilson “You lie!” bumper stickers in their superstore; the Web site that is a prime mover in the birther conspiracy theory that President Obama is secretly a foreigner, who is therefore secretly not really president.

During the 1990s, Joseph Farah co-founded the Western Center for Journalism, which among other things pushed the “Bill Clinton killed Vince Foster” conspiracy theory.

And over at the conservative group FreedomWorks, we‘re seeing Dick Armey providing a big, well-funded professional P.R. platform for the relatively kooky fringe of the conservative movement right now—the folks who are calling for a civil war and for succession of the states, the folks who are proclaiming that President Obama isn‘t really president, that he‘s a Nazi, that he‘s a Marxist.

Back in the 1990s, that same guy, then-Republican Congressman Dick Armey, suggested it was Hillary Clinton who was the Marxist and who told Democrats at the time that Bill Clinton was your president. This sound familiar?

The same people crop up in these movements again and again. The same patterns emerge of extremism and right-wing opposition to Democratic presidents.

And those repeated patterns do tend to cause the same repeated problems among American conservatives. When Jon Henke at the conservative Web site said conservatives should unite against Joseph Farah‘s WorldNetDaily, the Republican National Committee should stop buying their mailing list, for example. What did he cite as inspiration? He cited conservative icon William F. Buckley, who railed against the John Birch Society‘s extremism back in the 1960s.

It was Internet signed warfare on the right then, and it may ultimately again be Internet signed welfare on the right now. The more extreme you get, the more emotionally satisfying you can be for very angry people who are opposed to whoever has won the last election. “You lie!” probably sells a lot of bumper sticks. Just like the “Bill Clinton murdered his way to the presidency” movie sold a lot of copies and made a ton of money for conservative groups.

But ultimately, in the big picture, look at how these things work out.

Father Coughlin, who went after FDR was disgraced, lost his radio show,

lost his reputation.Joe McCarthy, who went after Truman and lots of other

people to his side, he was disgraced and only ended lending his name to an ism, as well as a modern Ann Coulter-inspired fan club. But that‘s another story.

The John Birch Society, who went after JFK, they were dispatched to the luminal edge of American politics where they linger today on the overtly racist fringe of the very, very far-right.

And now, the anti-Clinton and anti-Obama fringe, they‘re trying their luck. And they‘ve got themselves a mascot in Congressman “You lie!” Joe Wilson.

The historical precedent—the historical precedent for their success overall is not positive. But how much damage can they do in the meantime?

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