Editor’s note: John P. Avlon is a senior political columnist for The Daily Beast and author of the new book "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America." 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.
By John Avlon, Special to CNN
The wingnut wars have escalated to such an extent that we can’t even deal with a natural disaster without the partisan attacks and counter-offensives coming full force. That’s why this week we’re looking at the shameful attempts to turn the devastating oil spill in the Gulf into an ugly partisan football.
We’ll start with El Rushbo – Senor Limbaugh was inevitably among the first to wade into the muck, questioning whether the oil spill was caused by environmental saboteurs and asking his audience whether it was timed to impact the energy bill:
“I want to get back to the timing of the blowing up, the explosion out there in the Gulf of Mexico of this oil rig. Since they're sending SWAT teams down there now this changes the whole perspective of this. Now, lest we forget, ladies and gentlemen, the carbon tax bill, cap and trade that was scheduled to be announced on Earth Day. I remember that. And then it was postponed for a couple of days later after Earth Day, and then of course immigration has now moved in front of it…But this bill, the cap-and-trade bill, was strongly criticized by hardcore environmentalist wackos because it supposedly allowed more offshore drilling and nuclear plants, nuclear plant investment. So, since they're sending SWAT teams down there, folks, since they're sending SWAT teams to inspect the other rigs, what better way to head off more oil drilling, nuclear plants, than by blowing up a rig? I'm just noting the timing here.”
As conspiracy theories go, this one is pretty ornate – environmental terrorism backed by a well-timed attempt to derail legislation. I particularly love how the Obama administration’s centrist policy outreach to increase off shore oil exploration and nuclear power plants – a core piece of the GOP’s proposals – is summarily dismissed by Limbaugh, saying Obama “supposedly” backed the proposals. Guess you can’t give fair credit when it means supporting the policies of the president from a different party.
But we’ve come to expect these hyper-partisan bloviations from Rush – they are part of this expert political entertainers shtick – his audience doesn’t expect responsibility, they tune in for the outrage.
The wingnut wars continued this week with revivals of unwelcome old fringe fault lines: the birthers are back in the form of a state legislature vote and members of a teacher’s union are protesting budget cuts with a prayer for the New Jersey governor’s death and comparisons to genocidal dictators.
The birthers’ claims that President Obama was not born in the United States and is therefore constitutionally ineligible to be president should be on the ash-heap of discredited conspiracy theories by now. But despite his birth certificate being put online by the Obama campaign back in June of 2008, verified by both Politifact and the Republican governor of Hawaii, Linda Lingle, the desperate attempt to de-legitimize our duly elected president has its defenders. Add to that list the GOP members of the Arizona House of Representatives, who by a vote of 31 to 21, voted this week to require President Obama – or any presidential candidate – to submit their birth certificate to appear on the state ballot.
Arizona Republican State Representative Cecil Ash appeared on CNN's "AC360" on Wednesday night to defend the ridiculous bill (which still has to pass the state Senate), and in his fumbling offered this revealing explanation:
"I think there's been a lot of controversy over the issue, created a division among a lot of people in the United States, for better or worse, many people don't believe he is a U.S. citizen, they believe he has loyalties, divided loyalties I suppose you could say."
Fears of “divided loyalties” is what this is ultimately about – a deep discomfort with Obama as president, rooted in a twisted belief that he is fundamentally un-American. The birth certificate is both a symbol of this belief and an attempt to undo an election after the fact, stemming off the deeper dynamic that has caused some unhinged people to believe that losing an election is the equivalent of living under tyranny. The wingnut legislators who voted for this bill ought to be ashamed for this ugly bit of pandering while remembering a bit of apparently forgotten wisdom – everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts.
This week’s wingnuts include Virginia’s governor issuing a Confederate History proclamation that ignored slavery and a Georgia congressman confessing his fears that Guam might tip over.
The ugliness and absurdities in American politics continue, but they were belied this week by a moment of grace from a conservative senator who stood up to his audience’s expectations by complimenting Speaker Nancy Pelosi and standing up for civility. He gets our Profile in Courage Award for the week.
Virginia’s newly elected Gov. Bob McDonnell managed to resuscitate more than a century’s worth of bad feeling and distrust by deciding to issue a Confederate History Month proclamation – without mentioning slavery. It was a doubly odd decision, apparently made with an eye toward scoring subtle political points with “heritage, not hate” home state conservatives. The proclamation had been suspended by the two previous Democratic governors, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine. But the previous GOP Gov. Jim Gilmore had inserted language excoriating the evils of slavery into the proclamation.
McDonnell and/or someone on his staff apparently thought it would be a good idea to not only re-open that wound, but also made the proactive decision to remove any mention of slavery – not that slavery had anything to do with the Civil War in the first place. This neo-Confederate hat-tip did not go unnoticed and by Wednesday night McDonnell was offering voluminous apologies, but little by way of explanation.
We’ve seen a ratcheting up of violent rhetoric and even violent plots in recent weeks. This edition of Wingnuts of the Week takes a look at a new Code Pink “citizen’s arrest” of Karl Rove and the real arrest of the Hutaree militia.
Militia movements exist well off the grid when it comes to conventional domestic politics. But the arrest of the Michigan-based Hutaree anti-government militia group raised new questions about the increasingly ugly and fear-fueled fringes of the political landscape.
The small, self-style Christian militia group (members say “Hutaree” means “Christian warrior”), led by father David Stone, was arrested by the FBI early this week on charges that they plotted to murder a local law enforcement officer and then bomb his funeral procession to up the body count in an attempt to spur a civil war in the United States.
This is the latest sign of the estimated 300% increase in militia groups – as detailed by the Southern Poverty Law Center – that we’ve seen in America during the first year of the Obama administration. Not all militia groups can be classified as violent extremists, but this rapid growth indicates an unwelcome return to the heated atmosphere of the mid-1990s, when militia movements proliferated in the wake of Bill Clinton’s election and incidents at Ruby Ridge and the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. The era ended after Timothy McVeigh destroyed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing more than 160 innocent men, women and children.
In the wake of the health care vote, we’ve seen an escalation of angry rhetoric and actions, fueling this week’s wingnuts to ugly new heights of incitement.
At least ten members of the House of Representatives received death threats this week while Republican House Leader Eric Cantor reported that bullets had been fired at his district offices in Virginia. Four local Democratic Party offices and district congressional offices had their windows broken with bricks.
All this follows the online exhortations of militia leader Mike Vanderboegh, who wrote on his blog this past Friday: “If we break the windows of hundreds, thousands, of Democrat party headquarters across this country, we might just wake up enough of them to make defending ourselves at the muzzle of a rifle unnecessary.”
I interviewed Vanderboegh at length late last year for my book "Wingnuts." He is a self-described “former leftist” and SDS member who became a Second Amendment activist and leader in the militia movement during the 1990s. Last year, he co-founded a loosely-affiliated Hatriot group known as the Three Percenters.
Over the past year, he has detailed his unhinged opposition to the Obama administration: “You should understand that we are rapidly coming to a point in this country when half of the people are going to become convinced of the illegitimacy of this administration and its designs upon our liberty. Need I remind you that this side is the one with most of the firearms?”
This week he’s been hitting the radio show circuit to promote his message. This isn’t just wingnut stuff, it’s indicative of a new breed of Hatriot militias – those who believe its patriotic to fear the government and hate the president. It’s the politics of incitement.
At a time when Sarah Palin posted a Facebook page with gun-scope cross-hairs on the districts of Democratic representatives she is seeking to unseat this fall, the unhinged could be getting further encouragement from the former GOP VP nominee. In light of the death threats, decency and a modicum of good judgment should inspire Palin to take that map down immediately.
This week, Washington combined high stakes poker and parliamentary procedures with health care reform in the balance. And despite more than a year of heated debate, the American people remain deeply divided on the issue – the only thing they seem to agree on is that D.C. is dysfunctional. A new poll shows Congress with a 17% approval rating.
Part of the reason is an epidemic of situational ethics: politicians reversing supposedly principled stands depending upon whether or not their party is in power.
The most egregious example is support for reconciliation – a measure to ensure an up-or-down vote, bypassing the threat of a filibuster. Republicans have lately been conflating reconciliation with the closely related, controversial (and conveniently scary-sounding) “nuclear option.”
When Larry King asked Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, “what’s wrong with majority rules?” on LKL earlier this week, she replied: “Because that's not how the Senate works. The Senate works with 60 votes. And now, what the president is promoting is a nuclear option, which is 50 votes.”
But the so called “nuclear option” was invoked 5 years ago by Republicans when they accused Democrats of blocking President Bush’s judicial nominations via filibuster.
As then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist explained, “Every judicial nominee brought to the floor should get a fair up or down vote...We were prepared to use this approach. The minority attempted to demean it by calling it the nuclear option surrounding it with the threats of the closure of government stopping this body from working…The proper term for our response is the constitutional option because we would rely on the constitution's power of self-governance to restore senate traditions barring judicial filibusters.”
In other words, Republicans were for forcing up-or-down votes before they were against it. As is so often the case in politics, where you stand is a matter of where you sit.
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