Editor’s note: John P. Avlon is the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and writes a weekly 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.
[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/09/17/wingnuts.johnson.wilson.gi.art.jpg caption="Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) and Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC)."]
Who knew that we could hit a new congressional low so quickly after the summer recess – or that the uncivil outburst would become a conservative rallying cry approaching absurd folk hero status?
But that’s what happened to South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson since he shouted “you lie!” at President Obama during a joint session of Congress last week.
It was, by all internal accounts, an unhinged moment of anger. Wilson apologized to the president soon after and was roundly criticized by the likes of John McCain and other leading Republicans. He became the face of our coarsening civic dialogue, a sign that Tea Party anger is gaining currency in Congress.
Then he started raising conservative cash by the boatload, as his local Democratic opponent did the same. Hyper-partisan talk radio came rallying to his side. Wilson said he’d stop apologizing and hired a media consultant. Soon it was Wilson who was playing the victim card, with online ads that proclaimed “Joe Wilson is Under Attack.”
At the 9/12 protests in DC, I saw dozens of signs expressing their solidarity with Wilson – “Joe Wilson speaks for me,” “Joe Wilson told the truth,” “He speaks for patriots,” and “Palin-Wilson 2012.”
This week, the House decided to offer the first formal resolution rebuking a congressman for speaking out while the president was giving an address in its history. Wilson deserved it for his wing-nuttery, but my guess is that it will only make him more of a martyr to the fringe.
That’s also likely to be the impact of one Democratic congressman’s argument for the official rebuke. Representative Hank Johnson of Georgia told reporters that Wilson’s ugly outburst "did not help the cause of diversity and tolerance with his remarks.”
No problem so far. But then Congressman Johnson brought the specter of the KKK into it. “I guess we'll probably have folks putting on white hoods and white uniforms again and riding through the countryside, intimidating people," he said. "That's the logical conclusion if this kind of attitude is not rebuked."
On "Wingnuts of the Week," we’ve condemned overuse of KKK, communist and Nazi references in domestic political debates from whatever the source. Wilson and Johnson’s remarks are not equivalent, but saying that idiotic incivility will lead logically to a resurgence of the KKK doesn’t help the argument or the healing process. The moderate majority of Americans see Wilson’s comments for what they are – an unhinged ugliness bubbling up around this president.
The wingnuts' increasing influence in American politics should be a wake-up call – it is a challenge to the idea that what unites us is greater than what divides us as Americans. Expect more turbulence this fall – and more reason for us to call out the extremes and keep them accountable.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.