Rick Perlstein: Birthers, Town Hall Hecklers and the Return of Right-Wing Rage

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Perlstein's latest book is Nixonland.]

In Pennsylvania last week, a citizen, burly, crew-cut and trembling with rage, went nose to nose with his baffled senator: "One day God's going to stand before you, and he's going to judge you and the rest of your damned cronies up on the Hill. And then you will get your just deserts." He was accusing Arlen Specter of being too kind to President Obama's proposals to make it easier for people to get health insurance.

In Michigan, meanwhile, the indelible image was of the father who wheeled his handicapped adult son up to Rep. John Dingell and bellowed that "under the Obama health-care plan, which you support, this man would be given no care whatsoever." He pressed his case further on Fox News.

In New Hampshire, outside a building where Obama spoke, cameras trained on the pistol strapped to the leg of libertarian William Kostric. He then explained on CNN why the "tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time by the blood of tyrants and patriots."

It was interesting to hear a BBC reporter on the radio trying to make sense of it all. He quoted a spokesman for the conservative Americans for Tax Reform: "Either this is a genuine grass-roots response, or there's some secret evil conspirator living in a mountain somewhere orchestrating all this that I've never met." The spokesman was arguing, of course, that it was spontaneous, yet he also proudly owned up to how his group has helped the orchestration, through sample letters to the editor and "a little bit of an ability to put one-pagers together."

So the birthers, the anti-tax tea-partiers, the town hall hecklers -- these are "either" the genuine grass roots or evil conspirators staging scenes for YouTube? The quiver on the lips of the man pushing the wheelchair, the crazed risk of carrying a pistol around a president -- too heartfelt to be an act. The lockstep strangeness of the mad lies on the protesters' signs -- too uniform to be spontaneous. They are both. 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.

In the early 1950s, Republicans referred to the presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman as "20 years of treason" and accused the men who led the fight against fascism of deliberately surrendering the free world to communism. Mainline Protestants published a new translation of the Bible in the 1950s that properly rendered the Greek as connoting a more ambiguous theological status for the Virgin Mary; right-wingers attributed that to, yes, the hand of Soviet agents. And Vice President Richard Nixon claimed that the new Republicans arriving in the White House "found in the files a blueprint for socializing America."

When John F. Kennedy entered the White House, his proposals to anchor America's nuclear defense in intercontinental ballistic missiles -- instead of long-range bombers -- and form closer ties with Eastern Bloc outliers such as Yugoslavia were taken as evidence that the young president was secretly disarming the United States. Thousands of delegates from 90 cities packed a National Indignation Convention in Dallas, a 1961 version of today's tea parties; a keynote speaker turned to the master of ceremonies after his introduction and remarked as the audience roared: "Tom Anderson here has turned moderate! All he wants to do is impeach [Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl] Warren. I'm for hanging him!"

Before the "black helicopters" of the 1990s, there were right-wingers claiming access to secret documents from the 1920s proving that the entire concept of a "civil rights movement" had been hatched in the Soviet Union; when the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act was introduced, one frequently read in the South that it would "enslave" whites. And back before there were Bolsheviks to blame, paranoids didn't lack for subversives -- anti-Catholic conspiracy theorists even had their own powerful political party in the 1840s and '50s....

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Donald Wolberg - 8/23/2009

The misuse of hisory makes a nmuddle of opinions today. Mr. Pearlstein allows his political bias to color his theses. As a minor but still significant point, the Kennedy "Missil Gap" was a political ploy, with little or no substance. The missiles of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations were begun during the Eisenhower administration. The triad of deterrence included manned bombers (the B-52, started by Eisenhower and still in use), nuclear submarines (begun by Eisenhower), and missiles.
The failure of the Obama administration, and it has been perhaps the most rapid and most extreme failure of any presidency, even exceeding the calamity of the Carter administration, is I suggest the direct result of three players. The first of the troika is Harry Reid in the Senate, an amazingly ineffective and miserable majority leader. The second is Ms. Pelosi in the House, who ahas allowed the lack of intellect to be relaced by the superficiality of her ego, and the non-leadership and camera craving of Mr. Obama. The difficulty of this troika is that each member veers away fronm the other, but the cart is always moving left. One suspects that Mr. Obama's need for cameras and travel is his complete discomfoort fot the needs of the office and his inability to deal with its realities. In part this is simply because he is certainly the least experienced, tested, or qualified presidential office holder. More serious I think is his inability to grasp issues and concepts in anything other than a left of center or extreme left sense. Frequently reflexive posturing is the hiding place of a limited intellect. Mr. Obama's errors and mos-statements are less flamboyant than those of Mr. Biden, but of more concern: "I am not sure if I have visited 57 of out 59 states," "we need to do away with all forms of carbon," "We need to limit the length of drug patents so we can get more genetic drugs." But all of this is in keeping with the glaring absurdity that has become U.S. foreign non-policy, the placement of such intrepid fools as Mr. Biden as Vice-President, or the host of tax evaders or other fault-ridden characters such as Mr. Richardson of New Mexico, Mr. Daschel, etc.

One suspects that the town hall meetings have become more than just the medical issue,. One suspects that the unease of the centrist Americans reflects more a rebellion against the clear left leaning of Mr. Obama and the rest.

Randll Reese Besch - 8/21/2009

Their just federal military or clandestine services not that idiotic UN as the nativists purport. They are around just usually not for us to see. They are usually for black ops in other countries not here. You can see them on the news from time to time looking normal in someone else country.

I find that it is more than just coincidence that we started seeing such upstanding citizens using their right to carry arms near the president who is not only black but portrayed as a socialist zealot. Even if he has done nothing to prove it. One of them was a black man carrying an assault rifle, but nothing has been said concerning his reasons for being at one such presidential appearance.

If you tried to pull that during the previous administration you could have been killed. Obama is most accommodating compared to Bush/Cheney.

Michael Green - 8/21/2009

Let's remember that in the 1950s and 1960s, neither the internet nor Fox News existed. The kind of "information" that leads to people believing the lies about death panels and internment camps was harder to disseminate. How odd that access to so much more "information" through 24/7 news and the internet has led to far more insane and far less plausible ramblings and right-wing lies in the 21st century than anything thought of in the middle of the 20th.