Monday, January 02, 2017

In 2009, the Right Openly Hoped Obama Would Fail, And Set Out to Make It So

So I see that amnesiac Republicans are very, very confused about why Democrats and other sane human beings are already standing up to voice their opposition to Donald Trump's presidency even before he is sworn in.

Well, here's a little cure for their amnesia: An excerpt from my forthcoming book, Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump (June 2017, Verso Press). This section is from Chapter Five, discussing the rise of the Tea Parties and how the Birther conspiracy theories helped fuel them.

Even before the inauguration, Sean Hannity went on his nationally syndicated radio and announced he was organizing a would-be force to attempt to stop Obama from enacting "radical" policies, calling his show the outpost of “the conservative underground”. Fellow radio host Mike Gallagher similarly promoted an effort by a far-right online group called Grassfire to present a petition announcing that signers were joining “the resistance” to Obama’s presidency. That was soon followed by an abortive campaign to prevent Obama from being sworn into office.

The birth-certificate controversy had seemed largely laid to rest by the election results. Yet in spite of all the incontrovertible evidence proving their various theories and hypothesis were bogus, the outer fringes of wingnuttia clung even after the election – but before the inauguration – to their last little acorn of a conspiracy theory as their last hope for stopping Barack Obama from becoming president.

Some of them – primarily a pair of fringe right-wing lawyers named Leo Donofrio and Orly Taitz – even tried to take legal action to prevent Obama from being sworn in. The U.S. Supreme Court briefly considered Donofrio’s lawsuit challenging Obama's U.S. citizenship -- a continuation of a New Jersey case embraced by the birth-certificate conspiracy theorists (or “Birthers,” as they came to be known) – but peremptorily dismissed it.

The message was clear: Conservatives did not consider Barack Obama to be a legitimate president, a fact underscored by the growing “Birther” campaign. Just as the Right set out to delegitimize a Democratic president when Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, they intended to do the same to Obama. But whereas the effort to undermine and ultimately destroy Clinton revolved around his alleged sexual proclivities, the campaign around Obama would zero in on his foreign-seemingness, his name and his background, and ultimately, his blackness.

Leading the charge was Rush Limbaugh, who announced on his radio show shortly after the election his hope that Obama would fail:

Based on what we've seen with General Motors and the banks, if he fails, America is saved. Barack Obama's policies and their failure is the only hope we've got to maintain the America of our founding.

Limbaugh’s wish for Obama’s failure stirred outrage from liberals and centrists alike, but he was defiant. At the Conservative Political Action Conference in February 2009, he justified it by explaining that Democrats did it too:

Ladies and gentlemen, the Democrat Party has actively not just sought the failure of Republican presidents and policies and now wars, for the first time. The Democrat Party doesn't stop at failure. Talk to Judge Robert Bork, talk to Justice Clarence Thomas, about how they try to destroy lives, reputations, and character. And I'm supposed to say, I don't want the president to fail?

The rant was widely distributed and was discussed in several press reports. It became, in many ways, the definitive conservative response to Obama’s election: Open political warfare, a defiance of the new president’s every objective, was to be the right-wing political project for the ensuing eight years.

And within weeks, it had created the impetus for a new right-wing movement: the Tea Party.

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Greta Van Susteren was not the most ardent of Fox anchors in supporting the Tea Parties, but she managed to play a critical role at key steps of its development; her February 27 show had first introduced the Tea Party movement to Fox News coverage, and five months later, on her Tuesday, July 28 program, she played a major part in turning the Tea Parties into an anti-health-care-reform movement by reporting on the first invasion of a public health-care forum.

It had occurred the day before in St. Louis, when Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill’s staff had hastily assembled a town-hall forum to discuss health-care reform with local constituents. The senator herself hadn’t appeared, but her staffers had found themselves confronted by local Tea Party followers who shouted at them and jeered when they were told the senator supported reform. Van Susteren brought on St. Louis radio talk-show host and Tea Party organizer Dana Loesch, who was present at the St. Louis forum, to talk about the scene there. Van Susteren asked Loesch if McCaskill’s absence was the reason her cohorts “sort of – I don’t know if hijacked is the right word, morphed maybe, morphed it into a Tea Party.” Loesch explained that the forum had come about because of a Tea Party protest two weeks before at the senator’s St. Louis offices that had ended badly with police being called; the senator then arranged the forum “along with Carl Bearden of Americans for Prosperity, and we at the Tea Party Coalition just kind of helped it out, and got some people together and got the word out.”

Loesch also claimed that “it was open to everybody, because this health-care legislation is a concern, I think, to everyone, regardless of whether or not they’re conservative or liberal or a member of any party.”

This was, of course, manifest nonsense: As with the April 15 Tea Parties, the town-hall protest was clearly populated by anti-Obama voters focused on stopping yet another policy proposal by the new president. More disturbing, in reviewing video of the whole St. Louis event, was the way the Tea Partiers used their numbers to shout down their opposition and generally intimidate the town-hall nature of the forum. What was supposed to have been an open discussion of the issues instead became a pushy shoutfest.

Within days of the St. Louis forum, Tea Party protests were breaking out at other health-care town-hall forums around the country. Similar disruptions occurred in Florida, Virginia, Syracuse, N.Y., Iowa, and Maryland. It soon emerged that the disruptions were being carefully planned and orchestrated by corporate Tea Party organizers, including Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks. A leaked memo from a volunteer with Tea Party Patriots website run by FreedomWorks give tips to members on how they could infiltrate town halls and harass Democratic members of Congress.

Some of the advice being dispensed to Tea Partiers:
Artificially Inflate Your Numbers: “Spread out in the hall and try to be in the front half. The objective is to put the Rep on the defensive with your questions and follow-up. The Rep should be made to feel that a majority, and if not, a significant portion of at least the audience, opposes the socialist agenda of Washington.”
Be Disruptive Early And Often: “You need to rock-the-boat early in the Rep’s presentation, Watch for an opportunity to yell out and challenge the Rep’s statements early.”
Try To “Rattle Him,” Not Have An Intelligent Debate: “The goal is to rattle him, get him off his prepared script and agenda. If he says something outrageous, stand up and shout out and sit right back down. Look for these opportunities before he even takes questions.”
FreedomWorks and other Tea Party organizers later tried to downplay the significance of the memo, claiming that it was not widely read or distributed. However, regardless of whether it was an actual blueprint, it fully described (or prescribed) the behavior that subsequently erupted at the Tea Parties around the country.

On August 1, visiting with constituents at an Austin town hall forum, Democratic Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Texas encountered a disruptive mob of Tea Party protesters. When Doggett was asked whether he would support a public-option health care plan even if he found his constituents opposed it, Doggett replied that he would. That sent the crowd into a frenzied chant of “Just Say No,” and they refused to stop. Doggett finally gave up, and was nearly overwhelmed as he moved through the crowd and into the parking lot. The congressman later issued a statement reaffirming his commitment to health-care reform and denouncing the protest.

On August 6, a crowd of jeering Tea Party protesters descended on a town hall meeting sponsored by Democratic Rep. Kathy Castor in Tampa, Florida, "banging on windows" until police and organizers were forced to end the event. The hall originally scheduled for the forum only held 250 people, and several hundred protesters showed up. Many of them – particularly the hundreds who had arrived from outside Castor’s district – were forced to remain outside, where they chanted anti-Obama slogans. Some of them pounded on windows, frustrated at being shut out.

It was even worse inside. Castor and State Rep. Betty Reed were scarcely able to make it through their opening remarks, since angry protestors began shouting at them and interrupting. Just outside the auditorium’s main doors, scuffling broke out between a couple of the participants who were jammed into the hallway like sardines, so police closed off the meeting area. A man who could later be seen on video with a torn shirt was treated for minor injuries following the tussle. Things became so intense that police escorted Castor out of the building after an event organizer suggested she leave for her own safety.

It left an impression, but not a positive one. "They think they're exercising their right to free speech, but they're only exercising their right to disrupt civil discourse," George Guthrie, who drove from Largo to attend the meeting, told a local TV station.

And the behavior fit the blueprint for action laid out early on: Disrupt, distract, and destroy any chance for an actual civil and informed conversation. In other words, demolish the entire purpose of a town-hall forum as the means to bring health-care reform to a halt. As Paul Krugman put it in his New York Times column:

It would not have been a problem if, say, right-wingers had gone marching in the streets in protest of the health-care plans; that's their right as Americans. And no one minded the fact that they chose to participate in these forums. But town halls were never designed to be vehicles for protest. They have always been about enabling real democratic discourse in a civil setting. When someone's entire purpose in coming out to a town-hall forum is to chant and shout and protest and disrupt, they aren't just expressing their opinions -- they are actively shutting down democracy.

Some members of Congress found the disruptions threatening enough to speak out. Rep. Brian Baird of Washington announced that instead of appearing in person, where "extremists" would have "the chance to shout and make YouTube videos," he would hold "telephone town halls" instead. Bair said some of the threats his office was receiving made clear that if he personally appeared, he as likely to have a mass disruption rather than an actual discussion of health-care reform, so he was going to take another approach. He added that he feared “an ambush”: "What we're seeing right now is close to Brown Shirt tactics. I mean that very seriously."

The remarks made something of a national uproar, especially among right-wing pundits, who claimed that Baird was smearing all the participants with such characterizations. However, Baird made clear shortly afterward that in fact he and his office had been threatened by some of these Tea Partiers, who faxed death threats and made them by phone as well. One phone message from Aug. 10 said "You think Timothy McVeigh was bad, there is a Ryder Truck out there with your name on it".

The Tea Party movement, in fact, was becoming Ground Zero for a revival of the Patriot movement of the 1990s, with all of the violent rhetoric and behavior that accompanies it. A prime example of this was the video that circulated among Tea Party followers titled “The Coming Civil War,” a 10-minute rant advocating a secession if President Obama enacted his "socialist" agenda:

The hard truth is, we are headed for a civil war. Nevertheless, rest assured, this will not be the Civil War of 1861. This war won’t be fought with larger-than-life generals, unless nationwide anarchy ensues.

… In spite of these dire predictions, there is still time to save America, if only the millions of Americans who cherish freedom will rise up individually and collectively and get involved in the hard work of preserving, protecting, and defending our Constitution, and giving aid and comfort to those organizations that are working valiantly on their behalf. If you want to prevent a civil war, then you had better rise up now and send a clear message to the President and the U.S. Congress. Tell them you are giving them fair warning. Tell them: We the People of the United States and the Separate States, will declare independence from the U.S. Government under the 9th and 10th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution … if the madness in D.C. doesn’t stop NOW!”

The rant came courtesy of a man named Ron Ewart, a western Washington resident who operated the National Association of Rural Landowners (NARLO), which was built off the bones of the organizations left behind by the late right-wing agitator Aaron Russo, who had made large sums selling a “documentary” touting Posse Comitatus-style tax theories titled America: Freedom to Fascism. NARLO was not only a big "Tea Party" supporter, it was also a listed sponsor of the Glenn Beck-inspired “9/12 March on Washington” being planned for Sept. 12.

The extremism also began showing up in the form of guns at the town-hall forums. Outside an early-August health-care event in New Hampshire featuring President Obama himself, a Tea Party follower named William Kostric showed up with a sign declaring: "It Is Time To Water The Tree Of Liberty” – an invocation of Thomas Jefferson’s famous remark: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." (When he was arrested in 1995 for blowing up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Patriot-movement follower Timothy McVeigh was wearing a T-shirt bearing the quote.) And strapped to his leg was a loaded handgun in a holster.

The next day, Kostric was invited onto MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews, who laid into the man with some tough questions about just what he hoped to accomplish: “Why did you bring a gun to an event with the president?” Matthews also pointed out that in addition to a threatening sign, “you're carrying a goddamn gun at a presidential event.”

Kostric tried to claim that he meant no threat by suggesting that blood needed to be shed, and was otherwise just exercising his rights under the Second Amendment to bear arms. Why he felt he needed to make that point at a town-hall forum on health care, though, he could never really explain. Instead, he insisted: “I'm not advocating violence. Clearly, no violence took place today.” Matthews asked him what he was advocating. Kostric answered: “Well, I'm advocating an informed society, an armed society, a polite society. That's all there is to it.”