If you've watched any of the growing library of YouTube videos depicting (mostly) middle-aged white guys yelling at their members of Congress during town meetings about health care, you may have had the following reaction: Why are these people so angry? Did that congressman kill that guy's dog or something? What the heck is going on here?
One answer is that what is going on is a campaign of thuggery organized by a loose coalition of corporate-funded interest groups, lobbying firms specializing in "Astroturf" campaigns, and conservative organizations. But that's only part of the story. For all the strategizing by the usual right-wing suspects, the people being marshaled are there of their own volition, and they aren't acting. They may have been told where and when to appear by a Washington lobbying firm, but they are genuinely, sincerely, quiveringly mad.
At present, their anger is being spat at the administration's attempt to reform health care. But that rage goes much deeper than any one policy; should the health-care plan fail, it will continue to simmer unabated. It's been manifested by many groups: the "birther" conspiracy theorists convinced that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and is therefore ineligible to be president; the "tea baggers" suddenly angry about federal spending and taxes (after eight years of not being too concerned); and in its most extreme forms, the stream of angry men carrying out mass shootings when the liberals or the immigrants or the women have pushed them too far.
In order to understand this ire, you have to understand the people who are turning up the flame and adding their own seasonings to the cauldron.
Primary among them are the right-wing talkers who have been so gloriously liberated by the election of Obama. Tune in to Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, or Glenn Beck these days, and it's like drinking anger and fear from a fire hose. Every day brings the threat of a new American apocalypse; every policy change reason for yet another comparison to Hitler; the very presence of Obama in the White House an affront to all they believe in. Nothing is worse than this -- the president of the United States is an uppity black man with an Ivy League degree, who would appoint a Hispanic woman to the Supreme Court instead of someone who deserves it, who might not really be American, who plainly spends his every waking hour working to keep good honest folks down.] Back in 2007, O'Reilly warned that the "far left" wanted to "break down the white, Christian, male power structure," and now it has come true.
What gives the conservative pundits' their message all the more power is that this shocking transition happened at a time of economic misery, when more and more people are suffering. Even those who haven't lost their jobs are worrying more about their economic future than they ever have before. People are afraid and uneasy, and some of them have the growing feeling that something just isn't right. It isn't just the economy. It's everything they see around them, in a society that becomes more complex and inscrutable all the time, where the traditional arrangements that gave order and hierarchy and predictability to the world and their place in it are breaking down. It's more than the knowledge that some pencil-pusher could lay them off at any moment. It's kids who don't respect their elders. It's walking down the street and hearing people speaking foreign languages. It's everything that makes them feel threatened and uncertain and out of place.
And when they turn on their radios and televisions, they find a kind of order. I know what you're feeling, they are told, and I can tell you at whom you ought to be mad, so let's yell and scream and fear and rage together. It isn't your boss; it isn't Wall Street,. No, it's a new administration and the people it represents, the people who made you into a minority of all things, the people whom we can turn into an amalgam of every enemy you've ever hated. It's them.
This message is an insistent buzzing in the ears of the bitter, making their brains throb with a low-grade headache they can never quite get rid of. And more than any of his colleagues, Glenn Beck is the pied piper of this rage. Beck is ready to believe any conspiracy theory no matter how nutty (whether that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is constructing concentration camps for uncooperative Americans, or that cash-for-clunkers is a plot by the federal government to gain access to your computer). He is given to endless apocalyptic warnings (he recently noted that the Nazis implemented the Holocaust by first cutting health-care costs, I kid you not). And his daily rantings have made him the right-wing star of the Obama era. When he proclaimed that Obama "has a deep-seated hatred for white people," few familiar with Beck's act could claim to be surprised. "They don't surround us," he is fond of saying ominously. "We surround them."
And it's not just the radio and television talkers. The Republican establishment has evidently decided that keeping the rabble roused is essential to any hope it has of regaining power. So not only are Republicans doing their best to push forward the "Obama wants to kill your grandmother" meme, they'll seemingly seize on any opportunity to yell "Boo" at the public.
One of the silliest cases came last week, when the White House asked the public to send them examples of rumors, lies, and misinformation so that they could counter the claims. You can see what's coming -- conservatives, led by Sen. John Cornyn of Texas (who is smart enough to know what baloney he's spewing), quickly characterized it as an effort to get people to snitch on their neighbors and put them on a national enemies' list.
This, in a nutshell, is where the GOP has come: They see that angry old man, his face reddening, yelling at his congressman to make sure government doesn't get its hands on his Medicare, and they nod approvingly. Yes sir, they say, you've got it. We don't want you to mow down the parishioners in your local liberal church or anything, but we like you just the way you are -- deluded, disgusted, and getting angrier by the minute. That festering ball of resentment and rage that lives in the pit of your stomach isn't a tumor; it's a flower that deserves nurturing and food to grow big and strong. Read those chain e-mails, tune in to Rush and Sean and Glenn -- and did you hear the latest rumor?
The health-care town meetings give these people a forum for the ugliness welling up inside them, but their fury isn't really about health care. This debate will be over soon, and when it ends, they'll be just as mad, just as bitter that the country that used to belong to them has left them behind, and just as eager to hear that the most bizarre conspiracies their imaginations could conceive are coming true. As one woman shouted through tears at a town meeting in Arkansas to the cheers of the crowd, "I have never seen my America turned into what it has turned into, and I want my America back!" Whether health-care reform succeeds or fails, she and others like her won't get what they want -- and their anger won't go away.