It has become a familiar ritual: highly ideological political actor says something shocking or controversial; media demand that establishment figures of the same political stripe repudiate the remarks; the other side attacks the establishment figures for their tolerance of extremists in their midst.
One might think this is the natural reaction of those champions of moderation and centrism, the pleadings of the reasonable middle to marginalize the extremes. One might, were it not for the fact that the second step in the pattern -- the media demands for repudiation -- seems to happen far more often to Democrats than to Republicans, who are seldom asked to “distance themselves” from their less levelheaded brethren. Left-wing extremists (and many not so extreme at all) are treated with scorn and contempt, their controversial statements held up as dire threats to the survival of the Republic. Right-wing extremists, on the other hand, are considered players whose opinions should be sought and whose endorsements are highly valued.
Consider how Pat Robertson’s endorsement of Rudy Giuliani last week was met with the predictable value-free political analysis to which we have grown so accustomed. This will certainly help Rudy’s attempt to win over evangelicals, we were told, and doesn’t it show how divided the religious right is over the presidential campaign? Yes indeed, another fascinating piece to add to the electoral puzzle, and kudos to Giuliani for snagging such a sought-after endorsement.
Try to imagine what would have happened if Hillary Clinton had called a press conference to announce that she had secured the endorsement of Minister Louis Farrakhan. Reporters would be apoplectic with the shock of it. How could she do such a thing? What about all the crazy things Farrakhan has said? What about the anti-Semitism? Why would she want to be associated with such a man?
Yet no reporters were willing to say that the man smiling next to Giuliani at that triumphant press conference is, quite simply, a raving lunatic.
A few mentioned one or two of Robertson’s more colorful statements, including the fact that he blamed September 11 on God’s displeasure with America’s toleration of abortion and homosexuality. But that’s only the beginning of Robertson’s lengthy record of bizarre and hateful pronouncements. To review some of the greatest hits: Robertson has called for the assassination of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez; claimed that Ariel Sharon’s stroke was God’s punishment for Sharon relinquishing Gaza to the Palestinians; said that Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Methodists harbor “the spirit of the Antichrist”; claimed that his personal prayers alter the course of hurricanes; said that feminism “encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians”; invested millions in a Liberian gold mine, then publicly defended brutal Liberian warlord-turned-dictator Charles Taylor; and regularly relays specific messages he claims God has delivered to him regarding divine wrath soon to be visited on the United States. (This January, Robertson said God told him there would be a major terrorist attack some time in 2007. “The Lord didn't say nuclear,” he said, “but I do believe it'll be something like that -- that'll be a mass killing, possibly millions of people.”)
In 1991, Robertson wrote a book called The New World Order, in which he posits a vast conspiracy spanning centuries in which Jewish bankers and the Illuminati control the progress of history. George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter, he wrote, were “unwittingly carrying out the mission and mouthing the phrases of a tightly knit cabal whose goal is nothing less than a new order for the human race under the domination of Lucifer and his followers.”
Robertson also heals people, one at a time, through their television screens. As 700 Club viewers know well, a regular segment of the show features Robertson squinting his eyes tight as God communicates to him information on specific medical ailments afflicting members of the audience. "I’m sensing someone with a lower back problem," he’ll say, "and God is whisking that pain right away." If he hasn’t gotten around to you and your particular aches and pains, you can download the recipe for Robertson’s "age-defying protein shake" on his website, which he claims enables him to leg press 2,000 pounds (which if true would make him the strongest man on earth).
Part fanatic and part con-man, Robertson is the kind of figure one would expect would be treated by any reasonable person of any ideology as, at best, a crackpot. Yet there was Rudy Giuliani, the front-runner for the Republican nomination for president, singing his praises and welcoming his assistance in Giuliani’s quest to become the most powerful human being on earth. None of the other Republican candidates uttered a discouraging word about the televangelist; the only evident emotion they displayed was jealousy that their own candidacies had not found favor in Robertson’s sight.
And that spoke volumes. When the support of someone like Pat Robertson -- a man who expresses disgust at American society, who advocates the assassination of foreign leaders, who believes that adherents of any religious sect other than his own are destined to spend eternity in hell, who says that presidents of the United States are agents of Lucifer, who propagates bizarre, antiquated anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, whose hatred and mania know no limits -- when the support of such a man is eagerly sought by a party’s presidential candidates, we should not be surprised when each campaign that party runs is more centered on fear, more grounded in hate, more morally putrid than the one that came before it. And we can already see the glimmers, the first raindrops signaling a storm of viciousness to come. Those drops have appeared in the form of the narratives emerging and attacks formulating about the Democratic candidates, particularly Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
One of the surprises of the campaign has been Giuliani’s popularity among social conservatives, who, it was presumed, would turn away from him once they realized he has a record of support for reproductive rights and equality for gay Americans. Some certainly have, but Giuliani enjoys the continuing support of many more than anyone expected. They seem to have been convinced by Giuliani’s attempt to reframe the culture war. As Sarah Posner wrote on Tapped last week, "In fact, many conservative evangelicals -- including people I talked to at the Values Voters Summit and Robertson this morning -- point to Giuliani's work as mayor in cleaning up New York as a point of admiration. (Gotta do battle with pornographers, prostitutes, and criminals, after all.)" To hear Giuliani tell it, he practically marched down to Times Square and personally took a baseball bat to the porn shops and squeegee men; Carrie Nation and Buford Pusser merged into an avenging angel of sexual propriety and civil order.
Many social conservatives also cite Giuliani’s purported ability to beat Hillary Clinton as the key to their support. But they seldom cite his supposed ideological moderation; it’s just a feeling that he’s the one to do it. They don't just want a candidate who will get more votes than Hillary, they want someone who will bludgeon her, humiliate her, insult and abuse her. If someone like Mike Huckabee beat Hillary Clinton, he'd do it with a smile on his face. Rudy, on the other hand, would do it with a sneer on his mouth and venom in his heart. A guy who informs his wife he's leaving her by holding a press conference, and parades down the street hand-in-hand with his mistress, knows a thing or two about humiliating women. George W. Bush may have run as a "compassionate conservative" in 2000, but in today's GOP, compassion is out of fashion.
As for Obama, there is a nascent right-wing narrative that has been bubbling under the radar for some time. It's a rumbling of fear and hatred, directed outward at the Other. As I've written before, GOP politics is tribal, and tribal identity is formed in large part through the definition of the boundaries of identity: who's in and who's out, who's Us and who's Them. If Obama wins the nomination, conservatives will be working overtime to convince voters not just that Obama is weak and effeminate (as they have with pretty much every Democratic candidate since 1968), or that he will allow our blessed land to be overrun by the foreign horde, but that he in fact is the Other, he is from that horde, that he is some kind of Manchurian candidate of Islam.
The first full-blown eruption may have been the false story that Obama attended a fundamentalist madrassa as a child in Indonesia. As Christopher Hayes detailed recently in The Nation, emails are circulating around the country claiming that Obama is a practicing Muslim; the Obama campaign is evidently concerned enough about them that they have issued statements explaining that he is not a Muslim but a Christian. Emails are also circulating in Iowa claiming falsely that Obama refuses to put his hand on his heart when saying the pledge of allegiance; this follows on a spasm of feigned outrage over the fact that Obama doesn't bother to engage in that most meaningless of patriotic poses, the wearing of an American flag pin. "First he kicked his American flag pin to the curb," said the spectacularly dim-witted Steve Doocy of Fox & Friends. "Now Barack Obama has a new round of patriotism problems." Ann Coulter, the slithering GOP id in action, likes to refer to him as “B. Hussein Obama.”
Should Obama become the nominee, these kinds of attacks will multiply. He will be defined as not just un-American but anti-American, not just indifferent to the threat from our enemies but a veritable representative of them. There will be a multi-level, perfectly harmonious campaign of character assassination: the emailers and flyer-producers at the bottom, making the most outrageous and explicit attacks; the independent 527 groups making essentially the same argument but in more reasonable terms, more by implication than by direct assault, and finally the GOP nominee’s campaign, which will reinforce the narrative with subtle word choices and the raising of superficially legitimate issues designed to evoke the more scurrilous facets of the story.
We’ve seen it before – recall that the 1988 Bush campaign was not the one that aired the infamous ad featuring Willie Horton’s mug shot (it was an independent PAC that did so). But every time Bush mentioned “furloughs” or even “crime,” he knew that the networks would oblige by slapping that menacing picture up on the screen, the tale of a white woman raped by a fearsome black man told again and again.
No one should doubt that we’ll see it again in one form or another, the latest incarnation of Willie Horton and the Swift Boat Veterans. Anyone who thinks a party that counts Pat Robertson among its leading lights won’t stoop to that need only look at what they’ve done before.