The GOP's Double Standard on Anger
In the wake of the bitter health-care debate and some ugly incidents of violence against Democratic members of Congress, there have been some belated – and halfhearted – appeals from Republican leaders to tamp down the fiery rhetoric on the Right.
In a statement on Wednesday, House Minority Leader John Boehner said the recent wave of violence and physical threats against Democrats is “unacceptable” – but he was quick to point out that he sympathized with the motivations:
“I know many Americans are angry over this health-care bill, and that Washington Democrats just aren’t listening. But, as I’ve said, violence and threats are unacceptable.”
While stumping for Sen. John McCain’s reelection in Arizona on Friday, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin also dialed back from the implications of her own recent comments, like telling her backers to “reload” and putting crosshairs on the districts of endangered Democrats.
“We know violence isn’t the answer,” Palin said. “When we take up our arms, we’re talking about our vote.”
She also blamed the controversy on “this BS coming from the lame-stream media, lately, about us inciting violence.”
So, while Republican leaders may be disavowing specific acts of political violence, their broader message appears to be that these feelings of anger are a healthy and legitimate response to objectionable Democratic policies.
This lenient attitude toward expressions of anger may come as a surprise to many progressives who remember that several years ago anger over President George W. Bush’s actions, such as having his political allies on the U.S. Supreme Court put him in the White House and his launching an unprovoked war in Iraq, was dismissed as a sign of mental illness.
Neoconservative columnist Charles Krauthammer (a onetime psychiatrist) dubbed it “Bush Derangement Syndrome,” a term he coined to describe “the acute onset of paranoia in otherwise normal people in reaction to the policies, the presidency – nay – the very existence of George W. Bush.”
The term was picked up by commentators in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Fox News and the blogosphere.
While Krauthammer came up with his diagnosis of angry liberals in 2003, its origins could be traced to the earliest days of the Bush administration, when Americans were told they must unite behind the new President despite the fact that he had assumed the White House after losing the national popular vote and stopping the counting of ballots in Florida.
On Inauguration Day 2001, as thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators protested in the streets, Bush promised to usher in a new era of civility in Washington. Most of the press corps and congressional Democrats took him at his word. Those Americans who were still bitter about the outcome of Election 2000 were told to “get over it.”
Anger on the Left
This pressure to forget the circumstances behind Bush's "victory" became overwhelming after the 9/11 terror attacks with the American people rallying behind the President in a show of solidarity. But anger on the Left persisted, demonstrated by a flourishing of anti-Bush Web sites.
As the months wore on -- and Bush led the nation toward war with Iraq -- these Web sites provided a daily alternative source of information that proved invaluable. Readers of these sites were more likely to question the rationale for invading Iraq and the legitimacy of Bush’s claims about Iraq’s WMD, contributing to an unprecedented pre-war protest movement that brought millions into the streets of American cities.
In March 2003, when Bush launched the war despite these voices calling for restraint, many Americans experienced anger and despondency, which seemed like a natural response to a government disregarding their concerns.
When no WMD stockpiles were found after the invasion, anti-Bush anger grew among those who had opposed the war, but so too did the conventional wisdom that the “angry left” was delusional, irrational and unreasonable.
Heading into the 2004 presidential campaign, “liberal anger” was considered an albatross that could pull down any Democratic politician who was tied to it. An early victim was former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. Although Dean emerged as an early favorite in the Democratic primaries, his fiery speeches were considered by some commentators as “too angry.”
“Mainstream America,” pundits warned, would not relate to Dean’s “angry persona,” an argument that contributed to the collapse of his candidacy and the selection of the calmer John Kerry, who was considered more “electable.”
The avoidance of anger was taken to absurd extremes at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, where the Kerry camp ordered speakers not to criticize Bush harshly or even at all. The keynote address by then-Senate candidate Barack Obama didn’t even mention Bush’s name, stressing instead a positive message about America’s traditions and potential.
Supposedly polarizing figures, such as documentarian Michael Moore who had produced the anti-Bush film “Fahrenheit 9-11,” were kept at arm’s length.
Despite -- or perhaps because -- the Democrats showed such equanimity, Bush retained the White House in 2004. Still, the “angry” label kept dogging the Democratic Party, which continued trying to mute harsh rank-and-file criticism of Bush’s policies on Iraq and many other issues.
The GOP so frequently painted Democrats as irrationally angry that the criticism took on the appearance of a national political strategy.
At his 2006 State of the Union address, for example, Bush warned that “our differences cannot be allowed to harden into anger.” The next month Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman said on ABC News that Hillary Clinton “seems to have a lot of anger.”
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, denounced Democrats’ criticism of Bush’s political adviser Karl Rove as “more of the same kind of anger and lashing out that has become the substitute for bipartisan action and progress.”
In those days, anger was considered dangerously subversive, a deviant emotion that contradicted the essence of what it means to be an American. Real Americans simply don’t get angry, the message seemed to be, and if you do, you should probably seek professional help.
The Republican strategy of insisting that the Democrats play nice proved very effective through the first six years of Bush’s presidency. Indeed, the only time anger seemed justified was when right-wing voices on talk radio and Fox News were excoriating Bush's critics for displaying even relatively mild disapproval of the President.
Ironically, it wasn’t until Campaign 2006 – when Democrats sharpened their criticism of Bush over the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina and other bungled policies – that the party began its comeback with a stunning congressional victory in November 2006.
Still, the anti-Bush rhetoric and protests never reached the level of today’s right-wing fury against President Obama.
And just compare the Republican attitudes toward political “anger” during the Bush years with their new-found appreciation for anger today. The anger now is fully justified because “Washington Democrats just aren’t listening,” John Boehner maintains.
In other words, if you were angry about Bush’s actions, you were irrational, but if you’re furious about Obama’s policies on health reform, your fury is considered “understandable.”
Even while calling for some restraint, Republicans have continued to feed the right-wing anger by putting the blame for the anger back on the Democrats. In a blaming-the-victim twist, House Republican Whip Eric Cantor accused Democrats of provoking violence by complaining about violence.
"It is reckless to use these incidents as media vehicles for political gain," the Virginia Republican said, specifically faulting Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Democratic National Chairman Tim Kaine for "dangerously fanning the flames by suggesting that these incidents be used as a political weapon."
Cantor said, "By ratcheting up the rhetoric some will only inflame these situations to dangerous levels."
Riding the Tiger
The Republican leadership appears to want it both ways, riding the tiger of right-wing political anger to victories in November while blaming the Democrats for any damage the tiger might cause.
This Republican strategy – and its possible consequences – are surely keeping Democrats awake at night, wondering if the death threats they’ve been receiving are empty bluster, or a serious cause for concern.
Rep. Tom Perriello, D-Virginia, whose brother’s home suffered a cut gas line after two Virginia Tea Party activists mistakenly listed it as Perriello’s home address, is not satisfied with Minority Leader Boehner ’s limited reprimand of the right-wing extremists.
“What he was saying was, for those of you who are threatening people’s children, we want you to channel that anger into the campaign,” said Perriello. “No, we want those people to go to jail.”
But it may be difficult for Republicans to abandon the anger on the Right that they helped foment. Since the beginning of the Obama presidency, Republicans have been hyping charges of creeping socialism and a loss of American liberties.
Those are fighting words for many Americans on the Right. And as this right-wing anger has escalated following the health-care vote, U.S. law enforcement agencies will start to take a closer look at right-wing movements.
When the FBI begins investigating, conservative paranoia over Obama could fuel a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which heavily armed right-wingers feel persecuted and strike out in even greater anger.
It’s a violent cycle that was last seen in the United States during the early years of Democrat Bill Clinton’s presidency -- when angry Republican rhetoric about his legitimacy gave rise to armed militias and to talk about "black helicopters" and plots to eradicate American sovereignty. That contributed to Timothy McVeigh and a couple of other right-wing extremists getting together to bomb the Oklahoma City federal building on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people.
With that history in mind, it might be time to heed Bush’s 2006 warning, whether disingenuous or not, that “our differences cannot be allowed to harden into anger.”
Nat Parry is the co-author of Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush.
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