By Pamela Troy
One of the great sketch comedians of the 1960s was The
Carol Burnett Show's Tim Conway. His persona, presented
with flawless comic timing, was almost always that of a man
whose reactions were, to put it kindly, a little slow. "Don't
tear that," he'd say, his brow suddenly contracting in alarm
after he'd spent several seconds placidly watching a bratty
kid shred a document into tiny bits. In one memorable skit
in which his character took a fall from a fifth story window,
the audience saw Conway disappear over the sill and heard
a series of horrendous crashes ending in a sickening thud.
Only then, after a moment of silence, came the despairing
wail, "I'm FAAAAAALLLLLLING!"
And that, in a nutshell, describes mainstream American press
coverage of the rise of the far right.
What brought all this to mind was a recent piece in Salon
about a rally of young Republicans in Washington. In her article,
Michelle Goldberg makes what Salon apparently considers
the red-hot revelation that many in the upcoming crop of young
Republicans are not only callous, jingoistic, and overtly
racist, but regard Democrats and liberals as enemies practically
on a par with Mid-East terrorists. She quotes speaker Paul
Erickson describing a liberal as "someone who at their root,
at their core, hates everything this country stands for but
doesn't hate it enough to leave," and the next speaker, right-wing
lobbyist Jack Abramoff equating Democrats with "the ascension
of evil, the bad guys, the Bolsheviks'"
It's hardly surprising that the young Republicans attending
this rally and lapping up such garbage denounce Clinton as
more dangerous than Osama bin Laden and boast about a contempt
for liberals that seems more personal than political. As Goldberg
observes midway through the piece, "Ann Coulter's latest book,
Treason, which tarred virtually all Democrats as traitors,
may have been denounced by conservative intellectuals, but
its message has pervaded the party."
I have no problem with the concern Goldberg expresses in
her account. I agree with her that the quotes she's offered,
from both the speakers at this rally and the attendees, go
beyond the kind of rivalry one would expect in a two party
system. In fact, these conservatives' equation of Democrats
with treason, bolshevism, evil itself, veers dangerously close
to an outright rejection of the American conception of political
diversity. What does annoy me quite profoundly is that the
"troubling dark side" to modern conservatism Goldberg describes
has been around far too long for her piece to qualify as a
None of the ugly remarks quoted in it are likely to surprise
anyone who has frequented online conservative chat-rooms or
Internet bulletin boards for the past three years. Nor should
they be news to anyone who has read and noted the popularity
not just of Ann Coulter, but the likes of Bill O'Reilly, William
Bennett and Rush Limbaugh. The time for the mainstream press
to notice that a great many conservatives reject, not just
the ideas, but the very legitimacy of liberalism and/or the
Democratic Party was three years ago when rioting Republicans
shut down a legal vote at the Miami Dade Courthouse. Or, at
the very latest, well over a year ago, when Coulter made her
famous comment about the need to "physically intimidate liberals"
to an enthusiastic crowd at a Conservative rally.
For roughly two decades our mass media has covered the standard
bearers for the far right's current revival of McCarthyism
as if these pundits operated in a vacuum. The religious right's
insinuation into mainstream politics, the popularity of Rush
Limbaugh, the bestseller status of Ann Coulter's nauseating
books, have been treated as amusing sideshows or at worst,
gross breaches of taste, their troubling implications ignored.
Important questions about the agenda these people represent,
and the extent to which it has been tacitly embraced both
by a major political party and a significant portion of the
American public have gone largely unasked and unanswered.
Mainstream journalists seem intent on overlooking the fact
that when someone equates being a Democrat with treason, or
being a liberal with depravity, they are not talking about
abstracts. They are talking about individuals. They are describing
American citizens who work, vote, fight in our wars, raise
families, and teach in our schools and universities. They
are declaring that these American citizens are, by virtue
of their beliefs, evil, disloyal, even criminal. And when
they say these things to cheering throngs, publish them in
best-selling books, and form committees intent on acting on
these assumptions, they warrant far more serious and thoughtful
attention than the current press seems willing to give them.
It's nice that Michelle Goldberg is concerned. It's nice
that Salon published her article. It would have been
even nicer if, in the course of researching her article Goldberg
had actually asked the conservatives at this rally a few of
the questions that positively screamed to be asked, like "If
Democrats are traitors, should they be treated as traitors?
Should they be arrested for treason?" or "If you want to bring
back the blacklist, what form would it take? Do you want to
drive all liberal teachers out of public schools and universities?
All liberals out of government? All liberals out of any position
Nowhere, of course, is there any indication in the article
that Goldberg posed any of these important and potentially
revealing questions, even though she describes attending a
hotel-room bull session with some of the attendees that would
have offered her a dandy opportunity. It would be an interesting
question in itself to ask her why she didn't or, if she did,
why she didn't consider the answers she got worth sharing
with the rest of us.
If sometime in the future the "beautiful young shock troops"
Goldberg describes start acting on their visceral hatred for
liberals/Democrats with blacklists, legal sanctions or even
occasional vigilante violence against such "traitors," it's
not hard to foresee the American press' reaction. In that
event, we can expect articles from some mainstream journalists
evincing a bland astonishment, as if this repression from
the right were a development that no knowledgeable watcher
of the political scene could have foreseen.
In the meantime, check out the recent Salon interview
with Ann Coulter. David Bowman really comes to grips with
Coulter's taste in movies and novels, and mercilessly examines
whether or not Coulter, in her endless round of dating, is
likely to ever find that one special someone.