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2012 Election

The Extreme Moderate

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 Greene County, Virginia is not typically thought of as a hotbed of revolutionaries. It is a small, rural county of 18,403 inhabitants, nestled in the indescribably beautiful Shenandoah Mountains. The country and the people are typical Virginia piedmont: that means good earth and good folk. Yet in the April, the local Republican Party was calling for armed insurrection against the government should Republicans lose the election “through the power of the vote”[1].

The editor, Ponch McPhee, defended himself by claiming that the call for a coup against Obama wad merely metaphorical: thus adding a failure to understand the basics of English to his crime of sedition.

He has since been fired by the local party bosses, who have come out with a statement condemning the “unfortunate metaphor” (my quotes) and proclaiming themselves loyal, tax-paying citizens who respect the Presidency. The office of VA Governor McDonnell also issued a statement calling the remarks unacceptable.

All of this is just peachy, though I am left wondering how it was that Mr. McPhee was allowed to publish his unacceptable statements without anyone in the local GOP leadership vetting the newsletter. It is a safe bet that they will from now on.

The Growth of Radicalism

What’s most disturbing about this incident is the trend it so clearly underlines: the radicalization of the right. The “no compromise” right arose under Ronald Reagan. These were the voters who punished President George H.W. Bush for being a statesman first and a demagogue second when he raised taxes to balance the gaping hole in the budget left by his predecessor. In the 1990’s, Newt Gingrich brought these voters and their tactics to Congress. Since then, the legislature has been increasingly ineffective as it becomes ever more polarized. The Tea Party and Grover Norquist are nothing new, they are merely the newest and most extreme manifestation of this radical, but highly vocal and mobilized fringe.

The 1990’s also saw a surge in “militia” activities. These are citizens who form paramilitary societies; arm themselves with civilian variants of military assault rifles, and go out to the backwoods to train themselves in small unit tactics. There is nothing illegal in this, nor is there necessarily anything wrong with it, were it not for the fact that their primary enemy appears to be the Federal government (specifically the BATF, though any “G-Man” is by default worthy of a shot). Part of this – a small part – was a reaction to President Clinton’s efforts to control and eventually ban the private ownership of assault rifles. But a much bigger role was played by the increasing intolerant rhetoric on the right. By delegitimizing and demonizing the Democratic opposition at every opportunity, conservative leaders have made it more acceptable to turn to violence as the legitimate response to “socialist-communist oppression.”

There is a great deal of hypocrisy in the attitude of the Republican leadership. On the one hand, they continue to foment hatred, intolerance and violence against their political enemies at every turn. Remember the “Don’t Retreat, Reload” campaign in 2010? That wasn’t supported by some unknown candidate out of nowhere, that was Sarah Palin, the woman who might have been Vice-President of the United States. Yet whenever they go too far and are forced by public outrage to condemn their own vitriol, they cleverly say that they condemn extremism from both right and left. What’s worse, Democrats say the exact same thing.

What extremism from the left? How many left-wing militias are there in this country? How many federal buildings have been blown up by leftists? None, none and none. The plain fact is that there is no violent fringe on the left advocating an overthrow of the government and armed insurrection (though there are undoubtedly loons enough on the left too). Meanwhile, law enforcement authorities have stopped more than 60 right-wing domestic terror plots between 1995 and 2005.[2] The FBI has been aggressively tracking and infiltrating domestic extremist groups since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and Homeland Security has also become very active in this regard in recent years.[3]

It is worth remembering that the most destructive terrorist attack on U.S. soil until 11 September 2001, was perpetrated by an American. When Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nicols detonated a truck bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, they killed 168 of their fellow Americans and wounded more than 680. Among the dead were 19 kids under the age of 6.

Despite this history of anarchic violence, fueled by hatred an intolerance, Republicans refuse to take a firmer stand against the rhetoric of hate. How many more Gabrielle Giffords before people like Sarah Palin are expelled from the GOP for fomenting political violence? How many more Oklahoma City’s before the Republicans categorically denounce these extremists? Apparently, not so long as they reliably vote Republican.

 

Zero Tolerance

“I am an extreme moderate,” says Benjamin Franklin in HBO’s 2008 miniseries John Adams, “I believe anyone not in favor of moderation should be castrated.”

I admit that I find Mr. Franklin’s philosophy charming, and can only hope that it is not apocryphal. I’m afraid that I don’t have much tolerance for these extremists who would blow up the country in order to protect it.

 “I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.[4]

Call it a sentimental attachment to that quaint oath I swore when I joined the US military, but I still take it seriously. When people talk about kidnapping or murdering government officials, and launching armed insurrections against the greatest government on earth, I tend to take them seriously. Which makes me wonder: why isn’t Mr. McPhee receiving an unpleasant visit from federal marshals? Why isn’t a federal prosecutor preparing charges of sedition against him? Why isn’t Mr. McPhee going away to where you can’t even hear the dogs bark for a while?

Toleration of these provocations is a mistake. Extremists are by definition uncompromising: they are not going to thank you for your tolerance; they are not going to be won over by your generosity of spirit; they are most certainly not going to stop pushing the boundaries of acceptable behavior until they are forcibly stopped. A “three strikes” policy might be implemented; though I am in favor of zero tolerance.

The same goes for the politicians who are making a living by stoking hate and intolerance. There are laws enough on the books to stop those who cross the line.  Advocating the violent overthrow of the government is sedition: Mr. McPhee could be fined, sentenced to not more than 20 years in jail, and be made ineligible for government employment.[5] Threatening a federal official – like putting cross-hairs on images of Democratic Congressmen running for reelection [6]– is a felony, and can lead to maximum penalties of 5 to 10 years depending on circumstances.

There is always the danger of going too far the other way, and repressing free political speech. There doesn’t seem to be much threat of that right now. The danger today emanates from the abuse of free speech to incite violence. There is also the tendency to dismiss such talk as mere rhetoric, and to characterize the authors as clowns or fools, certainly too unimportant or crazed to create a following and cause someone to pull a trigger. That would also be foolhardy. If European history teaches us anything, it is that you don’t treat extremists with kid gloves. In 1923, the folks in Weimer no doubt thought that the National Socialists were an unimportant bunch of fanatics, and Hitler just one more nutter[7].

 

I think they ought to throw the book at Mr. McPhee. And at the next idiot that puts a cross-hair on the photo of a legislator. And keep doing it until they learn the lesson: be civil, play nice, and don’t shoot the candidates (or encourage someone else to). If a few such political defenestrations don’t convince politicians to be more responsible and more moderate in their statements, it should at least take the worst of the bunch out of circulation.



Sources and Notes: 

[1] “Greene County, Virginia GOP Group’s Newsletter Calls For ‘Armed Revolution’ If Obama Is Reelected,” The Huffington Post, 08 May 2012
[2] Knight, Danielle, “National Security Watch: 60 right-wing terror plots foiled,” U.S. News & World Report, 12 April 2005
[3] “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment,” Department of Homeland Security, 07 April 2009
[4] Oath of Enlistment, United States Armed Forces
[5] 18 USC 2385, Title 18, Part I, Chapter 115, Section 2385. Advocating Overthrow of Government.

“Whoever knowingly or willfully advocates, abets, advises, or teaches the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying the government of the United States or the government of any State, Territory, District or Possession thereof, or the government of any political subdivision therein, by force or violence, or by the assassination of any officer of any such government; or

Whoever, with intent to cause the overthrow or destruction of any such government, prints, publishes, edits, issues, circulates, sells, distributes, or publicly displays any written or printed matter advocating, advising, or teaching the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying any government in the United States by force or violence, or attempts  to do so; or

Whoever organizes or helps or attempts to organize any society, group, or assembly of persons who teach, advocate, or encourage the overthrow or destruction of any such government by force or violence; or becomes or is a member of, or affiliates with, any  such society, group, or assembly of persons, knowing the purposes thereof –

 Shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than  twenty years, or both, and shall be ineligible for employment by  the United States or any department or agency thereof, for the five years next following his conviction.”
[6] “Health Care reform anger takes a nasty, violent turn,” CNN Politics, 25 March 2010.
[7] 08 and 09 November 1923 were the dates of the Munich “Beer Hall Putsch” when Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists attempted to overthrow the Bavarian government. While failing in its immediate objectives, the Putsch and subsequent trial catapulted the Nazis into national prominence.

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John Adams

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