Forty years ago, at about this time, I joined several members of the College Democrats and attended a George Wallace rally at Houseman Field in Grand Rapids. We went as protesters. I recall that it was a bright sunny morning but the mood was anything but cheerful. At one end of the field was erected a platform upon which a country music group entertained the crowd as we entered. After brief introductions, which included former Detroit Tigers star pitcher Frank Lary, the old hate-monger was duly introduced.
Wallace, a former pugilist, was a short, squat man with deep sunken eyes and countenance that betrayed a deep suspicion of anything that smacked of urbanity. His was not a message of tolerance. Delivering his standard stump speech in which he would ridicule the “pointy-headed intellectuals” and condemn the “brief-case totin' bureaucrats” and threatening to run over any protester who would dare lie down in front of his vehicle, Wallace worked the crowd into quite a lather. We played our part, holding signs saying “If you liked Hitler, You'll love Wallace” and shouting “Seig Heil” at what we thought were appropriate moments as we protested what we thought were fascist undercurrents in the Wallace campaign. I was struck by a coin thrown in our general direction by one of the faithful. It was great theatre, but in the end Michigan went for Hubert Humphrey.
I had thought that I had seen the worst side of American Politics. I had been to the belly of the beast and survived to tell of the experience. I find now that I have not. My wife showed me a clip on Youtube in which people gathering before a McCain-Palin rally were questioned about what they thought of Barack Obama. The tape is frightening.
What it reveals is that the Marshall needs to do very little to rile the crowd for the assembled have already been spoon-fed so much misinformation—so much slime—the internet hate mongers, Fox Noise, the Republican National Committee and the McCain campaign itself-- that they arrive fully intending to demonstrate, in ways that the Wallace people were not, to vent their fear and rage. On this tape one finds recorded the group assemble, mostly if not entirely white, fully convinced that the Democratic Nominee is a Muslim, has terrorist ties, and is as one man put it “a one man terror cell”. In the eyes of these people the nominee of a major political party, in fact the party that has fought for the interests of such people for most of the last century, has somehow been transformed into an alien, indeed an enemy of the state. Under these circumstances it doesn't take much convincing to get these people to believe the rescumlican screed, in fact it takes no convincing at all.
During the week a middle aged man took the microphone at one of McCain's rallies and shaking with anger in his voice protested that McCain had not taken it to Obama in their last encounter. McCain, in response, assured the assembled that in the last debate he would finally summon the courage to bring up these charges to Obama's face. By Friday, things were getting out of hand. In a rally at Minneapolis McCain, already warned by Senator Norm Coleman, who is now fighting to hold his seat against the up-and-coming Al Franken, to tone down the rhetoric took to the stage and held yet another of his famous “town hall” meetings. The problem with these affairs is that a microphone is given to the audience and given the nature of those attracted and the opinions they have been fed to believe, the result was predictable. A young firefighter told the Senator that he feared raising his as yet unborn child in an Obama nation. With a look of resignation in his face the good Marshall told his follower, to a chorus of boos from the crowd, that Obama is a decent man, a family man, and that he had nothing to fear from an Obama presidency. Moments later a woman informed the Senator that she had been reading, without mentioning the source, that Obama was an Arab. Again the good Marshall made a correction, seizing the microphone and telling the audience that Obama was not an Arab and that the only thing separating the two of them are serious disagreements over fundamental policy and views of governance, again to the disapproval of those in attendance.
It struck me as I watched these images flash before me that this was a new low in American political discourse. With the possible exception of Joe McCarthy, nowhere in American political history can one find the vilification of one's political opponents at such a visceral level. To be sure McCarthy made his charges of treason, but McCarthy focused on bureaucrats and citizens both inside and outside government. The Rovian rescumlicans make charges of treason and trucking with the enemy not only in the political arena but in the very contest for the highest office in the land. At Houseman Field, all those years ago, I never heard George Wallace or his followers shout “Traitor”or Kill Him”. George Wallace, forever remembered as the voice of intolerance and hate, never brought our political discourse so low. Forty years ago it was those of us at the edge of the crowd that lowered political discourse. Today its the ones up on the stage.
Google youtube, then McCain then McCain-Palin mob.