The first thing I noticed about all the folks at town halls and presidential events “caught” with loaded guns by the media over the past week was the suspiciously high percentage of former Ron Paul supporters among them. Both the guy in New Hampshire carrying a semiautomatic pistol and a sign referencing Thomas Jefferson (“It’s Time to Water the Tree of Liberty” by the blood of patriots and tyrants) and one of the demonstrators strapped with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle in Phoenix campaigned for Paul last year. William Kostric, the man packin’ in Portsmouth, appeared on Chris Matthews’s Hardball the next day; the Phoenix gunman had actually arranged in advance with local police and media to expect him, so his appearance was more of a stunt than anything else, a provocative demonstration of “gun rights” carried out in a legalistic, thoroughly Ron-Pauly way.
And whatever you think of Ron Paul and his remarkably enthusiastic fans, it’s hard to see them as a serious lynch mob (though they did chase Sean Hannity out of his restaurant and through the New Hampshire night during the primaries, chanting “Fox Lies!”). They may be nothing more than reckless provocateurs, as Rick Sanchez’s interview with the Viper Militia-linked blogger who helped arrange the Arizona stunt shows:
Their real interest is in political theater. They even have an almost Yippie-ish sense of humor about it. If anything, their wet dream would be to go to an Obama rally, see someone else pull a gun, and then shoot that person to stop an assassination, thereby proving the necessity of the Second Amendment and becoming an overnight hero to millions.
That, and getting a few minutes airtime on Hardball or CNN.
In fact, these guys and most of the dozens of other Americans who’ve been bringing guns to public meetings about healthcare reform are really just responding to a media-wide casting call for crazies that went out after an angry woman accosted Republican Representative Mike Castle at a June 30 town hall in Delaware, demanding to see Barack Obama’s birth certificate. It took a few days for television to grasp the potential political impact of that snippet of Flip camera video, but once they did, it and similar scenes of Americans Gone Wild have become almost daily features on cable.
Clearly, the idea is to suggest that there’s a veritable Whiskey Rebellion brewing out in the heartland, one mightily provoked by Obama’s plan to extend health insurance to every citizen. It doesn’t matter that the Birthers have been dismissed, derided and thoroughly disproved. In fact, much of the opposition to healthcare reform has long since moved on from that obviously hopeless argument–the real point is they’ve united dispirited conservatives and captured television’s attention away from the beautiful Obamas in favor of angry, ill-informed and terrified white people.
Think of it as our nation’s Dirty Harry moment–bringing a gun to a political debate is equivalent to saying, “So do ya, punk?” It’s an intimidating gesture, a warning to politicians that they must heed the vehemence on the right. And it both frightens and dissuades progressives, discouraging their participation in the debate. But you don’t get more votes just because you pull the lever on the machine harder. Like a cowboy shooting off his six-gun in the night, these people want to start a stampede, but so far they’re all hat and no cattle. Politics, like stand-up, is about timing, and after six weeks of escalating (but still relatively tiny) demonstrations by increasingly wacko people, there has in fact been very little violence and no gunplay at all. This thing is fading like the Birthers down to the hard-core, Cheneyesque extreme.
Now, I’m not saying we can forget that Timothy McVeigh was wearing one of those “The Tree of Liberty Must be Watered” T-shirts the day he blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Weaponizing the debate over healthcare is terrifically dangerous. Politically, though, it’s a very risky bluff for the GOP. Because the minute one of these guys fires his gun in anger at a town hall, wounding or killing a congressperson or another demonstrator, the political dynamic will shift completely.
So call them on it, again and again. Nominating Barack Obama in the first place was calling Republicans out on their sotto voce racist Southern Strategy, the dog-whistle politics that allowed suburban moderates to vote with overt racists without acknowledging they were doing so. Pulling the trigger would be worse than shouting the word that rhymes with it: remember, this is a television show.
And anyway, with just forty votes in the Senate, Dirty Harry needs to reload.