Nearly every morning for eight years, my husband would go into the shower with the news blaring on the radio, and I could hear him over the rush of water grumbling, "I hate George Bush. I hate George Bush." And, occasionally, "Won’t somebody kill George Bush?"
Don’t call the Secret Service, Newsmax: My husband was, of course, simply filled with rage that Bush had seized office with fewer votes than Al Gore, invaded a country that had never attacked us, killed thousands of our soldiers and scores of thousands of Iraqis, legalized torture, allowed comprehensive government eavesdropping, shipped jobs overseas, and encouraged Wall Street to enrich the few while impoverishing the rest. You gotta yell something sometimes, and who hasn’t?
The thing about liberals is they do this standing naked in a shower and come out merely wet and spluttering. The thing about rightwingers is they work themselves up into a similar rage, strap on a .45 loaded with dum-dums, and go to political meetings screaming that something must be done about Adolf Obama–or maybe write columns seriously suggesting a military coup "to resolve the ‘Obama problem.’"
And whenever someone points out that the rhetoric on the right could lead to actual violence (as it has, um, a time or two in American history), the Republicans either call you "shameless," "a disgrace," or "dangerous," as House speaker Nancy Pelosi was when she tearfully recalled the deaths of George Moscone and Harvey Milk, or they call you "a nutjob," as RNC chief Michael Steele tagged New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, who wrote that the vitriol out there reminds him of the days just before Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.
Look, I don’t want to whitewash all the left’s overheated rhetoric. Antiwar demonstrators carried signs depicting George Bush as Hitler, too (maybe a few more at European demos than at American ones, but still, it happened), and the British fictional documentary Death of a President did stage an assassination of Bush. But when it comes to dangerous rhetoric, any media-borne equivalency between conservatives and liberals is transparently ridiculous.
And not just when Maria Bartiromo (the CNBC anchor who apparently doesn’t know you have to be 65 to qualify for Medicare) says (around 4:30) that corporate-sponsored townhall craziness is "exactly what is happening on the other side. I mean, who’s directing MoveOn.org?" As soon as polls started coming in showing that Tea Baggery has made the GOP look like a bunch of loons and driven away the center, the Republicans set off on a mad scramble through their Googles to find even the dimmest suggestion of liberal excess against the Bushies to provide a Fair’n’Balanced fig leaf. But it’s pretty thin stuff, compared to signs reading "Bury Obamacare with Kennedy" and "We Came Unarmed–This Time." Right now, the Republican leadership is actively pushing the idea that Florida Rep. Alan Grayson’s saying the GOP health plan is "Don’t get sick and if you do, die quickly," is identical to South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson’s shouting "You lie!" during President Obama’s health care address to a joint session of Congress.
Can the party that has been screaming about "death panels" for months get away with outrage over a very similar criticism of their refusal to do anything about health reform at all? Probably not, but it isn’t hard to see why they feel they need to.
Right, left, center, we all have rage and can lash out–verbally, at least–when we believe our way of life or deeply held beliefs are threatened. But by and large, lefty rage (at least the non-Euro kind) rarely goes beyond the shower curtain. We want the right to be proved wrong (as, indeed, recent political and economic events have shown them to be), in the belief that evidence and logic will help justice to prevail. They, on the other hand–and especially since a black man was elected president–are filled with an exclusionary zeal. They don’t want to prove anything about the left so much as they want it removed, defunded, delegitimized, kept off the screen. In a word, killed.
Maybe that’s the difference between right and left humor, too. Remember how so many of us said, back in the wardays of Rovian command of the media, that we’d have gone crazy without The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, or Air America’s Al Franken and Marc Maron endorsing our own disgust? Instead of actually killing Bush or Cheney, the humor quasi-killed them. Humor both told the truth and delivered the scorn you could find echoed nowhere else in the national discussion.
It’s worth remembering that Fox News tried, and failed, at a rightwing version of The Daily Show, knee-slappingly called The Half-Hour News Hour. There’s a real difference, say, between Stephen Colbert dismissing comparisons of the Bush administration to the sinking Titanic because, as he told George Bush directly at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2006, it was really more like a flaming Hindenburg, and Glenn Beck dousing a colleague with pretend gasoline and then lighting a match to demonstrate what he thinks Obama is doing to the "average American." One of those is frustrated and funny, and the other is frustrated and very revealing about an instinctive urge.