Even before we saw the above clip of Andrew Breitbart screaming “BeHAAAVE yourself! BeHAAAVE yourself!” at Occupy protestors outside the CPAC conference last month, that’s how many of us saw Andrew Breitbart: red-faced, veins popping, eyes like pinwheels as he leans forward (and not in the MSNBC sense) to spew barely coherent rants like, “You’re freaks and animals!” “Stop raping people! Stop raping people!” “You freaks! You filthy freaks! You filthy, filthy, filthy raping, murdering freaks!”
True, he wasn’t all exclamation points all the time, but Breitbart, the conservative blogger/impressario who died Thursday at age 43, had come to represent the tantrum at the heart of the right wing.
That tantrum will not die with him, but his death—coming within hours of Rush Limbaugh’s “slut” tantrum that he later (and barely) apologized for—may have prefigured something about the future of hyperventilating right-wing extremism.
This is not to dance on Breitbart’s grave, as many on the right have been attacking the left for doing (and I say that not just because I don’t want to go through what Matt Taibbi is right now). It doesn’t really matter that Breitbart himself danced on Ted Kennedy’s grave within minutes of his passing, either. No, I actually found Breitbart’s death shocking and strangely resonant. And I wonder if the hysteria you can see in his eyes in that clip doesn’t come from righteous anger alone but also from a sense of impending doom—and if something similar doesn’t explain the ugly, self-destructive rage that’s been bursting out on the right ever since the election of Barack Obama.
After all, in the coming months, Breitbart was facing a lawsuit from former USDA official Shirley Sherrod that he well might have lost. Sherrod was fired from her job after Breitbart posted a heavily edited tape of her speaking to the NAACP that made it seem as if she had treated white farmers with “reverse racism,” when in fact the rest of the speech proved she was actually urging her audience to overcome such feelings. The suit was sure to win exhaustive coverage and, whatever its outcome, would almost certainly have left Breitbart’s reputation (such as it was) in tatters and his wallet lighter.
If he had lost the suit and had to pay damages to a civil rights figure for defamation, he would have found his tweets less trusted and his websites less believed. For many people, a conviction would have also shown how dishonest the ACORN videotapes, made by his protégé James O’Keefe had been all along. The destruction of ACORN is still Breitbart’s greatest media victory (if you don’t count destroying Anthony Weiner, who was headed that way anyhow and just happened to use Breitbart as his weapon of accidental, career suicide). And in that atmosphere, who would take seriously the mystery videos that Breitbart announced at CPAC would prove that Obama’s presidency was “plotted” long ago in the “salon” of Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn?
Breitbart’s death doesn’t shut down the Sherrod lawsuit; it is likely to continue against his estate and his aide Larry O’Connor (also named as a defendant), unless Sherrod drops it. Sherrod hasn’t said what she’ll do, but she did issue a graceful if brief statement on Breitbart’s death: “My prayers go out to Mr. Breitbart’s family as they cope during this very difficult time. I do not intend to make any further comments.”
Obviously, Breitbart was under a lot of pressure, considerably more pressure than being a slave to “this twittering, unending bloghorreic chatter,” as Andrew Sullivan put it. (Sullivan went on to call Breitbart “our first new-media culture-war fatality.”) Maybe it’s a bit like the pressure of running in the Republican primaries. That seems to drive people into crazy talk, too.
And maybe it’s like living under the ever-increasing demographic and cultural pressure of simply being a twenty-first-century, severely conservative Republican. Obama’s very presence in the White House reminds them of their impending extinction; that he attends to their every outburst of hysteria with unflappable calm makes them even more desperately sure that he’s their mortician.
Breitbart died less than twelve hours after Rush Limbaugh called Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” for testifying before Congresss about the need for health insurance to cover birth control. The next day, Limbaugh amped the attack, saying, “If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it, and I’ll tell you what it is. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.”
On Friday, with some advertisers abandoning his show, Limbaugh tried to double down again, but he seemed confused, even wheezy with dread. By Saturday, much of the GOP backing was away from him, however meekly, and he was, for one of the few times outside of his OxyContin bust, apologizing—well, non-apology apologizing, referring three times to his “choice of words,” without mentioning his intent.
Andrew Breitbart’s death resonates because it happened now, just as the right’s artillery of outrage seems to blowing up in their faces. And that may be his real legacy.