CARL Paladino began his New York gubernatorial campaign by bragging he’d “clean out Albany with a baseball bat.” When an ally likened his main Albany target, the (Jewish) leader of the State Assembly, to “an antichrist or Hitler,” he enthusiastically endorsed the slur. We also learned of Paladino’s repertory of gag e-mails — among them a pornographic picture of a woman having sex with a horse and a photo of an African tribal ritual captioned “Obama Inauguration Rehearsal.” How blind we were not to recognize that his victory in a Republican primary under the proud Tea Party banner was inevitable.
A week ago New Yorkers were presented with a vivid reminder of how a bat can be used as a weapon. A pack of young thugs was charged with torturing three men in the Bronx for being gay, one of whom, The Times reported, was sodomized with “a small baseball bat.”
It’s probably safe to assume that no one in this lynching party has heard of Paladino. Presumably he has heard of them, but a man of Tea Party principles will not compromise, no matter what may be happening in the real world. Don’t tread on Carl! And so last Sunday, as the city was reeling from both the Bronx bloodbath and the earlier leap of a bullied gay Rutgers freshman off the George Washington Bridge, Paladino visited a fringe Orthodox synagogue in Brooklyn to stand his ground. He attacked gays for supposedly plotting to brainwash children into accepting the validity of homosexuality.
We don’t know what will happen on Election Day, but one fairly safe bet is this: Paladino will not be the next governor of New York. However tardily, he’s been disowned not only by the state’s extant, if endangered, cadre of mainstream Republicans but even by some of the hard right. No one apparently told him that while bigotry isn’t always a disqualifier for public office, appearing on YouTube vowing to “take out” a reporter from Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post can be. As a rule, it’s career suicide to threaten to murder your own political base.
But if New Yorkers may take comfort from the pratfall of this particular barbarian at their gate, the national forecast is not so sunny. Paladino is no anomaly in American politics in 2010. He’s just the most clownish illustration of where things have been heading for two years and are still heading. Like the farcical Christine O’Donnell in another blue Northeastern state, he’s a political loss-leader, if you will, whose near-certain defeat on Nov. 2 allows us to indulge in a bit of denial about the level of rage still coursing, sometimes violently, through our national bloodstream.
That wave of anger began with the parallel 2008 cataclysms of the economy’s collapse and Barack Obama’s ascension. The mood has not subsided since. But in the final stretch of 2010, the radical right’s anger is becoming less focused, more free-floating — more likely to be aimed at “government” in general, whatever the location or officials in charge. The anger is also more likely to claim minorities like gays, Latinos and Muslims as collateral damage. This is a significant and understandable shift, if hardly a salutary one. The mad-as-hell crowd in America, still not seeing any solid economic recovery on the horizon, will lash out at any convenient scapegoat.
The rage was easier to parse at the Tea Party’s birth, when, a month after Obama’s inauguration, its founding father, CNBC’s Rick Santelli, directed his rant at the ordinary American “losers” (as he called them) defaulting on their mortgages, and at those in Washington who proposed bailing the losers out. (Funny how the Bush-initiated bank bailouts went unmentioned.) Soon enough, the anger tilted toward Washington in general and the new president in particular. And it kept getting hotter. In June 2009, still just six months into the Obama presidency, the Fox News anchor Shepard Smith broke with his own network’s party line to lament a rise in “amped up” Americans “taking the extra step and getting the gun out.” He viewed the killing of a guard by a neo-Nazi Obama hater at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington as the apotheosis of the “more and more frightening” post-election e-mail surging into Fox.
The moment passed. Glenn Beck, also on Fox, spoke for most on the right when he dismissed the shooter as a “lone gunman nutjob.” Those who showed up with assault rifles at presidential health care rallies that summer were similarly minimized as either solitary oddballs or overzealous Second Amendment patriots. Few cared when The Boston Globe reported last fall that the Secret Service was overwhelmed by death threats against the president as well as a rise in racist hate groups and antigovernment fervor. It’s no better now. In a cover article last month, Barton Gellman wrote in Time that the magazine’s six-month investigation found that “the threat level against the president and other government targets” is at its highest since the antigovernment frenzy that preceded Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
While Obama-hatred remains a staple of the right, the ebbing of his political clout may have diminished him as a catchall for America’s roiling, inchoate rage. The president is no longer the sole personification of evil. For those who see government as Public Enemy No. 1, other targets will do, potentially some as remote from Washington as Oklahoma City.
Dana Milbank, a Washington Post columnist who has written a new book on Beck, has been tracking the case of Byron Williams, a bank robber on parole who injured two California Highway Patrol officers in a July shootout. Williams was out to start a revolution, his mother said, because “Congress was railroading through all these left-wing agenda items.” But instead of picking Congress as his target, Williams was gunning for progressives closer to home, at the Tides Foundation and A.C.L.U. in San Francisco. The Tides Foundation? It’s an obscure nonprofit whose agenda includes education and AIDS prevention. But it’s not obscure to Beck fans, who heard him single it out for vilification 29 times in the 18 months before Williams grabbed his gun.
As Milbank has written, “it’s not fair to blame Beck for violence committed by his fans,” but he would nonetheless “do well to stop encouraging extremists.” The same could be said of the many politicians who are emulating the Beck template — especially given the tinderbox state of the nation. Whether it’s Sarah Palin instructing her acolytes to “reload” or a congressman yelling “baby killer!” at a colleague on the House floor or Sharron Angle, the Tea Party senatorial candidate from Nevada, proposing that citizens consider “Second Amendment remedies” to “protect themselves against a tyrannical government,” we know where this can lead.
Even Paladino’s short, crumbling campaign can take credit for a share of the real-world damage in New York’s civil war over the “ground zero mosque” this summer. His television commercials calling the proposed Islamic center “a monument to those who attacked our country” helped push his primary campaign over the top, noticeably raising the city’s temperature. The fever peaked not quite three weeks after his ads first appeared, when a passenger slashed a New York cab driver in the face and throat simply because he was a Muslim.
Paladino’s fanning of Islamophobia was common among his national political brethren this summer. Equally common was the violence against Muslims and mosques that ensued, whether in Tennessee, Texas or California. Paladino’s antediluvian brand of homophobia is also making a comeback, from O’Donnell, who has called homosexuality an “identity disorder,” to Carly Fiorina, the Senate candidate in California whose campaign is allied with the National Organization for Marriage, notorious for its fear-mongering horror-movie ads portraying same-sex marriage as the apocalypse. Two weeks ago, Jim DeMint, the South Carolina senator who serves as the G.O.P.’s Tea Party kingmaker, reiterated his desire to ban openly gay schoolteachers. Michele Bachmann, Tea Party doyenne of the House, refused to condemn Paladino’s homophobia when asked about it last week on the “Today” show. As Stephen Colbert observed last week, after the G.O.P. repudiated a Congressional candidate in Ohio for wearing an SS uniform, the only line you can’t cross as a Republican is dressing as a Nazi. (Though, as Colbert added, “dressing the president as a Nazi” is O.K.)
Don’t expect the extremism and violence in our politics to subside magically after Election Day — no matter what the results. If Tea Party candidates triumph, they’ll be emboldened. If they lose, the anger and bitterness will grow. The only development that can change this equation is a decisive rescue from our prolonged economic crisis. Not for the first time in history — and not just American history — fear itself is at the root of a rabid outbreak of populist rage against government, minorities and conspiratorial “elites.”
So far neither party has offered a comprehensive antidote to our economic pain. The Democrats have fallen short, and the cynics leading the G.O.P. haven’t so much as tried. We shouldn’t be surprised that this year even a state as seemingly well-mannered as Connecticut has produced a senatorial candidate best known for marching into a wrestling ring to gratuitously kick a man in the groin.