Several weeks in rural Ireland may have softened the emotional carapace required for any extended immersion in American politics these days, but it's hard not to be taken aback by the televised images of people opposed to healthcare reform carrying guns to rallies at which President Obama is speaking.
At least a dozen people openly displaying everything from an AR-15 assault rifle to 9-millimeter Beretta sidearms were in the crowd outside the hall where Obama spoke in Arizona on Monday. The state is one of those that have a so-called open-carry law, which allows people into public places with loaded weapons. Their appearance at recent rallies is supposed to signal their implacable opposition to the "tyranny" of healthcare reform.
In Hagerstown, Md., last week, a man appeared at a town hall meeting hosted by Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) with a sign that read "Death to Obama" and "Death to Michelle and her two stupid kids."
Something has shifted since Obama's election. Along with the now mindlessly normative red state/blue state polarization and autonomic politicization of even the most trivial incident, there's a kind of hysteria that seems to be creeping in from the fringes -- a new tenor to our disagreements and a startling attenuation of reason.
For people in my end of journalism, barely two hours now pass without the arrival of one or more e-mails -- or e-mailed "investigative" articles -- from people who continue to insist that Obama is not a native-born American citizen. Despite the fact that the governor and chief medical officer of his home state, Hawaii, have confirmed as recently as late last month that public records confirm the president was born there, the so-called birthers continue to assert that he's actually a Kenyan, or an Indonesian or even a Canadian.
Some of these characters pirouette off that delusion into charges that Obama secretly is a Muslim, that his educational record is fabricated (tell that one to his classmates) or that he covertly belongs to an underground Marxist party that lurks somewhere in south Chicago and has long been planning a socialist coup. One awaits the inevitable revelation that his "real parents" were among the space aliens everyone knows the government keeps hidden in Area 51.
It would be convenient to dismiss all this as the undercurrent of paranoid style that is a constant in American politics, but hysterical fantasies of Obama's purported illegitimacy and secret malevolence continue to bleed into the mainstream media as well. Lou Dobbs, CNN's house demagogue, has flirted with the birther fringe, even though his colleagues' reporting has utterly discredited the allegations. Meanwhile, over on Fox News, Glenn Beck, this season's Howard Beale wannabe, has denounced Obama as "a racist" who is acting out of "a deep-seated hatred of white people or the white culture."
Somehow all of this anxious animosity has become the background noise crowding out nearly all substantive and realistic discussion of the critical issues surrounding healthcare reform. This is one of the most complex and consequential initiatives of our time, over which even the most serious-minded people of goodwill are bound to have real differences. The stakes are immense, and the discussion, insofar as the reality of partisan politics permits, ought to reflect that.
Instead, we have Rush Limbaugh darkly informing his listeners that Obama's real intention is to impose "government control of life and death." (Limbaugh, of course, never had to worry about whether his prescription drug plan covered Vicodin or OxyContin, or whether his health insurer would pay for rehab.)
A commentator on one of the major conservative political websites told his readers Tuesday that the plan the president and congressional Democrats are proposing will require mandatory nutritional counseling for obese Americans. According to this person, "Obama-care" would send those who disregard the advice to "re-education" camps.
You can't make this stuff up -- but lots of people are, and they're being encouraged to do so by those in the Republican Party who think that defeat of the president's healthcare reform initiative at any cost is the GOP's only hope of substantial recovery in the midterms.
They might be careful what they wish for, because if our national political conversation becomes simply a continuation of talk radio by other means, dominated by people who bring guns to political rallies, who believe that the president of the United States is an alien who wants to euthanize the elderly and imprison the overweight, it won't matter which party is in power. The country will be as ungovernable as it is deluded.