Hunting Licenses

11/09/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Over the past week, we have seen a coarsening of political discourse in this country that hasn't been seen in forty years. In a last, desperate attempt to regain momentum, Senator John McCain and Governor Sarah Palin have started referring to Senator Barack Obama in terms that would make even George W. Bush blush.

But that doesn't mean that what they're saying is unprecedented. In fact, behind their remarks is a deep, dark, strain in American politics, one that until recently, most Americans thought had been left behind for good.

John McCain, meet your new friends.

Lester Maddox

Governor George Wallace of Alabama

It's not just that the McCain campaign is using words like "terrorist." It's that they're encouraging their followers to go even further -- hence the upsurge in threats coming from the audience, like the guy in Florida who shouted "kill him" and the guy in New Mexico who shouted "traitor."

In civil rights terms, this is known as incitement, and it differs little from the tactics of unreconstructed American racist-terrorists like George Wallace, Lester Maddox, and Eugene and Herman Talmadge.

At the moment, I'm in the middle of reading the Library of America's extraordinary two-volume collection of reporting on the civil rights movement. The following passage, from a 1946 report on a lynching in Georgia, struck me as particularly relevant to the events of the past few days:

When. . .[Eugene] Talmadge was delcared the Democratic nominee, the season on "n*****s" was automatically opened and every pinheaded Georgia cracker and bigoted Ku Kluxer figured he had a hunting license.

That's what John McCain and Sarah Palin are doing right now: issuing hunting licenses. They have decided that their only path to victory involves appealing to the full-blown bats**t-crazy, automatic weapon-toting, race-hating survivalist wing of the Republican Party

If an average citizen got up and called George Bush a terrorist and another shouted "kill him," they'd have the Secret Service on them so fast they wouldn't know what hit them. But when a candidate for Vice President and one of her adoring minions say the same thing about the opposition, all that happens is blanket coverage by the mainstream media.

McCain and Palin are so caught up in anger and bitterness that they can't see that this is more than another tactic. Don't they realize that they've crossed the line? Do they not care that they've opened the door to the unthinkable?

Yesterday, my wife asked me the question that many of us have tried not to think about since this campaign began: what if these remarks lead to an attack against Obama?

God help us if it does.