As I observe the crowd reactions to Sarah Palin's repugnant hate speech, sanctioned by the "honorable" John McCain, I am reminded of three figures in American twentieth-century history whom we forget at our peril, Father Charles Coughlin, Huey Long and Joe McCarthy. In the 1930s, when Americans were struggling under the scourge of the Great Depression, Long, a governor and senator from Louisiana, and Coughlin, a Catholic priest from Michigan, separately attracted a national following by preying on the uncertainty, fears, and anxiety of Americans. At the beginning of the Cold War, when the specter of an atomic bomb hovered above Americans like a deadly storm cloud, Joe McCarthy, like Robespierre, turned innocent Americans on one another, destroyed lives and created an atmosphere of terror across the nation. During times of extreme insecurity--like the Great Depression and today's economic collapse--or the anxiety of the late 1940s and early 50s that was engendered by the atomic age, people can become easy prey to folksy characters like Palin, Coughlin, Long and McCarthy who preach a fiery populist rhetoric as they assign blame to those they designate as "other"-- intellectuals, Blacks, Jews, Catholics, Muslims, immigrants, gays, the media anyone they decide to point a finger at--while they further their own ambitious agenda.
Huey Long, the colorful and crafty governor (1928-32) and senator (1932-35) of Louisiana built his "base" with his "Share Our Wealth" program, promising to redistribute wealth while employing ruthless, brutal tactics in order to acquire and retain power. Long, like Sarah Palin, presented himself as one of the people, someone you would like to have a beer with and who was looking out for regular folks. Just as Palin prides herself in having taken on the oil companies in Alaska for the good of the people, Long first came to prominence in Louisiana politics by taking on Standard Oil, which made him a local folk hero. Granted, Long accomplished worthy goals, building roads--and yes, bridges--across the state, making textbooks available for schools, improving public education, and building public hospitals; but like Mussolini who made the trains run on time in Italy, Long was also a demagogue. He won the gubernatorial election by taking advantage of class resentment in rural Louisiana--in other words by dividing people. Then, once he was elected governor, he consolidated power and, like Palin, terminated employees and replaced them with patronage appointments. Every state employee was required to pay a portion of his or her salary to Long for his war chest, known as the deduct box. After an attempt to impeach him, Long tightened his grip on power and ruled by intimidation destroying those who either stood in his way or simply challenged him. "I used to get things done by saying please," he said, "Now I dynamite them out of my path."
By 1935, Huey Long had nearly complete control of the state government. After ruling Louisiana as governor and even as senator (he handpicked and controlled the governor who replaced him), Long set his eyes on the White House. He had supported FDR in 1932, but turned on the President and planned to challenge him for the nomination in 1936. With this goal in mind, he toured the United States in the spring of 1932, attracting large crowds with his bombastic rhetoric, his "aw shucks" manner, and his theme, borrowed from William Jennings Bryan, "Every man a king, but no one wears a crown." Huey Long was a performer politician--he was not above playing the buffoon on stage, making himself seem humble, as he provoked the crowds, appealing to their frustrations and setting himself up as their champion. Violence, even stirring up violence, has consequences, though, and Long's violent tactics came back to bite him. In September 1935, he was murdered--shot--in the state capitol building in Baton Rouge, by a man named Carl Weiss who was in turned killed on the spot.
In his pursuit of the Presidency, Long planned to work with Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest from Royal Oak, Michigan. Coughlin, who was originally from Canada, came to Detroit as a priest in 1923. A Depression-era version of Rush Limbaugh, Coughlin was a radio personality who began to broadcast on WJR in 1926, came to national attention, and used the air waves to spread a message of intolerance. When CBS dropped Coughlin in 1931, he raised money for his own national network and attracted millions of listeners. Like Huey Long, Coughlin supported FDR in 1932, but then repudiated him. While Long believed Roosevelt was too close to Wall Street, Coughlin thought FDR's New Deal was akin to socialism and communism. Long thought FDR was not far enough to the left, Coughlin thought he wasn't far enough to the right, but with Roosevelt as a common enemy, the two demagogues became strange bedfellows. After Roosevelt's re-election in 1936, Coughlin feverishly embraced fascism and its leaders, Hitler and Mussolini, zealously spewing his venomous anti-Semitism over the airwaves. In 1938, he gave a Nazi salute at a rally in the Bronx and wrote an article that echoed a speech given by Goebbels in 1935. After Kristallnacht, when German Jews were attacked, murdered, and their property destroyed violently, Coughlin gave a speech so vile and incendiary that some radio stations refused to broadcast him again without pre-approving his scripts. New York stations cancelled his program and he was forced to broadcast from Newark part time. A nativist and isolationist, Coughlin was perceived as being sympathetic to the enemy in the wake of Pearl Harbor and the Declaration of War, which led to his broadcasting demise. In 1942, a new bishop of Detroit assigned him exclusively to the duties of a parish priest, which he performed until his retirement in 1966. He died in 1979.
The close memory of the Second World War and anxiety over the bomb in the late 1940s and early 50s brought with them Joe McCarthy's reign of terror. As it was in the Thirties, during this period of uncertainty and fear, some not all, but some Americans fell prey to the demagoguery of others and capitulated to strong-arm tactics of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Using the same "guilt by association" tactics that Sarah Palin, with McCain's tacit approval, is now executing, McCarthy and his vile committee turned Americans against one another by boldly fanning the flames of fear and hatred. The McCain-Palin strategy now being spread by Sarah Palin has its roots in McCarthy's tactics. They begin with fear, they focus on the differences between Americans rather than the things we share as Americans, they emphasize difference and connect it to fear, a potent cocktail; and then, they repeat accusations again and again and again until they themselves believe the lies they are telling--and once they believe their own lies, they become even more ferocious in their self-righteousness. We cannot measure, even today, how many innocent lives were destroyed by HUAC's baseless accusations--both those who were targeted and those who out of weakness betrayed their friends were destroyed. How did we, as a people, allow that to happen? As I listen to Sarah Palin eliciting threats and slurs from crowds that come to hear her, and as I watch Republican surrogates spin and deny that she is, in fact, indulging in hate speech, I wonder--where is the Edward R. Murrow of our day? Who in the media has the courage to speak out and rebuke Sarah Palin's hate speech? Who among us has the courage to stand up? Well, I'm standing up. Will you join me?
When I studied the Holocaust in school and later read about it on my own, particularly the novels of Elie Wiesel, which I first read when I was in my twenties, I wondered, "How did the German people let this happen?" Why didn't they stop Hitler and his murderous thugs at the beginning? Why did they allow his hate to fester and spread across Europe? Sadly, in the weeks following the 2000 Presidential election, I began to see, to experience firsthand, how such things can happen. Everyone in this country and indeed, across the globe, witnessed the theft of a Presidential election in 2000. We all sat, astonished--stunned--as network after network reversed the projection for Florida from Gore to undecided and then finally, weeks later, to Bush. We all knew that the governor of Florida was George W. Bush's younger brother; we all knew the Supreme Court was stacked with justices appointed by the Reagan-Bush and Bush-Quayle administrations; and we all knew something terrible was happening to our democracy, but even then, we couldn't have imagined the diminished position we now find our nation in, as a result of that election. We all knew the truth, and like the German people in the 1930s, we felt powerless. No one stood up. With the exception of a press conference carried on C-SPAN where evidence was presented of voter intimidation, of polling places being removed without notice, of African American voters being accused of being felons--all in Florida--the national media did not investigate or report what had happened in the Sunshine state on Election Day. It took a film, this year, to tell us the truth.
The conventional wisdom in, January 2001, was that without a mandate from the people, Bush-Cheney would be restrained. Not so. Having easily accomplished the brazen theft of a Presidential election, the neo-cons were emboldened. On September 11, 2001, they were presented with the opportunity to complete what had begun in November--the unquestioned control of the American people. Since then, we've had a government that gave us the Patriot Act, which has eroded the Fourth and Fifth Amendments; we've had a President who acts as if we have a state religion rather than the separation of church and state; we condone and enforce torture; we've suspended the right of habeas corpus as it suits us; we've become voyeurs listening in on the private conversations of fellow Americans; we act as if Muslim is a dirty word, defaming millions of people because of the actions of a few; we've robbed ourselves to pay for an illegitimate war that has not made us safer but has instead cost thousands of lives and earned us the scorn of nations. We permitted a Presidential candidate, a decorated veteran of the Viet Nam War, to be scurrilously swift boated. We, the citizens of the United States of America, have somehow allowed all of this.
Is it any wonder that John McCain and Sarah Palin feel free to run a negative campaign? Dividing Americans, deftly penetrating with wedge issues--race, abortion, religion--followed by heavy applications of fear to keep us divided has become the modus operandi of the contemporary Republican Party.
We are not like Germany of the 1930s and we never were, which is why Father Coughlin and Huey Long (even if he had lived) would not have succeeded finally, and why someone, not just Murrow, finally stood up to McCarthy. We are the United States of America. We are Americans, we have a choice. Sarah Palin is consciously and deliberately trying to turn Americans against one another. With no sense of decency or responsibility to the citizens of this country, she is--by her hate speech and her refusal to silence the threats she has provoked--endangering each of us. In their contempt for the American people and their belief that we are not perceptive enough to see what they are doing, she and John McCain believe they can turn the argument around on anyone who calls them on their hate speech, but it isn't working because this year, we don't feel powerless. This year, we are making our voices heard, this year we are pushing back, this year, the American people, the vast majority of whom are fair, open-minded, and just will prevail. Barack Obama has restored our confidence in the best of ourselves and we have responded. Each of us will have a chance to silence Sarah Palin's hate speech. We can do it by making sure that voters are protected, that everyone knows where their polling place is located, by making sure that all first time voters have their registration cards by November 4 or know what to do if they haven't received them, that first time voters know they need to bring the proper ID, that all registered voters have the information they need, and that no one is intimidated from voting on Election Day. The best way we can prevail over hate speech and fear-mongering that seeks to divide us is to vote for the candidate who brings us together to solve the problems we face. That candidate is Barack Obama.