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A Punk's Move by Rick Santorum

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Rick Santorum is a punk. There, I said it. Nothing more and nothing less. Someone in the mainstream media should have declared it long ago, but, certainly, in the aftermath of Santorum's staged verbal lashing of New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny last weekend, it's time to call Santorum for what he has become: a political poseur and a punk.

In Saturday's widely reported tête-à-tête in Wisconsin, Santorum responded to Zeleny's respectfully issued question by referring to it as "bullshit" and accusing Zeleny of "lying." Zeleny had the apparent gall to quote Santorum verbatim -- albeit perfunctorily -- but certainly with enough accuracy to warrant an explanatory response from a candidate running for the nation's highest office.

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Instead, an agitated, finger-pointing Santorum escalated the emotional tension of the interaction by at least twenty-fold. He got all chest-puffy with Zeleny -- while hiding behind the protection of Secret Service agents and the imaginary divide of the rope line -- and not a single member of the media present called Santorum on his punkish behavior. Not one reporter along the rope followed up with even the slightest challenge. Indeed, one columnist asserted that Santorum was simply "doing his job."

Where I come from, Santorum's aggressive remarks are fighting words. Had that happened in a working class bar or on the docks or in the street, someone would have wound up on their ass. And since my father was raised in the steel towns and coal mining communities of Western Pennsylvania that Santorum claims as his own, I know for a fact those would have been fighting words there as well.

What Santorum executed was a cheap publicity stunt -- aimed directly at the right-wing base of the Republican Party -- in a feeble effort to fire-up his flailing campaign and, most specifically, to halt his downward trending in Wisconsin. It was a desperate move by a minor league demagogue trying to mine the dark and fecal vein of American populism. His has become a campaign now preying on the ever-deepening schism in the American body politic, with a political calculus factored by the lowest common denominator.

Come Sarah Palin to the defense of Santorum and to praise him. Of course. She has become as predictable as a Saturday morning cartoon character. In an appearance with her resident sycophant at Fox News, Greta Van Susteren, Palin -- wearing a necklace made out of poker chips -- gave the game away. She objectified Zeleny as a "liberal-leftist, in-the-tank for Obama press character" and praised Santorum's response:

It was good and it was strong and it was about time because he's saying enough is enough of the liberal media twisting a conservative's words, putting words in his mouth, taking things out of context and even just making things up. And when I heard Rick Santorum's response, I was like 'Well, welcome to my world, Rick, and good on ya. Don't retreat.'

This is what conservatism has come down to in the second decade of the 21st Century. It's not a movement of ideas or even of values, it's an oppositional posturing fueled by personal grievance, frustration and anger. It's about targeting (and I use that word advisedly) institutions and individuals branded as "liberal" or "leftist," not about developing alternative policy positions or responsible political strategies.

In a follow-up interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, a smirking Santorum doubled down on his churlish response. "Any good conservative who hasn't had a flare-up with The New York Times," Santorum declared, "isn't worth their salt."

Welcome to our world, Sarah.

Modern-day conservatism has become, in sum, little more than a quasi-political cult, like the Know Nothing movement of the 1850s, with code words and a secret language that separates itself from the American mainstream. It is a modern-day demagoguery every bit as venal and polarizing as that of Joe McCarthy's or Huey Long's.

It is, indeed, a political discourse rooted in the very antithesis of what the Republican Party prophet Abraham Lincoln described as the "better angels of our nature."

Last week at an outdoor shooting range in Louisiana, while Santorum was unloading a Colt .45 with fourteen rounds of ammunition, one of his supporters yelled out "pretend it's Obama!" Santorum professed not to hear the utterance and subsequently condemned the remarks -- but he did not condemn the collective emotional mindset from which they sprang.

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At every turn in this campaign, Santorum has been spewing venom. His egregious comments about Satan setting his sights on America, his comparing gay sex to incest, his wanting to "throw up" after watching footage of John F. Kennedy's speech to Baptist ministers, and his calling Obama a "snob" for promoting college education reveal someone whose political views are riddled with poison. That's why he is likely to lose tomorrow in Wisconsin, why he's starting to tank in his home state of Pennsylvania, and why his quest for the presidency will soon be over. Stick a fork in it.

A desperate Santorum has been attempting to prop up his campaign by resorting to escalated, confrontational rhetoric that generates media coverage and fires up his base. That's why it's time for us to start calling his punkish, bullying behavior for what it really is. In the face of his divisive extremism, the standard journalistic protocols should no longer apply. It's time for all of us to say "enough is enough."

At a moment in history when this nation needs to find common ground and unifying solutions to the multitude of challenges before us, Santorum and the Republican right are leading this country into a fractured and turbulent political horizon. Anger begets anger. Hatred begets more hatred. If you cannot feel the tension in the air, then you haven't been out on the hustings lately. A punk is a punk is a punk.

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Award-winning writer and filmmaker Geoffrey Dunn's best-selling The Lies of Sarah Palin: The Untold Story Behind Her Relentless Quest for Power was published by Macmllan/St. Martin's in May of 2011.