Liberals have worried about Barack Obama's safety ever since he entered the race -- but only in the past week have I started to get nervous. We've all heard about the hostile rhetoric coming from crowds at Sarah Palin rallies. Now John McCain's impending loss has made Republicans increasingly vicious -- leading to rage, hate and occasional acts of violence. ACORN organizers report getting death threats and their offices being vandalized, while an Obama canvasser was physically assaulted this weekend by a deranged Republican. But the McCain campaign refuses to tone down its rhetoric. Palin told a crowd she was glad to be in a "pro-American" part of the country, while a McCain spokesperson called liberal Northern Virginia "not real Virginia" because it is less "southern." By making the race about who is a "real" American, Republicans only fuel the fire of dangerous people who intend to cause harm -- like the man in Ohio who hung an Obama effigy by a noose in his yard. As the McCain campaign sinks to its inevitable conclusion, will Republicans keep fanning the flames of hate -- or will they go out on a high note?
We all know that George Bush and Dick Cheney could bring out the worst in their supporters, but I can't remember it getting this nasty four years ago during the final two weeks. But in 2004, Republicans had a good shot at winning the presidency (the race was a dead heat all the way up to Election Day) -- so you never had this palpable aura of desperation we now see among McCain supporters. Obama is going to win this race, and they know it. The party's right-wing base is mortified at the prospect of a black President -- and hateful rhetoric by their leaders could incite them to action.
McCain supporters have shouted "terrorist" or "kill him!" at Sarah Palin rallies when Obama's name gets mentioned, but John McCain still won't recognize it. By far the worst moment in last week's final Presidential Debate was how McCain chose to respond to the issue. A clearly agitated McCain interrupted Obama to say how proud he was of "all the dedicated and patriotic men and women" who attend these rallies. Oblivious to the well-documented hate speech, McCain defended the old WWII veterans at the rallies -- as if Obama had impugned all of his rally attendees.
Already, the climate of hate we have seen at Sarah Palin rallies has produced violent consequences. An Obama canvasser in Wisconsin was physically assaulted this weekend by an angry voter -- who accused her of being part of ACORN. A member of ACORN in Ohio who appeared on TV received an e-mail that said she was "going to have her life ended," and the group has had their Boston and Seattle offices vandalized.
ACORN is one of the most effective grass-roots political organizations in the country, and the McCain campaign has accused them of perpetrating voter fraud on behalf of Obama in minority communities. ACORN has defended their efforts to register low-income voters, but the subtext behind turning ACORN into a bogeyman for the Right is the kind of people they have worked to enfranchise: African-Americans and Latinos. And for the right-wing base, the prospect of more black and brown voters electing the nation's first black President is what scares them the most.
Sarah Palin said at a rally in North Carolina last week how happy she was to be in a "pro-American" part of the country--and later explained that she meant small towns. McCain spokeswoman Nancy Pfotenhauer later told MSNBC that while Obama was doing well in northern Virginia (the D.C. suburbs), her candidate would do better in "real Virginia." When asked to clarify exactly what she meant, Pfotenhauer explained that the "real" Virginia is "more southern in nature."
So according to Republicans, "real" Americans are just southerners who live in small towns. While not as explicit as the racially coded language George Wallace used in the 1960's and 70's, it's the kind of rhetoric that spawns a confused racist into action.
Take Mike Lunsford of Ohio. Despite concerns from his (white) neighbors who feel uncomfortable about it, he put an effigy of Obama in his front lawn--and tied it to a noose. He unapologetically admits to being a racist, admits that his effigy is racist, says that America is a "white, Christian nation" and fears having a black man elected President.
Normally, Lunsford would just be a crank with racist views who would not be taken seriously. He might even keep his prejudices private at the ballot box. But with the Republican base freaking out about losing this election -- and rhetoric from their leaders about who is "American" -- now he has validation. And hanging an effigy in his lawn is the line that he crossed from latent racist views to overt racist action.
Paul Hogarth is the Managing Editor of Beyond Chron, San Francisco's Alternative Online Daily, where this piece was first published.