Threatening as they are, the fires burning around Los Angeles are not the most dangerous flames being fanned by hot hair in America these days.
"There is a coup going on," Glenn Beck lied to his radio followers on Monday. "There is a stealing of America, and the way it . . . has been done [is] through the -- the guise of an election."
Mr. Beck's incendiary and absurd charge is but one among a growing cacophony of extremely dangerous, radical nonsense being regurgitated by right-wing commentators, with the active or passive complicity of leading Republicans. They are playing with fire, and if they do not cease, someone -- or, quite possibly, the entire nation -- is going to get burned.
It is time for every voice of decency in America to be raised in unison to say firmly and unequivocally: "STOP!"
The venom being spewed against President Obama by Republicans and the screaming heads of Faux News and talk radio -- "Communist!" "Nazi!" "Death Panels!" "He's a secret Muslim!" "He's not an American citizen!" "He wants to kill Grandma!" "Take OUR country back!" -- goes far beyond the bounds of political debate. So does the carrying of firearms to appearances by the President.
Do these wild-eyed people on the right really want to reap what they are sowing?
What they are sowing is unmistakable. If you lead people to think that a black Communist-Nazi-Muslim-racist President who is not an American citizen and wants to euthanize old people has stolen America by taking power through a coup, you cannot fail to know what you are saying to your gullible listeners.
Nor can you fail to know what it is going to lead some of them to think it is their patriotic duty to do.
We've Been Down This Road Before
The nation has been down this road before. We were reminded of that sad truth by the recent death of Sen. Edward Kennedy and the recountings of his brothers' assassinations that it brought forth. Public discourse was polluted by the hate-filled rhetoric of extremists in the 1960s, and many leading politicians of the era endorsed that extremism. Even after the first Kennedy assassination, 1964 Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater famously spoke out in defense of extremism.
"We're heading into nut country today," President John F. Kennedy said to his wife on the morning of November 22, 1963, as he showed her an ad, bordered in the black of a funeral announcement, that the John Birch Society had placed in the Dallas Morning News, indicating that the Kennedys were pro-communist. A few weeks before, right-wing retired General Edwin A. Walker of Dallas had proclaimed, "Kennedy is a liability to the Free World."
Three years earlier, the first violent, hate-filled political mob of the Sixties had appeared in Dallas. It was not composed of scruffy young left-wing anti-Establishment "reds"; it was made up of "mature," neatly dressed "conservative" women of the Texas Establishment who wore red-white-and-blue. Democratic vice presidential nominee Lyndon Johnson and his wife were making a stop in Dallas near the end of the 1960 campaign. Holding a sign reading "LBJ SOLD OUT TO YANKEE SOCIALISTS," Republican Congressman Bruce Alger of Dallas led a "mink coat mob" of ladies of the right, their faces filled with primal rage, as they encircled their own state's Senator and his wife, jeering and cursing and spitting in Lady Bird's face.
Cheering an Assassination
Nor should it be forgotten that a sizable number of people, young as well -- or as unwell -- as old, greeted the assassination of President Kennedy as a cause for celebration. In numerous white schools in Mississippi, for example, children are said to have cheered at the news. In some instances, their teachers led the cheering. I arrived in Mississippi ten years after the assassination, and in my first years of teaching at the college level here many of my students related to me such incidents in their classrooms on November 22, 1963.
Why would Americans cheer the assassination of their president? Because many of them had been told lies about him very similar to those the merchants of hate are spreading about President Obama.
The parallels between the hate speech of the early 1960s and today are numerous and disturbing. President Kennedy was attacked for his religion (in his case at least he actually was a Catholic, if not a very serious one) and his support (belated though it was) of African Americans. He was charged with being a Communist.
But there are also important differences.
In the wake of the economic collapse last year, financial interests have been particularly keen on diverting the public's anger away from them. Traditionally, such diversions have been accomplished by redirecting the rage of lower- and middle-class whites against blacks (and/or immigrants) or the cultural-intellectual elite.
What is different now is that for the first time in our history the two favored targets that conservatives have used in the past to misdirect the anger of the middle class away from the economic elite -- the intellectual/cultural elite and racial minorities -- have been combined in one person: a black, Harvard-educated President.
Thus the quantity of the fuel for the fire with which the reckless rightists are playing is doubled.
Large swaths of America have become in recent months the sort of "nut country" that President Kennedy accurately said Dallas was on that tragic Friday nearly 46 years ago. We know exactly who the people (ir)responsible for planting the nut trees from which the nuts hang are.
Where Do Republicans Stand on Playing with Matches?
Are there no responsible voices among leading Republicans who will come out and say in unambiguous terms that none of what these rightwing shouting heads are saying is true and condemn them for their totally irresponsible, unpatriotic, and incendiary statements?
The way to stop the spread of a dangerous conflagration is to remove the highly combustible materials from the fire's path. The only firefighters in a position to do that with respect to the rightwing arsonists are prominent Republicans. They have already failed in the role of first responders. Will they respond now?
Extremism in defense of liberty (a liberty that is in fact not under threat) is a vice. Responsible, patriotic members of Mr. Goldwater's party need to say so, loudly and clearly, before it is too late.
My plea to Republicans, Fox News, and those who control rightwing talk radio is simple: Take the matches out of the hands of these mental children.
Historian Robert S. McElvaine is Elizabeth Chisholm Professor of Arts & Letters at Millsaps College & author of The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941 (Random House) and Down and Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the "Forgotten Man". (North Carolina). His latest book is Grand Theft Jesus: The Hijacking of Religion in America (Crown).