08/21/2013 05:42 pm ET Updated Oct 21, 2013

Why the Rodeo Clown Incident Matters

So a rodeo clown in Missouri puts on an Obama mask with a broomstick for a tail and then dashes around ducking the charge of an enraged bull while the announcer bellows out "Git 'im, Git 'mm. So what? Can't liberals take a joke?

Well that's the view of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and other self-appointed spokespeople for American Exceptionalism. No different than Jay Leno getting a quick laugh by skewering the president in his opening monologue -- heck, Obama even went on Jay's show to trade laughs with him. Doesn't anybody have a sense of humor anymore? Why are the Democrats so afraid of any dissenting views about the administration. Do they want to silence all opposition?

Why is this incident any worse than the times George W. Bush was hung in effigy as a way of expressing dissent over the Iraq War? We didn't see a lot of concern about those incidents in the liberal media, did we?

There Limbaugh and Hannity have a point. Many have raised the issue of blatant racism in the clowns' portrayal of Obama as a monkey (which of course Rush and Sean have denied). But the essence of what the clown and his announcer compatriot did was simulate the literal destruction of Obama; a stomping by a bull (a lynch mob not being available to give chase): in effect, an assassination -- same as the effigies of Bush. Both should be anathema in American political discourse. Surely free speech does not mean publicly rallying support for assassination of the president, whatever party or policy or race he represents. Pantomimes of killing our leaders are surely not the essence of American exceptionalism.

The rodeo clown matters precisely because his actions give us the opportunity to at least hit the pause button to stop and think about the low level to which our political discourse has sunk that either side of the party spectrum would actually characterize assassination tableaus as harmless jokes (or, worse, mere political speech).

Most of the commentators expressing such views were not even borne when President Kennedy was assassinated, so they can perhaps be forgiven for not intuitively understanding what the assassination of a president of either party does to a nation's collective psyche -- or how a national psychology that countenances a politics of hate can feed a mood in which would-be assassins can feel like heroes.

Recall the president before Obama who was most routinely characterized as a traitorous monkey -- Abraham Lincoln -- look what happened to him. Of course, no one among the clowns, the commentators and the entertainers (or the Limbaughs and the Hannity, who cover at least two out of three of those bases) is literally calling for President Obama's assassination in public: that would be a federal crime.

But when you paint the president as an un-American, possibly Muslim or questionable citizenship (let alone eligibility for president as Hannity and the lies of Donald Trump do), you're laying down a thesis that could call for extreme acts of "patriotism."

A Senate candidate in Nevada went even farther, suggesting the need to "exercise our Second Amendment rights" if all else failed to change the administration. Thankfully she lost, since calling for the president's assassination in a Senate would actually enjoy Constitutional protection under the privileges and immunities clause so long as the remarks were officially entered in the Congressional record.

Week after week, Rush Limbaugh repeatedly tells his 20 million claimed national radio audience, three hours a day, that Obama is dedicated to destroying America -- a Stalin, a Hitler, a Maoist. If what Rush says and presumably believes is true, then assassination would look to some deranged minds as an act of patriotism, would it not?

Rush is smart enough to know that he is playing with fire. Rush likes playing with fire, however, like a lot of circus performers, or little boy bullies. Rush very rarely has the "guts" his announcer attributes to him to allow any seriously opposing views on his program -- the furthest he has gone recently was to permit Marco Rubio a chance to explain his case for immigration reform, which Limbaugh promptly trashed. But that's the arena Rush says he inhabits, the combat of ideas. All's fair there. But he can hardly claim, in respect to his relentlessly savage personal attacks on Obama's character, to be playing the ball and not the man. He is playing the man, and he is playing him as a traitor: and particularly a traitor who enjoys the protection of his own government -- i.e., Hitler, Stalin, Mao.

If he just wants to call Obama Benedict Arnold, fine. An American traitor. He could be prosecuted. If the sober-sided ultra-conservative columnist George Will wants to claim Obama as a worse Constitutional usurper than Nixon, fine -- he could be impeached under the law, as Nixon was. But Limbaugh characterizes Obama as precisely as somebody who has put himself above the law, and in the company of three foreign country leaders of whom it is generally believed that an assassin would have done billions of people a monumental favor.

Post-Inaugural periods (especially second terms) are a dangerous time for presidents -- one side has lost bitterly, another is distracted by triumph; mistakes are made; staffs are in transition -- and the world doesn't wait for serenity to emerge before erupting here or there. Political opinions become more volatile as old wounds are licked and new factions emerge to challenge for leadership.

In this environment, we and both political parties really would benefit from a debate of ideas that Limbaugh and Hannity and their confreres claim to favor and foster. So enough with the reckless and useless playing around with assassination metaphors: send out the clowns.