The telltale sign of desperation in politics is when people start making wild threats and accusations. From Joe McCarthy to Richard Nixon, the Republican Party has a long record in this realm, regularly trying to deflect attention from its troubles by lashing out with menacing rhetoric and intimidation tactics. Today’s Republican Party is no different.
Case in point is scandal-plagued House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who shows more and more of his frightening colors every day. In a span of two weeks last month, he showed just how open the Republican Party is to the most extreme and thuggish tactics.
Take his antics in the tragic Terri Schiavo case. After injecting himself into what should have been a private family matter, DeLay saw polls that showed an overwhelming majority of Americans opposed what he was doing. Instead of backing down, he dug in. Instead of acknowledging the public’s sentiment, he proclaimed there was a national “syndicate” conspiring “to destroy everything we believe in.” Paranoia, anyone?
A panel of federal judges in Atlanta rejected DeLay’s efforts to overturn the years of litigation surrounding the Schiavo affair. Judge Stanley F. Birch went out of his way to chastise DeLay’s heavy-handed tactics. “When the fervor of political passions moves the executive and legislative branches to act in ways inimical to basic constitutional principles, it is the duty of the judiciary to intervene,” wrote Judge Birch, a Bush I appointee known for his conservatism. “If sacrifices to the independence of the judiciary are permitted today, precedent is established for the constitutional transgressions of tomorrow.”
Of course, that didn’t make DeLay back down. He immediately threatened to have the judges in the matter impeached. Other Republicans joined in, with Rep. Steve King (R‑Iowa) saying Congress could abolish the court that made the ruling, cut its budget and “prohibit the Justice Department from enforcing the orders of the court.”
When Schiavo died, the real bullying began. DeLay issued a statement: “The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior.” The threat was perfectly timed to coincide with death threats against the Florida judge, George Greer, who ruled in the case, and it no doubt gave aid and comfort to those who are plotting physical violence. And make no mistake about it — they are out there. FBI officials have already arrested a North Carolina man for allegedly placing a $250,000 bounty on the head of Michael Schiavo and another $50,000 on the judge’s — threats taken seriously after the murder of another federal judge’s family in Chicago a few weeks ago.
This was all happening at the same time DeLay was becoming more embroiled in a spate of ethics and corruption charges surrounding the influence of corporate money on Texas’ recent congressional redistricting. Unwilling to admit any wrongdoing in the case, and not satisfied with threatening only judges, DeLay has responded by intimidating members of his own party who are raising questions. Specifically, he has deployed fellow conservative leaders to say that defending DeLay is a litmus test for any Republican lawmaker seeking support. According to the Washington Times, “Republicans are being told support for Mr. DeLay is mandatory if they want future support from conservatives.”
This might not be so frightening if it was limited to one man. But it is not. In recent years, the conservative movement has shown a willingness to use this kind of posture to fire up the conservative base and pursue its agenda. Recall former Sen. Jesse Helms (R‑N.C.) essentially threatening the president of the United States in 1994 when he said, “Mr. Clinton better watch out if he comes down here. He’d better have a bodyguard.”
The Associated Press soon reported on just how commonplace that kind of rhetoric had become. “A senator says the president had better not visit his state without a bodyguard,” the news service wrote. “An anti-abortion leader describes shooting abortion doctors as ‘justifiable homicide.’ A radio talk-show host advises listeners to shoot at the head if attacked by federal agents wearing bulletproof vests.” It’s all part of the conservative movement’s belief that openly bullying its political opposition is acceptable.
The good news is that Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon both were forced from office in shame — a well-deserved punishment for this kind of un-American behavior. The bad news is that the worst came just before they left office, and thus, the worst is probably yet to come from today’s Republicans. The White House is already beginning to forcibly remove suspected Democrats from the President’s public events. And a new book titled The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy menacingly lists names of key progressives on its book jacket, as if they are on some enemies list requiring retribution.
When it will end, no one knows. But you can rest assured it will. History proves no amount of intimidation can turn democratic America into the quasi-fascist state that conservatives desire.