I had an unusual thought not long ago while I watched a video clip of a screaming man at a town hall accusing John Dingell of effectively planning the murder of his disabled son. As I watched, the idea struck me that it was legitimately impossible to determine if the man was crazy merely in the political sense-- as in, hoo boy, Rudy Giuliani's foreign policy ideas sure are crazy--or crazy in the more literal sense of a person whose mental health issues render him frequently unable to function. It was a total jump ball which kind of crazy he was. The two senses of the word had finally merged.
Genuinely curious, I watched the man--Mike Sola of Milan, Michigan--give a television interview. Sola accused Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer of having sent thugs to his home in the middle of the night and threatened to personally use "lethal force" on the next wee-hour thug home invasion. How awful, I thought. Fox News is exploiting a mentally ill man.
But then I learned that Sola came to his deranged fear by traditional, ideological venues. He had read an op-ed in the New York Post by Betsy McCaughey, the right-wing fabulist, who falsely claimed that the House health care bill would require patients to attend end-of-life counseling. Reports of this had spread throughout the conservative media, mutated into even wilder fears of government euthanizing the old and sick, and presumably lodged themselves into Sola's apparently sane (by traditional medical standards) head.
What we are witnessing is the convergence of the mainstream Republican culture with the right-wing political subculture. Last year, the two remained clearly distinct. During the presidential election last fall, angry people began showing up at John McCain's rallies, screaming out various lunatic conspiracy theories. McCain reacted to these supporters with discomfort or puzzlement. Here he was accusing Obama of massive tax hikes or palling around with Bill Ayers, and attendees at his rallies were shouting about Obama being an Arab or plotting to destroy the country. McCain would squint his face as if to wonder, "What are these people talking about?"
Now, mainstream Republican leaders are reading from the same hymnal. You don't need to rely on poorly written, all-capital-letter e-mails for your lunatic conspiracy theories. You can get them straight from the GOP and its message organs.
What distinguishes the right-wing subculture is not that it relies on lies. The mainstream political culture does, too. But mainstream lies--John McCain wants to give special tax breaks to oil companies; Obama voted for kindergarten sex education--operate within the context of plausible assumptions about how government works. The lies of the right-wing subculture, on the other hand, incorporate fantastical beliefs.
Take, for instance, the now-famous hypothesis, dating back to the primaries, that Obama was actually born in Kenya and is thus ineligible for the presidency. To believe this, you need not only imagine that Obama covered up a disqualifying secret about his past (which is plausible) but that the state of Hawaii covered it up, and that Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and the entire Republican establishment chose to overlook publicly available information that would have guaranteed victory. Today's Republicans typically react to this theory by saying something like, "I believe Barack Obama is a citizen," as though they were extending him the benefit of the doubt in the absence of proof either way.
The "death panel" fantasy has come more recently and entails an even greater number of lunatic premises. It begins with the lie that voluntary end-of-life counseling--a procedure once supported by even conservative Republicans like Sarah Palin--would in fact be compulsory. From there, it adds the twist that senior citizens would be denied their actual wishes, and that the denial of care would then be extended to other weak members of society.
That last leap of logic owes much to the crank belief that contemporary liberalism shares important characteristics with Nazism. And the whole thing requires one to believe that this sinister plan would have made its way into the House bills with no objection from either Democrats or Republicans and without attracting any attention from the press. This has not stopped such respectable figures as Senator Charles Grassley from stoking fears ("You have every right to fear," he un-reassured one constituent).
As a countermeasure, the White House asked supporters to e-mail examples of such false rumors so that the administration could provide refutation. Naturally, this request itself turned into the subject of yet another bizarre rumor, this time that the White House was culling a list of enemies for unspecified retribution. GOP loyalists began to hammer home this fear: Columnist Charles Krauthammer compared Obama's e-mail request to "Chicago thug politics," Hugo Chavez, and Big Brother.
You could see why, in a dictatorship, this tactic could help the regime squelch critics. The crucial difference is that it only works if the critics are hiding their views. In the United States, sussing out critics does not help the party in power, which could more easily locate its opponents by, say, looking up publicly available lists of Republican contributors, or dialing Capitol Hill information and asking for the names of the House and Senate minority leaders.
Those Republicans embarrassed about the Birthers like to cite, in tit-for- tat fashion, the "Truthers," who thought George W. Bush was complicit in the September 11 attacks. They have excitedly circulated old polls showing that one- third of Democrats thought Bush "knew" about the attacks. But the parallel is misleading. First, the responses to the poll are not as crazy as they seem: Many or most of those responding affirmatively were probably thinking of the well-publicized revelation that Bush was warned of an Al Qaeda attack. And second, no mainstream Democrat has endorsed or sought to investigate Truther claims, which couldn't even get published on forums like Daily Kos.
Author Rick Perlstein recently noted that, during the Kennedy era, the government opened a mental health facility in Alaska, which a popular radio talk-show host persuaded millions of conservatives was actually a Sovietstyle gulag. These days, come to think of it, the notion that large numbers of leading conservatives could be committed to mental health facilities is actually fairly plausible.