There’s a prescient passage in a remarkable book by journalist Will Bunch which has a remarkable title: The Backlash. Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters, and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama, a book that came out last summer. The passage in question goes like this:
“For all the people who wonder whether this increasingly not-so-pent-up rage in America could make an impact on actual government policy or question how the coiled energy of the Tea Parties and the 9-12ers and the Oath Keepers and the gun freaks and those militias out in the wilderness might shape the lives of us all, there is one thing you can say to any of the remaining skeptics:
“Let them come to Arizona.”
Yes indeed. The proverbial chickens have come home to Arizona to roost, and the consequences will determine a great deal about American life in the next couple of years.
There are some things that we can’t predict in all this, and something we can predict.
We can predict that Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Sarah Palin will exert their considerable abilities to explain what happened as the actions of a crazed gunman who acted alone. In doing so they will be acting in a now well-established American tradition that goes back at least to the Warren Commission, and plays well in our intensely individualistic society. All this is quite predictable, and is about as interesting as saying that the sun will rise in the east and set in the west.
What is unpredictable and therefore interesting is how Limbaugh’s, Beck’s, and Palin’s efforts at maintaining the status quo after Tucson will play out in American society. It is at crisis moments like this we can understand clearly some things that were not so clear before, and one of those things we can now understand is what Limbaugh, Beck, and Palin do. What Limbaugh does on radio, what Beck does on television, and what Palin does in public appearances is to promote disharmony in American society; so I call them The Disharmony Trio.
The Disharmony Trio have been able to get so rich so fast (Limbaugh is said to be worth about $300 millions) because they were able to promote disharmony within a bubble of relative security that made it possible for them to credibly claim that they were just exercising their First Amendments rights. Tucson broke that bubble.
So the question is, will they be able to make the lone gunman theory credible enough to maintain the disharmony from which they profit so handsomely? This is a dicey one because of the victims. If Congresswoman Giffords had been the only victim, it wouldn’t have been so difficult for them. The implicit subtext would have been that as a Democrat, a woman, and—worst of all—a Jew, she had it coming. To be sure, the Disharmony Trio wouldn’t have said this in public, but their followers would have said it among themselves, and on the Internet.
What complicates the matter for the Disharmony Trio is the death of the nine-year-old girl, a symbol of innocence if there ever was one. Even the most devoted conspiracy theorists, those who believe that Obama is the Anti-Christ, and so forth, will find it difficult to say—or even think—that she had it coming.
And, speaking of conspiracy theory, Bunch’s wonderful book The Backlash makes it clear that the followers of the Disharmony Trio believe in all kinds of things. Most obviously, they believe that Obama was born in Kenya; many of them also believe that he’s a socialist, that he’s preparing internment camps for them (“It happened to the Japanese; it could happen again”), and so forth. So the question is, won’t these people—the Tea Partiers and others like them—who perceive all public events in terms of conspiracy theory find it difficult to believe the lone gunman theory? Might they not tend to think that Tucson is part of a conspiracy? (The shooting of Congresswoman Giffords and the others will come to be called “Tucson,” as the shooting at the Branch Davidian compound came to be called “Waco.”) One can imagine a scenario in which people promote the idea that Tucson was part of Obama’s conspiracy to discredit the Far Right, for example. If the Disharmony Trio advocate the lone gunman theory, it will then put them at odds with those who believe this theory. This is an unpredictable matter, and therefore quite an interesting one.
We do have one indication of the dilemma that Tucson poses for the Far Right in general, and for the Disharmony Trio in particular. Soon after the shooting, Jan Brewer, the governor of Arizona, made a brief public statement that may give an intimation of the future, or at least part of it. Let us recall that it was Brewer who signed the now infamous anti-immigration law that caused many organizations to cancel their planned conventions in Arizona. In her statement, Brewer said the predictable things, that it was a tragedy, and so forth. But the point is that she looked shaken, with tears in her eyes, and I don’t think she’s a good enough actress to fake it. If Jan Brewer, of all people, was really shaken by the attack on Congresswoman Giffords because she grasped the real-world consequences in spilled blood of the things she and others on the Far Right have been saying for years, then the livelihood of the Disharmony Trio really is threatened.
The thing is, the Disharmony Trio makes its living by sowing the seeds of discord, and any movement toward unity threatens its livelihood. If death and suffering tend to unite us, as with the death of John Lennon (which television commentators have been citing as a precedent), then Limbaugh, Beck, and Palin have a problem. Since they can do what they do if and only if people believe that America is always and eternally split into liberals and conservatives, they will surely be disturbed by reports that all the members of Congress—both conservatives and liberals—are concerned about their safety, are reassessing their security measures, and so forth.
It now appears that the Tucson story has legs, as they say in show business.
Congresswoman Giffords and the others will be in the hospital for a long time, and then there will be the funerals for the dead, and so forth. The longer this story lasts, the more calls there will be for people to “tone down the rhetoric,” and thus the more problematic the long-term enterprise of the Disharmony Trio will become.
Finally, there’s the question that people often ask about the Disharmony Trio: “Do Limbaugh, Beck, and Palin sincerely believe what they say?” For my part, I believe that they do sincerely believe what they say, and here’s why. It is easy to believe what you say when what you say makes you rich and famous without requiring you to work very hard.