The town hall protests organized and inflamed by Republican operatives have taken an ugly turn with the appearance yesterday in New Hampshire, at an Obama rally, of a citizen carrying a loaded revolver. The intensity and irrationality of the protests could quite easily morph into violence. Once Obama looked to have the Democratic nomination wrapped up, more than a year ago, my colleagues in the Afro-American Studies Department at the University of Massachusetts expressed genuine fear that sooner or later he would be shot. Secret Service or no, that remains a serious threat.
Despite the clear hand of cold-eyed opportunistic Republican operatives in these protests, there is very little doubt that the people doing the protesting are genuinely freaked out about something. What might that be?
Listening to them is not a useful way to find out, unfortunately. One of the targets of their rage is the range of proposals now on the table for health care reform. Now, we need to remind ourselves of a few familiar facts. Far and away the largest health care insurance program in the United States is Medicare, a single-payer government operated program. Judging from the pictures I have seen on television, I would guess that a goodly number of the protesters are already on medicare, and the rest have parents whose medical care and prescription drugs come to them courtesy of the same program. Nobody but Ron Paul actually wants to end Medicare.
A second target of their rage is the stimulus package and other deficit spending programs passed with Obama's support and encouragement by the current Congress. These are the same people, let us recall, who expressed no pleasure or approval at all while Clinton ran up impressive budget surpluses and actually started paying down the national debt, and who sat by silently while George W, Bush turned those surpluses into whopping deficits. It is simply not possible to take seriously the content of the shouts and snarls of these protesters.
The common thread in their expressions of outrage is the fear that the America they grew up in and know is being taken away from them. Now, these folks are not entirely rational, but they are not at all stupid, and what their gut tells them is in fact true. The America they have known IS being taken away from them, with a speed that leaves them angry and panicked. There is a Blcak man in the White House. Gay and Lesbian Americans are now openly members of the American community, accepted and recognized, even, in some states, allowed to be married. Spanish-speaking Americans populate countless American cities in increasing numbers. At the same time, these people, like millions of other Americans, are under enormous economic pressure.
Anyone with even a passing familiarity with European and American politics of the twentieth century knows that this is a formula for fascism. I am not suggesting that we are about to see an American version of kristallnacht. But I am suggesting that we take what is happening quite seriously. If one of these gun-toting protesters goes over the edge and pulls a trigger, it could produce a very frightening explosion.
The Obama administration is busy organizing counter-moves to the wave of town hall protests. All of us who stand on the side of reform need to do whatever we can to support those efforts. I still think we are going to win this battle, but remember, many, many millions of Americans voted for McCain and Palin. They haven't gone away.