I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Monday, April 24, 2006

A political movement built on rage

The most striking and disturbing aspect of the reaction by Bush followers to the Mary McCarthy story is that it reveals, yet again, how much intense anger, hatred, and an insatiable desire for destruction lies at the heart of this movement. So many of them - including many of their most prominent spokesmen and pundits - desperately seek out, and usually find, new enemies on an almost daily basis who are decreed to be deserving of scorn, hatred, imprisonment or worse. They routinely advocate new policies and government action devoted towards the destruction of their political opponents on the ground that the targeted individuals are not just political opponents, but enemies of the United States.

More often than not, the chosen new enemies are not terrorists or foreign threats, but Americans who are perceived to have politically damaged the Commander-in-Chief in some way -- which makes them traitorous and worthy of punishment with no limits. They casually toss around charges of treason at anyone who acts against The President, knowing exactly what the punishment for treason is. Enraged demands for the arrest and imprisonment of their political enemies are a staple of their political dialogue, and there is no measure which can be undertaken by the government in the name of attacking and punishing The Enemies - both foreign and domestic - which are too extreme for them. If anything, their criticisms of the administration are typically confined to charges that its attacks on The Enemies are not aggressive or extreme enough.

This weekend, not only Mary McCarthy -- but anyone connected to her -- happened to be the ones subjected to this deranged lynch mob rage, but almost anyone who has done anything to politically embarrass the President has triggered the same emotional tidal waves. If you can stomach it, listen to the permanently enraged warrior Mark Levin explain in National Review how John Kerry's comments this weekend in defense of McCarthy show that he is on the side of Al Qaeda, and -- unlike the brave Levin -- that Kerry is "unfit for command":

Once again John Kerry sides with the enemy. Did I say enemy? Yes. Anyone, like Mary McCarthy, who uses her public trust to undermine the war on terrorism is the enemy. The Washington Post can wrap itself and its source in civil liberties, but the public rightly won't buy it. These prisons in Europe reportedly exist to interrogate and house al Qaeda terrorists. While people may disagree over the war in Iraq, almost nobody disagrees that al-Qaeda must be destroyed. . . . Kerry has demonstrated, once again, why he’s unfit for command.

Meanwhile, Levin's colleague, Andrew McCarthy, who knows nothing about what McCarthy actually did or whether it caused the slightest national security harm (as opposed to political harm to the President), is outraged that she's not in prison:

There are countless questions that arise out of the CIA's dismissal of a prominent intelligence officer, Mary O. McCarthy (no relation), for leaking classified information to the media. But one in particular springs to mind right now: Why isn't she in handcuffs?

McCarthy is also furious that Sandy Berger is not in prison:

Sandy Berger, the former national-security adviser who filched classified information from the national archives and then lied about it to investigators was, appallingly, given the sweetheart deal of the century: a guilty plea to a mere misdemeanor, no jail time, and even the prospect of getting his security clearance back after three years.

And this morning, McCarthy emphasized -- just as he did on Saturday -- that Mary McCarthy's criminal conduct seems to have been aided and abetted by significant portions of the Democratic Party.

Like most Bush followers, leaks are only infuriating to McCarthy when done by Democrats or when they result in political harm to the President. Leaks committed by Bush allies or with the intent to promote the President's political agenda prompt nothing but silence from him, and sometimes even a defense of the leakers, as Andy McCarthy offered for the Franklin/AIPAC leakers. That is because they see even the most extreme and illegal actions by the Bush administration as tantamount to America's interests, such that anyone who opposes those actions is, by definition, acting treasonously, impeding the War on Terror, and deserving of punishment. Those who act in support of those actions -- with leaks, illegality or anything else -- are motivated by the right intentions and their conduct should therefore be overlooked, or defended.

All of this causes Kathryn Jean Lopez to point to McCarthy's article and giddily and cutely observe, as though she were talking about some nighttime soap opera: "Andy looks for handcuffs." Calling for the arrest of their domestic political opponents on grounds of treason is so routine for Bush followers that there is nothing extraordinary to them when they do it. And they don't just routinely call for imprisonment of people who politically harm the President, but they do so with palpable glee; they revel in it.

Here is Powerline on the reporters who broke the NSA story: "Throw 'em in the slammer." Townhall columnist Ben Shapiro: Howard Dean, John Kerry and Al Gore all belong in prison for "sedition." Powerline: Jimmy Carter is "on the other side." Karl Rove says Dick Durbin is on the side of terrorists. Michael Reagan thinks Howard Dean should be hanged. Charles Johnson of LGF said this weekend: the media is helping Iran get the bomb by weakening our country (by reporting on what is going on in Iraq), and are therefore "becoming a major liability in the clash of civilizations," a post which led his readers, needless to say, to spew sentiments about McCarthy and the media such as this:

Law-and order, red-state, non-nuanced, thinking Americans would expect the law to be enforced, the sentence to reflect the treasonous actions of the convicted, and the execution to be public.

The daily rage from Michelle Malkin is almost too deranged, ugly and intense even to chronicle, and the fact that her recent posting of the telephone numbers and e-mail addresses of college student military protestors prompted a slew of extremely disturbed death threats from her readers should surprise exactly nobody. Those sentiments are pervasive and are always lurking near the surface among many Bush followers, which is why calls for imprisonment and execution have become a routine part of their political dialogue. If a political movement is based upon the routine labelling of one's political opponents as traitors and deserving of imprisonment and even death, this is the natural by-product of what is being sown.

And it just goes on and on like this. And the more pronounced their political failures become, the more their frustration and feelings of impotence grow, and the more frequent these sorts of rage-fueled, intensely hateful outbursts become. The fact that their bile seems to be getting progressively more intense and unburdened by limits raises a couple of important points:

(1) When the administration assures everyone that its most extreme and illegal measures -- warrantless eavesdropping, secret torture gulags, lawless detentions, etc. -- are being applied only to the enemies of the U.S. -- i.e., only to al Qaeda and its allies -- isn't there a fairly significant danger that they are using, or will use, the sweeping, broad definitions which are now routinely used for these terms by Bush followers, a definition that encompass not only actual allies of Al Qaeda but those domestic political opponents deemed to give aid and comfort to Al Qaeda by virtue of their political views, to the point of deserving prison?

All of this accumulated rhetoric has to have an effect. The excesses and extremist conduct in which our government now engages has become so commonplace as to be mind-numbing. We detain U.S. citizens and stick them in military prisons with no trial, charges or even access to lawyers. We use torture as an interrogation tool. We use secret, off-the-book Soviet-era gulags that are beyond the reach of the law. We send people to the most repugnant governments to be tortured. And the President has expressly embraced the theory that he has the power to break the law.

There certainly appears to be no limits on what Bush followers will endorse in the name of fighting The Enemies, domestic ones included, sometimes most prominently. And what is so significant about this is that the institutions which previously existed as a safeguard against arbitrary punishment and abuse of power -- things like due process guarantees, Congressional oversight, an adversarial media, whistleblowers -- have all been steadily eroded. The administration has seized the power to arrest people without charges, hold them in secret prisons, use torture to interrogate them, etc. That is all out in the open and prompts defenses of these practices from its followers. That makes the attempt to equate political opposition with criminality and even treason -- one of the most common tactics of the administration and its followers -- all the more dangerous.

(2) How will all of this bubbling rage and hatred and desire to punish political opponents manifest in the event of another terrorist attack? If the foundation is laid now for equating political opposition with treason, and if a single terrorist attack has already led to the panoply of extremist policies (including, likely, some which have not yet been revealed), just fathom what sorts of measures will be considered and advocated in the event of another attack, particularly one with a greater impact than the 9/11 attack.

The people who roll around in this sort of hateful bile on a daily basis, and who endorse truly limitless presidential power, will be in the position to make decisions as to what our country does, what internal and external measures we adopt, what new theories of presidential power we embrace in order to more effectively fight against Our Enemies. That is why it is so pernicious to allow this type of rhetoric to take root and to leave it unchallenged, as well as to permit these radical theories of power to become legitimized -- not so much because of what they have already led to (although that is certainly disturbing enough), but because of what they can lead to, quite realistically, in the near-term future.

With all of the "crimes against America" that they single out, what is always missing is any identification of any actual harm to our national security. What is harmed by these crimes is always the political popularity of the President. But to them, that is the same thing. A weak George Bush means a weak America, so anyone who harms George Bush is harming America and hurting our efforts to fight The Terrorists.

During their glory years of 2002 and 2003, Bush followers became convinced that they were part of a movement that was going to lead America to renewed and profound glory under the heroic leadership of George W. Bush. They become so personally invested in the triumph of that dream. It gave them a feeling of strength and purpose. And now it has all crumbled. It's all been exposed as a sham and fraud. The President is one of the most unpopular and failed presidents we have had in some time, and their views have been rejected, discredited, and are increasingly reviled. And they are extremely angry about this and want vengeance on those they perceive as responsible.

The ever dwindling group of Bush followers has become a highly emotional group, having far more to do with psychological and emotional needs than political beliefs. Anger, hatred, rage and a desire for punishment are what fuels them, and they recognize no limits on what ought to be done to satisfy those cravings.

UPDATE: Digby posted yesterday on the fact that Bush followers are "agitating to criminalize dissent" and compiled additional examples and documentation. As I have pointed out before, there is conventional wisdom that a weakened and unpopular president becames less powerful and less able to pursue extremist policies, but I actually think that in the case of this president, the more weakened and unpopular he becomes, the more desperate he will be to lash out -- in bitterness, with a desire for retribution, and to display strength.

Purging CIA leakers, prosecuting whistle-blowers, imprisoning journalists who publish politically embarrassing revelations -- we are seeing only the incipient symptoms of those efforts.

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