On the same day that President Obama said that if he had a son the boy would probably look like Trayvon Martin, Rick Santorum visited a shooting range in Louisiana. As he was firing two clips from a semiautomatic pistol into a target, a woman called out, "Pretend it's Obama." Santorum was wearing earmuffs. He didn't hear the remark. When asked about it later, Santorum said it was "a very horrible and terrible remark, and I'm glad I didn't hear it." The rest of us did, though. And it raises some questions: Why is there such a steady patter of violent and bigoted remarks at Republican campaign events? And do these remarks, plus the Republican embrace of untrammeled gun fetishism, represent a danger to either the President or the public?
I've been thinking about this since seeing HBO's excellent rendition of the 2008-campaign book Game Change. Late in that campaign, John McCain began to open up on Obama. "Who is the real Barack Obama?" he asked, pointedly, at rallies, and the audience responses to that question--"a terrorist," "hooligan," "socialist," "Arab"--and the raw fury of the crowds scared the hell out of him. Finally, McCain told an extremist, "[Obama] is a decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared of as President." It was a fine moment, on film as in life. McCain quickly toned down his rhetoric after that.
Contrast that with this year's campaign. Mitt Romney honorably said he wouldn't set his hair "on fire" with rabid denunciations of the President. But more than a few of his opponents have. Rick Perry called Obama "a socialist." Santorum has said Obama would "go down in history here as the President who has embraced radical Islamic groups." Newt Gingrich, who appears intent on setting a new land-speed record for sliminess as his campaign wanes, has been saying that it's understandable that people would think Obama is a Muslim because of the way that the President "behave[s]."
For the record, Obama has "embraced radical Islamic groups" with a constant barrage of Predator-drone strikes and special operations. And there's only one explanation for the behavior of these Republican loser candidates: they are desperate men playing on the ignorance and racist bigotry of their audiences. Those of us who cover campaigns and watched the Tea Party grow have notebooks full of hateful quotes from that distinct minority of militants who believe that nonwhites are "taking over" the country and that Shari'a looms and that the President is somehow egging this on. This is a relatively tiny minority but a rather dangerous one. Many are armed, and they have ridiculously permissive gun laws like Florida's "Stand Your Ground" statute on their side. The Republican Party has been more than complicit--it has been zealous--in the passage of these laws.