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Political Animal

The New Thugs

By Brian Morton | Posted 2/16/2005

During the Nixon administration, they called themselves “ratfuckers.” Run by Donald Segretti, they were the dirty tricksters that operated behind the scenes of the Republican Party. It was their mind-set that eventually created Watergate, as well as their downfall.

Since then, a new breed has arisen. The Reagan administration was their petri dish, the 1994 Newt Gingrich “revolution” their debutante ball. Gingrich himself provided their playbook, a 1990 memo with the Orwellian title “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control,” in which he told his acolytes to portray opponents as “sick,” “pathetic,” “incompetent” “traitors.” Setting the stage, he said in the memo to “apply these to the opponent, their record, proposals, and their party.”

The coaches who run Gingrich’s plays are well-known now: the late Lee Atwater and current Bush svengali Karl Rove. Atwater, known for running political campaigns designed to bring out the racist redneck vote—he helped former South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond win re-election several times—made the big time when he vowed to “make Willie Horton a household name” in the 1988 Bush-Dukakis election. And Rove’s political stunts were detailed in a lengthy November Atlantic magazine article; one anecdote recalled a 1994 Alabama judge’s race in which Rove’s client was behind by 304 votes in an unofficial election-day tally. A Rove staffer later told The Atlantic that, while Rove pushed for a recount, he told his staffers to “undermine the other side’s support by casting them as liars, cheaters, stealers, immoral—all of that.” The election came down to a fight over absentee ballots, and when the case went to court (sound familiar?), Rove’s troops got the business community to take out ads in newspapers all across Alabama saying, “They steal elections they don’t like.” In the end, the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where—just like in 2000’s Bush v. Gore—Rove’s client came back the winner.

The political hothouse climate of the last 10 years has been perfect for the growth and spread of right-wing thuggery. And the connectivity of the internet and the rise of the right-wing commentariat, given voice by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Channel and talk radio, have allowed the thugs to wreak havoc. The Clinton impeachment made stars out of irresponsible wack jobs like Ann Coulter. You’d be hard pressed to find better examples of “hate speech” than Coulter’s wish for a nuclear blast at the headquarters of The New York Times or her post-Sept. 11 prescription for the Middle East, when she said we should “invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity.”

The new thug class also includes Michelle Malkin, a Filipino-American who argued that the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II wasn’t a bad thing, TV and talk radio loon-ball Michael Savage, who referred to one of his callers as a “sodomite” who should “get AIDS and die.” With today’s massive corporate media apparatus, people like these get valuable airtime and lucrative book contracts, thus breeding future haters.

The new thug tends to be young, white, angry, male, and intolerant. He brooks no dissent, desires no compromise, and takes no prisoners. You could see their faces in the photos of the “Brooks Brothers riot,” the melee orchestrated by GOP operative Roger Stone that forced a halt to ballot counting in Miami during the 2000 presidential election in Florida. Washington Post reporter Al Kamen recently noted the whereabouts of many of that batch—one is the political director in the White House, another the deputy director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, and others have moved from working for GOP heavy hitters in Congress to lucrative lobbyist jobs.

What happens when members of the thug class get caught is not pretty, however. Witness the five-month prison term handed out last week to a GOP operative who planned a massive phone-jamming effort in the 2002 New Hampshire election. Allen Raymond was the first of three people to get sentenced for computer-generated phone calls designed to jam Democratic get-out-the-vote telephone banks. And, of course, now there’s the case of Joseph Steffen, a longtime aide to Gov. Robert Ehrlich, who had to resign his $72,000-a-year job with the Maryland Insurance Administration after spreading rumors on the ’net about the fidelity of likely Ehrlich opponent Mayor Martin O’Malley.

Steffen was caught bragging on FreeRepublic.com—the virtual water cooler of the right-wing thug class—about his close ties to the governor and lieutenant governor. Even more brazenly, he was found to be making his postings about O’Malley during government working hours.

Conservatives at this point play the equivalence card: “Yeah, well Democrats do it, too,” they say. But they can never point out specifics—they can never match a Democrat one-for-one for every one of the Raymonds, the Steffens, the current White House staffers and lobbyists from the 2000 incident in Miami too numerous to name. As one internet wag put it, there’s a never-ending “undead army” of right-wing thugs, and the way things are going, we’ll be seeing much more of them in the future.

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Political Animal archives

More from Brian Morton

The Fix (8/4/2010)

Police State (7/7/2010)

Funny Business (6/9/2010)

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