What's Behind the 'Mad as Hell' Movement?

Demonstrators hold up banners as they walk in Pennsylvania Avenue to Capitol Hill in Washington, Saturday, Sept. 12, 2009, during a taxpayer rally.
Demonstrators hold up banners as they walk in Pennsylvania Avenue to Capitol Hill in Washington, Saturday, Sept. 12, 2009, during a taxpayer rally. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana
What to make of all the thunder on the right of late, on the streets, the airwaves and even in the halls of Congress? Our Senior Political Correspondent Jeff Greenfield has filed this Sunday Journal:

From the "tea parties" on tax day last April . . .

"Where are the people protecting us in government?"

. . . to the rancorous town halls on health care in August, to the gathering last weekend at the Capitol, discontent is in the air.

You can see it in the signs they carry; hear it on the most prominent voices on talk radio (all from the right), from Rush Limbaugh . . .

"Barack Obama is destroying the United States' economy!"

. . . and most notably from Glenn Beck, whose radio program and Fox News telecast draw millions with his apocalyptic vision of where the President is going:

"Does sacred honor even exist in Washington any more?"

You even heard it from the floor of the House, in an unprecedented outburst from Congressman Joe Wilson of South Carolina . . .


. . . that made him an instant hero to some.

What's brought these folks to the nation's capitol? What's put them into the streets of dozens of American cities? What is swelling the ratings of conservative media?

And maybe more significant, does this militancy pose an opportunity for the Republican Party . . . or create a dilemma?

Some of it seems very traditional: an outcry against a government that critics say has grown too big. When a protester from Memphis, Tennessee declared "We don't trust you," that's what she means.

"I think the extreme liberals have taken over," she said.

Some of the sentiments expressed is aimed - specifically, and virulently - at Mr. Obama . . . at his background, at his race, at his agenda (fascist, communist or both).

Those present and former politicians who spoke to last Weekend's rally (all Republican) assert that this is an insignificant fringe.

"Well, this is not really political, and it's certainly not a Republican rally," said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. "This is mainstream, the heart of America right now that is standing up and speaking out about some things they're very concerned about."

Greenfield asked protester Carol Fessler from Memphis to explain a sign at the rally that showed pictures of Hitler, Stalin . . . and Obama.

"That comes from a fear, and I appreciate that," said Fessler (left). "And fear engenders anger. But the fear is, you know, if the media is not doing its job, if the government is taking over every single thing it can and we now have an unfettered liberal - the radical left has got control of the process. That's the fear."

That fear has been fed not by politicians but by Fox News pundits, like Glenn Beck:

"I used to call it the mainstream media," Beck said on his program. "I've been thinking for the last few days it can't be called that anymore because it's not. That's why I believe we now have to start calling it the 'fringe media,' because that's exactly what it is. It is on the fringe. They're in bed with those in Washington and the special interests and they're lunatics. Some of them are absolute lunatics!"

At the rally one protester said, "Glenn Beck is the one that we want to thank for a lot of this. I listen to Fox News, which gives you both sides, and I think if you turn on some of the other stations, you only get a slanted side, which is the liberal side."

Indeed, Fox News claimed in full-page ads this week that the other networks did not cover the protests. (In fact, .)

"The interesting thing about the political culture right now is that while people have access to more and more information, they also can isolate themselves more and more and get only information that they want to see and that they want to hear, that reinforces the opinions that they already have," said political strategist Joe Gaylord. "And that's an ample opportunity that they have right now, which I think is causing part of the stir."

Gaylord has been Newt Gingrich's key political strategist since Gingrich's days in the House, and he remembers how populist anger in 1994 helped turn the Congress over to the Republicans.

Right now, he says, this anger is not strictly a partisan party matter.

"I wouldn't confuse the conservative movement and the Republican Party, 'cause they're two different things," Gaylord said. "The Republican Party is sometimes a vehicle for the conservative movement.

"But I think what you saw actually on the mall and what you saw at the town hall meetings is a genuine conservative uprising, sometimes involving Republicans, sometimes not."

Congressman Barney Frank has spent nearly 30 years in the House as a stalwart liberal. He sees real danger for his opponents in the rise of the "mad as hell" sentiment.

"I think the extreme nature of this, the virulence, makes it less politically effective," Frank said. "It is much less pleasant, less healthy to society. The '93-'94 [movement] was more on the issues. The very anger of it, the racist elements, the irrational elements, the embrace of fictions, the threats, I think it makes it less politically useful."

"I also think they are alienating moderates and sensible people," Frank added. "People do not like to get associated with people throwing Hitler around and screaming and being abusive, and deciding that they [can] carry a gun to a rally or to a meeting with the president."

For some Republicans, like 15-year veteran Walter Jones of North Carolina, the intensity on the right poses a dilemma: he recognizes that the frustration over big government is the kind of issue that can win over independents. But he also worries about it - indeed, he was one of only seven Republicans in the House to vote to admonish Joe Wilson (whom some of the right label a hero) for his outburst.

"I don't like what I'm seeing in many circles," said Jones. "I do not like this resentment. I mean, the way I look at this, Mr. Obama is our president and I want him to do well. I'm an American citizen first."

"If some of your constituents, good solid conservatives call you up and say, 'Rush Limbaugh says you're wimping out on the party,' or on the cause …" asked Greenfield.

"Well, I serve God, not Rush Limbaugh," Jones replied.

With mid-term elections more than a year away, it's highly possible that the passions of this summer will have been overtaken by more fundamental factors - the strength or weakness of the economy, the war in Afghanistan.

But intensity can itself be a powerful force in politics . . . and the intensity right now seems to be on the right.