A man carrying a sign and a gun showed up outside President Obama's town hall meeting in Portsmouth, N.H., a few days ago. The laws of that state are clear about a citizen's right to openly carry a gun. It was strapped to a holster on the protester's right leg. He made no attempt to conceal it. The sign read: "It is time to water the tree of liberty." It was not an advertisement for a local lawn care service.
William Kostric was approached by local authorities who were concerned about his proximity to the president of the United States. Given the elevated temperature of town hall meetings lately, it was a reasonable suspicion. Across the country, a minority of misinformed citizens have made a spectacle of the democratic process.
Elected officials seeking input from their constituents about various health care proposals have been verbally accosted in these town meetings as "Nazis" who have signed on to the president's "agenda" to euthanize the sick, the handicapped and the elderly. According to the loudest and most ignorant voices at these meetings, the Obama administration's real aim is to open the door to eugenics, socialism and forced gender reassignment for everybody.
The subtext to much of the screaming is the belief among many of the most unhinged conservatives that Mr. Obama's presidency is illegitimate because he allegedly used fraud to ascend to the highest office in the land. As a nation, we have been one fluoridated-water rumor away from a resurgence of John Birch Society-style lunacy for decades, but the manufacture and exploitation of right-wing resentment and anger is especially robust these days.
It isn't a coincidence that those with the strongest belief that Mr. Obama is leading the nation toward totalitarianism also believe he was born in Kenya and that a conspiracy to help him steal the birthright of a "natural-born" American began 48 years ago. The president and his "handlers" through the years are credited with almost supernatural powers for mounting elaborate conspiracies and evading detection.
Mr. Obama is routinely denounced as a "tyrant" and "Adolf Hitler" by real demagogues on television and radio who claim to have discovered the outline to this conspiracy. Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh are masters at feeding the racial and political anxieties of white people who feel their country was "stolen" from them the moment a slick-talking, Ivy League-educated, "affirmative action baby" with a funny, Islamic name prevailed over a genuine American war hero in a presidential election.
Because Mr. Obama's race is the accelerant that dare not speak its name, these demagogues know that their hateful rhetoric resonates with many Americans in ways that urban legends about the Clintons never could.
Mr. Beck, whose Fox News program has lost major commercial sponsorship because of his bizarre denunciation of the biracial president as a racist with "a deep-seated hatred for white people," has taken to pleading with his viewers not to resort to Timothy McVeigh levels of rebellion against the government. He advised them that an Oklahoma City-style bombing now "would ruin everything."
There's no evidence that the now-unemployed William Kostric is one of the followers of Beck, Hannity or Limbaugh. He seems too intelligent for that. He was lucid and thoughtful during an especially tough grilling on MSNBC's "Hardball with Chris Matthews" a few nights ago. He was also dodgy and evasive about what his intentions were.
Mr. Matthews pushed Mr. Kostric into reciting the rest of Thomas Jefferson's quote -- the one referred to partially on his sign -- in its entirety: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure." But why use that sign? What message was he trying to convey to a president who has gone out of his way to embrace the legacy of Abraham Lincoln?
Mr. Kostric was much more forthcoming about his motives during an online interview with Alex Jones, a conservative, nationally syndicated talk show host. Mr. Kostric admitted that he was modeling to other protesters in states with open-carry gun laws how to behave when elected officials organize town hall meetings. Though he was the only one to assert his rights in Portsmouth, Mr. Kostric hoped others would be inspired by his example across the country.
"I would like to see 30, 40, 50 open carriers [at future protests]," he said, displaying a sophisticated understanding of how fanaticism metastasizes.
Sure, large gatherings where every fourth or fifth person is carrying a gun would be a logistical nightmare for the Secret Service and those whose task it is to protect our elected leaders, but what could be more American than dealing with an angry crowd stoked by irrational grievances? Pay no attention to the list of assassinated American presidents and those who survived botched attempts. They were obviously tyrants who got in the way of somebody's notion of liberty.
Tony Norman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1631.