TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The election of Barack Obama as president has set off a new kind of protest movement in this country. It's a right-wing movement that has been interrupting town hall meetings, staging tea party protests, and challenging Obama's citizenship. The new influence of Fox News TV host Glenn Beck was demonstrated by the 9/12 March on Washington, which he promoted on his show.
My guest, David Weigel, is reporting on the Republican Party and how the right is changing, for the Web magazine the Washington Independent. He's a former associate editor at the libertarian magazine Reason, and he's been published in liberal and conservative magazines, including the Nation, the American Conservative, the American Spectator and the American Prospect. Last weekend, he reported from the Values Voters Summit, which was organized by the Family Research Council. They're known for opposing homosexuality and abortion.
David Weigel, welcome to FRESH AIR. Are you seeing something different on the right than what you've seen before?
Mr. DAVID WEIGEL (Reporter): Yes, I've been seeing, as I cover any number of events, as I cover a Value Voters Summit, which has happened a few times in the past, as I cover a tea party, which is something brand new this year, all those have a greater emphasis on economic issues and on constitutional issues, really deep, to-the-core constitutional issues.
GROSS: Now, it's interesting. For a while, I was thinking how - why is it that I'm hearing so much on the right about immigration, opposition to health-insurance reform, and not so much about the issues that we've been hearing about for so long from the right, particularly the Christian right, which is homosexuality and abortion. Has there been a shift in emphasis?
Mr. WEIGEL: There has. And even at this, the Values Voters Summit held in D.C. this last weekend, people who were first and foremost anti-abortion activists, people who - including a woman, Leila Rose(ph), who has been trying to do undercover stings at Planned Parenthood, operations to defund them, that one, they all said that they were more worried now about the Constitution being ripped apart than they had been in the past. If it wasn't a pre-eminent issue, it was part of the issue basket that concerns them, and two, that just everything had come together for them.
Yes, it was a huge problem before that they couldn't trust unelected judges to enforce the law of the land and overturn Roe versus Wade, but they've got a bigger problem now, and I'm seeing a lot of weaving together of fears to build this sort of grand theory that it's really just the rise of socialism on the left, the rise of these powerful, radical organizations. They've been trying to roll back the Constitution all along, and they're succeeding on more fronts now. So they've got to fight them on more fronts.
GROSS: So why do you think there is this now-strengthened concern on the right about the Constitution being undermined? Where is that coming from?
Mr. WEIGEL: Well, it was always there, but there's been a rediscovery of some primary texts of the conservative movement recently. And one that you heard about at the Values Voters Summit, one you've heard about a lot recently, it's been selling out at Amazon, selling out of bookstores and in huge demand at libraries, is Cleon Skousen's "The 5,000 Year Leap," which is - he was a Mormon scholar, theologian with a few conspiratorial directions, if I want to be kind to him, who argued that the founders had 28 concepts that guided them, and they were all - they were divine concepts. Americans, in getting away from that, are getting away from God's vision for the country.
Mr. WEIGEL: And I'm usually loath to prescribe a lot of the movement's power to one book, but a lot of it comes from there. A lot of it comes from their discovery of Saul Alinsky's "Rules for Radicals," which they - and when I say they, I'm saying social conservatives, economic conservatives believe Barack Obama and liberals use successfully to tear their movement down.
They view that it's sort of an antithetical text. It's here are European socialists whose vision for America is not inspired by God but inspired by atheistic Marxism. Here is how they want to tear the institutions down. So they're trying to reverse-engineer that. And so I think it's been very direct and - actually, you know, sort of scholarly interpretation of the way this stuff works. And one thing I think's important is that, as there's - a lot of people have noticed, the center of the conservative punditocracy, let's say, has shifted from the Sean Hannity types to the more Glenn Beck, Mark Levin types.
These are radio hosts - in Beck's case, radio host and TV host - who talk obsessively about the Constitution, what the founders wanted, whether health care was in the Constitution. The answer is, since the word is not there, it's not there -whether czars were in the Constitution. And there's actually more burrowing into that than there is just making fun of Democrats, which is what they could do when they had power in the Bush years.
GROSS: Now, you know, getting back to the book by Cleon Skousen, who had a view of the Constitution that is becoming popular now, that view - correct me if I'm wrong - but that view basically said that God's law is the basis of the Constitution.
Mr. WEIGEL: That's not wrong. That's an extremely mainstream belief, and it's mainstream among Republican politicians. They don't always go to that as the first principle. The first thing is, like, when they're talking about the Constitution in front of, you know, at home, but in front of an audience, that's an immediate applause line. That's the equivalent on the left of saying health care should be a human right.
It's - on the religious right, it's been a prime belief for years. Jerry Falwell had something, I'll have to just paraphrase, where he imagined Thomas Jefferson kneeling and writing the Declaration of Independence with the dialogue being fed to him by the creator. The idea that the founders didn't just get our laws right, they got them divinely right, and if you break away from them, not only are you probably wrong, you're definitely defying the vision God had for this country, that when he, you know, when the pilgrims got up on the city on a hill. Again, this is all stuff they've said, but it just didn't come to the forefront until the economic crisis, until the bailouts, until this cascade of problems that are terrifying them under the Obama administration.
GROSS: If you're joining us, my guest is David Weigel, and he writes for the Washington Independent, which is an online magazine. He covers the Republican Party and the re-making of the right.
Now, we were talking about, you know, on the one hand, the emphasis on the right on, you know, constitutional issues and immigration, health insurance, Obama as Marxist, socialist, fascist. And on the other side, you have the, you know, anti-abortion, anti-homosexual talking points. And I think all of this came together at the Values Voters Summit over the weekend, which was sponsored by the Family Research Council. This is an annual event. What's the goal of the event?
Mr. WEIGEL: The goal initially, when it was launched in 2006, was to - it was an extension of James Dobson's project to project the influence of his branch of the religious right into the political arena. It had been tremendously successful, really; 2006 was the first year he wasn't very successful because of various scandals that brought down the Republican Party's majority.
In 2007, it was kind of a debutante ball for presidential candidates. Everyone came there, and that was actually a telling moment that year, when - two telling moments. Mike Huckabee, who three months before the Iowa caucus still was not quite being taken seriously, easily won the room. Rudy Giuliani, who at that point was still leading in the polls, kind of whiffed and talked about his background as an altar boy.
The goal of the years since then, every year, is really just to keep the Family Research Council - which was, you know, the political arm of James Dobson's Focus on the Family - to keep them relevant. It's not a hard thing to do in the Republican Party with the Republican base the way it is.
A through-line of this conference is that Republican candidates who wanted to become president, or Republicans who want to become speaker of the House or majority leader of the Senate - there were a few who had a problem shaping their rhetoric to the room, I think. But people like Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, who is seen as a moderate, blue-state governor, is electable maybe in the Obama era, where other Republicans are not because of those qualities, he was comparing the president's foreign policy to the appeasement of Neville Chamberlain. He criticized the Obama - criticized the president for speaking to schoolchildren and said he should apologize to them for the massive debt he was leaving. He talked about the beginnings of life. It's basically - the point is to get Republicans on the record talking to the Christian base of the party, and the discovery every year is that it's not very hard to do that. If you fail to do that, you don't really have a chance in this party.
GROSS: What's one or two of the most surprising things that you heard at the Values Voters Summit over the weekend?
Mr. WEIGEL: I would say the ongoing discovery I've made about just how much the primacy of the founding principles of the Constitution have overcome the primacy of abortion and gay marriage. Hearing that come from everyone, hearing those become bigger applause lines than traditional marriage was surprising. And it wasn't universal. Carrie Prejean, who is the Miss California who lost her Miss USA bid because she - a question about gay marriage and said she didn't believe in it, she got a huge, rapturous reception. But one, she was an exception. Most people were more worried about the country as a whole. Two, when I talked to people after her speech, they were concerned about it in the context of how international law might be interfering with our own law. And in the future, if they criticized gay marriage, they might find themselves out of a job or in trouble. It was something I had trouble wrapping my mind around, the heroism of somebody running for a beauty pageant crown and losing it is, I think, not something that a majority of Americans are going to encounter. But I was surprised at how quickly they glommed onto it as just a big, neon, gleaming example of the threats they're all going to face.
That's also - the break-out sessions, which were probably the most undercover part of this, were not really surprising, but they were on more social topics. There was one on immigration, about how you can - restricting immigration was also necessary if you were a religious voter. There was one on - the new masculinity was the exact title about how this society is pulling people away from its monogamous values, from heterosexual values…
GROSS: I'm going to stop you there because you had a very interesting report on a session, this session, the new masculinity, and I want you to talk about it. The chief of staff, Michael Schwartz, to Kansas(ph) Senator Tom Coburn, said something to the audience along these lines, that parents should tell their children that all pornography is homosexual pornography and that this knowledge could prevent children from becoming perverted. What was his explanation for saying that all pornography is homosexual pornography?
Mr. WEIGEL: His explanation, which I would have to say was received in the room rapturously, as if he'd just knocked a rock over and uncovered something nobody had ever uncovered before, was that all - anything that - any pornography that turns your sexual drive inward leads to you turning it inward in other sorts of ways and becoming onanistic and possibly becoming homosexual. And the message of this was that he raised boys. When they were 10 years old, no one had as much contempt for the gay lifestyle as these 10-year-old boys. So how do you keep them in that frame of mind? You inform them that anything that pollutes yourself and turns your drive inward is going to flip you around and drive you away from heterosexuality.
And it was - again, there were not many skeptics in the room. No one walked out. It was a lot of head-nodding and asking for him to expand on the point. But in the context of this conference, it was another example of something everyone was already kind of worried about and maybe they hadn't thought too much about. If they had thought about it, in the Elvis-shooting-the-TV style of just raging and not knowing what to do.
And here was somebody who works for a U.S. senator, a powerful man who's had this job for four years now, explaining to them, well, they had the right to be worried because this is the way that this sinful thing that worries them all works, and this is how it leads to that other sin that they can't understand the proliferation of in their society.
GROSS: I found that just so interesting for two reasons. It's a most unusual way of alerting people to the dangers of homosexuality, but also, most young people, when they discover their own sexual urge, and they try to play with that a little bit, feel so guilty about it often. And this would just make you feel so - it's designed to make you feel guilty not only about homosexuality and any possible urge that you'd have toward it but any possible self-pleasuring, shall we say…
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GROSS: …that you could possibly do, and I just wonder what most psychologists would have to say about that.
Mr. WEIGEL: I'd love to ask one. I don't think this is a - idea he has posited first, it's just that somebody with power in the Republican Party posited it that I find fascinating. And I guess I haven't heard it summed up in such a succinct way before. But…
GROSS: Well, he said he was told this by a friend who had turned an old hotel into a hospice for gay men dying of AIDS. So it's not his original theory. He attributed it to a friend.
Mr. WEIGEL: That's an important part of all of this. And I bring it back to the economics, I bring it back to abortion: the idea that because what they believe in is divinely inspired, and because it's been proven to work before, if you just let it work, if people just behave the way God wants them to, then not only will it fail, but you know, you'll see examples in real life of what happens when you stray away from it. And that was yet another example. It's - this lesson was imparted to him by a friend who saw men fall to this lifestyle, just as some of the most popular people there had seen women who had had abortions or seen what happens when women have abortions or just as people were - you know, had a business and were being victimized by the government's interventions.
There's a lot of I-once-was-blind-but-now-I-see-ism that was on display at this and that's, you know, on display throughout the Republican Party right now.
GROSS: My guest is David Weigel. He covers the Republican Party, and how the right is changing, for the Web magazine, the Washington Independent. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is David Weigel. He covers the Republican Party, and how the right is changing, for the Web magazine the Washington Independent. Earlier, he was discussing how the right has been interpreting the Constitution.
Now, you've said that this turn toward taking the Constitution as a major issue and immigration - that isn't unexpected in a party that's lost power. Are you saying that the right is emphasizing constitutional issues, immigration issues, at least as much as, perhaps more than, the old values issues because it can broaden the alliance now that the Republican Party has been so fractured?
Mr. WEIGEL: I think definitely. I spent a lot of time in the run-up - not the tea parties but the 9/12 tea party protest, going to sessions that some of Washington, D.C.'s longstanding conservative and libertarian groups were holding for the people showing up to this. And the people showing up, if we can generalize, were more middle-aged, more faithful, religious than the people who work at these religious groups.
One I went to was a session with the Ayn Rand Institute, where they were trying to impart the lessons of selfishness. That didn't really work, but the part of it - this same event, that was about the legacy of protest, the unconstitutionality of Democratic reforms, I saw a lot of head-nodding, a lot of taking detailed notes, a lot of actually running up to these speakers afterward to get them to sign their small copies of the Constitution.
There are groups in Washington, and I'm not even saying they're shadowy, they're very out and open with what they've been doing, but they have a more secular, business-friendly approach to this, and the area they intersect with, the Skousen-ism and with Christian conservatism, is on the Constitution.
If you watch Glenn Beck's show, a guest he has a lot is Phil Kerpen, who works for the Americans for Prosperity Foundation. And you know, Phil Kerpen is one of these guys who is mostly concerned about left-wing groups getting money from the government or people being, you know, the smoking bans, all the libertarian hobgoblins and tropes. Beck is somebody who is a disciple of Cleon Skousen, and they didn't used to agree, but on all this stuff, they can just come to the same center and find that the founders were against this, that economically this doesn't work. And I see that again and again in every event across D.C. There's real concordance between economic conservatives, libertarians and social conservatives. The occasional frays are not enough to pull them apart because they just - it's not worth it if it's going to break up one of these tea parties. They view the tea parties as the greatest thing to happen to social conservatism in their memory - to conservatism, period.
GROSS: So it's easier for these groups to find alliance in opposition than it is to find alliance when they're in power and actually have to make decisions and formulate an agenda.
Mr. WEIGEL: Very much so. And it's remarkable, if you watch the left when it's out of power. The left was - even, I think, when George Bush took office in 2001, unions didn't get along quite as well with moveon.org, and the people who had voted for Ralph Nader who were coming back to the fold were not that accepted in the movement. There was still a lot more bickering and a lot more focus on issues. But I think that's - this comes down to a difference between the conservative movement and the, broad speaking, liberal movement in America.
The conservative movement is about, first, principles. A social conservative has an idea of what they want. Let's stay away from the very far-out guys like the reconstructionists. If they don't want to change the Constitution, they just want - they want to encourage, you know, to have as little regulation so you can have strong families, maybe they want to ban abortion, things like that. Libertarians want to have as little regulation as possible.
There's not a lot - once you're done pulling back the government, there's not a lot else to talk about. Grover Norquist has talked about the leave-us-alone coalition of gun owners, of libertarians, of taxpayers. And the difference between that coalition and the liberal coalition is that liberals want lots of things.
They want the government to act on climate change. They want it to act on labor regulation. They want it to act on fair taxation. Conservatives of every stripe, libertarians of every stripe, just want it to get - want government to turn the keys in the ignition and back up to about 1913.
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Mr. WEIGEL: And they figure everything would take care of itself from there.
GROSS: David Weigel will be back in the second half of the show. He covers the Republican Party and how the right is changing for the Web magazine the Washington Independent. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with David Weigel. He covers the Republican Party and how the right is changing for the Web magazine The Washington Independent.
There's been a lot of discussion about whether the recent big events on the right, the tea party events, the 9/12 march on Washington, whether these are genuine grassroots movements or whether they are what has been described as Astroturf, fake grassroots. And since you've been at these events, and you've been talking to a lot people at them, leaders and people who've showed up to participate, what are your impressions - grassroots or Astroturf?
Mr. WEIGEL: It's grassroots, but the grass is being trimmed by a very expensive machine. These people are real. They were not in the streets before the election. They got into the street after the stimulus. And if you talk to Dick Armey of FreedomWorks, if you talk to Tim Phillips of Americans for Prosperity, talk to Grover Norquist, they've been trying to make something like this happen for years and years and years and couldn't get the bodies on the ground.
One of the more revealing things that the Family, sorry, the Values Voters summit was, Gary Bauer at a quieter session that wasn't really open to media, just talking about how great it was to see conservatives in the street. You hadn't been able to do that before.
GROSS: So, you talked about how there's like - what did you say, big machines mowing the lawn?
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GROSS: So let's talk about some of the money behind these movements. There's been a lot written about FreedomWorks, which is one of the major backers, financially, of the tea party protests and the 9-12 march on Washington. What is FreedomWorks?
Mr. WEIGEL: FreedomWorks is a libertarian organization that came out of Citizens for a Sound Economy, a previous libertarian organization. It split a number of years ago, and Americans for Prosperity was one branch of it, FreedomWorks was the other branch. And it had - Dick Armey, who was the majority leader of the House until he retired in 2003, just used it to pound the table on a bunch of libertarian pro-business causes with - I wouldn't say there wasn't a lot of success. Groups like that are good at shifting the public debate.
But think of what happens during the Bush administration on those issues. Social security reform was not a success. Medicare Part D, which was a big expansion of government, was a success. The bailouts, which FreedomWorks opposed to the hilt, you know, passed. After one hiccup, they ended up passing. So FreedomWorks was a conservative libertarian group with Republican members, with big money, but it wasn't influential until recently, when the members of that group who are, you know, I think freewheeling libertarian radicals applied their skills to organizing big public events.
GROSS: I think one of the things that has really empowered FreedomWorks now is that they have an issue to organize around that's been very successful for them, and that's the fear of the president's health reform plan. So how have they used that for organizing, and why is that their issue?
Mr. WEIGEL: Well, they've used the health-care plan, I think, in a way that surprised even them. FreedomWorks, and libertarians in general, oppose national health care for the reason that they think that it will be the first stage of a multistage takeover that ends with America having a Sweden-style or France-style health-care system. So that's what they've been talking about. They've ended up taking the reins of a movement that includes lots of paranoia about whether health care will kill old people, how it's going to take people's taxpayer money and make it fund abortions, how illegal immigrants are going to be able to get it.
FreedomWorks has never been that concerned about illegal immigration but, you know, it's riding this, it's at the head of this caravan now, and if the people a little bit behind the caravan are having success, they're not stopping them.
GROSS: Now, another group that's been very active in this current alliance on the right is FAIR, which stands for Federation for American Immigration Reform. And what has their role been in organizing or participating in the tea party events and the 9/12 march on Washington?
Mr. WEIGEL: Well, FAIR is just a powerful movement in the conservative - or a powerful organization in the conservative coalition, because fear of illegal immigration is not something the people in D.C., in the Beltway conservative movement, care that much about, largely speaking. But it is something that motivates the base out there, and especially in the West, in the South, and places where there's not a huge influx of illegal immigration. They're still interested in horror stories about what could happen.
GROSS: Is FAIR one of the reasons why immigration has been so stressed, so emphasized in the health-care debate? I mean, why is there this emphasis on a fear that illegal immigrants will be able to get health care through the new health reform plan if it's passed? And when it's been made clear that it doesn't say that in the bills that are on the table, is it groups like FAIR that have added that to the debate, that have emphasized that in the debate?
Mr. WEIGEL: Yeah. I think they have helped to shape it. I think this is one of those issues, though, where economic worries translate to scapegoating. and it was very direct when we had an immigration bill on the table. In the economic issue, it's a little bit more indirect but it's still happening. Conservative voters know that the economy is not good. They no longer believe - as they did, you know, when the Republicans were running for president in 2008 - that it's fixable if we just cut taxes.
They know there are real problems, but it's tough to think that you might need to intervene in the economy to fix those problems. It's tough to think that the solutions to health care might be government solutions to health care. It's easier to think that there are people distorting the system and abusing the system, illegal immigrants in hospitals, and if we clean that up, that is how we take care of this. I mean, FAIR is a group whose position on immigration is that we need a moratorium, followed by a restriction of legal immigration. And obviously, border - on illegal immigration - zero tolerance.
GROSS: Let's look at the remaking of the right, and the role that Fox News has been playing in that. What was the role of Fox News in organizing and helping to organize the tea party protests and the 9/12 march on Washington?
Mr. WEIGEL: The role of Fox News in organizing these things has been massive, and it's something I'm continually taken aback by it. One through line I see is that most conservative groups are happy admitting that they are behind an event or they handed out leaflets, they booked something.Fox News is very sensitive about being criticized for its advocacy, but it - let's just take the 9/12 march on Washington. One, it promoted a very strange, fringe event called the Tea Party Express. That was a bus of conservatives going from California to D.C., culminating with the march. And it embedded a reporter on this bus for the, you know, these smallish events - reporting on the scene, giving updates when everyone was going on. They informed their...
GROSS: Embedded a Fox reporter.
Mr. WEIGEL: It was Griff Jenkins, who is kind of a color reporter but you know, a guy with a national audience. And when they get to the march itself, Jenkins is back on the scene; he's reporting on it, they have all-day coverage, which is not to be, not unexpected. But there's actually a moment where Jenkins was doing a hit and showing the crowd at some point in the early afternoon, and a Fox news producer, whenever Jenkins was about to go on, would wave up her arms and incite the crowd to start cheering louder.
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Mr. WEIGEL: And that's something you might see on a talk show, but Fox has just taken an out-and-out oppositional approach to the Obama administration. Not just with the tea parties, but I mean - Glenn Beck's show, I don't think can be overrated as an influence in building a popular and intellectual opposition to the administration. More than anything, you can compare it to Keith Olbermann's show during the Bush administration; it's not close. I mean Beck, day after day is getting conservative movement intelligence, asking his readers to send him stuff, and going after members of the Obama administration. It's kind of unheard of. The advocacy is just unheard of and strange.
GROSS: Why do you think Glenn Beck has become so popular and powerful?
Mr. WEIGEL: I think it's very simple.
Mr. WEIGEL: I think it's simple. The reason for Beck's popularity is that he tells the audience he's uncovering something. Shawn Hannity, I don't think is - he's not become much less popular, but he basically bashes liberals and says that Democrats are gross and Ted Kennedy's - the late Ted Kennedy was unappealing, and stuff you've heard on talk radio for years and years. Beck says, I've uncovered something; me or my investigator - have uncovered a video; we've uncovered a secret link; we've uncovered a document. And that's fascinating.
It's fascinating from the normal consumer of news's perspective. It's fascinating from the conspiracy theorist's perspective. I mean, no one else is giving you a chart showing you the 87 interlocking connections of the left-wing movements and Barack Obama. And I think that's exactly it; that's why he's become popular.
GROSS: What issues do you think Glenn Beck is having like, the biggest impact on?
Mr. WEIGEL: I think generally, he's shifted the window of discussion on presidential power and the Constitution. He's shifted the window on ACORN. ACORN's a good example because there were votes early in this year to defund ACORN, for ACORN - and this is dubiously constitutional - but the organization should not get any more funding because it had been indicted for voter fraud. And most Democrats voted against this. Glenn Beck pounded this relentlessly. He ran these undercover videos from conservative activists, and ACORN is now defunded.
I mean, on the constitutional issue in general, you've got a guy who's getting the best ratings on Fox, telling people every day about the Tree of Revolution, that Barack Obama is connected to ACORN, is connected to SEIU. All of this is rooted in the ideas of Saul Alinsky, who wanted to overthrow the government. I mean, if I could boil it down to political issues, it's ACORN and czars. But I think the influence has just to - been - to turn the national discourse from what it was nine months ago, when we were saying we're in real trouble; what can or should the government do to fix it, to are we on the road to fascism?
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Mr. WEIGEL: And I think he's really introduced that into the national discussion in a way that's probably not realistic.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Weigel. He writes for the Web magazine the Washington Independent, where he covers the Republican Party and the remaking of the right.
Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more about your reporting.
This is FRESH AIR.
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Last week, Nancy Pelosi said that she's worried about some of the language being used because she saw the results of extreme language and angry language in the '70s, when Harvey Milk was killed in San Francisco - when he was murdered. Do you share those concerns?
Mr. WEIGEL: I know that threats to President Obama are to the tune of 400 percent greater, more numerous, than threats to George Bush. And I also know that there have been murders of police and of abortion providers since President Obama took office. There was a murder of a few police officers in Pittsburgh. There was a murder of George Tiller in Kansas. So, I don't like to - look - let's look at the '70s. The Weather Underground blew up some bombs and there's - Democrats are still getting tarred by that 38, 40 years later. But the majority of liberals who were very angry at Richard Nixon didn't blow up any bombs. Same thing's going to happen on the right.
One thing that I think is, what'll happen on the right is that there will be a large number of conservative activists of whom some do dangerous, embarrassing, murderous things that make them all look awful. One thing I think is key here, though, is that Glenn Beck, a few months ago, warned his audience not to do anything like this. He, in his very thespian way, was beseeching people not to get too worried about what the Obama administration was doing and lead themselves to violence. So one reason you'll see a few conservatives criticizing this is because they are afraid of that. Even Glenn Beck is a bit afraid of that. I think there has been an uptick of it. And I really do think if it happens, people like Beck realize they will be blamed, they'll immediately be blamed for an act of real, extreme violence, as Bill O'Reilly was blamed after the George Tiller thing.
So it's ticked up a little bit. I don't want to tar all these people who've shown up at tea parties with that, but they have to look at the rhetoric coming from mainstream conservatives and the - even the rhetoric that says everything this president's doing is against America's identity and our Constitution and say, where does this lead?
GROSS: One of the slogans of the Obama protest movements, you know, the tea party movement and the 9/12 march on Washington is, I want my country back. And Obama is being portrayed as a fascist, a communist, a socialist. Some people say that that's because of race, that racism lies underneath that. Again, you've been going to these events, you've been talking to leaders and people who show up to participate. What's your sense of that? Do you think that there is a conscious or unconscious racism that's motivating some of this?
Mr. WEIGEL: Well, one thing I would caution and say is that Howard Dean rose to nearly taking the Democratic nomination - although not by a lot - by saying, I want my country back. That was one of his lines. So it's - on one level, it's a political trope. In my conversations, I mean, I don't want - I don't like running down a proportion I made up, but it's a small proportion of people who out-and-out do not like African-Americans and do not like the idea of an African-American running their country. If it's not that explicit, it's that they think he is going to take things away from white people and give them to African-Americans.
And that's an element there. It's definitely not something you hear from the people - the one thing you can say with the Astroturf people, if you want to call FreedomWorks Astroturf, there's none of that there. It's just something you see on the fringes - in signs. If you press somebody, they'll talk about it. How deep it is in there, I mean, this has always been a conservative complaint about liberalism, post-Great Society, is that liberalism is taking away from the majority and giving to the minority. So that's going to be interlaced throughout this.
GROSS: I think there is some disagreement among journalistsabout whether people on the fringe should be covered or not.
Mr. WEIGEL: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And one of the things you're doing is covering some of the more extreme elements of the right and trying to see who's - who's got the power there, what are they saying, where are the conspiracy series coming from. By doing that, do you think that you risk empowering people who are fringy and whose views are not grounded in truth? Or do you think it's necessary to do that to alert people to what's out there?
Mr. WEIGEL: I have to tell you, when I started the Independent in January and I said this was going to be my beat, covering conservative movement in exile, I didn't think we would have marches of 70,000 people in the streets, some of them waving signs saying Barack Obama was born in Kenya. I didn't think - I wrote about the birth certificate people because I just thought it was strange and amusing and easy to knock down. I never thought that was going to be something that 10 members of Congress sign legislation asking for a clarity on. So I struggled with this because there are liberal groups that have risen up to just cover every radical thing Rush Limbaugh says.
And I think doing that just takes away air time that could be spent covering something else, often for liberals. I mean, you see this with - President Obama will give a speech about health care and all people talk about is Joe Wilson, let's all pile on Joe Wilson. But it's really essential to point out where the fringe ideas are coming from. If something is escaping from the fringe into the mainstream, it's escaping and it's getting right into the consciousness of people who consider themselves ordinary Americans who are worried about their country.
If they are not informed that this idea they heard on Glenn Beck actually comes from a very strange and wrong and stupid place, or that, say, somebody - I think Lou Dobbs the other day had - told everybody to go to a Web site that had a bunch of secessionist arguments on it. If you don't point that out, then people just read it. There's a way to go overboard, but it has to be pointed out.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much, David Weigel, for talking with us. Thank you.
Mr. WEIGEL: Oh, thank you so much for having me.
GROSS: David Weigel covers the Republican Party, and how the right is changing, for the Web magazine the Washington Independent.
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