As director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, Mark Potok spends his days monitoring organized extremism and more ad-hoc manifestations of right-wing hatred. And early this past November, Potok was a busy man. The server for stormfront.org, the Web site of the world's largest white-supremacist organization, crashed immediately after Election Day; so did the server for cofcc.org, the Web site of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a group dedicated to "advocating against minorities and racial integration."
What's more, says Potok, there was a sharp spike in on-the-ground anti-Obama incidents following the election. Obama was hung in effigy, he says; Obama supporters had crosses burned in their yards; an Obama volunteer was beaten in New Orleans; kids on a school bus in Idaho struck up an "assassinate Obama" chant.
"Here, we're not really talking about a white-supremacist backlash," Potok contends. "The way I read it, this was very much a backlash from a sector of mainstream white America. That's what was most remarkable about it. Those kids in Idaho — that stuff doesn't come out of nowhere."
But then . . . things got quiet. "Within two to three weeks after the election," says Potok, "most of this just disappeared. Clearly, the immediate signs of an angry backlash have subsided. And whether it's something that's going to reverberate into the future is really in question."
A similar dynamic seems to be at work in the right-wing media. In the current issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, Michael Massing compares the anti-Obama climate created by Limbaugh, et al., during the campaign to the media mood that preceded the assassination of then-Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
The solution, Massing argues, isn't to re-impose the Fairness Doctrine, which would only inflame the right's victim complex (see "Fair Is Foul," News & Features, November 17, 2008). Instead, it's for the mainstream press to stop treating rabid right-wingers as benign curiosities (he cites the New York Times Magazine's recent cover story on Limbaugh and Barbara Walters's declaration that Limbaugh is one of the "Ten Most Fascinating People of 2008" as prominent derelictions of duty) and, instead, to start chronicling what they're actually saying.
"There's a need to expose what these people are doing," argues Massing. "Very few Americans, outside that world, realize just how lunatic and shocking the things that were said [during the campaign] are — and how dangerous they are." (He also urges responsible conservatives to condemn rhetorical overkill on the right.)
His point is well-taken. But since the election, there simply hasn't been quite as much anti-Obama media muck to chronicle.
By way of example, consider the way the critiques offered by Media Matters for America (MMA), the progressive media-watchdog group, have evolved since the election. On Election Day, MMA drew attention to G. Gordon Liddy's warnings of an Obama-sponsored concentration camp for white Americans that would serve "ham hocks and turnip greens." The following week, MMA focused on Michael Savage's suggestion that Obama's grandmother — whom the president-elect visited in Hawaii late in the campaign — had died under mysterious circumstances, apparently as part of an effort to cover up the fact that Obama wasn't really born in the United States.