My Column

The Resilient City – from Empire City: New York Through the Centuries

The Resilient City
by John Avlon
From “Empire City: New York Through the Centuries”

Three hundred and forty-one New York City firefighters. Twenty-three New York City police officers. Thirty-seven Port Authority police officers. Three court officers. Two EMS workers. Thousands of innocent civilians. Numbers alone, of course, cannot do them justice.

A whole portrait of America was taken from us in an instant: individuals of every race, religion, and ethnicity; fathers and mothers, children and newlyweds, brothers, sisters and best friends. Amid our grief we now see that New York had been distracted by flash and wit and cash for too long. The heroic actions of those we lost reawakened us to the essential importance of personal courage. Overnight, and somewhat to our surprise, New York has been embraced as the nation’s symbol of resilience, the indomitable heart of America. Read More…

George Clooney: A 21st-Century Statesman – Newsweek

In the age of Twitter-shortened attention spans, fame is an increasingly powerful weapon of diplomacy. John Avlon on how George Clooney is helping to bring change—and a hefty dose of hope—to Sudan.

George Clooney hates the paparazzi. But he also knows the power of a snapshot. So the Oscar winner just launched a privately funded satellite to broadcast pictures of troop movements throughout Sudan. He’s now back from a visit to the genocide-ridden country, which in January voted to split itself in two, making Southern Sudan the world’s 193rd nation. Clooney’s dogged activism in Africa has earned him the ear of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment. Twice, he’s visited President Obama in the Oval Office. In his next movie, The Ides of March , Clooney plays a flawed presidential candidate. Does he dream of becoming the real thing? “I didn’t live my life in the right way for politics, you know,” he tells Newsweek . “I f—ed too many chicks and did too many drugs, and that’s the truth.” Read More…

GOP Contenders Take Aim – CBS Early Show

John Avlon and Margaret Hoover discuss the GOP presidential canidates on the CBS Early Show. Discussions about Rick Perry, Paul Ryan, mobilizing the Republican base, and what options the Republicans have for the 2012 Elections.

Exclusive: Congressional Ethics Probe Adds to Michele Bachmann’s Political Woes – The Daily Beast

The Hindenburg. The Titanic. Michele Bachmann.

Eighteen months ago, the Minnesota House member was considered an unlikely but undeniable Republican rising star, winning the Iowa straw poll that unofficially begins the primary season. Today, she is embroiled in a litany of legal proceedings related to her rolling disaster of a presidential campaign—including an Office of Congressional Ethics investigation into campaign improprieties that has not previously been reported.

The Daily Beast has learned that federal investigators are now interviewing former Bachmann campaign staffers nationwide about alleged intentional campaign-finance violations. The investigators are working on behalf of the Office of Congressional Ethics, which probes reported improprieties by House members and their staffs and then can refer cases to the House Ethics Committee. Read More…

The Economist Interview: Six questions for John Avlon

IN TODAY’S polarised political environment John Avlon has carved out a useful niche, exposing extremists on both the left and right. He says these partisans are more dangerous than ever, in part because they obscure the growing power of independents. Mr Avlon is a columnist for the Daily Beast and a regular contributor on CNN. His most recent book is ” Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America”. This week we asked him some questions about those hyperpartisans and their effect on America’s political system.

Democracy in America: First off, what is a wingnut?

Mr Avlon: A wingnut is someone on the far-right wing or far-left wing of the political spectrum—the professional partisans, the unhinged activists and the paranoid conspiracy theorists. They’re the people who always try to divide rather than unite us. One tell-tale sign of a Wingnut: they always confuse partisanship with patriotism. Read More…

Jim Harrison Can Make You a Better Animal – The Daily Beast

Arguably America’s greatest living author—and certainly our earthiest—lives half the year in Livingston, Montana. It’s a town grounded in the early 20th-century West, with neon signs on brick buildings and mountains in the background, all crowned by a former train depot that was once the preferred entrance to Yellowstone National Park.

The town is a reminder of a time when authors were respected ambassadors of a mythic America, the dream readers who could shrink large distances with their dispatches, articulate outlaws who could drink and fight and fuck and still file on deadline, drawing a straight line from Jack London to Ernest Hemingway with a thousand wasted wannabees in between.

Jim Harrison steps out of that tradition, but with contempt for its pretensions. He is all appetite and no apologies. And so the author of Legends of the Fall and 30 other books, including The Farmer’s Daughter (newly released in paperback), is one of the most accessible of modern American writers whose work is filed under “literature.” He is not locked inside his head but connected to the land and heart and, especially, stomach. For all his freely admitted highs and lows, buoyed by lust and flashes of violence, he keeps the virtues of kindness and forgiveness close. His writing reminds us to try our best to be happy animals in an unsentimental world. Read More…

Market Leninism vs. the West – The Daily Beast

So much for the end of history. Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall gave rise to the idea that liberal capitalist democracy would carry the human race inexorably toward broad sunlit uplands, we are confronted with the ugly fact that culture outlasts politics.

The ideology of communism may have ended up on the ash heap of history like Nazism before it, but now “Market Leninism” is taking its place as a challenge to liberty in the 21st Century.

The fault lines reflect Cold War regions.

Russia and China and some of their old satellite states have traded Marx and Lenin for Market Leninism.

The militaristic one-party state endures – but the nomenklatura now attracts global capital, swilling champagne in jet set nightclubs instead of behind dacha walls.
Read More…

Ode to the Independent Bookstore

In September, the final Borders stores closed, adding to the funeral pyre of big-box stores content providers that went before them, like Tower Records or Virgin Megastores.

Some people believe it is only a matter of time until all bookstores go the way of the horse and buggy. But all is not lost—at least not yet.

After all, we vote with our wallets. And if you care about the unique character of your community, if you believe in rewarding the rugged independence of small businesses, then your local independent bookstore deserves your support, now more than ever. This is an admittedly counter-cultural effort—but that is part of its appeal and sense of purpose. Read More…

The Westboro Defectors Speak: Phelps Granddaughters Embrace Tolerance – The Daily Beast

On Thursday afternoon Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper visited the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. They’d been inside only a few minutes when they saw a photo of their family.

There, as part of the permanent exhibit, was an image of their grandmother and sister at the murder trial of Matthew Shepard’s killers, holding the signs for which the Westboro Baptist Church has become infamous: “God Hates Fags,” “AIDS Cures Gays,” and “Matt in Hell.”

This was once their way of life. Now 27, Megan had been taken to protests since age 5; her younger sister Grace had been attending since birth—all as part of the Kansas ministry founded by their grandfather. Read More…

Forty-Five Foiled Terror Plots Since 9/11 – The Daily Beast

As counterterrorism officials investigate a new ‘credible’ terror threat, records show there have been at least 45 jihadist terrorist-attack plots against Americans since 9/11—thwarted by intelligence work, policing, and citizen involvement. John Avlon reports.

As news of a new “credible” threat swept across the nation on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Americans were abruptly reminded that terrorism is always one bad day away from being issue No. 1.

In the latest case, one report said at least three people—one believed to be a U.S. citizen—entered the U.S. in August to plan a car-bomb attack against Washington, D.C., or New York. The suspected terrorists are thought to have come from Afghanistan or Pakistan, and at least two rental trucks are being sought nationwide. White House officials confirmed that President Obama had been briefed on the “specific” terrorism threat.

Too often, 10 years after the worst terrorist attacks in our nation’s history, we sometimes fall into a false sense of security as a degree of 9/11 amnesia takes hold; a desire to recast the attacks as a tragic isolated incident.

The facts tell a very different story. The record shows that there have been at least 45 jihadist terrorist attacks plotted against Americans since 9/11—each of them thwarted by a combination of intelligence work, policing and citizen participation.

And these are just the plotted attacks that we know about through public documentation—the real number of credible plots is no doubt much higher. No truly authoritative list exists because of the preponderance of classified information, although organizations such as the Heritage Foundation have published detailed lists in the past. An additional problem in coming up with a comprehensive list lies in consistently defining the parameters of thwarted attacks. The plots also are of varying degrees of seriousness, from some that were days from causing mass bloodshed to others that were twisted ambitions caught well before fruition.

The list published below comes as close as I could, using public sources and past lists—and it was reviewed by both government and academic organizations that track terrorist attacks.

Since 9/11, there have been devastating terror attacks in cities like London and Madrid. But America has so far batted 1,000 against the constant stream of civilian-targeted terror threats, though trends show the types of plots are changing to an increase of military targets (think the deadly shooting spree at Fort Hood by Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hassan) and Americans’ training overseas for the purpose of terrorism.

Professor Erik Dahl of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., and the START program at the University of Maryland has compiled the most detailed list of attempted terrorists attacks to date, spanning a period of 25 years, in his paper “The Plots That Failed: Intelligence Lessons Learned From Unsuccessful Terrorist Attacks Against the United States,” recently published in the academic journal Studies in Conflict and Terrorism.

“Everyone in American national security is amazed that we haven’t had another 9/11 within America since 9/11. A lot of credit has to go to both the Bush and now the Obama administrations for keeping the country a lot safer than anybody expected. That’s the good news,” Dahl tells me. “But the bad news is that we do see this continuing, steady drumbeat of smaller-scale plots and attempted terrorist attacks. So the threat is definitely not gone.”

And what does Dahl believe has most accounted for the extraordinary Homeland Security record of success to date? “When it comes to domestic attacks and securing the homeland, what works is really good, old-fashioned policing—law enforcement, tips from the public, police informants—and not so much spies overseas or satellites run by three-letter government agencies.”

Interestingly, while compiling his list, Dahl found that “about 75 percent of the plots are associated with radical Islamists and about 25 percent are from right-wing domestic, anti-government militia movements.” But for the purposes of marking the 9/11 anniversary, this list focuses solely on the Islamist terrorist plots against Americans at home or on military bases outside war zones overseas.

An additional point of consideration is the cooperation that Muslim Americans have given to police that has helped stop many terrorist plots to date. “Local law enforcement and FBI officials have very good relations with the mainstream Muslim communities in various parts of America,” attests Dahl.

In the absence of another major terrorist attack on U.S. soil, it can be too easy to ignore the heroic efforts that have saved countless American lives over the past decade we have been at war.

It can also be easy to ignore the trends that have emerged, even after the welcome death of Osama bin Laden and the Obama administration’s successful escalation against al Qaeda. “We’re seeing more of an effort to attack U.S. military targets within the U.S., such as the Fort Hood shooting,” Dahl says. “These domestic lone-wolf attacks are not likely to be able to cause the amount of damage that a carefully planned and executed international plot, such as an al Qaeda plot, can do. But they can kill a lot of people.”

We now know that Osama bin Laden had long hoped for a 10th anniversary attack; and the threat of a lone wolf attack may be at the heart of this latest credible threat officials are investigating. But America’s first line of defense will be especially vigilant on this anniversary of the day when Islamist terrorists declared war on the U.S.

Looking to the future, Dahl sees a need to remain focused on the threats we face, while working to achieve the right balance “between reporting on things, the ‘see something-say something’ approach on the one hand, and respecting civil liberties and the rights of individuals to go about their daily lives. We still haven’t figured out just where that balance is in America.” But in our democratic republic’s response to 9/11 and subsequent civic debates we come ever closer to finding the right balance.

After the attacks of 9/11, we swore that we would never forget.  And so, among the memorials on this 10th anniversary that honors the victims and heroes we lost, it is also appropriate to remind ourselves of the need to remain vigilant.  We honor the dead from that day by resolving to do all we can to stop future 9/11s.

First responders have a saying: “Hope for the best; prepare for the worst.”  The civic resilience of the United States in the wake of the attacks of 9/11 is a testament to the power that free people have to overcome the forces of fear. We have been both lucky and good, and—as this rogues’ gallery of foiled terrorist plots reminds us—we all owe the broader counterterrorism community our thanks. America is the land of the free because we are the home of the brave.

1. Richard Reid
December 2001

Shoe bomber.

2. ‘Library Tower’ Plot
February 2002

Plot to attempt a second 9/11-style aerial attack to topple the tallest building in Los Angeles.

3. José Padilla
May 2002

Accused of meeting with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a dirty bomb plot. Sentenced to 17 years in 2008.

4. Earnest James Ujaama
July 2002

Seattle-based terror cell plotted to support the Taliban.

5. U.S. Forces in Germany
September 2002

A man and a woman of Turkish heritage—the man born in Germany—are arrested for plotting to blow up U.S. Army headquarters in Germany.

6. Lackawanna Cell
September 2002

Six Yemeni-Americans are accused of conspiring to help al Qaeda and plead guilty.

7. Oregon Taliban plot
October 2002

Seven Oregonians arrested in plot to join the Taliban and wage war against the United States.

8. Al Qaeda Gas Attack Plot on NYC Subways
Spring 2003

Reported by Ron Suskind in The One Percent Doctrine.

9. Iyman Farris
May 2003

Plot to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge.

10. Virginia Jihad Network
June 2003

Virginia group trained for apparent urban warfare missions, including training in Afghanistan.

11. Nuradin M. Abdi
November 2003

Plotted to bomb a Columbus, Ohio, shopping mall.

12. Dhiren Barot
August 2004

Plotted to bomb locations in New York, Newark, and Washington.

13. James Elshafay and Shahawar Matin Siraj
August 2004

Plotted to bomb train station near Madison Square Garden in bid to disrupt the Republican National Convention.

14. Levar Haley Washington, Gregory Vernon Patterson, Hammad Riaz Samana, and Kevin James
August 2005

Arrested for conspiring to attack National Guard facilities and synagogues around Los Angeles.

15. Mohammad Zaki Amawi, Marwan Othman El-Hindi, and Zand Wassim Mazlou
February 2006

Convicted in 2008 (PDF) of conspiring to commit terrorism against Americans overseas.

16. Syed Haris Ahmed and Ehsanul Islam Sadequee
April 2006

Gathered surveillance and met with other terrorists about targets in Washington, D.C.

17. Narseal Batiste, Patrick Abraham, Stanley Grant Phanor, Naudimar Herrera, Burson Augustin, Lyglenson Lemorin, and Rotschild Augustine
June 2006

Plotted to blow up Sears Tower.

18. Assem Hammoud
July 2006

Plotted to attack PATH trains between New York and New Jersey.

19. Jetliner bombing plot
August 2006

Twenty-four suspects arrested for plotting to blow up 10 U.S. jetliners with liquid explosives. This plot led to the regulation of liquids on planes.

20. Houston Taliban
November 2006

Kobie Diallo Williams and four other men are charged with conspiring to support the Taliban after training in Texas.

21. Derrick Shareef
December 2006

Planned to set off grenades at a shopping mall near Chicago.

22. Fort Dix Plot
May 2007

The “Fort Dix Six” plotted to attack Fort Dix in New Jersey.

23. JFK Airport
June 2007

Four men plotted to blow up fuel tanks and pipelines at JFK Airport in New York.

24. Ramstein Air Base, Germany
September 2007

German converts to Islam, plotting under the cover of the Islamic Jihad Union, are found to have explosives and plan to target one of the largest U.S. air bases in Europe.

25. Columbus, Ohio
June 2008

Christopher Paul aka Abdul Malek, aka Paul Kenyatta Laws

Pleaded guilty to conspiring with others to blow up targets in the U.S. and Europe.

26. NYC Subway Bombing
Sept. 14, 2009

Najibullah Zazi and three other men are caught days before they detonate explosives in the New York City subway.

27. Long Island Rail Road Threat
November 2008

American Bryant Neal Vinas gives al Qaeda leaders information to attack the LIRR.

28. Springfield, Illinois Courthouse Bomb Plot
Sept. 24, 2009

Michael Finton

Arrested in plot to detonate a vehicle bomb outside a courthouse and kill federal employees.

29. Dallas Tower Plot
Sept. 24, 2009

Hosam Maher Husein Smadi

A Jordanian man is arrested in connection with a plot to bomb at a skyscraper in Dallas.

30. Quantico, VA
Sept. 24, 2009

Daniel Patrick Boyd

A group of men are charged in plot to attack the Marine Corps base in Quantico.

31. Boston
October 2009

Tarek Mehanna and Ahmad Abousamra

Two men are arrested on wide-ranging charges, including conspiracy to kill U.S. politicians, spanning the past decade.

32. Northern Virginia
December 2009

Five men from northern Virginia are arrested in Pakistan and charged with supporting al Qaeda. Were reported missing by their families.

33. Detroit Airspace
Christmas Day Bomber, 2009

A man tries to detonate an explosive on a flight over Detroit. Also known as the underwear bomber.

34. Chicago
March 2010

Raja Lahrasib Khan

Man is arrested for funneling money (PDF) to terrorist organizations.

35. Times Square, New York City
May 1, 2010

Faisal Shahzad

Failed attempt to detonate a vehicle bomb in Times Square.

36. King Salmon, Alaska
July/August, 2010

Paul G. Rockwood, Jr. and Nadia Piroska Maria Rockwood

A husband and wife compile a list of 20 targets to murder, including military and media figures, arrested as they were set to move into the operational phase.

37. Wrigley Field, Chicago
Sept. 20, 2010

A man is arrested after planting a fake bomb outside Wrigley Field.

38. Air-Cargo Bomb Yemen to Chicago
October 2010

Twin packages of explosives were shipped from Yemen to synagogues in Chicago.

39. Washington, D.C.
October 2010

Farooque Ahmed

Ahmed is arrested in connection with a plot to blow up the D.C. Metro.

40. Portland, Oregon
Nov. 26, 2010

Mohamed Osman Mohamud

A Christmas-tree lighting is targeted by a 19-year-old Somali man, Mohamed Osman Mohamud, busted in an FBI sting operation.

41. Catonsville, Md.
Dec. 8, 2010

Antonio Martinez

Man arrested for plotting to blow up a U.S. Army recruiting center.

42. Lubbock, Texas/National
Feb. 23, 2011

Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari

Man arrested in bomb plot against military and political targets, including former President George W. Bush, in New York, Colorado, and California.

43. New York City
May 11, 2011

Ahmed Ferhani and Mohamed Mamdouh

Two men arrested in plot to attack a Manhattan synagogue.

44. Seattle, Wash.
June 22, 2011 (arrest date)

Abu Khalid Abdul-Latif, aka Joseph Anthony Davis, and Walli Mujahidh

Two men are arrested in a plot to attack a military recruiting station in Seattle.

45. Fort Hood, Texas
July 27, 2011 (arrest date)

Pfc. Naser Jason Abdo

A former army private is arrested in a plot to copycat attack at Fort Hood.

American Way: What We Didn’t Learn After Newtown – The Telegraph

Here’s the thing about shock. It fades. Certainly not for the families of the 20 children who were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School one year ago. But for the rest of us, who recoiled in horror at the evil enabled by semi-automatic weapons wielded by a monster of a young man, the shock fades.

The urgency over trying to ensure that such a slaughter “never happens again” – it fades. The calls for new legislation, reasonable restrictions which might make it just a little bit more difficult to kill as many people as fast as possible, grow stale and over time start to seem impractical and implausible. And so conventional wisdom congeals more or less where it was before the massacre.

And guess what? That was the obstruction strategy all along – a smart but cynical bet on civic amnesia, pushed by lobbyists who cajoled congressmen and advised them to resist the wishes of 90% of the American people. Read More…

Paranoia on Patriots’ Day – The Daily Beast

The paranoid style in American politics is alive and well.

It was thriving on both sides of the Potomac Monday at separate Second Amendment rallies offering a cast of characters including militia members, a fundamentalist Mormon family, a sheriff, a Patrick Henry re-enactor and a pistol-packing transsexual.

What connected them all is a belief that our constitutional republic is being undermined by the Obama administration. As one typical rallying cry vented: “It’s not about guns—it’s about freedom!” And they let their freak flag fly.

At the Virginia rally, the armed participants were almost outnumbered by the press, creating a militia petting-zoo atmosphere. Foreign and domestic reporters fell all over themselves to interview what they saw as self-appointed members of the lunatic fringe.

This crowd didn’t need signs; they had assault rifles to get their primary point across. Earnest members of the crowd discussed conspiracies ranging from JFK to 9/11 to Timothy McVeigh, all ending up with guns protecting us from global government. But there was a specific irony undercutting their intensity—namely that President Obama, who attendees say is threatening their Second Amendment rights, signed the law which made this first armed rally in a national park possible. Read More…

What Independent Voters Want – The Wall Street Journal

Independent voters, once a political afterthought, are now the largest and fastest-growing segment of the American electorate.

This shift led to the nomination of two candidates who ran against the polarizing establishments of their own parties, while preaching the need to reach across the red-state/blue-state divide. Now independent voters may determine who is elected president.

Forty-three percent of undecided swing voters are independents and 47% are centrists, according to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll. Independent voters have been on the rise while the parties have been playing to a shrinking base. This is a generational change. There are now six states where independents outnumber both Republicans and Democrats—the swing states of Colorado, Iowa and New Hampshire as well as New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Read More…

The Absurd Impeachment Feedback Loop – The Daily Beast

Impeachment is the final fantasy for obsessive hyper-partisans. But some Democrats are exploiting the craziness as a fundraising call to arms.

Silly season has started—and both parties are trying to fund-raise off the fringe.

One-third of Americans now say that President Obama should be impeached, according to a CNN/ORC poll. This carries about as much constitutional weight as previous free-floating anxieties about the president being secretly Muslim, communist or born in Kenya.

The partisan breakdown of the Impeach Obama crowd is roughly what you’d expect. Fifty-seven percent of Republicans say they support impeachment and 35 percent of independents, with a very-confused 13 percent of Democrats bringing up the caboose. Read More…

Border Kids Crisis—Impotent Congress – The Daily Beast

The alleged urgency of the problem is inspiring no action on Capitol Hill. But the failure to deal with the influx of Central American children isn’t inevitable—it’s driven by fear.

Cynicism passes for wisdom in Washington. And despite the urgent optics of the border kids crisis, our D.C. politicos would rather demagogue the issue than deal with it. Our porous borders are seen as a midterm election play-to-the-base appeal instead of a problem to be solved.

Listen to members of Congress and most correspondents who cover them, and you just know that immigration reform is never going to happen this year. After all, the smart money says any controversial action is considered a loser in an election year. And forget the next sessions of Congress—the presidential election will have begun and nothing will get done, as President Bush learned in 2007, when the proto-Tea Party talk radio crowd tanked his bid for a bipartisan immigration reform. Read More…

Scaife v. Clinton and the Dangers of Demonization – The Daily Beast

Richard Mellon Scaife—paymaster of the ‘vast right-wing conspiracy’—died July 4. But he died counting Clinton a friend who had ‘served the American people most ably.’

On July 4th, Richard Mellon Scaife died. The Pittsburgh publishing magnate was considered a conservative hero and scourge of liberals, largely because of his role funding the infamous “Arkansas Project” that pumped up anti-Clinton anxieties and ultimately led to the president’s impeachment.

When Hillary Clinton spoke of “the vast right-wing conspiracy” targeting her family in the 1990s, in large part she was referring to the cottage industry of Clinton haters briefly bankrolled by Mr. Scaife. Read More…

A Brief History of Wingnuts in America; From George Washington to Woodstock – The Daily Beast

In this exclusive excerpt from the new edition of ‘Wingnuts,’ author John Avlon reminds us that paranoid extremism is nothing new in American politics.

If you’re disgusted by the unhinged hyper-partisanship that distorts our political debates beyond reason, here’s some good news—we’ve overcome these forces before.

American political history has been marked by periodic eruptions of the “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” that Richard Hofstadter famously characterized as “the paranoid style in American politics.” Wingnuts have masqueraded under different names and causes at different times, but they have always been committed to an “us against them” framing of domestic debates while inflaming group hatred in the name of politics and alleged principle. They prey on fear and ignorance.

Survey Wingnut rhetoric through the ages and the usual suspects keep surfacing: appeals to religious suspicion; ethnic and racial divisions; foreign subversion of sovereignty; and perhaps the oldest conspiracy theory of them all—accusing the president of the United States of being a tyrant and a dictator bent on destroying the Constitution.

Even our most beloved and broadly unifying figures were not immune from Wingnuts’ attacks in their time.

When George Washington served as the shaky young republic’s first president, newspapers such as the Aurora (edited by Benjamin Franklin’s grandson) obsessively attacked him, calling on Washington to resign the office while declaring that, “the mask of political hypocrisy has been alike worn by Caesar, a Cromwell and a Washington.” Washington’s onetime ally Thomas Paine turned on him in vicious fashion after the Jay Treaty of neutrality with Great Britain, writing, “The world will be puzzled to decide whether you are an apostate or an imposter; whether you have abandoned good principles or whether you ever had any.”

Pamphlets published by early partisan opponents such as William Duane denounced Washington’s “tyrannical act,” “Machiavellian policy,” and “monarchical privilege.” The former commander of the Continental Army was unaccustomed to being attacked with such impunity, and he proved to be surprisingly thin-skinned, complaining in his last letter to Thomas Jefferson that he was being slandered “in such an exaggerated, and indecent terms as scarcely be applied to a Nero; a notorious defaulter; or even to a common pickpocket.”

Washington’s presidential successor, John Adams, served amid accelerated partisan attacks in the press that divided the parties between alleged allegiances to England or revolutionary-era France. Overreaction predictably followed: In 1798, Congress passed the Alien Act, which empowered the president to arrest foreigners involved “in any treasonable or secret machinations against the government.” Then came the infamous Sedition Act, cracking down on freedom of the press and threatening to fine or imprison individuals who “unlawfully combine or conspire together, with intent to oppose any measure or measures of the government.” By the election of 1800, a backlash was in full swing, with Thomas Jefferson and his Democratic-Republican allies on the offensive, claiming that, “Mr. Adams and his Federalists wish to sap the Republic by fraud, destroy it by force, and elect an English monarchy in its place.”

In turn, Jefferson was accused of being a violent radical who wanted to bring the French guillotine to America—an “infidel” and a “howling atheist.” The New England Palladium newspaper proclaimed: “Should the infidel Jefferson be elected to the Presidency, the seal of death is that moment set on our holy religion, our churches will be prostrated, and some infamous prostitute, under the title of goddess of reason, will preside in the sanctuaries now devoted to the worship of the most High.” The Federalist Gazette of the United States framed the election this way: “The only question to be asked by every American, laying his hand on his heart, is ‘shall I continue in allegiance to God—and a religious president; or impiously declare for Jefferson—and no God!” After Jefferson’s inauguration—in which he declared “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle”—his opponents pushed for impeachment, arguing that the “self exalted tyrant shall be hurled head long from his political zenith to dwell with Jacobins and devils in the pit.”

Conspiracy theories would make their initial mark with such targets as the Freemasons, inspiring an early third party. But the obsession with religious difference that first attached itself to the freethinking Jefferson would manifest itself more thoroughly when combined with fears over early Catholic immigration.

In 1852, anti-Catholic anxieties gave rise to the Know-Nothing movement—so named because members were supposed to deny all knowledge of the secret society when asked by saying, “I know nothing.” Their apparent embrace of ignorance did not appear ironic until decades later. Instead, the Know-Nothings were briefly a force to be reckoned with. Their mission was not subtle: The movement’s newspaper, the American Organ explained that the group’s goal was “to resist the insidious policy of the Church of Rome and other foreign influences against the institutions of our country, by placing [in] all offices none but native-born Protestant citizens.” Transforming into a Nativist political party called the American Party, it quickly gained influence by partly filling the void left by the implosion of the Whigs. Within two years, the American Party was ascendant, successfully electing governors in nine states, eight senators and 104 members of the House.

The rapid rise of flag-waving bigotry to political prominence provoked an anguished letter from Abraham Lincoln to his friend Joshua Speed: ‘How can any one who abhors the oppression of Negroes be in favor of degrading classes of white people? … As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘All men are created equal.’ We now practically read it: ‘All men are created equal except Negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings gain control, it will read: ‘All men are created equal except Negroes, foreigners, and Catholics!’”

Lincoln’s election in 1860 as the first Republican president provoked even more furor. Southern Democrats took the outcome of the election as their cue to spark secession, with Jefferson Davis claiming his Confederates were “upholding the true doctrines of the Federal Constitution” while allies similarly twisted the Bible by conjuring up faith-based defenses of slavery.

The now near-sainted figure many see as America’s greatest president was hated and disrespected by many contemporaries, called a dictator and worse. “Confederates called Lincoln a ‘tyrant,’ a ‘fiend,’ and a ‘monster’,” recounts Don E. Fehrenbacher in his essay “The Anti-Lincoln Tradition.” “In speeches, sermons, and songs, in books, magazines, newspapers, pamphlets, and broadsides, they also portrayed him as a simpleton, a buffoon, a drunkard, a libertine, a physical coward, and a pornographic story-teller.” Another attack on Lincoln was telling in light of future national evolutions—accusations that our sixteenth president was an advocate of “miscegenation,” reflecting his own satirically alleged heritage as “King Abraham Africanus the First.”

Abuse of Lincoln was not limited to the Confederate states. In a drunken speech on the Senate floor, Delaware’s Democratic senator Willard Saulsbury declared, “I never did see or converse with such a weak and imbecile a man; the weakest man I ever knew in high place. If I wanted to paint a despot, a man perfectly regardless of every constitutional right of the people, I would paint the hideous ape-like form of Abraham Lincoln.” A copperhead Wisconsin newspaper editor named Marcus M. Pomeroy wrote that Lincoln was “but the fungus from the corrupt womb of bigotry and fanaticism” and a “worse tyrant and more inhuman butcher than has existed since the days of Nero.” With the election of 1864 looming, Pomeroy wrote, “The man who votes for Lincoln now is a traitor and murderer. … And if he is elected to misgovern for another four years, we trust some bold hand will pierce his heart with dagger point for the public good.”

Months later, John Wilkes Booth did just that, albeit with a pistol, while shouting, “Sic semper tyrannis”—the Virginia state motto, “Thus always to tyrants.”

In the backlash to Reconstruction after the Civil War, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan were born. Formed by Confederate veterans, members of this terrorist organization fancied themselves noble defenders of a Southern way of life under siege by occupying forces. But the KKK actually reached its apex of influence during the 1920s. Parading under the American flag in marches on Washington and preaching law and order against a backdrop of foreign-associated anarchist bombings that claimed dozens of lives, they also advocated for “100 percent Americanism” in response to the unprecedented wave of immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe. This twentieth-century incarnation of the Klan attracted several million members, and its reach extended far beyond the borders of the former Confederacy, with some of its largest klaverns in Indiana, Illinois, Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and California.

As always, its leaders paid lip service to lofty ideals to obscure the ugly base alloys. The KKK’s imperial wizard, William Joseph Simmons, declared his faith in “the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man,” while simultaneously circulating a statement proclaiming: “We exclude Jews because they do not believe in the Christian religion. We exclude Catholics because they owe allegiance to an institution that is foreign to the Government of the United States. To assure the supremacy of the white race, we believe in the exclusion of the yellow race and in the disenfranchisement of the Negro.”

Later in the decade, another imperial wizard named Hiram W. Evans took a less strictly racial view of the Klan’s mission, instead pitting “the great mass of Americans of the old pioneer stock” against “intellectually mongrelized ‘Liberals.’” “We are a movement,” Evans wrote, “of the plain people, very weak in the matter of culture, intellectual support, and trained leadership. We are demanding, and we expect to win, a return of power into the hands of the everyday, not highly cultured, not overly intellectualized, but entirely unspoiled and not de-Americanized, average citizen of the old stock.” It was a message of rural real Americans against liberal urban interlopers that repeatedly resurfaces in our politics.

The Roaring Twenties also saw heated debates over evolution, most infamously the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, which pitted William Jennings Bryan against Clarence Darrow in a Tennessee courtroom, a drama captured in Inherit the Wind and H. L. Mencken’s courtroom dispatches. Bryan, a three-time populist Democrat presidential candidate and Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of state, was the era’s premier spokesman for religious fundamentalism. In 1924, Bryan declared, “All the ills from which America suffers can be traced back to the teaching of evolution. It would be better to destroy every other book ever written, and save just the first three verses of Genesis.” The basic debate between creationism and evolution remains in play decades later.

Demagogues always do well during economic downturns, and the Great Depression was a workers’ paradise for Wingnuts on all sides. Louisiana populist Huey Long grabbed power across his home state in the name of making “every man a king” and was planning to run for president against Franklin D. Roosevelt from the left before being gunned down at the mammoth state capitol building he had constructed. One of Long’s disciples and a founder of the “Share Our Wealth Society” was a preacher named Gerald L. K. Smith. He swung from the left to the right, first forming the isolationist America First Party and then the Christian Nationalist ticket to run for president while proclaiming the virtues of anti-Semitism in the pages of his newspaper, The Cross and the Flag.

At the same time, domestic Communist Party members tried to present their ideology as “20th Century Americanism” even while genocide was systematically carried out in the Soviet Union. Father Charles Coughlin, the radio priest, drew massive audiences with his attacks on the always-popular targets of plutocrats and international bankers (“the sands of intrigue and of evil machinations have filtered through the hour glass of their control”), while stridently advocating isolationism in the face of Nazi expansion. Coughlin called for “100 percent for Americanism—in an America that still stands by the traditions of our forefathers—traditions of liberty, traditions of godliness, traditions upon which we must establish a sane Christian nationalism.”

The New Deal and its excesses proved to be a flashpoint for ideological debates that occasionally came unhinged. Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst directed his papers nationwide to print exposés on the radicalism of the New Deal and its alleged infiltration by Communists. When pressed by FDR’s White House for an apology, Hearst offered only this front-page editorial: “Let me say that I have not stated at any time whether the President willingly or unwillingly received the support of the Karl Marx Socialists, the Frankfurter radicals, communists and anarchists…which constitute the bulk of his following,” Hearst wrote. “I have simply said and shown that he does receive the support of these enemies of the American system of government, and that he has done his best to deserve the support of all such disturbing and destructive elements.”

After World War II, anxiety turned more toward the Cold War threat of communism. Heated opposition to the establishment of the United Nations echoed the hostility to the League of Nations a generation earlier (“it seeks to destroy Nationalism, Patriotism, and Christianity”), this time unsuccessfully. While the left wing tried to extend wartime alliances with misty hymns to “Uncle Joe” Stalin and backed the labor-fueled Progressive Party candidacy of onetime FDR vice president Henry Wallace, anti-Communist Democrats blasted their dangerous naïveté, most memorably Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who wrote that Progressives “cannot believe that ugly facts underlie fair words. However they look at it, the USSR keeps coming through as a kind of enlarged Brook Farm community, complete with folk dancing in native costumes, joyous work in the fields and progressive kindergartens. Nothing in their system has prepared them for Stalin.”

Meanwhile, the right-wing hunt for the “enemy within” took on new urgency in Washington. Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch-hunts offered a textbook look at Wingnut logic, laid out in this June 1951 speech accusing Harry Truman’s secretary of state, George Marshall, of consciously aiding and abetting Communist gains globally:

“How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this Government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy, a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of infamy so black that, when it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men. Who constitutes the highest circles of this conspiracy? About that we cannot be sure. What is the objective of the great conspiracy? I think it is clear from what has occurred and is now occurring: to diminish the United States in world affairs, to weaken us militarily, to confuse our spirit with talk of surrender in the Far East and to impair our will to resist evil. To what end? To the end that we shall be contained, frustrated and finally: fall victim to Soviet intrigue from within and Russian military might from without.”

This epic rant boasts all the Wingnut heraldry—the unveiling of a great conspiracy by evil imposters to weaken America from within, diluting our stock, sapping our resolve, and making us vulnerable to enemies who are hell-bent on destroying our way of life. And of course the sinister conspiracy goes straight to the top of the opposing party in power, in this case George C. Marshall, the general who did more than any other to prepare America to win World War II and subsequently secure the peace. Because McCarthy eventually imploded (as all Wingnuts do), it is tempting to dismiss him as a grubby, loudmouthed bully whose bark was worse than his bite. But in his heyday, no public poll showed him with less than 34 percent support among the American public.

McCarthy’s mantle was picked up by groups such as the John Birch Society, whose founder Robert Welch fully embraced whacked-out theories of Red subversion and attacked President Eisenhower as “a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.” Arguing that “Moscow and Washington are, and for many years have been, but two hands of one body controlled by one brain,” Welch warned of a secret plan to create a worldwide police state controlled by the Kremlin. He built out his network through such policy initiatives as “Get the US out of the UN,” and “No to Gun Control,” as well as such satellite single-issue groups as the Movement to Restore Decency. Anyone considered insufficiently anti-Communist was deemed a “comsymp”—short for Communist sympathizer. The godfather of modern conservatism, William F. Buckley Jr., denounced the Birchers as “damaging to the cause of anti-communism” in the pages of his National Review magazine. Conservative author Russell Kirk noted: “Cry wolf often enough and everyone takes you for an imbecile or a knave, when after all there are wolves in this world.” Bob Dylan even took the Birchers to task in his folk tune “Talking John Birch Paranoid Blues.” The discredited organization still endures today, having moved its headquarters to Joe McCarthy’s hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin.

Old anti-Catholic riffs reemerged during the 1960 campaign as John F. Kennedy aimed for the presidency. In Texas, the Baptist convention passed a resolution “cautioning members against voting for a Roman Catholic candidate”—buoyed by the old argument that a Catholic president would put loyalty to the pope ahead of loyalty to the United States. Just weeks after his election, a virulently anti-Catholic retired postal worker tried to assassinate JFK in Florida.

Kennedy’s tentative embrace of civil rights caused him to be hated by some in the South. When James Meredith integrated the University of Mississippi, he was escorted by three hundred federal troops, while more than 2,000 students protested, chanting, “Two, four, one, three, we hate Kennedy.” A movie theater in Georgia showing the film PT 109 decorated its marquee with this message: “See how the Japs almost got Kennedy.” The once-brilliant newspaper columnist turned bitter Bircher, Westbrook Pegler, openly fantasized about Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1965, writing “Some white patriot of the Southern tier will spatter his spoonful of brains in public premises before the snow flies.”

Throughout the civil rights era, the twin accusations of communism and anti-constitutionalism were used to delay progress and discredit activists—including Martin Luther King Jr. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover called King “the most notorious liar in the country.” In At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965–1968, Taylor Branch details how Hoover “cultivated King as the fearsome dark symbol of the latest 20th century threat to tranquility on Main Street America—succeeding immigrants, Depression gangsters, Nazis and communists.”

While Southern society rallied against King under the auspices of the White Citizens Councils, there were roadside billboards scattered throughout the South purporting to show King at a Communist training camp. Alabama governor George Wallace told the New York Times in 1963 that, “President [Kennedy] wants us to surrender this state to Martin Luther King and his group of pro-Communists who have instituted these demonstrations.” But even an avowed segregationist like Wallace indignantly denied that he was racist, saying, “I never made a statement in my political career that reflects on a man’s race. … My only interest is in the restoration of local government.”

States’ rights were the rationale; defense of the Constitution the ennobling ideal. And so when South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond (the 1948 presidential candidate for the pro-segregation Dixiecrat ticket) argued against the Voting Rights Act on behalf of a caucus of Southern senators who called themselves “Constitutional Democrats,” he pulled out all the rationalizing rhetoric, arguing that “the Negro is almost a favored class of citizen in America” and making the case that the 14th Amendment had questionable legitimacy because it was passed during Reconstruction. After the Civil Rights Act passed, Thurmond declared that the day marked the “final resting place of the Constitution and the rule of the law, for it is here that we will have been buried with shovels of emotion under piles of expediency in the year of our Lord, 1965.”

The late 1960s proved to be the most civically unstable since the 1860s. Culture wars erupted as nonviolent protests were replaced by race riots, and peaceful antiwar activists were eclipsed by hundreds of shootings, arsons, and bombings attributed to left-wing radical groups like the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers. The backlash brought Richard Nixon and the Republicans into the White House on a message of law and order that would twist into the horrific abuse of power scandals surrounding Watergate, further decreasing trust in government. The scars of the era’s excesses would be carried forward by the baby boomers’ fractious political debates—pitting crew cuts against the longhairs—well into the opening years of the twenty-first century.

In the long journey from frontier expansion to landing on the moon, there are clear common undercurrents to the paranoid politics advanced by the Wingnuts during different eras in America.

There is always the divisive drumbeat of ‘us against them’—the demagogue’s favorite formula. There is always an emotional appeal to an idealized past, targeted to people who feel besieged by cultural change, paired with the promise of a well-deserved return to power after years of resentment. And there is always the sale of special knowledge, pulling the curtain back on a monstrous conspiracy that will prove once and for all that your political opponents are not just misguided, but evil. The result is not only vindication, but also the self-serving sense that only you can save the republic.

Against this backdrop it’s easy to see the patterns in our recent history, where the angry impulse to delegitimize duly elected presidents of the United States leads to irrational hatreds and cynical posturing. But for some folks, there is a temptation to look at this twisted American history and then use it to rationalize away the unhinged excesses of our own times. The more self-congratulatory among them might be tempted to compare their feuds favorably to the founding fathers’ ugliest partisan fights, providing both benediction and absolution for any hate they might hurl at opponents.

But that self-serving spin obscures the real lesson: Today’s unhinged hyper-partisans are not likely to look any better or wiser in the rearview mirror than the Wingnuts of our past. Instead, they will be at best a stale and bitter punchline of our times and then fade, unloved, into obscurity.

Excerpted from the newly revised edition of Wingnuts, by John Avlon, published by Beast Books. Copyright 2014.

Hell Week in Boston Shows How 9/11 Taught Resilience – The Telegraph

Monday’s bombing at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Patriots’ Day propelled America back to a 9/11 mindset. Tuesday through Thursday were pre-occupied with grief, manhunts and memorial services. Poisonous envelopes mailed to the president and two US senators, along with a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant in Texas, only added to the low hum of anxiety.

Then on Friday, the manhunt culminated with the killing of one suspect and the capture of another – two Chechen brothers whose immigrant experience was twisted by radical Islam and turned into a nightmare for the citizens of Boston. The city’s lockdown turned into a spontaneous celebration, with the waving of American flags, applause for the SWAT teams, chants of “U-S-A” interspersed with the Boston Red Sox unofficial anthem “Sweet Caroline.”

It was “a tough week,” as President Obama said in a post-arrest press conference at the White House. But we emerged stronger, if sadder, and more united as a result of all we had experienced.. Read More…

Tea Party Cannibalizes Cantor – The Daily Beast

The Republican majority leader fanned the flames of the Tea Party movement, hoping it would help him to take over from John Boehner. Last night he got burned.

Winston Churchill once said “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile—hoping it will eat him last.”

Last night, Eric Cantor was eaten by the Tea Party. Chomp. Chomp.

It is perhaps the most shocking loss in modern congressional elections—the powerful Republican leader losing his perch to an unknown member of his own party despite outspending his opponent by more than 25 to 1. Read More…

Hatriot Politics Created the Las Vegas Killers – The Daily Beast

Jerad and Amanda Miller, the Wingnuts whose killing spree left two policemen, a civilian, and themselves dead, were inspired by fright-wing radio hosts and militia movement groups.

The obsessively anti-government Hatriot movement moved from cultivating conspiracy theories to real killing on Sunday in Las Vegas.

The Wingnut Bonnie and Clyde duo, Jerad and Amanda Miller, stormed into CiCi’s Pizza and shot two metro cops, Alyn Beck and Igor Soldo, at close range while shouting “This is a revolution!” They flung the Tea Party’s favorite coiled snake Gadsden flag and a swastika on the still-warm corpses and then moved to a nearby Walmart to murder a shopper before turning the guns on themselves. Read More…

Hate—and Hitler—in the Heartland – The Daily Beast

The man accused of shooting three at Jewish centers in Kansas has a long résumé as a neo-Nazi and KKK grand wizard who once created a points system for murder.

The sole suspect in a shooting that left three dead at two Jewish community centers outside Kansas City on Sunday is a former Ku Klux Klan “grand dragon,” neo-Nazi, and ex-con named Frazier Glenn Miller.

The 73-year-old was caught by TV cameras yelling “Heil Hitler” from the back seat of a police car after he was apprehended in the parking lot of a local elementary school. Rabbi Herbert Mandl, chaplain for the Overland Park Police Department, said the gunman asked people whether they were Jewish before he opened fire. Two of the victims, named by grieving family members as Dr. William Lewis Corporon and his grandson Reat Griffin Underwood, 14, were not Jewish, however–they were members of the nearby United Methodist Church of the Resurrection. Read More…

GOP’s Surprising Edge on diversity –

Everybody knows the Republican Party is basically an all-white bastion, right? After all, even Colin Powell condemned the “dark vein of intolerance” that has flowed through his party since the post-civil rights era political realignment.

Now with President Barack Obama leading the Democrats into a second term — buoyed by overwhelming victory margins among African-Americans and Hispanics — it’s clear the GOP has some serious catching up to do.

This is why it might surprise you to hear that Republicans are by far the more diverse party when it comes to statewide elected officials such as senators and governors. On this front, they leave Democrats in the dust. And that’s why the GOP actually has a greater depth of diversity on their potential presidential bench looking to 2016 and beyond. Read More…

Obama has Given Up Seeking a Solution to America’s Financial Woes

Without a bang or a whimper, all hopes of striking a so-called “Grand Bargain” to put America’s public finances on a sustainable track died a quiet death this week.

And because cynicism passes for wisdom in Washington, the passing was little lamented. But its death is a loss to the cause of putting America’s house in order, and all-but-officially marks the moment the Obama administration gave up trying to bridge the political divide on this most fundamental issue.

The death notice itself was printed in the pages of the Obama budget, which quietly rescinded the offer of long-term healthcare and pensions reform by withdrawing the offer of what Capitol Hill policy-wonks call “Chain-weighted CPI” from their budget blueprint. Read More…

American Way: What We Didn’t Learn After Newtown – The Telegraph

Here’s the thing about shock. It fades. Certainly not for the families of the 20 children who were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School one year ago. But for the rest of us, who recoiled in horror at the evil enabled by semi-automatic weapons wielded by a monster of a young man, the shock fades.

The urgency over trying to ensure that such a slaughter “never happens again” – it fades. The calls for new legislation, reasonable restrictions which might make it just a little bit more difficult to kill as many people as fast as possible, grow stale and over time start to seem impractical and implausible. And so conventional wisdom congeals more or less where it was before the massacre.

And guess what? That was the obstruction strategy all along – a smart but cynical bet on civic amnesia, pushed by lobbyists who cajoled congressmen and advised them to resist the wishes of 90% of the American people.

Reality Check: 90% of Americans rarely agree on anything. We’re diverse that way.

But earlier this year, the respected Quinnipiac poll found that 91% of Americans supported universal background checks for commercial firearm purchases – including 88% of gun-owning families. Hell, a poll commissioned by Mayors Against Illegal Guns conducted by conservative pollster Frank Luntz found that 74% of NRA members supported background checks on every gun sale. But when a bipartisan bill to achieve that end came up in congress, it couldn’t get enough votes to pass.

The bill was crafted by Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and was designed to ensure that all commercial firearm sales would commence with a background check, looking for signs of mental illness or a criminal record. Sounds like relatively non-controversial common sense. So why did it fail? Well, here’s Senator Pat Toomey’s explanation: “There were some on my side who did not want to be seen helping the president do something he wanted to get done, just because the president wanted to do it.”

Got that? Poisonous polarization doomed even a modest bipartisan attempt to take action after the Sandy Hook slaughter. More ambitious proposals – such as reinstating the assault weapons ban which had been in place for a decade before, or banning the sale of high capacity ammunition clips – were declared dead on arrival in Washington DC. There was outrage initially, calls to kick the 41 Republicans and 5 Democratic Senators who blocked the measure out of office. The gun advocates are tireless and they bet on suburban swing voters forgetting about their anger.

In the meantime, gun advocates set about targeting state legislators who voted for new gun laws. In Colorado, the site of 2012’s mass shooting at a midnight showing of ‘Batman’, two Democratic State Senators lost their seats in a recall election that drew massive outside spending, including from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The result of the low-turnout election was read as a decisive defeat in Washington DC, and soon the message spread that gun laws were too politically risky to pursue. Much pearl-clutching ensued.

Guns are part of our culture in the United States, a legacy of the frontier culture that emphasized the need for individual self-defense. I know that’s hard to appreciate from across the pond. But here’s what’s undeniably ugly: we see the death toll from a Newtown shooting every week, just spread out among different jurisdictions.

There are 11,000 Americans killed by gun violence every year, excluding suicides. And since the Sandy Hook slaughter, there have been at least 16 mass shootings in the USA – from whole families gunned down to 5 people killed in an attack on a community college in Santa Monica to 12 people murdered at the Washington Navy Yard in September. And upon hearing of each mass murder the familiar receptors kick in, feelings of outrage intermingled with déjà vu.

As the horrors pile up, they begin to blur. Young men with mental illness are a common denominator but so, inescapably, are guns. The NRA is fond of saying that guns don’t kill people, people kill people. But the guns help.

Of course, you can’t legislate away crazy. Mental illness is and always will be with us. An even bigger fool’s errand would be to pretend that we can create a utopia on here on earth and eradicate evil. It exists. And its evil predates violent video games by thousands of years.

But if you believe that government exists to secure a framework within which people are free to live their lives to the best of their ability (as I do) then out-of-control guns are not an inconvenient abstraction. They are a matter of life and death.

Here’s what’s heartening. There is more common ground among people than the two parties. A brand new poll found that a majority of Republican men still favored universal background checks. And when Virginia Democrat Terry McAuliffe was running for governor he did not shimmy when confronted with his “F” rating from the NRA. Instead, during a televised debate, he embraced it. “I don’t care what grade I got from the NRA,” McAuliffe countered. “I never want to see another Newtown or Aurora or Virginia Tech ever again.”

That statement might have been seen as political suicide in the past, but in today’s swing state Virginia suburban swing voters nodded their heads. Bumper-sticker absolutism about the Second Amendment doesn’t sound like common sense anymore. Instead, there might have been remembrance of how Ronald Reagan supported background checks and how the assault weapons ban was once supported by political leaders on both sides of the aisle.

One of the wages of polarization is the obscuring of what once was broad common ground even on supposed culture war issues. It is a reminder that while the two parties seem deeply divided, the vast majority of American people are not.

But the gutless wonders in Congress seem determined to own their record as the least productive and least popular congress on record. Profiles in Courage aren’t on the menu. Nonetheless, the accumulated costs of senseless mass shootings pile up, demanding our attention. With each horrific televised dispatch the muscle memory twitches. Our culture won’t change. But the room for rational questions just might. Why does driving a car require a license but owning a gun doesn’t. Why are all semi-automatic weapons automatically covered by the Second Amendment?

Partisan fear-mongering distorts too much of our politics. Real horror ought to inform our policy debates at least as much in the fullness of time. After all, we are always safer when we have the courage to confront reality.

The Fines – NY Sun

We swore that we would never forget. And for those still counting, today marks four and a half years and three days since the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Yesterday will be remembered as a minor milestone in our city’s process of grieving and healing for another reason. It was the day that construction formally began at ground zero – as a dozen workers contracted by the Bovis Construction firm quietly showed up to work in the pit at 6 a.m. to prepare the site for the foundation of the memorial and museum.

Outside the perimeter gates a dozen protesters had quietly stood vigil throughout the moonlit night beside the 10 & 10 Firehouse on Liberty Street. Led by the Reverend Bill Minson – former ICM talent agent turned Baptist minister – a collection of fallen firefighter family members milled by a makeshift memorial to their loved ones, passing coffee and comfort, urging passersby to sign their petition to stop the construction process next to a yellow sign which read, “No underground memorial. Don’t bury our memories.” Read More…

Vaclav Havel’s Heroic Politics of Truth and Responsibility – The Daily Beast

It is a small irony of history that playwright, prisoner, and Czech president Vaclav Havel died on the same day as North Korean dictator Kim Jung-il. But the world that Havel helped shape had reduced Kim Jung-il to a strange museum piece the last of the totalitarian rajas, bodyguarded by lies, surrounded by suffering. Read More…

Hating Kennedy – The Daily Beast

This week, America was fixated on the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Grief nourishes myth and a new CNN poll registers JFK as our most admired ex-president from the past half century.

His brief 1,000 days in the Oval Office loom large in American memory because of his abrupt loss; a psychic wound that shaped a generation, symbolizing a collective loss of innocence.

Perhaps inevitably, we buy into the idea that President Kennedy was as beloved in life as he has been in death. Of course, this was not the case. Read More…

Christie’s Reelection Triumph Is a Revenge of the RINOs – The Daily Beast

Chris Christie’s landslide reelection in a state President Obama won by 17 points offers the GOP a memo on how to win in 2016, if it wants one.

Don’t just fixate on the top-line numbers. They obscure the real story. Look instead at Christie’s initial exit poll margins among women, independent voters, moderates, the middle class, Hispanics, and African-Americans. In those cross-tab stats, you see the outlines of a candidate who can dig the GOP out of the demographic trap it’s facing. Read More…

What GOP Can Learn from Cuccinelli’s Tanking Bid in Virginia – CNN

Virginia is a cautionary tale for conservatives this year. And those Republicans who always argue that their party wins when it moves further to the right are going to have a lot of explaining to do after Election Day.

Polls show that “teavangelist” Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli is going down to a decisive defeat in the governor’s race against an exceptionally flawed Democratic candidate, Terry McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chairman and Clinton fund-raiser.

The reason is simple: Cuccinelli is too extreme for swing voters in Virginia — and that neatly symbolizes the GOP’s problem as it looks to the congressional midterms of 2014 and the presidential campaign of 2016. Read More…

John Avlon Hosts – OutFront – CNN

John Avlon talks about Republican’s efforts to repeal Heath Care and other political topics of the day as he hosts CNN’s Out Front on July 2, 2012.

Paralyzed by Polarization – The Daily Beast

After 12 days of stalemate, conversations – if not negotiations – have started.

But House Republicans remain deadlocked with the White House, its leadership constrained by their own far-Right-wing caucus, announcing to members in a closed-door session this morning that any deal would have to come from the Senate, where Mitch McConnell, the GOP minority leader, declared: “I’m willing to work with the government we have, not the one I wish we had.” This is a significant concession to reality.

Washington is engaged in a war of attrition – not just between Republicans and Democrats, but an increasingly vicious civil war within the GOP between the Tea Party and what remains of the responsible centre-Right. Read More…

Shutdown Crisis: We Need a Hostage Negotiator – The Daily Beast

With the government shutdown entering its second week and debt ceiling default less than two weeks away, polarization has turned poisonous and confusion reigns on Capitol Hill.

“It actually reminds me of a prison siege,” says Christopher Voss, a former FBI hostage negotiator, as he surveys the dysfunctional congressional deadlock. “The opposition isn’t particularly organized. The smart move is to pick among the leadership on the other side who is the most reasonable. Then you empower them by talking with them and granting some sort of small concession. And they suddenly gain a lot of influence on their side.”

Yes, it’s come to this: Washington’s shutdown stalemate looks like a hostage crisis to high-stakes negotiators. And in their eyes, the inmates are running the asylum. Read More…

The Suicidal Shutdown: Hyper-Partisan Fever Rules the Government – The Daily Beast

It was darkly appropriate that Congressman John Culberson (R-TX) rallied his conservative colleagues on Saturday to vote for a government shutdown by saying “Like 9/11, Let’s Roll!” Because this legislative plane is headed defiantly nose-down into the ground.

Decency, practicality, and perspective have deserted some of the folks working under the same Capitol Dome that the heroic passengers on Flight 93 saved from destruction. A decade ago, congressional conservatives might have been offended at the casual misuse of 9/11-imagery for hyper-partisan purposes. Today, nothing’s shocking in the obsessive opposition to President Obama and the healthcare law that began its life as a Republican alternative to Hillarycare in the 1990s. Any red meat rallying cry will do. Read More…

Weiner, Spitzer Out: Thank You New York –

Twelve years ago, New York City taught the nation about resilience in the face of a massive attack.

On Tuesday, New York again taught the nation that character counts.

There is, of course, no comparison between the horror of 9/11 and a mayoral primary in America’s largest city. But while the shadow of the twin towers still hangs over the hearts of many in New York, the persistence of daily life remains a quiet sign of defiance.

This year, city politics seemed determined to hit a new low rather than aspire to new heights. A series of scandal-scarred candidates sucked up the oxygen amid an otherwise forgettable field. And for a while, Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer seemed likely to win their respective races on the strength of name ID and notoriety. Read More…

American Way: Can Jim Messina Do for David Cameron What He Did for Barack Obama?

The incumbent was underwater. Low poll numbers and a still-sluggish economy, soaring campaign promises of hope and change that never quite materialised. The opposition attacked him; so did some of the ideological absolutists in his own camp.

That’s the situation Jim Messina inherited when he took the helm of President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign in 2011. And it applies to the thicket of problems he’s going to confront as the newly announced senior adviser to Prime Minister David Cameron’s 2015 re-election campaign.

On the surface it is an odd-couple pairing – the University of Montana Democrat and the Oxford-educated Conservative. But Mr Obama and Mr Cameron are both pioneering members of Generation X, indulging in modest relatable rebellion before reaching the highest elected office in their land. Both men campaigned as candidates of generational change, presenting themselves as post-partisan coalition builders and rapidly rising to prominence on the strength of their speeches. Neither man entered office with much executive experience and the old political aphorism that “you campaign in poetry but govern in prose” quickly hobbled sky-high expectations.
Read More…

The Obama Haters Book Club: The Canon Swells – The Daily Beast

Welcome to the Obama Haters Book Club—a parallel universe of fear mongering for fun and profit.

Over the past four years, no less than 89 obsessively anti-Obama books have been published, as now catalogued by The Daily Beast. I’m not talking about cool statements of policy difference, but overheated and often unhinged screeds painting a picture of the president as a dangerous radical hell-bent on undermining the Republic by any means necessary. It is hate and hyper-partisan paranoia masquerading as high-minded patriotism.

Here’s the worst part—this steady drumbeat of incitement is having an impact on this presidential election because it has poisoned the well of civic discourse for many voters and those in their radius of damage. It has helped divide the nation beyond reason, distorting the president’s real record beyond all recognition. Read More…

Why ‘The Newsroom’ matters –

Aaron Sorkin’s HBO show “The Newsroom” represents the reality of working in television news about as accurately as “The West Wing” captured working in politics — which is to say, not at all.

But both dramas did something more worthwhile: They expressed the idealism that should animate these careers. And in this time of creative destruction throughout the news industry, it’s more important than ever before. That’s why “The Newsroom” matters.

When “The West Wing” debuted in 1999, the political arena was suffering from a well-deserved dose of post-Monica cynicism. The smart kids were all making piles of money on Wall Street by surfing the tech bubble, and with the 2000 election looming between Bush and Gore, the status quo of peace and prosperity seemed boring. Read More…

Don’t Call Obama Racist – The Daily Beast

Race remains a fundamental fault line in American life. That’s why the Trayvon Martin murder trial drew wall­ to ­wall coverage on cable news and why the jury’s decision to acquit George Zimmerman drew outraged cries.

And on Friday afternoon, a day before planned nationwide protests, President Obama weighed into the fray with a remarkable, unscripted 17­-minute address from the White House briefing room.

But by trying to use the bully pulpit to turn this national paroxysm into what he might call a “teachable moment,” President Obama reignited conservative criticisms that he is an advocate for identity politics rather than for national unity. Read More…

George H.W. Bush, Our Preppiest Ex-President, Honored at White House – The Daily Beast

It’s been a quarter-century since George H.W. Bush was elected president, but the wheels of history are finally turning his way. In a triumph of civility and character over hyperbolic hyper-partisanship, Bush 41 was honored Monday by President Obama at the White House for the success of his Point of Light award for civic volunteerism.

We begin to see clearly in the rearview mirror of history, and George H.W. Bush has lived long enough to be appreciated as the Lone Star Yankee, perhaps the last unapologetically centrist Republican to enter the White House, winning California on the way to an electoral landslide. Read More…

Father Ostracized for Paternity Leave – OutFront – CNN

John Avlon and Margaret Hoover discuss the ‘double standard’ of paternity leave.

Lindsey Graham Wasn’t Afraid to Fight for Immigration Reform – The Daily Beast

Profiles in courage are rare in our politics these days, but the Senate’s passage of comprehensive immigration reform is bright example of how Washington does not need to be a place where good ideas go to die.

Credit goes to the “Courageous 14” Republican senators who joined with the Democratic majority to make this legislation pass by a towering bipartisan margin of 68 to 32. Building squarely on the tireless efforts of the Gang of Eight—led by Marco Rubio, Chuck Schumer, Robert Menendez, and John McCain—the bill’s passage was a timely reminder that common ground is the only practical problem-solving space on Capitol Hill. That matters if you believe Congress should be more than an ideological debating society.

But the first among equals in the profile in courage sweepstakes is Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). Of all the Gang of Eight senators, he was the most unvarnished in his advocacy and he has the most to lose. Read More…

Lisa Murkowski’s Declaration of Independence – The Daily Beast

Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski became the third Republican U.S. Senator to support same-sex marriage on Wednesday, just days before the Supreme Court is set to decide on its constitutionality. But what’s really significant about Murkowski’s decision is the argument she made in an op-ed, rooted squarely in family values.

In explaining her evolution on the issue, Murkowski told the story of an Alaskan military couple who visited her on Capitol Hill for lunch with their four foster children. The kicker was that the couple was two women.

As Murkowsi explained: “After their years of sleepless nights, after-school pickups, and birthday cakes, if one of them gets sick or injured and needs critical care, the other would not be allowed to visit them in the emergency room—and the children could possibly be taken away from the healthy partner. They do not get considered for household health-care benefit coverage like spouses nationwide. This first-class Alaskan family still lives a second-class existence.” Read More…

‘Sopranos’ a Violent Fantasy for Middle-Aged Guys –

Why do we love gangsters — at least the ones on TV and in the movies?

The sudden death of actor James Gandolfini at age 51 has brought a round of instant nostalgia for the HBO show he led at the turn of the millennium, “The Sopranos.” It helped define the time for people living it, stretching between the excesses of the Clinton years and the grim patriotic grit of the post-9/11 period.

There was very little admirable about the character of Tony Soprano — most of us don’t murder on our lunch break — and yet he became a kind of elevated everyman. Read More…

Pope Francis’s Lessons for the GOP – The Daily Beast

On the heels of Pope Francis’s triumphant visit to Brazil for World Youth Day, the humble pontiff is reinvigorating the Catholic Church after a time of scandal by reaching out, advancing reforms that threaten powerful special interests and leading by example.

Gone are the palatial apartments, ideological rigidity and red Prada slippers. In its place is a re-emphasis on heart and humility, a principled populist simplicity befitting the first Jesuit in the office. Perhaps not surprisingly, the neophyte pope—not even six months on the job—seems popular with everyone except perhaps the right wing of his own church. And it occurs to this political columnist that in the example of Pope Francis there might be some useful lessons for the modern GOP as they seek to reinvigorate and rededicate their own institution. Read More…

The Military-Industrial Complex Is Real, and It’s Bigger Than Ever – The Daily Beast

In January 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously warned about the growth of the “military-industrial complex” in his farewell address.

Ed Snowden, late of Booz Allen Hamilton, is just one small expression of its rise. The rest is evident throughout the Gilded Age of the metro Washington area, a boom time of corporate cronyism in the wake of 9/11 that has led to fat contracts amid the outsourcing of national security, complete with the proliferation of top security clearances to private contractors like Snowden. Read More…

NSA Spying Shows Obama’s Machine Out of Control – The Daily Beast

With news that Verizon was required to hand over supposedly private domestic phone records to the government as part of a national security dragnet, the second-term curse just got much more real for the Obama administration.

To date, however, the Obama second-term scandals do not seem carelessly self-inflicted from the top like those of the past, from Watergate to Iran-Contra to Monica or even the botched response to Hurricane Katrina.

But that doesn’t mean they aren’t deeply destructive to President Obama’s legacy. Read More…

Michele Bachmann Is Done: Her Hostage Tape to Reality – The Daily Beast

Our long national nightmare is over.

Well, that’s overstating it. But the congresswoman who represented the worst of modern American politics more than she ever tried to represent her Minnesota constituents has announced that she will not run for reelection.

Michele Bachmann is done. Read More…

Memo to the GOP: It’s Time to Listen to Your Elders – The Daily Beast

Sometimes retirees are out of touch. But sometimes they’re freer to tell the truth. And that’s what happened when GOP mandarins Bob Dole and John Warner fired off warning flares about the rightward drift of the Republican Party.

Former presidential nominee Dole captured most of the attention when he told Fox News’ Chris Wallace that the Republican National Committee should hang “a sign on the national committee doors that says ‘closed for repairs until New Year’s Day next year’ and spend that time going over ideas and positive agendas.”

That’s tough stuff coming from a 90-year-old. But wait, there’s more. Dole frankly admitted that today’s Republican Party probably would not have room for him and even for Saint Ronald Reagan. Read More…

How Did ‘Patriot’ Become a Dirty Word? –

On Memorial Day, we honor those patriots who gave “the last full measure of devotion” — in Abraham Lincoln’s words — and died defending our freedom and union.

But this Memorial Day is partly clouded by the resurgence of partisan scandal in Washington. At the IRS, employees filtered through the exploding number of tax exemption applications by politically associated organizations by being on the lookout for groups that had the name “Tea Party” and “Patriot” in their name. This was improper, illegal, unethical and outrageous.

But hold on — when did the word “patriot” become a partisan pejorative? How did such a bipartisan positive word get identified as a sign of hyperpartisan politics?

It’s actually an interesting story. Read More…

CNN Podcast: Big Three – Relief in Oklahoma?

Will New Yorkers elect a punch line as Mayor? Anthony Weiner’s entry into the New York City race for mayor was one of the issues we discussed with comedian Jim Gaffigan, our guest this week on the CNN weekly podcast “The Big Three,” co-hosted by CNN’s Margaret Hoover, John Avlon and Dean Obeidallah.

Listen to the Podcast here:

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