Before the right-wing fringe lost their minds about Obama, the left turned a similar trick.
We saw this destructive dynamic at work during the previous administration, when far-left protests erupted into Bush Derangement Syndrome, comparing the president to Hitler and calling for impeachment. Obama haters always eventually say the same thing: “They started it.” The prevalence of Bush Derangement Syndrome on the left gave the right the green light to escalate. Coinage credit goes to conservative columnist and trained psychiatrist Charles Krauthammer, who in 2003 had diagnosed Bush Derangement Syndrome as “the acute onset of paranoia in otherwise normal people in reaction to the policies, the presidency—nay—the very existence of George W. Bush.”
It began with the left’s belief that Bush was an illegitimate president, rooted in the bitterly contested results of the 2000 election. He’d lost the popular vote and won with an assist from the Supreme Court. Fresh from the Florida recount—where 97,000 leftist protest votes for Ralph Nader helped deliver the Sunshine State to George W. Bush by a 537-vote margin—Inauguration Day protesters wielded “Hail to the Thief” signs and chanted “Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Bush and Cheney go away!” “We want Bush out of D.C.” and “You’re not our president.”
• More From John Avlon: Getting Hit with the Hitler Card
The Iraq war proved a potent recruitment tool. Michael Moore’s 2004 film Fahrenheit 9/11 mixed provocative footage of Bush’s missteps and malapropisms along with a full range of conspiracy theories concerning the Bush family’s ties to the Saudi royal family and the bin Laden family, documenting a case of blood for oil. It won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. In 2006, the movie Death of a President, a mockumentary of sorts, purported to follow the investigation of the unsolved assassination of George W. Bush and the subsequent expansion of the Patriot Act by President Dick Cheney. It won the International Critics Prize at the Toronto Film Festival.
The left-Wingnut netroots paraded their Bush hate, such as this post at the leading left-wing political Web site Daily Kos: “I know hate is a strong word. But I do hate the man. I hate him.” Groups like Code Pink staged “die-ins,” screamed during congressional hearings, protested military recruitment stations and attempted citizen’s arrests of administration officials. A collection of memorable signs from the anti-Bush protests gives you a sense of the derangement: “Bush = Satan,” “Save Mother Earth, Kill Bush,” “Hang Bush for War Crimes,” “End the Illegal Occupation in the White House,” “Bush is the Disease, Death is the Cure,” “Bush is the only Dope worth Shooting,” “Death to Extremist Christian Terrorist Pig Bush,” and “Kill Terrorists, Bomb There [sic] House, Kill Bush, Bomb His F—in House.” The “s” in Bush’s name was routinely turned into a swastika on protest posters and the tell-tale tiny mustache drawn upon his image.
But Bush-as-Hitler comparisons did not just gain currency on protest placards – this was Café Society stuff. The 2005 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, British playwright Harold Pinter, penned a statement saying, “The Bush administration is the most dangerous force that has ever existed. It is more dangerous than Nazi Germany because of the range and depth of its activities and intentions worldwide.” Liberal author and one-time Al Gore clothing consultant Naomi Wolf offered comparisons of the Bush administration to the Nazi regime in her book The End of America (an assertion benignly recounted in an interview on NPR titled “Naomi Wolf Likens Bush to Hitler”). MSNBC Countdown host Keith Olbermann called Bush a fascist on air, while took heat for an online advertising contest where two contributors offered Bush = Hitler comparisons.
Legendary singer, civil rights leader and Hollywood elder statesman Harry Belafonte traveled to visit Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez and announced: “No matter what the greatest tyrant in the world, the greatest terrorist in the world, George W. Bush says, we’re here to tell you: Not hundreds, not thousands, but millions of the American people … support your revolution.” Antiwar protester and mother of fallen soldier Cindy Sheehan became a brief media sensation for camping out near Bush’s Crawford ranch—a status not considerably diminished when she followed Belafonte’s lead by calling President Bush “a bigger terrorist than Osama bin Laden.”
When Nobel Peace Prize Winner Betty Williams of Northern Ireland gave the keynote speech to the International Women’s Peace Conference in Dallas, she said, “Right now, I could kill George Bush, no problem. No, I don’t mean that. I mean—how could you nonviolently kill somebody? I would love to be able to do that.” She chuckled a bit in her confessional Irish brogue, and members of the audience laughed. Not that Dallas has any history with presidential assassinations.
Democrats didn’t seem allergic to these outbursts, they seemed instead subtly to encourage them for partisan gain—just as they accuse Republicans of doing now. Bush Derangement Syndrome was so widespread on the left—and Bush so broadly unpopular by the end of his term—that it failed to inspire much mainstream media outrage. It wasn’t considered news.
But after one Bush-bashing protest in September 2005, Fox News host Sean Hannity had an admirable if unusual moment of clarity: “The president was called every name in the book—from a terrorist to the Führer,” he said, shaking his head, and then turned his attention to one of the protest’s liberal organizers. “If you really believe what you’re saying, you need to distance yourself from the extremists that are running this thing.”
It was good advice—then and now.
John Avlon’s new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.