Fox News, Health Care, and the Right-Wing Nervous Breakdown
Written by Eric Boehlert
Watching Fox News personalities recently come unglued as the realization set in that (surprise!) Democrats might actually have the votes to pass health care reform — and noting how extraordinarily loopy and dire both the attacks on the White House, and the proclamations for pending, apocalyptic doom were becoming — I was getting nervous that one of Fox News’ more unhinged hosts might finally just snap and pull a Rev. Jim Jones, beseeching viewers to make the ultimate sacrifice.
Honestly, unless you’ve been monitoring the ticking time bomb that is the far-right media in recent days, you probably don’t appreciate how frighteningly possible that cultish scenario has become, as the GOP Noise Machine, led by Fox News, publicly suffers a nervous breakdown. It’s a mental and emotional collapse that’s been advertised in recent days as cablers, radio talkers, and right-wing bloggers have reached for increasingly hysterical, often blood-curdling rhetoric to describe the irreversible atrocity — an incurable, metastasizing malignancy!! — that’s about to seize and destroy the United States in the form of a bill to expand health care coverage.
Listening to the calamitous warnings (i.e. “the end of America as we know it”), it’s not that unreasonable to think that at some point one of the media mob leaders is going to suggest that life itself just is no longer worth living.
After all, late last week the nation stood on the precipice, just three “days away from the United States of America being over as we’ve all known it,” according to Rush Limbaugh, who warned that reform would drive every private insurance company out of business. Glenn Beck also went full tilt, warning that the bill represented a “turning point,” like the Civil War and Pearl Harbor, while colleague Sean Hannity pinpointed the health care vote as the “very hour” that America turned “completely towards socialism.”
The Washington Times likened reform to the “Black Plague,” and the online reaction was somehow even more unhinged. It was “RIP USA,” because with the vote, America would become “occupied by a hostile foreign power.” Indeed, a “socialist putsch” had been sprung and “America’s Day of Wreckoning [sic]” was at hand. Why? Because the Democrats’ health care legislation “will make every American a POW, strip them of their Freedoms and Liberty and shove them in a meat cellar for cold storage.”
Not scared yet? Well, just keep in mind that “Fascist health care will destroy America,” “civil unrest is coming,” and President Obama is to blame. More? “Fascist House Democrats are preparing to euthanize America.” And don’t forget that Sunday’s health care vote in Congress represented a “dark day for America, the worst since 9/11.”
And, progressive politicians, heed this warning: “Democrats who crammed this unwarranted bill down the throats of the American people who clearly and overwhelmingly opposed it deserve to be drawn and quartered.”
That’s right, tortured.
As Jon Stewart noted last week while playing the straight man in a Daily Show bit about the increasingly unhinged, right-wing response, “The rhetoric seems completely divorced from reality.” And that observation came before the weekend theatrics inside the Beltway, when self-described patriots, egged on by the right-wing media, rallied to “Kill the bill!” and in the process reportedly tossed racial and anti-gay epithets at Democratic members of the Congress. (The far-right reaction? So what if they did?)
Trust me. This televised, incoherent meltdown has gone way beyond sore loserdom. Or even sore loserdom on steroids. This hasn’t just been more of the usual Democrats-are-crooks type of whining that Fox News has turned into an art form since Obama’s inauguration. And it’s gone far beyond the usual scare tactics that the cable channel has trademarked. (Recent on-screen graphics: “Will the health bill ruin the economy?” and, “Does Obamacare mean millions more jobs destroyed?“)
Instead this bout of spastic lashing out has been unique even by the previous standard adopted by Beck, who, on the eve of the health care vote, likened Democrats to al Qaeda terrorists who were trying to bring America to its knees from the inside.
Because apparently when conservatives lose consecutive nationwide election cycles, thereby allowing Democrats to set the legislative agenda, conservatives’ objections render passing bills a criminal act, and “tyranny” threatens to topple our democracy.
Let’s face facts. It’s never pleasant when activists are confronted with their own political impotence. (Not to mention their abysmal vote-counting skills.) But that’s exactly what happened over the weekend as Democratic members of Congress passed health care reform — reform that the radical right had already pronounced dead. In fact, the GOP Noise Machine had spent weeks dancing on reform’s grave and mocking Democrats’ inability to act. So how did it all go so terribly wrong for health care haters?
My hunch is that over the past few months, the right-wing media, along with self-adoring Tea Party members, made the mistake of believing their own hype. They convinced themselves that not only did 2 million people take to the streets of the nation’s capital last September to protest Obama (a number that was off by 1.9 million), but that “millions” more had marched coast-to-coast over the past 12 months (a number that was completely fabricated). They fastidiously constructed their own parallel universe and convinced themselves that last summer’s mini-mobs at local town hall forums had defeated health care reform. They thought their rowdy show of force, complete with Nazi and Hitler posters, and even some protesters parading around with loaded guns, had changed the debate.
Listening to Limbaugh, they thought they were dictating the agenda. Watching Fox News, they though they reflected the mainstream. And reading right-wing blogs, they thought they had killed health care reform.
Wrong, wrong, and wrong. It was the sudden and rude realization that, instead, they’d spent the past few months trapped inside an echo chamber, I think, that created the volcanic and unhinged response we’ve seen play out in recent days. It’s the kind of childish and hysterical reaction I didn’t think we’d ever witness from a major political movement.
Indeed, imagine if this is how progressives and Democrats had behaved during the run-up to the Iraq war, the last time the country found itself in this kind of national public policy “debate.” Imagine if the liberal pundits and opinion makers had reacted to the prospect of war not with thoughtful anti-war analysis (analysis that, it turned out, was dead on), but instead opted for tantrums and shameful vitriol, the way right-wing pundits have in recent days and weeks.
For instance, imagine if the anti-war movement, and its highest-profile media supporters, had attacked military families whose sons and daughters were fighting in Iraq as the invasion unfolded. That kind of abhorrent behavior would have been universally condemned as just being beyond the pale. Yet last week, as its opposition to reform grew increasingly futile, the GOP Noise Machine dedicated lots of time and energy to mocking and attacking cancer-stricken patients, as well as a motherless 11-year-old boy who had the audacity to speak out in favor of health care reform.
Limbaugh’s immortal words to the boy: “Your mom would have still died, because Obamacare doesn’t kick in until 2014.”
To me, the attacks indicated a withering of the right-wing media’s shrinking moral compass, not to mention common sense. (Mocking the seriously ill is a winning political strategy?) It was another tell-tale sign of the unfolding, and unstoppable, nervous breakdown.
Because how else do you describe this kind of erratic, disturbed behavior? And it’s worth repeating: This wasn’t coming from minor, fringe players. It’s been coming from the supposed leading lights of the conservative media; leading lights who, blinded by paranoia, have suffered a collective collapse and can no longer make sense of their surroundings.
A senior fellow at Media Matters for America, and a former senior writer for Salon, Boehlert’s first book, “Lapdogs: How The Press Rolled Over for Bush,” was published in May. He can be reached at