Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has had an uneasy relationship with his party's purists for years. Even in his own home base of South Carolina, the right wing has long thought of Graham as a squish on an array of crucial issues, including campaign finance, immigration and environmental regulation.
There's also, however, always been a nastier undercurrent. For years, unsubstantiated but persistent rumors have swirled about the sexuality of the unmarried Graham. What's unsettling is how some on the right seem eager to connect one complaint about Graham to the other.
At a Tea Party rally in Greenville, S.C., last week, a speaker tried to figure out just what, exactly, is wrong with Graham. "Barney Frank has been more honest and brave than you. At least we know about Barney Frank, nobody’s going to hold it over his head."
He continued, "Look, I’m a tolerant person. I don’t care about your private life, Lindsey. But as our U.S. senator, I need to figure out why you’re trying to sell out your own countrymen, I need to make sure you being gay isn’t it." (Video is at bottom.)
What's interesting here is the thought obviously running through the speaker's head: that something about the personal features of a politician like Barney Frank or Lindsey Graham explains their otherwise disagreeable behavior. The argument isn't that Frank and, supposedly, Graham, are horrible liberal traitors, and gay to boot. It’s that they are, or might be, horrible liberal traitors because they're gay.
And once you notice this type of argument here, you realize that it's everywhere. This is the basic case against President Obama as well. It's not just that his policies are bad. It's that he is somehow not one of us, doesn't understand our country and its traditions, and so is in fact working for the other side. The "he's a foreigner" line of attack also featured at the rally, when former GOP presidential candidate Tom Tancredo asked, "If his wife says Kenya is his homeland, why don't we just send him back?"
You'd think that the argument that Obama is a scary outsider Muslim would be about fighting terrorism -- the president is too soft on terrorists, because he's a secret double-agent. But the "foreigner" rap on the president doesn't even seem to be about international issues. Instead, it's somehow about healthcare and taxes and domestic policy in general.
This is the language of a political movement that sees itself defending a peculiar, limited version of democratic politics. Academics have a term for this idea: herrenvolk democracy. The basic idea is that there is supposed to be equality, and even unanimity on crucial matters, among qualified citizens. And if someone breaks the consensus, it's not so much a sign that there needs to be an argument about this or that issue. It just casts doubt on whether that person was a legitimate member of the group in the first place. (Note that Graham himself has criticized the use of "racial epithets" on the right.)
This is all over the comments about Frank and Graham, as well as the standard attack on Obama-as-Kenyan-Muslim. As the Greenville Tea Party guy put it, "I need to figure out why you’re trying to sell out your own countrymen."
There's a true and genuine egalitarian feeling in this. The populism is heartfelt, which is why members of the movement think that there are obvious truths that good Americans all share. The problem, for these folks, is that not everyone is a good American. In fact, huge numbers of us don't count.