An an article about the work of the Secret Service in protecting the physical safety of President Obama, the Guardian spoke to Travis McAdam, an activist in Montana who tracks the activity of right-wing extremists in his area. "The hatred that's there is very real. It's more than a gut-level hatred of having an African-American as president, it's also ideological — these people see black people as sub-human," he said. "Groups are popping up that have a new message and are using Obama to recruit new members." But most people who sound very angry are actually harmless, and under a certain set of social circumstances, they're likely to stay that way. From the Guardian:
For McAdam, the crucial question is how to sort this body of vitriol into its constituent parts — to separate out those individuals and groups who may be offensive and repulsive in their choice of words but are essentially harmless, from those that have the potential to be truly violent.
He likes to think of it as a funnel, at the top of which are many people drawn to radical right groups for all sorts of reasons — gun rights, taxation, Obama-as-alien, or whatever. Most never go further than that level, but some do. "As they dig into the subject, going down into the funnel, they start to lose connection with the social networks around them that keep them tied to normality. Down, down they go, and eventually out the other end of the funnel emerges the Oklahoma bomber, Timothy McVeigh, who says, 'Our country is under attack, I must do something about it.'" It's the thought that some may be emerging from the end of the funnel at this politically charged moment, McAdam says, that bothers him so, and makes him think that "violence against President Obama is a real concern".
You can read this as a warning about the recent fevered pitch of anti-Obama rhetoric on a national level, stoked by Fox News and a Republican Party increasingly pandering to the tea party — the standard paranoia of liberals as they watch their golden boy get tarnished by constant criticism. But you can also read this as an endorsement of the increasing organization and mainstreaming of groups like the tea party. The tea party is in the midst of figuring out a way to make its myriad elements feel like a part of a national movement — increasing, rather than decreasing, the social connection between angry people.
It's bad news for Obama politically, perhaps. But it's also definitely possible that, by creating social networks that catch all of these people and make them part of a group that feels like it's accomplishing something, these groups are actually making Obama physically safer by providing a stabilizing influence on excitable individuals. If you're busy going to a bunch of tea party rallies, who has time to go down the rabbit hole?
Inside the world of Obama's secret-service bodyguards [Guardian UK]