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Dana Milbank: Fringe’s rants now routine

The peaceful hamlet of Mason City, Iowa, hasn’t been in the headlines much since it served as the model for River City in Meredith Wilson’s “The Music Man.” But recently Mason City raised a real fuhrer.

The geniuses of the North Iowa Tea Party put up a billboard in town showing the photos of three leaders: Adolf Hitler (with swastika), Vladimir Lenin (with hammer and sickle) and Barack Obama (with 2008 campaign logo). Over Hitler were the words “National Socialism,” over Lenin was “Marxist Socialism” and over Obama was “Democrat Socialism.”

“Radical leaders prey on the fearful & naive,” the billboard informed passing motorists.

Folks, we’ve got trouble in River City.

The tea partiers took the billboard down – to hush the national uproar, not because they thought they had done something wrong. “There’s going to be a lot of billboards just like this across the United States,” a co-founder of the group told the Des Moines Register.

He’s probably right about this. The vile sign in Mason City was not a one-off by a fringe group. It was a logical expression of a message supported by conservative thought leaders and propagated by high-level Republican politicians.

Late last month, Thomas Sowell of the conservative Hoover Institution penned an irresponsible column likening Obama’s presidency (particularly his pushing BP to set aside funds for oil-spill victims) to the rise of Hitler in Germany and Lenin in the Soviet Union.

After the column came out, Sarah Palin tweeted her followers with instruction to “Read Thomas Sowell’s article” about the Obama-Hitler nexus. Sowell’s theme – that Obama, like Hitler and Lenin, exploits “useful idiots” who don’t know much about politics – was strikingly similar to what wound up on the Mason City billboard.

Sowell to Palin to Mason City: They spread Nazi labels as smoothly as Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance turned double plays. And let’s not deny an assist to Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, who went to the House floor to read aloud the Obama-Nazi comparison by the “brilliant” Sowell.

Twenty years ago, the dawn of the Internet Age gave us Godwin’s Law: If an online argument goes on long enough, somebody will eventually invoke Hitler. When this happens, it’s basically the end of the conversation, because all rational discussion ceases when one side calls the other Nazis.

These sentiments have long existed on the fringe and always will. The problem is that conservative leaders and Republican politicians have, in their blind rage against Obama, invited the epithets of the fringe into the mainstream. Godwin’s Law has moved from the chat rooms to cable news to the floor of the House of Representatives.

Consider these tallies from Glenn Beck’s show on Fox News over the last 18 months: 202 mentions of Nazis or Nazism, according to transcripts, 147 mentions of Hitler, 193 mentions of fascism or fascist, and another 24 bonus mentions of Joseph Goebbels. Most of these were directed in some form at Obama – as were the majority of the 802 mentions of socialist or socialism on Beck’s nightly “report.”

It’s not strictly a product of the right. California’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown likened his opponent’s tactics to those of the Nazis, while Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., talks blithely of a health care “holocaust” and an aide to Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., dubs the opposition “Brownshirts.”

But at the moment the anger pendulum has swung far to the right, and accusations that once were beyond the pale – not just talk of Nazis and Marxists but intimations of tyranny, revolution and bloodshed – are now routine.

A few from recent weeks: Sen. David Vitter, R-La., comes out in favor of lawsuits alleging that Obama was not an American citizen at birth. Sharron Angle, the Republican candidate challenging Sen. Harry Reid in Nevada, speaks about the possible need for violence to overcome the “tyrannical” government. Gohmert, the Sowell admirer, says the children of illegal immigrants are going to return and “blow us up.”

Isn’t there a grown-up to rein in these backbenchers when they go over the top? Don’t ask House Minority Leader John Boehner, the man who would replace Nancy Pelosi as speaker. He accuses the Democrats of “snuffing out the America that I grew up in” and predicts a rebellion unlike anything “since 1776.” Boehner also said one Democratic lawmaker “may be a dead man” for his vote on health care and predicted that the bill would bring “Armageddon.”

Recall, Mr. Leader, the wisdom of the Mason City billboard: “Radical leaders prey on the fearful & naive.”

Dana Milbank is a columnist for the Washington Post. His e-mail address is

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