Before I first appeared on Morning Joe on September 22, I was warned about Joe Scarborough’s tendency to filibuster guests he does not agree with, and to do so in a belligerent manner. But to my surprise, the former Republican congressman proved a remarkably genial host, presiding over a civil but spirited discussion of my book, Republican Gomorrah and extremism in the GOP.
Perhaps Joe’s civility was rooted in cluelessness; when I was announced on the set as “the YouTube Michael Moore,” Scarborough excitedly asked a producer if I was “the ACORN guy,” referring to James O’Keefe, the young right-wing activist whose hidden cameras prompted a congressional investigation into the Obama-linked community- organizing group. Nevertheless, by the end of my segment, Joe promised to bring me back on. “I want to debate you more on this,” Scarborough insisted.
I returned on October 7, just days after Scarborough instigated a food fight with Rush Limbaugh, by criticizing his higher-rated competitor for celebrating Obama’s failure to secure the 2016 Olympics for Chicago. Scarborough opened the segment by launching a scattershot of breathless accusations at me, including that I was being “intolerant” of evangelical Christians “concerned by the radicalism of the 1960s.”
When I attempted to respond that figures like Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), who had labeled President Barack Obama “an enemy of humanity,” were the truly intolerant ones, and that the right-wing opposition sought nothing less than the delegitimization of the president, Scarborough rattled off a flurry of examples — each one without context — of supposed Democratic extremism. Joe pointed twice to Rep. Jerry Nadler, who had called the disruptions of town hall-style healthcare forums by the far-right Tea Party movement “a fascist tactic.”
“My point to you was that we can both pick out extreme rhetoric on both sides who are reckless and irresponsible on both sides” Scarborough declared. “We’ve gotta step back and try to figure out how to heal this country.”
But were “both sides” equally culpable for the conflict currently polarizing the country? This narrative had been popular among many pundits during Obama’s campaign for president and might have survived after his inauguration had Obama not gone to excessive lengths to generate bipartisan Republican sponsorship for healthcare reform while tens of thousands of right-wingers marched on the National Mall with signs comparing him to Hitler and Stalin; or if Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA), of the ranking Republican negotiating health care on the Finance Committee, had not warned that Obama might “pull the plug on grandma” if his healthcare plan passed, and urged his constituents to read Glenn Beck.
If I agreed with Scarborough’s storyline celebrating an end to the culture war the right has intensified against Obama, then, as Rodney King might have said, we could have all just got along. Instead, when I refused to accept his version and debated it, the host grew exasperated and angry, shouting again, “You’re being intolerant!”
Scarborough’s reflexive response to the question of the right’s responsibility for the trashing of Obama was to dilute and confuse the issue by blaming “the 1960s,” the original focus of the right’s culture war for decades. With the dog-whistle of “the 1960’s,” Joe instantly transformed into a 1994 re-enactor, recalling the crusade when he and a group of young conservatives backed Newt Gingrich’s Contract for America, attempted to cut off AIDS research funding, seized the Congress, twice shut down the federal government, and impeached Bill Clinton in the name of the culture war. In touting his record as an authentic “small government conservative,” Scarborough claimed credit for the federal budget surplus, prompting me to remind him that the surplus was created through Clinton’s economic stewardship. The mere mention of Clinton seemed to incite Scarborough’s rage even further.
As the interview turned into a heated debate because I insisted on answering his accusations, Scarborough muttered to a producer, “I’m done!” After remaining silent throughout the confrontation with a Stepford-like stare, Joe’s co-host, Mika Brzezinski, terminated the segment. “We don’t do Crossfire here,” Scarborough muttered to me after the cameras went off. He was visibly upset and unable to make eye contact with me.
As I was hurried off the tense set, I wonder why, when challenged, did Scarborough retreat into an attempt to validate his own career in Congress? Perhaps he believes the hype of a few pundits who claim he could contend for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination by campaigning, in the words of Andy Ostrow, as “the guy to bring a different GOP tone to the next election.” Or perhaps he is trying to balance constituencies, appealing to his old conservative base while trying to project as a healer blaming all sides for the vicious attacks on Obama.
But as Scarborough observes national politics from a hermetically-sealed studio inside 30 Rock, long removed from his old congressional district in Florida, the Republican Party had sailed past the farthest shores of the right. And as Joe conjures stereotypical scenes of “Real Americans” alienated by “the 1960s,” grassroots conservative activists have waging a 60’s-style guerrilla campaign astro-turfed by right-wing groups determined disrupt the public debate, demonize Obama and overthrow him.
I became a target of this campaign when I appeared at the University of California-Riverside on October 1 to discuss my book and join in a panel discussion about the Republican Party in the age of Obama. As soon as the panel began, a group of approximately twenty College Republicans leapt in front of the stage, deliberately blocking the view of audience members with signs labeling me a “Michael Moore Wannabe” and “Leftist Hack.”
The demonstration might have been amusing had it stopped there.
Then a husky young man Ryan Sorba who seemed to be directing the College Republican theatrics began heckling my fellow panelists with racist and homophobic slurs. When Mark Takano, an openly gay former Democratic congressional candidate and local community college trustee, attempted to speak, Sorba blew kisses at him and shouted, “Autograph my dick!” Sorba echoed Glenn Beck’s critique of Obama as “a guy who has a deep-seated hatred of white people” in heckling Jonathan Walton, an African-American professor of religion. “Racist! Racist!” Sorba screamed when Walton attempted to field questions from the audience.
When a university administrator summoned campus police to remove Sorba, he was dismissively told by Sgt. Seth Morrison that I was “not a legitimate speaker,” though I was invited as part of a regular university speakers’ program. And the disruption continued.
Sorba, I discovered, is not a disgruntled citizen, but a professional agitator, a paid operative of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a heavily funded, Delaware-based outfit that provides a support structure for conservative academics while grooming a cadre of student activists to, in the group’s own words, “battle the radicals and PC types on campuses.” Sorba has received his paycheck through a fellowship established by Rich DeVos, a far-right Republican billionaire who founded the Amway pyramid scheme and owns the Orlando Magic.
Besides founding dozens of Republican youth groups across the country, Sorba has devoted an exceptional amount of energy to his interest in homosexuals. With help from ISI’s publishing arm, Sorba authored a voluminous tract called “The Born Gay Hoax,” arguing that homosexuality is at once a curable disease and a bogus trend manufactured by academic leftists.
After my talk, two UC-Riverside students revealed to me that they had attended junior high school with Sorba. “He always had serious behavior issues,” one of them remarked. “He’s like a character from your book,” said another. Thus the culture war against “the 1960s” lives on.
Back in New York, Scarborough was reeling from Limbaugh’s counterattack. The day after I appeared on Morning Joe, Limbaugh mocked Scarborough as “a neutered, chickified moderate” desperate to “sell another couple of books to go with the 1,000 he already sold to Democrats.” Scarborough, for his part, projected himself as the “real conservative” while accusing Limbaugh of having “put [his] testicles in a blind trust for George W. Bush for eight years.”
Swinging wildly between calculated appeals to “healing” and defensive claims to ideological purity, Scarborough has become a living embodiment of the conflict consuming the Republican Party — the “real conservative” blinded by the right. It was not surprising that my appearance on his show became heated because it shed light on his and many Republicans’ dilemma — “I’m done.”