There have been a number of good accounts online about the rightwing, Bircher-like and "Patriot"-movemement-like hysteria has been spewing from Republican politicians like Michele Bachmann and the Might Wurlitzer of Republican-aligned media outlets (Rush, FOX News, Michael Savage, etc.).
Juan Cole has a piece on the topic in relation to Obama's major speech in Turkey, The great right-wing freak-outSalon 04/13/09. While his specific takedowns of neocon goofiness are good, he does make a couple of mistakes:
President Obama's recent trip to Europe, Turkey and Iraq was a fairly bland freshman outing in foreign affairs, notable for the enormous good will it generated toward the U.S., along with some practical achievements and a few minor errors. It lacked the drama of the untested young Kennedy grappling over Berlin with the wily old Khrushchev in Vienna in 1961. On the American right, however, Obama's trip produced a hysteria not seen since radio listeners mistook Orson Welles's 1938 radio production about an invasion from Mars for the real thing, and crowded the highways, heads wrapped in wet towels, to escape the poisonous miasma of the onrushing aliens. The weeping and trembling of Sean Hannity, Karl Rove, Rush Limbaugh and William Kristol underlined once again that the right-wingers are playground crybabies who kick and scream and faint whenever they do not get their way. [my emphasis]
To be fair, the Orson Wells generating mass panic story is a well-known one and not entirely wrong. But it's largely urban folklore.
Not only does the Martian panic demonstrate the enormous influence of the mass media in contemporary society, but in recent years an ironic twist has developed. There is a growing consensus among sociologists that the extent of the panic, as described by Cantril, was greatly exaggerated (Miller 1985; Bainbridge 1987; Goode 1992). The irony here is that for the better part of the past sixty years many people may have been misled by the media to believe that the panic was far more extensive and intense than it apparently was. However, regardless of the extent of the panic, there is little doubt that many Americans were genuinely frightened and some did try to flee the Martian gas raids and heat rays, especially in New Jersey and New York.
Based on various opinion polls and estimates, Cantril calculated that of about 1.7 million people who heard the drama, nearly 1.2 million "were excited" to varying degrees (58). Yet there is only scant anecdotal evidence to suggest that many listeners actually took some action after hearing the broadcast, such as packing belongings, grabbing guns, or fleeing in motor vehicles.
Cole also makes this statement, that struck me as a bit ahistorical when I read it:
More hot air was vented on the right in making elementary errors of logic, and more verbiage spent condemning the bow to King Abdullah, than in discussing any of the meatier issues broached during Obama's trip abroad. The ever greater concentration on minutiae, and the investment of more and more passion in matters of no moment, signals the bankruptcy of conservative philosophy. Its proponents have stared transfixed as the ruthless implementation of their most cherished principles produced a series of economic, social and foreign policy calamities from which it may take decades to recover. The spectacle of their spokesmen misunderstanding English, hyperventilating over dark suspicions of surrender of sovereignty or reeducation camps, condemning a Muslim country like Turkey for setting a bad example by being insufficiently theocratic, and engaging in mock auto-da-fes to illustrate their inner rage, raises the question of whether the Republican Party is having a collective nervous breakdown. Meanwhile, Obama and the rest of the country have begun seeing "glimmers of hope."
Then I saw Paul Krugman's New York Times column, Tea Parties Forever 04/12/09 (online), which focuses on the Republicans' "tea-party" hoopla. He makes an important point:
Today’s G.O.P. is, after all, very much a minority party. It retains some limited ability to obstruct the Democrats, but has no ability to make or even significantly shape policy.
Beyond that, Republicans have become embarrassing to watch. And it doesn’t feel right to make fun of crazy people. Better, perhaps, to focus on the real policy debates, which are all among Democrats.
But here’s the thing: the G.O.P. looked as crazy 10 or 15 years ago as it does now. That didn’t stop Republicans from taking control of both Congress and the White House. And they could return to power if the Democrats stumble. [my emphasis]
He recalls a couple of particular example:
Then there are the claims made at some recent tea-party events that Mr. Obama wasn’t born in America, which follow on earlier claims that he is a secret Muslim. Crazy stuff — but nowhere near as crazy as the claims, during the last Democratic administration, that the Clintons were murderers, claims that were supported by a campaign of innuendo on the part of big-league conservative media outlets and figures, especially Rush Limbaugh.
Speaking of Mr. Limbaugh: the most impressive thing about his role right now is the fealty he is able to demand from the rest of the right. The abject apologies he has extracted from Republican politicians who briefly dared to criticize him have been right out of Stalinist show trials. But while it’s new to have a talk-radio host in that role, ferocious party discipline has been the norm since the 1990s, when Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, became known as "The Hammer" in part because of the way he took political retribution on opponents. [my emphasis]
That's why Democrats can't afford to completely ignore such attacks. Because the mainstream media are perfectly happy to pass them along in their self-chosen role as stenographers to politicians. And while the wild Clinton-murder-conspiracy charges against Bill and Hillary Clinton were promoted, as Krugman says, by "big-league conservative media outlets and figures", even MSNBC's "liberal" Chris Matthews invited Jennifer Flowers onto his program to recite those goofy and completely unsubstantiated claims.
As reality-challenged as some of the Republicans' current fear-mongering is, it's not fundamentally different from the way they've approached politics since 1993, while an increasingly debilitated national press corps facilitating them.