Politics & Policy

Climate of Fear

Some Bush supporters say they fear for their property.

Blogger Robert Musil suggests that a climate of fear has descended upon Republicans in at least some parts of the country. Based in Los Angeles, Musil says most Republicans he’s spoken with are afraid to put Bush-Cheney bumper stickers on their cars, or signs on their lawns, for fear of physical retaliation from angry liberals. The problem is not symmetrical, says Musil. Stickers and signs for Kerry are widespread in Republican neighborhoods. Yet even in their own communities, Republicans are holding back. Intrigued by Musil’s claim, I put up a post on NRO’s blog, The Corner, asking for reader comment. I was quickly flooded with nearly 300 e-mails, almost all of them backing Musil. Here is the story they told.

#ad#There is a climate of fear. Again and again, Corner readers say they’ve been scared off of posting bumper stickers by visions of having their cars keyed or their windows smashed. A typical comment: “Putting a Bush-Cheney sticker on my car would be like adding a bulls-eye that says, ‘Please vandalize my truck.’” A reader from Arlington, Va., who lives just a few blocks from national Bush-Cheney headquarters, says he was not afraid to use bumper stickers in 1996 or 2000, but wouldn’t do so this year. Bush lawn signs are feared, not only as an invitation to vandalism, but because they might permanently alienate neighbors. A man whose wife was handicapped and dependent on neighbors in case of emergency was wary of starting a neighborhood “war” with a sign. This was a common worry among Bush supporters, even in less dire circumstances. (For more on the Bush-Cheney sign fears, go here, here, and here.)

Are the fears justified? They seem to be. On Tuesday there was a report that several shots had been fired into Bush-Cheney headquarters in Knoxville, Tenn., shattering glass. And late Tuesday evening came a report that protesters had ransacked a Bush-Cheney headquarters in Orlando, Florida. But these are only the most dramatic examples of a broader trend. Plenty of folks told me that their cars had been keyed, dented, or had windows smashed in for carrying a Bush-Cheney bumper sticker. Nasty notes left on the windshield are common. And some drivers get cut off in traffic and flipped off by cars sporting Kerry bumper stickers. One fellow said a couple of young guys pulled up next to his 64-year-old mother’s car and signaled her to roll the window down. When she did, they screamed, “Bush is a F**king MORON!”

Apparently, Bush-Cheney cars are routinely keyed in places like liberal Seattle. And liberal Bethesda, Md., has reportedly seen a rash of spray-paintings of Bush yard signs (with Kerry signs left in tact). One pro-Bush family in liberal West L.A. had its yard sign stolen six times. Theft, spray paint, or just tearing to shreds are the weapons of choice against yard signs, but one Bush-Cheney sign was actually set on fire. Even in conservative Idaho, Bush-Cheney cars get keyed. And in conservative Houston, parking while visiting a friend in the liberal midtown section can mean a keyed car. Apparently, these attacks are so common that you can now buy a T-Shirt with a picture of a slashed-out Bush-Cheney logo and the legend, “A person of tolerance and diversity keyed my car.”

The fear of violence leads many couples into serious debate. A stolen Bush-Cheney yard sign in liberal Cherry Hill, N.J., prompted one couple to think long and hard before replacing it. Would a rock through the window be next? “You can’t hide where you live once you make a mark of yourself,” said the husband. (But they did replace the sign.) One woman hints that although her husband called her “paranoid” for deciding against a bumper sticker, he may secretly be relieved at her choice.

Several readers noted that Kerry bumper stickers seem to show up mostly on Mercedes, BMWs, and other “high-end Euro-steel,” while Bush-Cheney cars are more modest American models. But at least part of the reason for this could be that Bush supporters are afraid to put stickers on new or expensive cars. Some families with two cars restrict the Bush-Cheney sticker to the beat-up old family van, keeping it off the better car.

Bush-sign protection is an art. Lots of folks report putting signs inside home and car windows, facing out. Magnetized car signs can be removed for safety when parking, and Bush yard signs can be stored in the garage at night. One fellow makes sure to park with his bumper facing a wall. Some Bush supporters have responded to thefts by covering signs in chicken wire or putting them behind fences. But these tactics don’t always work.

The most effective strategy seems to be hanging the signs high on trees, or high on a house. But this can be countered by malicious graffiti on the door, which one family has to clean off daily. The best tactic may have been this note, taped to the back of a yard sign: “Thanks! Your theft of this sign will result in a replacement sign and an additional donation of $10 to the RNC. Your contribution is appreciated.”

So are those too afraid to use stickers and signs just a bunch of political girly-men? A couple of tough guys said as much to their more timid compatriots: “What kind of wussy are you? I say Bring It On!” But most of the people who wrote in argued that it isn’t cowardice to worry about damage to a car that can’t be protected when parked. Several people said they’d started sporting Bush T-shirts and caps instead of bumper stickers, because Kerry supporters won’t try anything to their face. Readers who do decide to use stickers or signs despite the risks feel courageous. Some folks feel a sense of relief each and every time they return to an undamaged car.

Many Bush supporters avoid the whole problem by adopting a flag strategy. American flags, yellow ribbons, and signs saying “Support our troops” function in many places as proxies for Bush-Cheney signs. One reader noted that none of the homes with Kerry signs on his street display American flags. Other readers say they intentionally use the flag as a proxy. Usually this is safe. But apparently in Seattle, even an American flag can provoke arguments and rude looks. One Seattle neighborhood seems to display U.N. flags and stickers more often than Old Glory. (I guess that meets the “global test.”)

Is the violence really unequal? Corner readers sure think so, but it’s tough to know for certain when your sample consists of Bush partisans. Still, Corner readers point to repeatedly defaced Bush-Cheney signs in areas where Kerry signs go untouched. Clearly, there is at least some violence against Kerry signs. One reader said that in Columbus, Ohio, the virtual epicenter of this year’s campaign, sign violence seems to be about equal. The most frightened Corner readers by far are those who live in or pass through university towns. Yet one reader from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee reports that at least some liberal professors there feel sheepish about displaying their support for Kerry. Still, the repeated message of Corner readers is that property damage is inflicted on Bush supporters at far higher levels than on Kerry supporters. The asymmetry is attributed partly to the general willingness of those on the left to protest, but mostly to the depths of liberal Bush hatred.

Several readers complained about local news stories that hyped minor attacks on Kerry signs while ignoring the more pervasive violence against Bush supporters. Then there’s the question of which side’s attacks are meaner. The only direct assault on a Kerry supporter described to me was a fellow who’s Kedwards sign earned him a couple of frozen waffles on his front porch. Now, I wouldn’t hurl waffles myself, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think the waffle stunt was a great prank. Even when the Bushies strike, they seem to do it more in humor than in anger.

Pervasive liberal vitriol against the president has convinced some Bush supporters that they are in danger. Anti-Bush signs and graffiti seem to be at least as common as pro-Kerry signs. The slogans range from “Bushit,” to “Bush is a Stupid A** Moron,” to bumper stickers that substitute Bush/Hitler or Bush/Satan for Bush/Cheney.

This brings us to what I call “the mechanism of intimidation.” It seems that either past violence or present incivility has the power to intimidate. Several Washington state readers pointed to memories of the violence at the Seattle World Trade Organization protests some years ago as a reason why they would not display a Bush-Cheney bumper sticker. A couple of California readers pointed to violence against conservatives on the Berkeley campus as a reason to hold back.

But overwhelmingly, those who were reluctant to put up Bush-Cheney stickers or signs said that the “rabid” nature of this year’s Bush-hatred had convinced them that showing their support for the president was no longer safe. Apparently, in addition to all the keyed cars and bumper stickers, many city stop signs have been painted to read “Stop Bush.” More than one reader said that people who deface city property can’t be trusted to refrain from violence against private cars. One correspondent had an eloquent take on the mechanism of intimidation:

…a number of neighborhood Kerry supporters have taken to putting hand written signs on their lawns. They do not threaten violence but manage to cross that invisible line of good taste and neighborliness…. That is, they insult the president personally and by association those who support him.

In the past, an unwritten rule seemed to apply to yard signs. Any neighbor was free to express his support for the candidate of his choice in a tasteful yard sign without having it affect personal friendships. But tactics seeming to violate the unwritten rule are now widely practiced: using insulting handmade signs, planting multiple signs at a single household and placing signs on property lines to make it appear as if neighbors also support Kerry-Edwards. In my mind’s eye, this behavior suggests that the Kerry-Edwards supporters are so invested emotionally in the contest that they are willing–no eager–to alienate their neighbors.

This is what has created the climate of fear.

Why do Kerry supporters feel free to vandalize Bush signs and damage the property of the president’s supporters? Corner readers agree that it’s the liberal feeling of moral superiority that “puts them above the law and gives them leave to abridge the rights of others.” Another typical comment was: “There’s nothing more intolerant than a tolerant liberal.” One reader called for an amendment to Voltaire’s classic statement of liberal tolerance: “I may disagree with what you say, but I’ll sneak onto your yard in the middle of the night to steal your sign, you fascist bastard.”

With all the problems, the tide may be turning. A number of readers report that Bush signs are now proliferating. According to one, they “sprouted like dandelions” after the Republican convention. That may mean even more vandalism and violence as we head toward election day. But this is unlikely to help Kerry.

First, there’s the cocoon effect. A number of readers said that the mainstream-media message that it’s politically incorrect to favor the president means polls may actually undercount Bush support. Liberals are shocked when the president garners majority support, because they don’t know anyone who agrees with him. Yet the truth is that liberal vitriol has simply made the many Bush supporters in their midst go underground.

Anti-Bush violence is a weak and ultimately counterproductive tactic. It is the opposite of Tocqueville’s famous “tyranny of the majority.” The tyranny of the majority works chiefly through mental intimidation. It frightens and silences by its pervasiveness, and its implicit threat of ostracism. As Tocqueville said, the tyranny of the majority leaves the body and goes for the soul. There is a touch of this in the reluctance of Bush supporters to alienate the neighbors upon whom they depend. But for the most part, the anti-Bush violence leaves the soul and goes for the body (even if it’s the body of a car). That is not the tyranny of the majority. It is the rage of a minority, and it can only stir resentment and provoke a reaction at the voting booth. As one Corner reader said: “We may fear retaliation for putting stickers on our cars, but our voice will be heard loud and clear on November 2.”

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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