Demagogues often prosper under the rules of democracy, intimidating the moderate and preying on the weak-minded. But in a healthy society, such figures cannot cross a final threshold of decency without jeopardizing their own status — and today’s right-wing nihilists seem to be on the verge of doing just that.

When Elizabeth Cheney, a daughter of the former vice president, questions the loyalty of anyone who stands up for the human rights of prisoners in the “war on terror,” she is treading very close to that line.

Operating behind a front group called Keep America Safe, Cheney and her associate, the journalist William Kristol, say there is a shadowy group of lawyers within the Justice Department that supposedly served the cause of “jihad” by representing detainees.

According to them, those attorneys and any others who represent detained suspects are “aiding and abetting America’s enemies” by filing lawsuits, thus transforming our courthouses into yet another theater of terrorist attack. Through those legal actions, the lawyers are undermining the moral authority of the war on terror and creating obstacles for the military and intelligence officials charged with defending us, says Keep America Safe. And by accusing the U.S. authorities of violating the prisoners’ human rights, they are “echoing the propaganda” of the jihadists.

The clear implication of these arguments is that these attorneys are guilty of treason.

But if arguing for the rights of prisoners is traitorous — indeed, if merely representing a Gitmo detainee is disloyalty — then the roster of perfidy extends far beyond the seven lawyers at the Justice Department who were the immediate targets of Cheney, Kristol and their gang. The list would have to encompass dozens of military and retired military leaders, starting with Gen. Colin Powell and then including dozens of flag officers, military judges and legislators who have served in battle.

That list of subversives and sellouts would also have to include dozens of upstanding Republicans such as Rudolph Giuliani whose law firms have performed pro bono work on behalf of terrorist suspects. Worse still, the list must include the United States Supreme Court, which has upheld the rights of detainees under both the Constitution and the Geneva Conventions. It is hard to imagine a greater victory for enemy propaganda than a ruling in the nation’s highest court.

When Glenn Beck vilifies “social justice” as a “perversion of the Gospel” and slanders churches and pastors as “Nazis” for pursuing it, he too is trespassing a bright line. The Fox News personality — who rants and weeps like the late Joseph McCarthy, a fellow alcoholic — urges his listeners to run away from any congregation where social justice is preached. He instructs them to denounce any pastor who even mentions the term. He even held up pictures of a swastika and a hammer and sickle to somehow demonstrate that “social justice” is a code phrase whose hidden meaning is identical to Nazism and communism.

Poor Beck evidently does not realize that his own Mormon church is deeply committed to the social justice teachings of the Gospels — or that the Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and adherents of other faiths in this country all share similar values on that question. By attacking them, in his megalomania and ignorance, he has ripped into an ethical tradition that unites our country.

The best historical parallel to these extremist trespasses can be found back in the 1950s, when McCarthy, the John Birch Society and other elements of the far right were riding high. What brought them down were their excesses: in McCarthy’s case, when he and his staff sought to implicate the United States Army in the communist conspiracy; and in the case of the Birchers, when they proclaimed that President Dwight Eisenhower and the Supreme Court, among other august persons and institutions, were wittingly aiding the communists.

Our current crop of crazies is approaching that point of no return — and if we are fortunate, they will keep going.

Joe Conason writes for The New York Observer.

© 2010

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