It was two days after the horrific terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, that Jerry Falwell went on his fellow conservative evangelist Pat Robertson’s daily television program to blame the carnage not on Islamist extremists, but on gays and lesbians, abortion providers and us here at People For the American Way. “I really believe,” Falwell said, “that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way--all of them who have tried to secularize America--I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.’” Robertson eagerly concurred.
It was one of the most memorably appalling moments in People For the American Way’s long history of exposing the extremism of the American Right, and sometimes infuriating them in the process.
That moment, on Robertson’s “The 700 Club” program, was captured on a VHS tape by a PFAW research staffer who was recording the program live. PFAW’s communications department then distributed hard copies of the tape to news organizations to make sure that Falwell and Robertson couldn’t cover it over.
We still record “The 700 Club” live--and Robertson still uses the show as a platform for his extremism--but some other things have changed.
Ten years ago, we took PFAW’s VHS-and-paper research operation and turned it into Right Wing Watch, a website that has grown to be a key source of information on the Right. (In case you were wondering, we didn’t throw out all those tapes and papers; they’re all now in the hands of Berkeley’s Center for Right-Wing Studies.)
In 2013, when Robertson claimed on “The 700 Club” that gay people in San Francisco wear special rings that infect people with whom they shake hands with HIV, Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network tried to cover it up, removing the remark from the version of the show that it posted on its website. But it wasn’t so easy for them, because PFAW posted a live recording of the remark on Right Wing Watch. After a weeks-long copyright battle with Robertson, we finally prevailed and were able to stop Robertson from concealing his bigotry. The story went around the world.
This pattern has been repeated over and over again.
In 2011, Right Wing Watch put pressure on Mitt Romney when he was scheduled to appear at the conservative Values Voter Summit immediately before the American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer, who had a long record of bigotry that had been documented by--you guessed it--Right Wing Watch. In the end, Romney still spoke but offered a semi-condemnation of Fischer’s hatred in the process, alienating Fischer, who became a sharp Romney critic throughout the election cycle.
In 2013, when Rep. Steve King claimed that the majority of DREAMers have “calves the size of cantaloupes because they’ve been hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert,” the remark on a small conservative cable network went unnoticed until Right Wing Watch posted the video, letting everyone see how an influential Republican leader talks about Latinos when he thinks only his base is listening.
Last year, when Ted Cruz and two other GOP presidential candidates agreed to appear at something called the “National Religious Liberties Conference” in Iowa, it was Right Wing Watch that revealed the extremism of its organizer, including his support of the death penalty for homosexuality. When that organizer, Kevin Swanson, used the stage of the event to repeat his outrageous views (like his insistence that if his own son were to marry a same-sex partner, Swanson would cover himself in cow manure at the ceremony) Right Wing Watch was recording it live.We hammered home the fact that for a presidential candidate to attend an event preaching such explicit violence against LGBT people was unprecedented, and our thorough documentation of Swanson’s record made it impossible for Cruz and the other candidates to squirm away.
Just last month, it was Right Wing Watch that noticed a section of Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin’s speech at the Values Voter Summit in which he said that the election of Hillary Clinton could call for the shedding of blood of “tyrants” and “patriots,” violent rhetoric that is familiar to those who follow the farthest reaches of the Right.
And dozens of times a month, the work that we’re doing on Right Wing Watch is featured in media ranging from The Daily Show and Anderson Cooper 360 to the New York Times and Washington Post. Not everyone knows about Right Wing Watch, but everyone paying attention to politics knows our work.
These are more than just quick hits on activists or candidates. Instead, PFAW’s Right Wing Watch team has built up an unparalleled expertise on the Right Wing, especially the Religious Right, and their influence on our politics. That’s what Norman Lear and the other leaders who help form PFAW envisioned when they founded PFAW to counter the corrosive influence of activists like Falwell and Robertson who claimed that only those with their own narrow set of views could be true believers and true patriots. Sometimes the best way to fight extremists is to present them, uncensored, in their own words. That’s what Right Wing Watch has been doing every day for ten years.
Now, as we enter our second decade, we’re doing it with a new website that is cleaner and easier to use and will allow us to do our work better and more effectively than ever before.
Donald Trump’s rise to lead the Republican party is the result of decades of agitating by far-right activists who have never missed an opportunity to whip their followers into a frenzy, nursing grievances, spreading conspiracy theories and undermining the shared civic norms that hold us together as a nation. But while Trump may be the most frightening consequence of far-right activism we’ve seen, he’s not the end of it. Not by a long shot. Over the next four years, no matter what happens in November, it’s clear that the Right will be more aggressive than ever in pushing their extreme agenda and attacking the movements and individuals pushing for true equality. We will be there for the fight.
After 10 years, Right Wing Watch has never been more necessary or more ready to meet the challenge. I’m proud to be celebrating Right Wing Watch’s tenth anniversary this week, and I’m so glad that we’re stronger than ever as we confront the challenges ahead.