David Neiwert (aka Orcinus), has some very interesting and disturbing things to say about the sad and vicious state of political discourse. Start with his The Political and the Personal, then read his summary of the many reactions. The purpose of this essay isn't to agree or disagree, so much as muse aloud in his wake.
I don't personally have a formed view as to the psychology of either the modern brownshirts or of their fellow travelers. As Sinclair Lewis brilliantly explored in his vastly under-appreciated novel It Can't Happen Here, many of the people who go along with brownshirts do so out of simple opportunism. Which is why the Republican party's actions that seek to entrench their political victories economically by taxing Democratic-voting districts and transferring money to Republican-voting ones is for me as least as worrying and cynical as anything they say. Similarly, the strategy of imposing today's costs on tomorrow's citizens (huge deficits that are not spent on investments likely to repay their costs) presents a serious problem; were there to be a serious economic repercussion — like OPEC going off the dollar, or world markets choosing to hold more Euros and sending back a chunk of the dollar overhang, then we'd see the true cost of this fecklessness.
I am not quite as persuaded as Orcinus that today's political rhetoric is that much worse than what I recall from the early 70s—or even that much more respectable than invective was then. Seems to me that I remember Nixon, Agnew, and a bunch of other politicians and commentators were fairly vicious towards Vietnam War protestors. And some people acted out then too. It was bad then, it's bad now, but what seems worse today isn't the rhetoric so much as what it covers up or distracts from.
One thing that is different today is that structural features of the media tend to favor the brownshirts' fellow travelers (few of the brownshirts themselves are rich enough to own media — they are the guests). I do think that the impact of what is sometimes called the Mighty Wurlitzer – the vast echo-chamber of the right-wing propaganda machine – remains under appreciated. (The appropriation of the term Might Wurlitzer for this is somewhat unfortunate, as it originally denoted a CIA-funded plot to hire journalists and salt their work. There is absolutely no evidence that I'm aware of suggesting that the modern equivalent of the five-minute hate campaign is funded or directed by a government agency.) Whether the modern, private, propaganda machine is self-organized, or more centrally funded and directed, is less important than the legal regime that protects and enables it and which it in turn reinforces: media concentration, abandonment of requirements that holders of valuable monopolies on public airwaves make an attempt at balance, and a reality (with many causes) in which Clinton was savaged even worse than he deserved, and candidates like Bush and Schwarzenegger can say blatantly false things and only the blogs seem to care.
If radio and TV networks and cable were really after ratings, wouldn't they direct slightly more than half of their political programming to the majority who voted for Gore (not to mention the Naderites)? Is the Republican demographic so much more valuable — or more willing to watch TV and listen to AM radio? — than the Democratic one?
Another worrying difference is the openness with which government power is deployed to stifle dissent. The Nixon folk did much of their worst in secret. We have no idea what the current lot are up to in secret—it's not pleasant to think—but what is being done in the open is quite bad enough, from coralling protestors in Newspeaked 'Free Speech Zones' where no one can see them, to the Constitution-free zone in Guantánamo, to the rights-free zone in the Navy Brig, all these are done right there for all to see. There is no shame, just triumphalism in the exercise of power.
There's a lot of ruin in a nation, and we can surely weather all this. But it would be easier if it would stop already. Or at least by next November.