In his “Meet the Press” appearance earlier this week, former President Clinton indicated that the “vast right wing conspiracy” was alive and well under President Obama. Today’s vast right wing (VRW), however, is a different breed than its predecessors.

For example, while President Kennedy, like Obama, was the target of virulent opposition which included a National Indignation Convention in his first year much like today’s tea bag protests; this was limited to fringe groups such as the John Birch Society. What was once dismissed as the right wing fringe, however, would grow to dominate the Republican Party and the conservative media by the 1990s.

The fact that Clinton’s statement came on the same day that a Facebook user posted a poll whether President Obama should be killed illustrates the increased intensity of the VRW’s hatred of Obama as compared to Clinton. The VRW’s resistance to change that has fueled hatred of past Democratic presidents has been turbo-charged by the nitroglycerine of American politics — race.

Republicans try to obfuscate the issue by falsely claiming that Democrats are unfairly labeling all opposition to President Obama as racist or are playing the race card because of Obama’s declining popularity. In reality, the GOP’s hypersensitivity over charges of racism stems from the party’s dirty little secret — they have been playing the race card for 45 years.

Let’s start with Joe Wilson (R-SC) who screamed “you lie” during President Obama’s health care speech. Wilson also attacked mixed-race Essie Mae Washington-Williams as a liar when she revealed that she was the child of Wilson’s former boss, the late segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond — a fact confirmed by the Thurmond family.

Prior to entering Congress, Wilson was one of a handful of South Carolina senators who voted against removing the confederate battle flag from atop the state Capitol where it had flown since 1962 when it was raised as a symbol of southern resistance to federal civil rights efforts. Wilson defended the flag (which was hailed as a “white man’s flag” when unveiled in 1863) as a symbol of an honorable cause which according to Texas’ secession statement was a government “established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity [in which] the servitude of the African race [was] the will of the Almighty Creator.”

When Wilson yelled out at President Obama during his health care speech it was not over whether there should be a public option or how to pay for health care — but over the relatively inconsequential question of whether it covered illegal aliens. This is the GOP’s ploy to inject race into the debate since to them the term illegal alien is interchangeable with Hispanic or other non-white immigrants.

While it is true that Wilson apologized for his outburst, he later said that he did so because he was told to do so by House GOP leadership and would make no further apologies. Far from condemning an unrepentant Wilson, the GOP made him its new poster boy.

Wilson’s statement comes in the context of a number of Republican officials or aides being caught comparing the president to a monkey or circulating racist images like the White House with a watermelon patch. Throw in the fact that every GOP president since 1964 got elected using the race card. Ronald Reagan began his fall campaign near Philadelphia, Miss. where four civil rights workers were killed in 1964 echoing the segregationist’s call for “state’s rights.” President Bush the elder got elected through his infamous Willie Horton ad and his son got elected after his brother provided the margin of victory in Florida by improperly purging several thousand black voters from the voting rolls — and you get the picture.

Ultimately, whether Joe Wilson is a racist is irrelevant. What is relevant is that this behavior gives license to others to act in kind. View chatboards on sites such as LinkedIn or Facebook and you will see professionals openly calling the president “Obongo” or other racist names or even questioning whether this Harvard law graduate could read.

That is why the GOP’s worst offense is not Wilson’s disgraceful outburst but their shameful silence to the growing chorus of racist comments about the president and their refusal to condemn or even embracing town hall loonies alluding to acts of violence. The party of Lincoln would be wise to heed the words of its founder that “[t]o sin by silence when they should protest” is an act of cowardice.

President Clinton noted that the VRW’s strength was waning given the country’s shift towards a non-white majority population. The GOP, however, refuses to change course as it appears that after galloping on the tiger of bigotry for 45 years, the party does not know how to dismount without being its prey.

Bennet Kelley (www.bennetkelley.com) is an award-winning columnist and political analyst with over 30 years of political experience.