Monday, February 01, 2010

Tea Party latest right-wing rant

The Columbus Dispatch

Consider this allegation: The federal government, under the guise of helping the mentally ill, is establishing a concentration camp in Alaska to house political opponents - a new step on the path toward totalitarianism.

That entirely specious assertion came from conservative political analyst Dan Smoot in 1956, and it briefly became an obsessive cause of the right-wing grass roots, with each new allegation topping the last.

Perhaps this episode sounds vaguely familiar. That's because Fox News commentator Glenn Beck said last year he had tried but could not refute claims that the Obama administration was creating Federal Emergency Management Agency camps that would house its political opponents.

Remarking on the camps and his failed attempt to "debunk" the allegation, Beck said: "If you have any kind of fear that we might be heading toward a totalitarian state, look out. Buckle up. There is something happening in our country and it ain't good."

He later would correct his FEMA camp story, but by then the myth had implanted itself.

Beck and the Tea Party movement of which he is a central figure are often portrayed as a new and exotic political phenomenon.

For all its apparent freshness, the Tea Party movement is firmly rooted in its ideology, rhetoric and - there's no polite word for it - its paranoia, in the post-World War II American right.

Every few years, usually though not always during a Democratic administration, the movement reappears, with a similar set of grievances: The expansion of government is moving us toward socialism; there's been a dangerous weakening of the national security apparatus but also, paradoxically, the threat of police-state provisions at home; an alien subversive of nefarious intentions, composed of cosmopolitan elites and corrupt "one-worlders" has infected the government.

In the 1950s, conservatives were angered when their champion, Ohio Sen. Robert Taft, was shoved aside by Republican elites in favor of the moderate Dwight Eisenhower.

Kathy Olmsted, a University of California, Davis historian of the period, notes that they accused the onetime Supreme Allied Commander of being a communist agent.

Consider the far-right rallying cry during the presidency of Bill Clinton: Jackbooted government thugs were on the loose; American soldiers were fighting under the U.N. flag; the 1993 tax increase - and a failed attempt at health-care reform - the marks of a closet socialist.

The most fitting parallel, however, may be the early 1960s, when right-wing activists believed the civil-rights movement was the work of the Soviets and, as Ronald Reagan alleged, Medicare a push for socialized medicine.

"The (figurative speech), the rhetoric, the cultural profile - there are profound similarities," said Rick Perlstein, who has completed two books on the history of the conservative movement and is widely viewed by conservatives and liberals alike as its key chronicler.

Like President Barack Obama, John F. Kennedy was a "first" - the first Catholic president in a nation with a long history of anti-Catholic bigotry and conspiracy theories about powerful papists. Like Obama, Kennedy's administration was filled with Eastern elites from the best schools and largest corporations, all viewed warily by Sun Belt and rural Americans.

Olmsted said the Tea Party movement is not unlike a right-wing activist group of the time, the John Birch Society.

"The John Birch Society was extreme, but also connected to the Republican Party, and Republican politicians had to make a decision about whether they were with the movement," she said.

Then there's the paranoia: Before, it was communist plots, now it is health-care "death panels" and the belief that the administration is eager to seize guns.

Even reasonable Tea Party activists take it as a given that Obama is a socialist. It hardly seems to matter that a significant chunk of the stimulus was a tax cut, or that his chief economist is centrist Larry Summers, or that the bailouts of the auto and banking industries began under President George W. Bush, or that Reagan favored the bailout of Chrysler in 1980, or that Reagan raised taxes to preserve Social Security.

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