Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Right Fright

The Tea Party movement is capitalizing on the oldest and easiest trigger in the human arsenal: fear and uncertainly, and there are more than a few charlatans out there who are capitalizing on it.

Urged on by conservative commentators, waves of newly minted activists are turning to once-obscure books and Web sites and discovering a set of ideas long dismissed as the preserve of conspiracy theorists, interviews conducted across the country over several months show. In this view, Mr. Obama and many of his predecessors (including George W. Bush) have deliberately undermined the Constitution and free enterprise for the benefit of a shadowy international network of wealthy elites.

Loose alliances like Friends for Liberty are popping up in many cities, forming hybrid entities of Tea Parties and groups rooted in the Patriot ethos. These coalitions are not content with simply making the Republican Party more conservative. They have a larger goal — a political reordering that would drastically shrink the federal government and sweep away not just Mr. Obama, but much of the Republican establishment, starting with Senator John McCain.

To paraphrase H.L. Mencken, no one ever went broke by exploiting the greed, fear and paranoia of the American electorate. Televangelists and snake oil salesmen (and women) have been plucking those pigeons for generations, and Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin are only the latest. It happens every time there’s economic uncertainty, and it’s always a breeding ground for tyrants to warn you about tyrants who are lurking in the shadows. It’s always an abstract fear; socialism, for instance, or a group of people who live far away but whose reach is vast and crafty, like the illegal aliens, or the radical homosexuals, or the women’s libbers, who will steal your job, recruit your teenage son, and make your wives and daughters have abortions. It’s never the guy on the next block who’s stockpiling enough weapons to defend Bastogne. It’s never the man on the radio who carries on about how he’s looking out for you, the little guy, while he’s broadcasting from his gated mansion in Palm Beach. It’s a con game, pure and simple, and it’s been going on for as long as there has been haves and have-nots, the exploiters and the exploited.

If history is any guide, the Tea Party movement, a rag-tag collection of disparate agendas that don’t even trust each other, will fade into background noise when the economy regains its footing or as soon as they elect a president who pays them lip service and then do to the Constitution exactly what they were afraid the “tyrant” would do, but it’s okay because he/she is a Republican, or when one of their own commits an act that reminds us that terrorism can come from within. Like the America Firsters, the Liberty Leaguers, the Birchers, and the Minutemen, there’s always an undercurrent of paranoia in American politics, always something out there to keep the money trickling in from the foolish and the weak.

It’s happened before and it will happen again.