Rick Perlstein says we’ve been this movie before.
As the Times’s new poll numbers amply confirm — especially the ones establishing that the Tea Partiers are overwhelming Republican or right-of-Republican — they are the same angry, ill-informed, overwhelmingly white, crypto-corporate paranoiacs that accompany every ascendancy of liberalism within U.S. government.
“When was the last time you saw such a spontaneous eruption of conservative grass-roots anger, coast to coast?” asked the professional conservative L. Brent Bozell III recently. The answer, of course, is: in 1993. And 1977. And 1961. And so on.
And so yet much of the commentariat takes Bozell at his word, reading what is happening as striking and new.
I’ve studied the reactionary florescence of 1961-1962 most closely (I wrote about it in “Before the Storm”), and the parallels are uncanny.
The same “spontaneous eruption” of folks never before engaged in politics. (“I just don’t have time for anything,” a housewife told a news magazine. “I’m fighting Communism three nights a week.”) The same blithely narcissistic presumption that the vast majority of Americans (or, at least, “ordinary Americans”) must already agree with them, and incredulity that anyone might not grasp the depth of the peril.
The same establishment conservative opportunists taking advantage, setting up front groups (it’s one of the reasons so many people in such movements report they’re in politics for the first time; they soon find themselves so ill-used that they never get involved in politics again). The same lunatic persecution fantasies. (In Robert Welch’s 1961 it was probable internment camps for conservatives. In Glenn Beck’s 2009 it was … probable internment camps for conservatives.)
The only thing that changes is the name of the enemy within. And sometimes not even that: “They’re not 90 miles away. They’re already here,” was a slogan in 1961, referring to the twin socialists Fidel Castro and John F. Kennedy; only now the socialist is also a Muslim.
And this also proves the adage that history repeats itself; first as tragedy, then as farce. In the case of the Tea Party, it’s more like a Mel Brooks movie with L. Brent Bozell III as Roger De Bris.