The tree of crazy, its deep roots, and its new branches

THE TREE OF CRAZY, ITS DEEP ROOTS, AND ITS NEW BRANCHES…. The Tea Party crowd, its candidates, and its zealotry are often treated as a fairly new phenomenon. Glenn Greenwald had an item the other day arguing that this is a mistaken impression — there’s nothing new about this.

The “tea party” movement is, in my view, a mirror image of the Republican Party generally. There are some diverse, heterodox factions which compose a small, inconsequential minority of it (various libertarian, independent, and Reagan Democrat types), but it is dominated — in terms of leadership, ideology, and the vast majority of adherents — by the same set of beliefs which have long shaped the American Right: Reagan-era domestic policies, blinding American exceptionalism and nativism, fetishizing American wars, total disregard for civil liberties, social and religious conservatism, hatred of the minority-Enemy du Jour (currently: Muslims), allegiance to self-interested demagogic leaders, hidden exploitation by corporatist masters, and divisive cultural tribalism. […]

To me, it’s little more than the same extremely discredited faction which drove the country into the ground for the last decade, merely re-branded under a new name…. Tea Party extremism isn’t an aberration from what the GOP has been; it’s perfectly representative of it, just perhaps expressed in a less obfuscated and more honest form.

This strikes me as both fair and accurate. Last year, Rick Perlstein had a terrific piece emphasizing a similar point — the right’s “tree of crazy” has been around for a long while, and far-right conservatives of recent eras have been every bit as hysterical, irresponsible, and ridiculous as the ones we see today. Assuming this is some kind of break with the past is a mistake.

Nixon, after becoming Ike’s vice president, said Republicans “found in the files a blueprint for socializing America” in the White House, left over from Truman. Civil rights leaders were accused of being part of a Soviet plot. The Civil Rights Act was believed to be intended to “enslave” whites. A prominent right-wing radio host insisted that JFK was building a political prison in Alaska to detain critics of the administration. When FDR proposed Social Security, the conservatives of the era not only screamed about “socialism,” but told the public Roosevelt would force Americans to wear dog tags.

In 1961, Ronald Reagan was absolutely convinced that Medicare would lead federal officials to dictate where physicians could practice medicine, and open the door to government control over where Americans were allowed to live. In fact, Reagan warned that if Medicare became law, there was a real possibility that the federal government would control where Americans go and what they do for a living.

When we hear Michele Bachmann’s hysterical nonsense, then, it’s worth remembering that it’s an echo of rhetoric that began decades ago.

But since reading Glenn’s fine piece the other day, I’ve been thinking about why today seems different — or more to the point, worse.

Noting Glenn’s item, digby raised a good point.

One thing to remember, however — while these people have been around forever, this is the first time they have become a truly powerful institutional force in the Republican party. They have moved smartly into the vacuum left by the Cheney failure and they have done it in a time of crisis, which gives them opportunities they wouldn’t normally have. They are more dangerous today than usual and if they win these seats this fall they cause some very serious trouble.

That rings true, too. We have to go back many years, but there was a moderate, pragmatic wing of the Republican Party. In 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower (R) wrote a letter to his brother. “Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history,” Ike said. The president acknowledged in the letter that there are some who advocate such nonsense, but added, “Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”

A half-century later, Republicans from the base to Capitol Hill are convinced Eisenhower was stupid. Hell, Ronald Reagan raised taxes in seven out of the eight years in office, approved “amnesty” for immigrants who entered the country illegally, and met with our most hated enemy without preconditions. When Lindsey Graham said Reagan “would have a hard time getting elected as a Republican today,” it seemed like a very reasonable assessment.

The point isn’t that the Republican fringe is new; it’s clearly not. The point is that the Republican fringe is now the Republican mainstream — and that is new. We’ve long seen a party with bizarre theocrats, Birchers, and the like, but they were always kept on the periphery. That’s no longer the case.

I also believe today seems different from previous generations because of the decline of American journalism. More from Pearlstein’s piece:

Conservatives have become adept at playing the media for suckers, getting inside the heads of editors and reporters, haunting them with the thought that maybe they are out-of-touch cosmopolitans and that their duty as tribunes of the people’s voices means they should treat Obama’s creation of “death panels” as just another justiciable political claim. If 1963 were 2009, the woman who assaulted Adlai Stevenson would be getting time on cable news to explain herself. That, not the paranoia itself, makes our present moment uniquely disturbing.

It used to be different. You never heard the late Walter Cronkite taking time on the evening news to “debunk” claims that a proposed mental health clinic in Alaska is actually a dumping ground for right-wing critics of the president’s program, or giving the people who made those claims time to explain themselves on the air. The media didn’t adjudicate the ever-present underbrush of American paranoia as a set of “conservative claims” to weigh, horse-race-style, against liberal claims. Back then, a more confident media unequivocally labeled the civic outrage represented by such discourse as “extremist” — out of bounds.

The tree of crazy is an ever-present aspect of America’s flora. Only now, it’s being watered by misguided he-said-she-said reporting and taking over the forest. Latest word is that the enlightened and mild provision in the draft legislation to help elderly people who want living wills — the one hysterics turned into the “death panel” canard — is losing favor, according to the Wall Street Journal, because of “complaints over the provision.”

Good thing our leaders weren’t so cowardly in 1964, or we would never have passed a civil rights bill — because of complaints over the provisions in it that would enslave whites.

I’d add just one related note. In previous generations, the American Right still had to contend with some accurate information. That’s no longer the case — a Republican activist can listen to talk radio during the day, listen to Fox News after work, read right-wing blogs with breakfast, and hang out with Tea Partiers over the weekend. It’s possible, if not easy, for a conservative to come in contact with literally no accurate, objective journalism.

And as more and more of the right falls into this category, it makes it easier for fringe extremists to grow in number, to the point that they can take over a major political party, and purge it of those who fail to fully embrace their worldview.