The Red Scare Returns
The right dredges up a familiar bogeyman.
What is peculiar about this particular right-wing rebirth is the speed with which it is happening. We had the crash last year, as in 1929. The financial gods were duly dethroned, the banks started to fail, and the mighty were humbled, as per the time-honored script. A market-worshiping Republican Party went down in an avalanche of obloquy. A scary new populism made the cover of Newsweek back in March.
But then we skipped a step. Some new version of the Bonus Army never marched on Washington. No Huey Long materialized to haunt the wealthy and we have endured no wave of sit-down strikes.
Instead, we proceeded straight to the backlash, raging against a leftist upsurge that maybe should have happened but that didn't.
Today, from the floor of town-hall meetings and the heights of the Republican Party, alarmed Americans fret about secret socialists and denounce the president as a dictator. They make plans to pull their children out of school rather than have them exposed to his hypnotic oratorical powers. They quail at imaginary death panels, storm at imaginary threats to gun rights, and froth at an imaginary birth-certificate scandal. And it has required only eight months of Democratic administration to bring the right to a boil.
Actually, it required even less time than that. This particular wave of outrage actually began back in February, when the stimulus had just been approved and when the health-care debate was still entirely theoretical. And even then it was as if an iron decade of left-wing oppression had been stoically endured. Remember the tea-party catchphrase? "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore," protester after protester would rage, as though the Obama administration, then in its fifth week, had already ground them under its heel for years.
Every now and then you hear reminders of the issues we would be considering if history still moved at its usual pace. Last week, for example, official Washington was soberly sorting out what had gone wrong over the last few years at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). But the right was already advancing to the next level, with TV host Glenn Beck instructing viewers of Fox News how the murals and sculptures that surround them are actually evidence of the secret socialist faith that is presumably shared by the powerful.
Besides, who among us really cares about the particulars of SEC mismanagement? The most notable literary response to last year's financial crisis was not to turn to the obvious genre-books about Wall Street shenanigans in the 1920s-but to skip several historical stages and to go straight to Ayn Rand's 1957 novel "Atlas Shrugged," in which heroic titans of industry are persecuted by a meddling government. The book's sales skyrocketed in early 2009, proving that when bankers puff asset bubbles and wreck the world, a large part of the public can be counted on to learn from that experience that bankers are the real victims of society, presumably deserving even more tax cuts and deregulation.
One reason for this acceleration of the cycles is the peculiar vision of the universe that one finds on the right, in which liberalism is always and already ensconced behind the levers of power. The backlash doesn't require left-wing provocations to get going: According to the time-honored rhetoric of the right, elite liberal intellectuals are supposed to control the newspapers, the movies, and academia regardless of who sits in the White House. "Political correctness" supposedly shapes the way we talk and think at all times.
So it doesn't really matter that there isn't much of a proper, visible, '30s-style left in America. One Van Jones is all it takes to negate the Obama administration's cautious centrism. The radicalism is just under the surface, if you're willing to believe.
And it's this willingness to believe, with its escalating cries of "socialism" and "indoctrination" that intrigues me most. Can people really be moved to worry about communism with the Soviet Union gone? Can you really hope to gin up a red scare without almost no reds?
Sure you can. Because red scares are fun. It's somehow ennobling to believe that our leaders have secretly betrayed us; that beneath the placid, suit-and-tie surface lurks a hideous alien philosophy; that time is running out for our country; that we alone have figured it out and now we are stepping bravely forward to give the congressman a piece of our minds.
Besides, where else is a suspicious mind to go when there are no other explanations being offered? The backlash is pretty much the only critique of "elites" that lots of people will ever hear.
And so we all dare to call it treason. Calling it treason is a movie in which we can all have a role.
© 2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.