Protofascism Comes to America: The Rise of the Tea Party

Is the Tea Party racist? Democrats who play liberals on TV say it isn't. Vice President Joe Biden says the Tea Party "is not a racist organization" per se, but allows that "at least elements that were involved in some of the Tea Party folks expressed racist views."

Right-wing Congresswoman Michele Bachmann has received permission to form an official Tea Party Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives. It's official. The Tea Party matters.

So: is it racist? Certainly a sizeable minority of Tea Partiers' "take America back" rhetoric is motivated by thinly disguised resentment that a black guy is president. As for the remainder, their tacit tolerance of the intolerant speaks for itself. "Take America back" from whom? You know whom. It ain't white CEOs.

Yes. The Tea Party is racist. Obviously.

But racism is only one facet of a far more sinister political strain. It's more accurate to categorize the Tea Party as something the United States has never seen before, certainly not in such large numbers or as widespread.

The Tea Party is a protofascist movement.

Robert O. Paxton defined fascism as "a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion."

Typical Tea Party rants fit the classic fascist mold in several respects. America, Tea Partiers complain, is falling behind. Like Hitler, they blame leftists and liberals for a "stab in the back," treason on the homefront. The trappings of hypernationalism--flags, bunting, etc.--are notably pervasive at Tea Party rallies, even by American standards. We see "collaboration with traditional elites"--Rush Limbaugh, Congressmen, Republican Party bigwigs (including the most recent vice presidential nominee)--to an extent that is unprecedented in recent history.

Tea Partiers haven't called for extralegal solutions to the problems they cite--but neither did the National Socialists prior to 1933. Then again, they're not in power yet. Wait.

One major component is missing: aggressive militarism. Certainly most Tea Partiers support America's wars and the troops who fight them. But Tea Partiers focus on domestic issues. Similarly, the Nazis didn't make much of their aggressive intent until after they seized power.

Because it has no central leadership and because it's easier to attract new members if you never say anything specific enough to turn anyone off, ideological vagueness is a defining characteristic of the Tea Party movement. Indeed, ideological imprecision tends to increase as you move from left to right on the political spectrum.

On the left, communists are specific to a fault. (This is why the Left is factionalized.) Programmes, five-year plans and one tract after another are the (increasingly boring) order of the day under socialism. Moving right, bourgeois organizations such as the two major U.S. political parties have platform planks and principles, but tend to be mushy and flexible. As we move to the far right, as under Hitler, ideas become grand, sweeping, meaningless slogans (take the nation back! death to the traitors!). What should be done is nominally whatever needs doing (i.e., whatever the Leader orders).

Umberto Eco's 1995 essay "Eternal Fascism" describes the cult of action for its own sake under fascist regimes and movements: "Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation."

Note Republican Senator John Cornyn's choice of words when he defended Tea Partiers against charges of racism: "I think it's slanderous to suggest the vast movement of citizens who have gotten off the couch and showed up at town hall meetings and Tea Party events, somehow to smear them with this label, there's just no basis for it."

Tea Partiers deserve praise for having gotten "off the couch." They've shown up. That's what matters! Never mind that they're stupid. Never mind that many--those who get quoted in the media, anyway--are painfully ignorant and uneducated.

As an added bonus, Senator Cornyn's statement both demonstrates "effective collaboration with traditional elites" and another entry from Eco's checklist: "Disagreement is treason." Or slander. Whichever Ann Coulter book title floats your boat.

Eco also discusses fascism's "appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups." Guard the borders! Deport the immigrants! Mexicans are stealing our jobs!

So much anger. It's too bad that the (justifiable) rage of the white male middle-class is directed against their fellow victims. It's worse that they're playing into the blood-soaked hands of their own oppressors.

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