Rick Perlstein: The Same Old Grievances from the Tea Party

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Rick Perlstein is the author of “Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America” and “Before The Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus.”]

Watching the rise of the Tea Party movement has been a frustration to me, and not just because it is ugly and seeks to traduce so many of the values I hold dear.

Even worse has been the overwhelming historical myopia. As the Times’ 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 grassroots 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 many more....

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 newsmagazine. “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....
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