It's the End of the World As They Know It

Now that you've had an entire week to get over the trauma of filing your tax return, it might be a good time to step back from all the overheated rhetoric and acknowledge a few important facts about being American in these troubled times. No, we don't suffer under a terribly burdensome, confiscatory tax regime. And yes, our taxes actually buy us some pretty important stuff. But you'd never know that, given just how crazy the coming of April 15 makes some people. Depending on who's in the White House, that is.

I speak, of course, about the "tea parties" we saw last week, a happening destined for inclusion in the hall of fame of fabricated political oddities. To retell the story briefly: In February, a CNBC reporter and former commodities trader named Rick Santelli went on an on-air rant against the Obama administration for proposing to bail out homeowners in danger of foreclosure, saying that what was needed was a "Chicago tea party." Sensing the opportunity to harness populist anger, a number of conservative operatives specializing in "Astro Turf" organizing (highly coordinated, corporate-funded campaigns meant to give the impression they arose from the grass roots) began promoting "tea parties" on April 15 to protest, well, whatever anyone didn't like about the Obama administration but mostly our (allegedly) high taxes. Fox News then turned itself into a public-relations machine for the tea parties, engaging in naked political advocacy embarrassing even for them.

When the tea parties actually happened, though, there was something profoundly strange about them. Yes, somewhere around300,000 Americans attended one of the protests -- more people than could fit in my living room, perhaps, but pretty small considering there were hundreds of them all over the country, and they were vigorously promoted by a cable network and innumerable conservative talk-radio hosts. It wasn't just that the protests became a grab bag of conservative causes -- that certainly happens to the left at its protests But when it comes to the left, there's usually something specific at the heart of the event. You'll see some signs about racism and abortion at an anti-war rally, but everyone understands that the anti-war rally is about ending the war.

So what were they protesting at the tea parties? It was supposed to be taxes, which now that we have a Democratic president, have of course been raised to unconscionable levels. Oh wait -- President Barack Obama is actually cutting taxes (modestly, but cutting them nonetheless) for 95 percent of taxpayers and raising them only for the wealthy. But let's face it, "Obama's plan to allow the top income tax rate to revert to its Clinton-era level of 39 percent from its current level of 35 percent is unwise!" might be a legitimate claim but sexy it isn't. On the other hand, "Obama is planning a fascist takeover, with a brief stop at socialism!" -- now that's got zing! If Bill Clinton drove his enemies crazy by always emerging on top despite his own recklessness (with a wink and a smile, no less), Obama seems to be having an equally powerful effect on those who oppose him, notwithstanding his calm demeanor and copious efforts to reach out to conservatives. Put plainly, Democrats controlling the government and pursuing progressive policies has caused some people to lose their mind.

So what have we seen lately? We've seen Michelle Bachman, an elected member of the United States House of Representatives, go on the radio to claim that the Obama administration is planning to herd young people into "re-education camps." We have another member of Congress,whipping up the crowd at a tea party by talking about "the blood of tyrants." Responding to a proposal to raise the Illinois state income tax by 1.5 percentage points, a Republican Congress member said, "I think the people of Illinois are ready to shoot anyone who is going to raise taxes by that degree." We saw Rick Perry, the walking haircut of a governor they have down in Texas, strongly imply that the Lone Star State is considering seceding from the Union because of Washington's oppressive stimulus spending (to which more than a few people from the rest of the country no doubt replied, "Need any help packing?"). On the religious right, some are seeing the signs that Armageddon will literally happen any day now, since our descent into socialism is merely a transition period before the rule of the Antichrist.

And pushing it all along is the ascendant star of the conservative media, a self-styled Howard Beale of the 21st-century, Glenn Beck. Since moving his show from CNN to Fox, Beck has turned the crazy up to 11, offering a compelling combination of plain ignorance, utter credulity at any conspiracy theory that comes down the pike, manic fear-mongering, and weepy nationalism. Beck has become a kind of Pied Piper of right-wing mania, luring out the resentful and paranoid with his nightly festival of fear and hate.

Lately, when not telling people that Obama is coming to take away their guns, or claiming that a plan is in the works to move to one world currency, or passing out copies of books by John Birch Society cranks, Beck has been spreading what has become a hot rumor among the right-wing militia set, that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is secretly constructing concentration camps into which Americans will be herded and perhaps exterminated, once martial law has been declared (although in fairness, after bringing it up again and again on his show, Beck finally backed off and admitted it was bogus). And in one bravura performance, Beck claimed that because of President Obama's policies, America is becoming a fascist dictatorship -- and he said it while video of Nazi marches played behind him.

One of the things that is so remarkable about folks like Beck is that they always seem focused on government actions that have as little to do with our "freedom" as one could imagine. They're Mad As Hell about the stimulus bill (damn construction projects, taking away our freedom!) but couldn't care less about, say, warrantless wiretapping of American citizens. In response to a spate of these warnings about our descent into "tyranny," Jon Stewart had what might have been the best response:

I think you might be confusing tyranny with losing. And I feel for you, because I've been there. A few times. In fact, one of them was a bit of a nail-biter. But see, when the guy that you disagree with gets elected, he's probably going to do things you disagree with. He could cut taxes on the wealthy, remove government's oversight capability, invade a country that you thought should not be invaded, but that's not tyranny. That's democracy. See, now you're in the minority. It's supposed to taste like a shit taco.

But that taste is becoming intolerable for some. Even if their taxes have actually gone down, well, they still feel oppressed by Washington. They cried "socialism!" and no one seemed to care. Now they cry "fascism!" and still their words do not cause the whole nation to rise up. It must be terribly frustrating. But that's the thing about democracy -- it can be pretty frustrating, particularly when you lose. What the right doesn't seem to get is that the more extreme and shrill their rhetoric grows, the less convincing they become to the broader public. And the more ridiculous they seem.

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