Last week, some Tea Partiers in Iowa put up the above billboard comparing President Obama to Hitler and Lenin. Apparently passing health-care reform is now the moral equivalent of mass genocide.
(Of course, anyone familiar with the immortal works of Jonah Goldberg and Glenn Beck knows exactly where they're getting this from.)
The next day, amid a national furor, the Tea Partiers abjectly retreated, papering over the billboard with a new one featuring a Founding Father. These guys do watch Glenn Beck a lot, don't they?
The Tea Partiers tried pretty much the same papering over this weekend when they announced they were giving Mark Williams and his Tea Party Express the boot for having revealed themselves as the rather unreconstituted racists they in fact are.
But it doesn't work that way. Because the Tea Party simply can't just paper over the movement's already clearly established record of condoning racism in its attacks on Obama -- not to mention its clear record of attracting and including and promoting not just racists but far-right extremists of all types, from tax nuts to religious nuts to gun nuts. A bunch of nuts all around, any way you cut it.
Judy Thomas has a terrific examination of this phenomenon in the Kansas City Star:
Billy Roper is a write-in candidate for governor of Arkansas and an unapologetic white nationalist.
“I don’t want non-whites in my country in any form or fashion or any status,” he says.
Roper also is a tea party member who says he has been gathering support for his cause by attending tea party rallies.
“We go to these tea parties all over the country,” Roper said. “We’re looking for the younger, potentially more radical people.”
As Thomas explains, the issue of racism within the Tea Party movement is actually a somewhat complex one:
Indeed, it’s difficult to answer the racism question because the tea party is split into hundreds of shards, and the issue of racism depends somewhat on perceptions.
Still, it’s clear that some with racist agendas are trying to make inroads into the party.
It doesn't help that Tea Parties have an, um, fairly limited definition of what constitutes racism:
For many tea partiers, racism is in the eye of the beholder.
Take Ron Wight, who stood with dozens of tea party activists at the J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain in April, complaining about the Obama administration, its socialist agenda and being called a racist.
Those like him who complain about President Barack Obama are accused of racism, lamented the semi-retired music teacher from Lee’s Summit.
Then he added: “If I was a black man, I’d get down on my knees and thank God for slavery. Otherwise, I could be dying of AIDS now in Africa.”
Wight doesn’t consider that comment to be racist.
“I wish slavery had never happened,” he said. “But there are some black people alive today who have never suffered one day what the people who were black went through in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. Has somebody said something stupid or done something stupid? Yes, there have been incidents.
“But with everything that has been done in this country legally and socially for the black man, it’s almost like they’ve been given a great leg up.”
What's happening, of course, is that the Tea Parties are actually a manifestation of a larger mindset of which racism is only a subset: right-wing authoritarianism. We describe this in our book, Over the Cliff: How Obama's Election Drove the American Right Insane:
As it happened, however, there was data available strongly suggesting that there was indeed a powerful connection between opposition to health-care reform and voters with racist attitudes about Obama. Marc J. Hetherington and Jonathan D. Weiler described this data for the Washington Post:
As evidence of the link between health care and racial attitudes, we analyzed survey data gathered in late 2008. The survey asked people whether they favored a government run health insurance plan, a system like we have now, or something in between. It also asked four questions about how people feel about blacks.
Taken together the four items form a measure of what scholars call racial resentment. We find an extraordinarily strong correlation between racial resentment of blacks and opposition to health care reform.
Among whites with above average racial resentment, only 19 percent favored fundamental health care reforms and 57 percent favored the present system. Among those who have below average racial resentment, more than twice as many (45 percent) favored government run health care and less than half as many (25 percent) favored the status quo.
No such relationship between racial attitudes and opinions on health care existed in the mid-1990s during the Clinton effort.
It would be silly to assert that all, or even most, opposition to President Obama, including his plans for health care reform, is motivated by the color of his skin. But our research suggests that a key to understanding people's feelings about partisan politics runs far deeper than the mere pros and cons of actual policy proposals. It is also about a collision of worldviews.
This is correlative, of course; the data doesn't indicate a cause-effect relationship. Rather, as Hetherington and Weiler explained, both sets of attitudes – racial bigotry and opposition to health-care reform – arise out of a common right-wing authoritarian worldview. The people who hold racist attitudes almost always also hold the virulent anti-government attitudes that ultimately fuel their opposition to policies like health-care reform – but not everyone who hates the government is racist, either, and certainly not everyone opposed to health-care reform is racist either. But at the same time, you can bet your bottom dollar that someone who voted against Obama because he is a black man will also be violently opposed to health-care reform.
This is what people are talking about when they remark that "the Republican Party is the home of racists." They're not arguing that every conservative Republican is a racist; but practicing racists consistently self-identify as conservatives, and many are in fact Republicans (or sometimes even farther to the right). There are always exceptions, of course, but the known pattern is clear enough.
Right-wing populism is always fueled and populated by right-wing authoritarians -- people who believe that the nation/state needs strong rulers and that it's the duty of citizens to obey them assiduously. This why they suffer so much cognitive dissonance when the nation's top authority is a Democrat/liberal/socialist/Marxist/fascist -- and why their first impulse, in such situations, is to embark on a vicious campaign of delegitimization (see, e.g., Bill Clinton). It's why they basically go insane.