Rick Perlstein writes in the Nation this week that the Tea Party is nothing new. Conservative insurgencies have been part of the Republican firmament since at least the 1950s, and every one of them has roughly the same goals, roughly the same motivations, and roughly the same apocalyptic view of politics. Regular readers know that I agree with this, so I was naturally nodding along as I read Perlstein’s piece. I also nodded along at this, which comes after a passage in which Perlstein is dumbfounded that liberals still seem surprised by the fervor of reactionary groups like the Tea Party:
This time, liberals are also making a new mistake. Call it “racial defeatism.” Folks throw their hands up and say, “Of course reactionary rage is going to flow like mighty waters against an African-American president! What can we possibly do about that?” But it’s crucial to realize that the vituperation directed at Obama is little different from that aimed at John F. Kennedy, who was so hated by the right that his assassination was initially assumed by most observers to have been done by a conservative; or Bill Clinton, who was warned by Helms in 1994 that if he visited a military base in North Carolina, he’d “better have a bodyguard.”
All right-wing antigovernment rage in America bears a racial component, because liberalism is understood, consciously or unconsciously, as the ideology that steals from hard-working, taxpaying whites and gives the spoils to indolent, grasping blacks. Racial rhetoric has been entwined with government from the start, all the way back to when the enemy was not Obamacare but the Grand Army of the Republic….Every time the government acts to expand the prerogatives of citizenship and economic opportunity to formerly disenfranchised groups, a racism-soaked backlash ensues. Defeatism—or ideological accommodation—only makes it worse.
I don’t doubt for a second that the racial component of the latest right-wing fluorescence is stronger because Obama is black. But it’s only modestly stronger, and you hardly need to go back to JFK to see this. It’s easy to think of Bill Clinton today as a cuddly, beloved elder statesman, but anyone over the age of 40 knows that Clinton lived through an eruption of right-wing rage that was every bit as bad as what Obama has gone through. Even the specific obsessions of the wingers weren’t even very different. Health care socialism? Check. Economy-killing taxes? Check. Gay rights destroying America as we know it? Check. Supposed juvenile drug use? Check. Endless faux scandals and corruption? Check. Government shutdown? Check. Deficit hysteria? Check. Ball-busting wife? Check. The similarities, frankly, are pretty stunning.
The differences are on the margin. There were no birthers in the 90s, but there were all the black babies Clinton supposedly fathered. There was no Benghazi, but there was Black Hawk Down. There was no Solyndra or Fast & Furious, but there was Mena airfield and Monica’s blue dress. You work with what you have, so the details are always going to be different. But the melody is pretty much the same.
Tea partiers don’t hate Obama because he’s black, they hate him because he’s a Democrat, and Democrats are forever taking away their money and giving it to the indolent. And while being black probably hurts Obama a bit with this crowd in a way that Clinton avoided, being a philanderer hurt Clinton in a way that Obama has avoided. In the end, I suspect it’s mostly a wash. Perlstein is right: Obama was destined to be hated by the reactionary right no matter what.