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Tea Party: Old Whine in New Bottles

Memo to Obama: Bill Clinton, LBJ, and FDR know how you feel.

Three decades later, Newt Gingrich rode into the speaker's office on the Contract with America's small government promises and promptly shut down Washington in a fight with Clinton that mostly revolved around conservative desires to slash a laundry list of social programs. And today, tea party rhetoric is shot through with charges both that the president is a closet Marxist ("Obama isn't a US socialist," thundered Fox News commentator, Steven Milloy at a tea party convention earlier this year, "he's an international socialist!") and that the federal government has become a multitentacled monster that needs to be crushed before it enslaves us all. In an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review, the Times' Barstow diagnosed the "idea of impending tyranny" as the tea partiers' deepest and most abiding nightmare: "I was struck by the number of people who had come to the point where they were literally in fear of whether or not the United States of America would continue to be a free country."

John Birch Society fliers like these circulated in Dallas before the JFK assassination.Finally, there's the weaving, kaleidoscopic thread that binds these groups together: their insatiable appetite for conspiracy theories. Robert Welch—in addition to his famous belief that water fluoridation was a communist plot—believed a shadowy group of "insiders" ran the world, stretching back to the founding of the Illuminati in 1776 and continuing through the French Revolution and The Communist Manifesto, and on to the UN, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Trilateral Commission. In like fashion, the anti-Clinton zealots developed a colorful and ever-growing bestiary of shadowy plots. They believed, among other things, that Clinton had Vince Foster murdered; that he conducted a drug-running operation out of Mena airfield in Arkansas; that he'd fathered a black child out of wedlock; and that he had allowed dozens of big-time donors to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. John Birch Society fliers like these circulated in Dallas before the JFK assassination. Richard Mellon Scaife, the primary funder of the Arkansas Project, called Foster's death "the Rosetta Stone to the Clinton administration" and told George magazine, "Listen, he can order people done away with at his will...God, there must be 60 people who have died mysteriously."

Today's conspiracy theories are different in detail but no less wacky—and no less widespread. Some 30 percent (PDF) of self-identified tea partiers believe that Obama isn't a natural-born citizen, according to an April New York Times poll. Some tea partiers are worried about internment camps for conservatives, an echo of a theory peddled by the Birchers in the '60s. As Canadian conservative Jonathan Kay bemusedly wrote in Newsweek after attending a tea party convention last winter, Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers are also frequent obsessions, "the idea being that they were the real brains behind this presidency, and Obama himself was simply some sort of manchurian candidate." And of course there's ACORN, the centerpiece of a baroque theory in which the now-defunct organization ran the Democratic Party, forced banks to make loans to minorities and poor people via the Carter-era Community Reinvestment Act, crashed the economy, and got Obama elected president. Robert Welch would be proud.

Ideology and paranoias aside, there are also more concrete connections between the generations. Some are unsurprising. Industrialist Fred Koch, for example, was one of the early supporters of the John Birch Society. His son, David Koch, helped launch Citizens for a Sound Economy, which later split into two organizations, FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, both of which are major funders and organizers of the tea party movement.

Other links are almost charming: One of the most popular tracts among Birchers in the '60s was W. Cleon Skousen's The Naked Communist; 50 years later, Skousen has been rediscovered by Glenn Beck, who relentlessly hawks Skousen's 1981 book, The 5000 Year Leap. And still others are simply bizarre: Welch was convinced that the 17th Amendment, which affirms the direct election of senators, represented a poisonous concentration of power in the federal government. Today this obscure fixation has made a comeback among the tea partiers.

All of this points in one direction. The growth of the tea party movement isn't really due to the recession (in fact, polling evidence shows that tea partiers are generally better off and less affected by the recession than the population at large). It's not because Obama is black (white Democratic presidents got largely the same treatment). And it's not because Obama bailed out General Motors (so did George W. Bush). It's simpler. Ever since the 1930s, something very much like the tea party movement has fluoresced every time a Democrat wins the presidency, and the nature of the fluorescence always follows many of the same broad contours: a reverence for the Constitution, a supposedly spontaneous uprising of formerly nonpolitical middle-class activists, a preoccupation with socialism and the expanding tyranny of big government, a bitterness toward an underclass viewed as unwilling to work, and a weakness for outlandish conspiracy theories.

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