10/11/2010 01:27 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Tea Party Rage, Part One: Benign Confusion or Serious Threat to Democracy?

It is once again the season in which voters are called upon to choose between the frightening and the feckless -- between the ruthless Republican surrogates for corporate predation, on the one hand, and their hand-wringing Democratic appeasers, on the other. Emerging as an apparent alternative is the historically familiar face of right wing populism, with the Tea Party Movement as its current incarnation.

Some respectable voices on the left, such as Robert Scheer and Arianna Huffington, have offered up somewhat generous and empathic readings of this new development. From their perspective, the Tea Party is an understandable if misguided response to the incompetence, indifference, and corruption of elites in both parties, whose goal in public life has been to fatten their wallets at the expense of everyone else. Hovering at the precipice of financial ruin, terrified by the collapse of the old certainties, and angry at the impunity enjoyed by Wall Street, Tea Baggers are directing their incoherent rage at the most proximal targets, the party and president in power.

In contrast, many less charitable progressive pundits have depicted this movement as a frothing, paranoid mob of obese bigots -- low-information and gullible illiterates who attend rallies with one hand on their assault rifles and the other displaying misspelled racist placards. Longing for the golden days of unambivalent white privilege, they experience "Black President" as an incomprehensible oxymoron, and regard the weepy gibberish of Glenn Beck as revealed truth.

These critics warn us that should the Tea Baggers continue their hegemony within the GOP, and Republicans return to power, we can look forward to a theocratic and anti-intellectual dystopia: a world in which children spend the school day on their corporally-punished posteriors reading textbooks cleansed of unpatriotic facts, and NFL half-time shows feature the public execution of abortion doctors.

This will be a society in which "Bible College" becomes a redundancy, national parks morph into free-fire zones for pistol-packing families seeking to harvest endangered species, and the Social Security program gets out-sourced to Halliburton. With Ayn-Randian capitalist cowboys riding the range unfettered by any regulatory restraint, it will be a Deadwood-meets-Handmaid's-Tale future (but without the good writing).

Each of these accounts, which are not mutually exclusive, can feel compelling to me at different times, depending on how disturbed I am by the delusional Tea Bagger idiocy of the day. But there is a way to understand this movement that goes beyond either of the above narratives. To do so requires invoking the excruciatingly overused appellation, fascist. While its promiscuous deployment by partisans of every political stripe may appear to have drained it of meaning, the word, I will argue, does name something real, historically consequential, and malignantly alive in the present day.

Akin to their rewriting of history and indifference to science, Republicans regularly disregard the consensual meanings of most political terms of art. "Socialist," Marxist," "elite," "communist," "liberal," have been unmoored from any discernable referent, and now denote something that is simply very, very bad. Not long ago, for example, Glenn Beck informed his credulous audience that Obama was a "communist" because his white Kansan grandparents had once, in the 1950s, attended a Unitarian church. Contemporary conservatives toss around "fascist" just as randomly. But to abandon usage of that term - one that actually means something - would be to allow yet one more word to disappear down the right-wing lexical rabbit hole. That is not a concession I'm willing to make.

Over the last one hundred years or so, the fascist movements and regimes of various national origins, for all their diversity, have repeated certain ideological themes. Every one of these fit the Tea Party. They include: attempts to revive or shore up patriarchal gender relations, institutionalized homophobia, violent opposition to religious pluralism and multiculturalism, nativist and anti-immigration attitudes, anti-egalitarian and social Darwinist beliefs, ultra-nationalist sentiments and a feeling of entitlement to global resources, and, of course, racism. But the aim that has the most malevolent political potential - and the one that constitutes the definition of fascism most scholars tend to agree on - is the effort to establish a form of governmental rule that is comprised of a fusion of corporate and state power.

Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke to this last feature of fascism in his address to Congress in April of 1938:

The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism - ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power.

He may have been particularly worried about this possibility four years after the revelations in 1934 of an alleged conspiracy on the part of certain business interests and military figures to engineer a fascist coup in the US. The allegations concerning this scheme, at the time appropriately called the "Business Plot," were found to be credible by a Congressional committee investigating the matter.

FDR could have had in mind as well the ascension to power of the Nazi Party in Germany. Or he may have been thinking of America's own nativist, anti-immigrant party, the Know-Nothings of the 19th century, who in addition to their name, resembled today's Tea Baggers in many respects. (The name itself derives from a pact of secrecy its members signed in the event they were ever interrogated by government authorities.) Dominated by violent xenophobic Protestant men, they viewed those of other religions as a threat to the nation. Rather than Muslims, they saw Catholics as the enemy to be vanquished. One of their leaders said that Catholicism was "the ally of tyranny, the opponent of material prosperity, the foe of thrift, [and] the enemy of the railroad..."

Anticipating their right-wing descendants, they published a platform that included calls for mandatory Bible readings in school, severe limits on immigration, and restrictions on non-English languages. And, like the Tea Party is doing now, the Know Nothings of yore ultimately merged with the Republican Party. Unlike contemporary conservatives however, they were not fascists in the political/economic sense. To my knowledge, they did not seek the surrender of public power to commercial interests.

Tea Baggers themselves have an entirely different sense of who their progenitors were, imagining themselves the inheritors of the legacy of the "founding fathers. " Of course to pull off this self-deception, they have had to rewrite the history of those who established this nation. The early contentious debates on the role of government that took place between the likes of Hamilton and Jefferson have been flattened into a fictitious unity by these neo-Know Nothings. This is not a surprising move, as the repression of multiplicity is one of the hallmarks of fascist thinking.

Even the story that Tea Partiers tell themselves about what they believe is grounded in fundamental delusions. Perhaps the greatest fiction is that they are for "small government." Just like their GOP allies, Tea Baggers want to reduce government only in its caretaking and regulatory roles, not in its military or penal functions. More importantly, and pertinent to their true fascist nature, they have no objection to the "Big Government" constituted by unaccountable transnational corporate regimes, which nowadays include even their own private armies, like Blackwater.

Tea Party candidates are also the beneficiaries, at least indirectly, of the recently revealed efforts by the US Chamber of Commerce to channel foreign corporate cash into the various Republican campaigns aimed at defeating Democrats. It seems obvious that these so-called populists have no beef with the ongoing conservative project of corporatizing the entire US government, and that their ultimate allegiance is to the global financial elite - regardless of what patriotic tales they weave, how much they appoint themselves in founding-father drag, or how much they scream about a one world government imposed by the UN. In reality, Tea Partiers are waging a guerilla war against democracy that promises to be far more effective than anything Al Qaeda could engineer.

In part two of this series of posts, I'll look at the extent to which the Tea Party is a grass roots or an AstroTurf form of fascism. Stay tuned.