Europe has for centuries faced grievances over territory and ethnic identity, with the voice of estranged minorities or colonial outcasts serving as pretext and justification for saber-rattling nationalism and the creation of movements to entitle popular discontent. Hitler played to this sentiment when he invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938, allegedly on behalf of ethnic Germans. Moscow did the same two years ago to “enfranchise” ethnic Russians in Georgia. The list is long.
The American Tea Party movement is an unlikely if fairly conventional grandchild of organized responses to alienation. Such movements generally embrace uncomplicated, homogeneous answers to sociopolitical disaffection and promote leaders whose goals are advertised in terms of repossessing “once-upon-a-time” frontier wholeness.
Just as radical Europeans movements took turns blaming outsiders and a weak or corrupt state for indulging enemies of honored culture and ethnicity, their American counterparts stake out the folksy contours of a “we the people” homeland they claim has been kidnapped by oppressive, tax-happy apostates.
Consistent with American myth, this “stolen” homeland is still imagined as religiously and racially homogeneous, a haven for self-sufficient locals who prize a hard day’s work and want its fruits protected from a state that in the wrong hands is inclined to waste tax money on the undeserving, the disliked, the slothful.
Tea Party development follows along the fault line that buckled mainstream Europe between 1880 and 1940, when pseudo-national resentment fueled by economic hardship and a morning-after disappointment with modernity produced a wave of populist spasms. These shocks were manipulated into viciousness by wily autocrats who codified protection against internal and external foes.
Long before the Internet and other forms of instant communication, “lost nation” movements were loud, rambunctious, and proud of their lowbrow tactics. In the 1920s, German National Socialism whipped up rage against French and British condescension, fanning an already poisoned economic atmosphere by introducing an all-encompassing Jewish conspiracy.
Similarly, the Tea Party blames the “socialist” state for spending too much and badly, portrays the urban intelligentsia as insultingly haughty (a classic theme), and more insidiously makes the novelty president — a black man — into a “foreign” caricature for new-day America gone wrong. His so-far unfulfilled promise is “I told you so” license for radical skepticism.
This is 21st century revanchism of the mind, a secular evangelism that in the absence of territorial claims advocates the installation of town hall nationalism. The first step is to punish bogeymen incumbents, who are in effect the hostile occupiers. The idea is that butcher, baker or candlestick maker can do better than anyone now in charge or on the political horizon.
Historically, the cooler and the more apparently disengaged the national leader, the easier it is to build cornucopia-style rage against him. Post-Kaiser Germany had affection but no patience for the aging Paul von Hindenberg, ushering in a demagogue in his stead. Italy’s array of post-World War I democrats, many corrupt, were no match for Mussolini, another conjuror of idylls. Stormy, break-everything Lenin seemed like the cure to Russia’s desperate ache.
Now, with Barack Obama two years into a storm in part of his own making, the Tea Party can attempt to mobilize its own “Yes we can.”
That it lacks a demagogue says a great deal about the movement itself. It’s a pastiche of disruptive mischief to which law-abiders can pledge allegiance while seeming patriotic. It has the self-serving, communitarian loudness that characterized early beer hall National Socialism and protest march communism, but without the need for a militia.
It aims to kick out the bad guys first, rebuild later, which means putting tirades ahead of projects. The first step is to swarm the central apparatus.
Hitler and Mussolini each appeased their elders, Hindenberg and King Victor Emmanuel III, before moving in. Lenin headed a revolution, not an insurrection, and his Communists required a decade to fully assert themselves.
The Tea Party seeks November midterm shockers for starters.
Anger is comfort food. When you believe something’s been lost or taken away, that big-city gluttons and their allies conspire to make your woe, resentment is identity. In the wake of Obama’s positivist wave, this is the nether-valence.
Since the military vanished from the postwar European political equation, the legions of the angry have had limited success (count the Austrian and Hungarian right, and Italy’s northern secessionists). The Balkans are a mess.
The United States so far resisted the more sinister aspects of Europe’s early 20th century. It has entertained miniature populist revolts, sweeping party shifts, and even third party presidential challenges, but rarely displayed much public or institutional taste for the national merchandising of rage. That’s changing.
Grassroots are one thing — they have helped elect many a president. But the Tea Party’s roots are green by convenience alone.
Core nationalism, like core populism, is about easy certainty and detestation, which is why dictatorship has been its best facilitator. It’s adrenalin-fueled dissent that revels in character assassination and pleasures itself with mockery. Well and good unless mockery is made into law.
The Europe of 1910 stood astride the world. Forty years later lay a prevalence of ash.