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Tea Party dangers ahead?

by Rob Eshman

March 23, 2010 | 6:26 pm

It will take a while to know for certain whether the Health Care Reform Act helped our country or hurt it. My sense is that, as with many pieces of sweeping legislation, it is the imperfect beginning of an important journey.

But one immediate upside to last Sunday evening’s vote is the wet blanket it threw over that dangerous volksfest called the Tea Party. I am no more paranoid than any Jew born after the Holocaust needs to be, but the Tea Partiers raised my internal homeland defense code to orange. Maybe not burnt orange, but at least a deep carrot.

It started with the television images of Tea Partiers disrupting meetings, shouting down Congress members at town halls. As a Jew, the only place where I expect to see that kind of rude, anti-democratic behavior is at a Knesset debate. Elsewhere, it alarms me.

The Tea Party gathered steam, gaining momentum as President Obama stayed mostly behind the scene.

By the time the weekend news reports emerged describing how Tea Partiers heaped racial and other slurs on congressmen like John Lewis and Barney Frank, my suspicions seemed vindicated.

I suspected that if I scratched deep enough, I’d find that beneath the homophobia, xenophobia and racism, I’d find some good old-fashioned anti-Semitism.

And I wasn’t disappointed.

This week, the New York Daily News reported that Tea Partiers roaming the halls of Congress left nasty notes about Rahm Emanuel and Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), signed with a swastika. One note called Weiner, “Schlomo Weiner.”

Others have shared my concerns.

“Yes, I know the Tea Party movement is a big, churning and somewhat diverse collection of people, including some conservatives who think Israel is cool,” James Besser wrote in The Jewish Week last month. “But as almost all the political scientists I talked to said, the insurgent movement also includes elements that are likely to scare the heck out of Jewish voters.”

Besser’s sources traced Tea Party roots back to a particular American strain of nativist, isolationist, anti-immigration forces.

“Lurking behind all of these was the idea of 100 percent ‘pure’ Americanism — and of taking America back from the ‘outsiders,’ ” he wrote.

Anti-Defamation League Director Abe Foxman told Besser that the Tea Party movement “is not a danger at the moment, but it bears watching.”

What was more telling was that Jewish Republicans had almost all distanced themselves from the Tea Partiers.

Conservative David Frum, on his blog frumforum.com (no, it’s not the name of an Orthodox chat room), blamed the Tea Partiers for the health care victory.

“We followed the most radical voices in the party and the movement, and they led us to abject and irreversible defeat,” Frum wrote on March 20.

As the Tea Party grew, I pulled out Eric Hoffer’s 1951 book “The True Believer,” the treatise on mass movements I use to help me determine whether I should be amused, concerned or on a floatplane to the Yukon.

Hoffer (1902-1983)  was a Jewish longshoreman and autodidact, a witness to a brutal century who took a long, hard look at national socialism and communism and deduced a series of principles about those who lead and follow such movements. Every word he wrote resonates today.

True believers, he wrote, tend to be the “new poor,” people who, “throb with the ferment of frustration.” In Germany and Italy they were from the ruined middle class. The Tea Partiers have seen their net worth collapse, their jobs evaporate. Check.

True believers seek a common enemy, preferably one they admire. “We cannot hate those we despise,” Hoffer wrote. “An American’s hatred for a fellow American (for Hoover or Roosevelt) is far more virulent than any antipathy he can work up against foreigners.”  The Tea Partiers shout down insufficiently radical Republicans. Check.

“... the genius of a great leader consists in concentrating all hatred on a single foe,” wrote Hoffer. “ ... the ideal devil is a foreigner. To qualify as a devil, a domestic enemy must be given a foreign ancestry.” Obama ... Birthers ... Indonesia. Check.

Finally, there is this: “There can be no mass movement without some deliberate misrepresentation of the facts,” wrote Hoffer. Death panels. Wholesale abortion. “Government takeover.” Check.

Where the Tea Party comes up short is in leadership. No great leader, using Hoffer’s standards, emerged possessed of “an iron will ... daring ... vision ...boundless self-confidence ... the capacity of winning and holding the utmost loyalty of a group of able lieutenants.”

The Tea Party movement remains decentralized. The leaders of what Frum calls the “Republican Entertainment Complex” — Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and Michelle Malkin — are less interested in leading troops than in selling them books. Sarah Palin is out looking for a lucrative TV deal.

We should count our blessings. I still have dark imaginings of what would have happened if a true leader had risen among these true believers. That person would have had his or her reins on a tidal wave.

“I know of no countries in which revolutions are more dangerous than in democratic countries,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in “Democracy in America,” “because ... they may always create some evils that are permanent and unending.”

The growth of the Tea Party raised that specter in a way America hasn’t experienced since the rise of the radical Left in the 1960s. Health care’s victory, I hope, liberated us from it.

Happy Passover.

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