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The Tea Parties: Built on Fear, Violence and Race Resentment

Racism and xenophobia have been central to the Tea Party movement from the start; while not all of them are racist, they swim in a sea of white racial resentment.

I used to be able to watch Glenn Beck and shake my head at his antics. I would listen to Rush Limbaugh and watch Fox News for their entertainment value as theaters of the absurd. I would laugh at the television as Sarah Palin struggled through the easiest of public policy questions. The Tea Party gatherings were comedy gold as one part failed agitprop and one part Village People reunion—fully equipped with protesters dressed in Revolutionary War regalia, carrying misspelled signs, and reciting half-cooked political slogans to a backdrop of bad country music.

The lunatic fringe had taken over the Republican Party. It was high comedy.

Since the passage of the health care bill matters have taken an ugly and horrible turn. Congress members have been spat upon and assaulted by Tea Party protesters. Bricks have been thrown through the windows of representatives who voted for health care reform. Racial and homophobic slurs such as “nigger” and “faggot” have been hurled by Tea Party protesters at members of Congress. A casket was left on the lawn of Representative Russ Carnahan. Right-wing vigilantes targeting Tom Perriello instead accidentally cut the gas main of his brother’s home.

Members of Congress who voted for health care reform are seeking police protection for fear of their safety. In what is ostensibly the most advanced democracy in the world, political thuggery is escalating into political violence as the Tea Party right-wing populists vent their rage and frustration. Having failed to effect policy through normal politics, the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party is now pursuing extraordinary means to see their political agenda served.

The behavior of the Tea Partiers—and the unwillingness of the Republican Party leadership to disavow them—is evocative of my favorite episode of the classic television series "The Twilight Zone." In "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” seemingly nice, polite, good citizens and neighbors turn on each other in fits of rage and paranoia after a power outage. Rumors spread, people are shot, and a community is left in ruins after extraterrestrial invaders use fear to amplify the latent ugliness that lies within us all. The moral of the story: we are the monsters, every one of us, and we can be easily pushed into the worst of behavior by our own weaknesses and the provocations of others.

Sadly, after watching the poor behavior, bigotry, and lack of civility on display by the Tea Party and their confederates, the joke is now clearly over.

There has been a great deal of hand-wringing by the media over the Tea Party phenomenon. Where did this movement come from? How did our politics become so dysfunctional? What do they want? For fear of using too broad a brush, many pundits have been afraid to state the obvious about the right-wing, anti-Obama, Tea Party movement. I will dare say what some have been afraid to: Racism and xenophobia have been central to the Tea Party movement from its very inception. While not all of them are racists, they swim in a sea of white racial resentment. And based upon the behavior witnessed at the Washington Tea Party gathering where John Lewis and others were threatened with violence, the Tea Party and its leadership give aid and comfort to the bigots in their midst, whether consciously or subconsciously.

The violent outbursts surrounding the health care bill, while surprising, were not unpredictable. Moreover, the racism and threats of political violence against members of Congress both spring forth from the same mean-spirited divisiveness that has typified American politics since (at least) the 1980s. The brandishing of firearms at Tea Party rallies, and the repeated references to uprisings and revolution at those events were more than hints at a propensity toward violent behavior; they were a clear sign of this movement’s willingness to surrender to its most base impulses.

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