A reader writes:
Your obvious shock and dismay at the sheer angry ignorance of the health care teabaggers reiterates my largest problem with your rosy immigrant's view of America. You have often underestimated just how poisonously dangerous the American populist right is.
I don't blame you. You came to America after the rise of Reagan. Most of your life in America, you have lived under different Republican presidents who placated these folks with platitudes and campaign rhetoric. The one period when the populist right didn't feel they had a fellow traveler in charge was when Bill Clinton was elected (thanks to the reactionaries splitting their votes). You remember, no doubt, the level of crazy Clinton had to defuse and dodge, and this was a man who had the advantage of being a Southern bubba who has dealt which such people all his life.
For most of your time in America, this insanity has been muted by the success of conservative politics. Since you live in Washington, you probably saw daily the face of the successful conservative political establishment that milked the populist right, and by milking them kept their bitterness at a manageable level. That safety valve was stuffed up by George Bush's failed presidency.
So now, these people are facing their worst fears; actual change.
A political and demographic re-alignment is happening before their eyes, and they are reaching back into their old bag of tricks of intimidation, violence, and apocalyptic fearmongering. You are British, Andrew. You love this country, and we love you for it. But you didn't grow up around these folks, and you don't realize what a permanent and potent part of the American political landscape they are.
They have always been with us, the people who believed in manifest destiny, who delighted in the slaughter of this land's original inhabitants, who cheered a nation into a civil war to support an economic system of slavery that didn't even benefit them. They are the people who bashed the unions and cheered on the anti-sedition laws, who joined the Pinkertons and the No Nothing Party, who beat up Catholic immigrants and occasionally torched the black part of town. They rode through the Southern pine forests at night, they banned non-European immigration, they burned John Rockefeller Jr. in effigy for proposing the Grand Tetons National Park.
These are the folks who drove Teddy Roosevelt out of the Republican Party and called his cousin Franklin a communist, shut their town's borders to the Okies and played the protectionist card right up til Pearl Harbor, when they suddenly had a new foreign enemy to hate. They are with us, the John Birchers, the anti-flouride and black helicopter nuts, the squirrly commie-hating hysterics who always loved the loyalty oath, the forced confession, the auto-de-fe. Those who await with baited breath the race war, the nuclear holocaust, the cultural jihad, the second coming, they make up much more of America then you would care to think.
I'm always optimistic about America. We're a naturally rich and beautiful place. Every generation we renew ourselves with a watering of immigrants committed to the American dream, immigrants like you. But please, Andrew, do not for a second underestimate the price in blood and tears we've always paid here for progress.
I voted for Obama with my fingers crossed, because I knew that as the populist right lost power, they would become more extreme, more concentrated, and more violent. As to dismissing them as only a quarter or so of America, please remember that it only took a quarter or so of Americans to actively support the Confederacy.
(Photo: Sarah Palin supporters at a campaign rally last autumn, by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty.)