As a youthful admirer of leftist protest movements during the 1960s, I became a connoisseur of violent political rhetoric. Which is to say that I‘m acquainted with the power of angry words to fuel explosive action. And how, like mystics chanting a mantra to enter a mindless trance, extremist activists, on both the left and right, can hypnotize themselves into believing some really crazy stuff.
Now I know better. And that's why I'm so scared of the anger that surrounds some members of the so-called Tea Party movement and their allies on the right-wing lunatic fringe. I'm afraid that their more susceptible constituents are going to start taking these paranoid delusions seriously and start acting on them.
I'm painting with a broad brush here, so let me reiterate the point I've made in previous comments about the Tea Party: It has legitimate political concerns, including taxes, the crushing burden that our burgeoning national debt will lay on future generations, and the shape of Barack Obama's health care reform.
But, at least some of the group (and some of those who seek to channel its version of righteous anger to their own, outsized political ambitions) have, indeed, talked themselves into some really crazy stuff.
They've talked themselves into believing that a foreign-born Muslim terrorist sympathizer whose real name is Barry Soetoro changed his name to Barack Obama to make it less threatening to voters. And that Obama, whose liberal views and support for free enterprise are well within the long-standing mainstream political consensus, is presiding over a socialist—or communist or fascist—takeover. Some have even managed to convince themselves that devious left-wing agent provocateurs insinuated themselves into that mob outside the U.S. Capitol to hurl racist and homophobic slurs at congressmen in an attempt to discredit the protest against health care reform.
The question is why are these people so doggone angry? Self-serving Republicans like former Vice President Dan Quayle—and aren't you glad he's no longer a heartbeat from the Oval Office?—maintain that much of the passion stems from independent voters who backed Obama, but are now disappointed with his big-spending liberalism. But that analysis is belied by both common sense and polls showing that on most issues the views of Tea Party members coincide with those of the GOP.
And, for many, there's nothing more unsettling than the ascent of a black man to the White House, especially during a time of economic turmoil. It has triggered, I imagine, a sinking feeling like the way some white people felt when a black family moved into the neighborhood, magnified a million times. It is, for some, quite literally unbelievable, a thing that could only have been accomplished by some act of trickery or outright treason. These people went to sleep in their America on Election Day 2008 and woke up in another country, as though they had been swept up in a spaceship and transported to an alien world. They're angry all right—because the thing they feared most, that the country would be taken over by one of those people, had already come to pass.
The fact that Obama's rise coincided with the collapse of the economy seemed, to these fearful people, too much of a coincidence for there to be no causal connection. Either one of these developments would have triggered high anxiety. The combination of the two was simply unfathomable. They hadn't seen it coming and they couldn't understand it
And, as we all know, the thing you fear most is the thing you can't understand. And the thing you fear most is what you strike out against.
The danger is that there are demagogues—Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, Fox News—eager to supply the confused multitudes with an explanation for their troubles—i.e. someone to blame. Following in the footsteps of Father Coughlin, the proto-fascist radio scourge of the New Deal, they have, collectively, whipped up a socialist, Islamic, white-hating enemy of everything Americans hold dear, a figure all the more terrifying because it, like evil ghosts and sci-fi monsters, does not exist, and placed it in the White House. According to a recent Harris poll, 24 percent of Republicans believe that Obama may actually be the Antichrist.
When people start believing really crazy stuff like that, it's no surprise when they start acting like the pitchfork-bearing, torch-carrying mob marching on Frankenstein's castle. It's why, for example, they see a good thing like extending health care to 30 million uninsured fellow citizens as an evil socialist plot or, in the mind of the troglodyte attorney general of the Commonwealth of Virginia, an unconstitutional violation of states rights.
They are angry because they are disoriented and afraid of change they don't comprehend. They feel the ground shifting under their metaphorical feet and fear they are about to fall into an abyss, which—unless the mob is able to clear its head and come to its senses—is where all of us are likely to wind up.
Jack White is a regular contributor to The Root.
is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.