Intellectual libertarians and conservatives ignore the reality of their Tea Party shock troops at their peril. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat is only the latest conservative unwilling to believe his lying eyes.
Inconveniently for him, the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights and the NAACP just released the most comprehensive report to date about Tea Party nationalism that unequivocally refutes Douthat's and other dissembling intellectual conservatives' dangerous equivocation.
Intellectual conservatism was absolutely lost in a wilderness of irrelevance before the Tea Party exploded onto the 24-hour news cycle. Indisputably, what made the movement such catnip to the news media were the controversial placards — many, many, many of which spouted the most unabashedly racist sloganeering this nation has seen outside of a Klan rally. Hyperbole, Mr. Douthat? Remember the president gussied up as a coal-black African witch doctor with a bone in his nose? David Duke was more subtle.
Obviously, not even a majority of Tea Partiers are racist; however, the Tea Party, the GOP and intellectual conservatives feign ignorance of an unquestionably racist strain in the Tea Party movement. The Tea Party brand of right-of-the-GOP conservatism is particularly unsympathetic to the African American, the poor and the immigrant.
More than half of Tea Party supporters surveyed by The New York Times think the government favors blacks over whites, a rate five times higher than that of the general public. Tea Party leaders — from former Tea Party Express spokesman Mark Williams to former national coordinator of the Tea Party movement Amy Kremer; white nationalist Billy Roper; Wood County Tea Party leader and "official supporter" of the KKK Karen Pack; and New York gubernatorial Tea Party candidate Carl Paladino — have a nasty habit of disseminating nasty, racist e-mails. (If you'd like to read the report's exhaustive list, click here.)
And what about the coincident resurgence of the militia movement? Like the Tea Party, it fancies its members as hyper-patriots, infused with the spirit of '76, and amateur constitutional scholars. Intellectual conservatives distinguish between the "good" Tea Partiers — locked and loaded at their rallies just for show — and the "bad" militia members, locked and loaded for real, at their peril and ours.
Intellectual conservatives seem hesitant to call a spade a spade. Instead of a no-tolerance policy toward racist speech, Tea Party leaders and conservatives shrug and dissemble. They hope to tame the Tea Party dragon, harness its popular anger all the way back into power, and then somehow jettison the most dangerous and extreme elements. History is littered with the tragedies of smart people outsmarted by their angry, fanatical allies. Just ask the Carter- and Reagan-era CIA how well they harnessed the anger of the Taliban.
Now, I'm not saying that Tea Partiers will soon begin to publicly stone transgender vegans, but history tells us that when you wink and nod at hate, the hate grows — often into something uncontrollably destructive.
It might begin as the kind of cheeky joke depicted in the Photoshopped image above that has been making the rounds in conservative blogs, accompanied by the caption "Sarah Palin clearing a tar ball off one of the Gulf beaches"; but if we aren't vigilant, the joke will be on all of us.
Trey Ellis is a novelist, screenwriter, playwright and essayist and an assistant professor at Columbia University. He is the author of the play Fly, produced by the Lincoln Center Institute.