The Tea Party's Toxic Take on History
Ignore it at your peril.
I am a great believer in used-bookstore serendipity. Sometimes when you're thinking about how to express something, you find a perfect exemplification of it just by chance in the musty stacks of such an emporium. Here's a remarkable example. I'd been trying to find a way to write about Tea Party ideology, and in particular about the fraudulent history and distorted language it indulges in. Listen to Tea Partiers on cable news—or read the signs they hoist or their Internet comments—and you frequently encounter the flagrant abuse, the historically ignorant misuse, of words such as tyranny, communist, Marxist, fascist, and socialist.
You hear them say, for instance, that we live under "tyranny" because one side lost a health care vote in an elected legislative body. And that, in all seriousness, the president is a communist. For many Tea Party members, the word is not just a vile epithet; it's a realistic political description. Check out this clip in which Tea Party "celebrity" spokeswoman Victoria Jackson flatly tells a flummoxed Fox News host, "The president's a communist." When the host (the Fox host!) starts to object, she responds that Glenn Beck has taught her that progressive is a code word for communist. (Time to put that ugly hammer and sickle logo inside the "O" on your I-hate-Obama T.P. protest sign!)
Unless of course Obama is really a "fascist," as some T.P.ers have it, because he's a liberal, and liberals are fascists (as we all know from that magisterial work of history, Liberal Fascism by Jonah Goldberg). So instead of the hammer and sickle, draw a little Hitler mustache on Obama's face on your T.P. hate signs. Or better yet, parade around with a swastika! (The Tea Partiers seem to get a special kick out of this, for some reason.)
Of course Obama is also probably an evil "socialist" which is apparently, in the Tea Party worldview, pretty much the same as a fascist or a communist. (One gets the impression that some T.P.ers have had major, life-changing, "aha!" moments when they first learned that Hitler's party was the National SOCIALIST German Workers Party. Slam dunk!) *
And if Obama's not a socialist fascist communist, he may be—ooh, scary, kids!—a "progressive," which, as Victoria Jackson learned from the erudite Glenn Beck, is really a secret "code word" for communist.
And they believe him! That's the thing. The recent New York Times study of T.P.ers reported that party members are "better educated" than most Americans. But educated in what? Clearly, they—or at least a significant, influential portion of them—are utterly uneducated in history. One can get a college degree without taking a single class in world history and thus still be ripe for the idiot distortions of a Glenn Beck.
Most people with a basic grounding in history find Tea Party ignorance something to laugh about, certainly not something to take seriously. But I would argue that history demonstrates that historical ignorance is dangerous and that it can have tragic consequences, however laughable it may initially seem. And thus the media, liberals, and others are misguided in laughing it off. And educated conservatives are irresponsible in staying silent in the face of these distortions.
The muddled Tea Party version of history is more than wrong and fraudulent. It's offensive. Calling Obama a tyrant, a communist, or a fascist is deeply offensive to all the real victims of tyranny, the real victims of communism and fascism. The tens of millions murdered. It trivializes such suffering inexcusably for the T.P.ers to claim that they are suffering from similar oppression because they might have their taxes raised or be subject to demonic "federal regulation."
The media for the most part has shown itself afraid to challenge the insidious distortions of language and history Tea Partiers promote. In the last few weeks, several news outlets have been propagating the meme that Tea Partiers are "just regular folks." And certainly some are. But if you examined the ideology that shows its face, the one that is apparent in sign carriers and blog commenters and cable spokespersons, you find something disturbing.
Consider this CNN report, which attempts to give a smiley face to the Tea Party's underlying ideology. Even Fox News recognizes Tea Party dogma as a seething cauldron of deranged and vicious lies about history. Look at the guy in the photo in this report and how proud he is of his illiterate swastika sign.
These swastika nuts look ridiculous. But words matter, sometimes in a life-and-death way. Take for instance the Tea Party demonization of "federal regulation" as the instrument of the tyranny that's been imposed on them. I would like every Tea Partier who has denounced federal regulation to write a letter to the widows and children of the coalminers in West Virginia who died because of the failure of "federal regulation" of mine safety.
Tell the weeping survivors that such regulation is tyranny, that their husbands and fathers had to die, but for a good cause: lowering federal spending so the T.P.ers could save a few pennies on taxes. That's worth 29 lives snuffed out in a mine blast, isn't it? They either don't see the connection or don't care.
Indeed the demonization of "federal regulation" could prevent cowardly legislators from strengthening protections for miners and other workers imperiled by unsafe conditions. But the happy T.P.ers will still go out with their swastika and Hitler-mustache signs, whining about tyranny. Wouldn't it be great if there were a liberal politician who, in the wake of the mining catastrophe, had the courage to stand up and say that federal regulations are often a very good thing? Don't hold your breath.
This is just one example of the toxic effect of Tea Party ignorance on the lives of their fellow citizens. But the damage done by the injection of fraudulent history into the body politic by Tea Party ignoramuses and their enablers will be more profound and lasting than one tragedy.
That's because ignorance of this sort isn't inconsequential. Historical fraudulence is like a disease, a contagious psychosis which can lead to mob hysteria and worse. Consider the role that fraudulent history played in Weimar Germany, where the "stab in the back" myth that the German Army had been cheated of victory in World War I by Jews and Socialists on the home front was used by the Nazis to justify their hatreds.
It's a historical lie, but it caught on, and Hitler rose to power on it, asking Germans to avenge the (nonexistent) stab in the back! It may be true that the Tea Party will disintegrate before it acquires any real power, as more and more of its leaders are revealed to be fanciers of racist jokes and bestiality videos. But one can't be assured of it. It's important to expose the lies for what they are before they further debase the language with their false use of words.
By the time of my serendipitous used-bookstore discovery—more on which in a moment—I was already troubled by the Obama/Hitler/socialist/fascist comparisons. But it was the ignorant trivialization of the Holocaust—the identification of Hitler as a "socialist"—that really got to me.
It took me back to the month I spent in Munich's Monacensia library archives a decade or so ago, looking through the original flaking and yellowing copies of Munich's anti-Hitler Social Democratic Party (socialist!) newspaper, the Munich Post. I devoted a chapter of my book Explaining Hitler to the courageous efforts of the Munich Post reporters to investigate the nature of Hitler's evil in the years before he came to power. Their investigation led to a kind of war with the Nazi Party: The Socialist reporters produced revelation after revelation, were met with vicious reprisals, and then produced new, more disturbing revelations.
One of the things these reporters were obsessed with was disproving the "stab in the back" myth, because they knew its sinister propaganda power. They even provoked one of Hitler's cronies who was propagating the "stab in the back" myth to sue them for libel. They called him a "political poisoner" and added that "if he were only an idiot his writing would make him look ridiculous, but he's worse than idiot." (If only some politicians and pundits would have the courage to say something like this about the T.P. poisoners of history.) They wanted him to sue so they could lay out the evidence against the "stab in the back" in court. In the end, they won the argument but lost the suit because the judge was a Nazi sympathizer.
These reporters lost a lot to the Hitler-friendly police and legal establishment in Munich, including a lot of their own blood. But they finally reached the heart of darkness, the ultimate hidden Hitler truth, when they were able to obtain and publish a secret Nazi Party plan for the disposal of the Jews after a takeover, a plan that contains the first known use of the phrase "final solution."
Few paid attention, but they got to the truth. And they were Socialists fighting the Nazis, you might recall. Listen up, T.P.ers: The Nazis were not Socialists. The Socialists were not Nazis. They were blood enemies. In fact, the Socialists fought the Nazis, while conservatives and nationalists stood by and thought Hitler would be their pawn. Hitler, need it be said, was not a Socialist. He hated the Socialists. Had thousands of them murdered as soon as he came to power.
I think this is why it bothers me so much when Tea Party ignoramuses put swastikas on their anti-Obama posters. They disgrace themselves, they insult the dead martyrs to the truth, by lumping socialism with fascism and Obama with Hitler. They not only disgrace themselves; they be-clown themselves, they distort the historical consciousness of everyone they spread the comparison to.
As for lumping Obama in with communism, and communism with liberalism, that's where the bookshop pamphlet comes in.
It was just a stroke of good fortune that a yellowing, 50-year-old pamphlet caught my eye as I was browsing the $1 bargain bin outside the Strand, New York's justly legendary used bookstore.
The title of the pamphlet was "Crimes of the Stalin Era: Special Report to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union."
It was Nikita Khrushchev's "secret speech." This 1956 speech denouncing mass murder and torture under Stalin's regime was one of the most important and influential historical orations of the past century. Delivered to a closed session over two days, it didn't stay secret for long, later circulating throughout the globe.
Yes, Khrushchev himself was a murderous thug and accomplice of Stalin, but his sickening revelations couldn't be dismissed as the product of Western propaganda by Communists and Communist sympathizers. His speech had a shattering effect on many of them throughout the world. The first crack in the monolithic façade of communism. It was a factor not only in the Hungarian and Polish uprisings of 1956 but began the process of internal and external disillusionment in the Soviet Empire itself, the slow creation of further cracks and then crevices that would eventually culminate in its disintegration.
Now, I'd read a lot about the secret speech, but I'd never actually read it. The full text of the speech—nearly 60 pages in my edition—is not widely available in print, and reading it for the first time, even after all the revelations about Stalin in books like Robert Conquest's pioneering work The Great Terror, Solzhenitsyn's novels, and more recently Gulag by Slate's Anne Applebaum, I still found it shocking.
And it suddenly occurred to me that Tea Partiers really should read this pamphlet, because it would teach them something about what "tyranny" is actually like. It would teach them something about what "communism" was really like. It would make them ashamed of themselves for whining about a health care bill turning America into a tyranny, for slandering liberals as communists who want to impose tyranny on them. It might snap them out of the intoxicated hysteria they whip themselves into.
The secret speech is also relevant to Tea Party slanders about liberals. The 1956 publication of the secret speech served to shatter the illusions of a significant portion of those on the left in this country who still harbored sentimental feelings about the Soviet Union. And helped cement the victory of anti-communist liberalism in America's Democratic Party, an important struggle that the Tea Partiers who think liberals are communists seem to be ignorant of.
Some publisher should bring out a new edition of the "Secret Speech" (perhaps with an introduction by Conquest or Applebaum). It's a totally fascinating document. One aspect of its genius lies in Khrushchev's use of the phrase "the cult of personality" to condemn Stalin. (In this translation it's called "the cult of the individual.") It's brilliant, albeit in a Machiavellian way: While it denounces Stalin' self-hagiography, it does so by transferring the cult of personality to Lenin, who is portrayed as the paragon of all the perfections the deranged Stalin supposedly departed from. Thus blaming Stalin, not the Communist system. All the while offering a pitiless portrait of it.
And there's a novelistic aspect to the way the speech injects the conflict of personality into its opening, when Khrushchev depicts the final clash between Lenin and Stalin as a quarrel over Stalin's alleged rudeness to Lenin's wife on the telephone while Lenin was sick on what turned out to be his death bed. Stalin killed millions, but let's not forget his bad telephone manner.
Then the speech gets into specifics about the mass murders. And the purges of the party. What's particularly interesting about this document in the age of Abu Ghraib is how much it's about torture. It's striking to read some of the personal testimonies Khrushchev includes here. About the unbearable pain, the incessant beatings. The deliberate stomping on broken ribs. And, oh, yes, they had their euphemism for "enhanced interrogation" too: "physical pressure."
Almost as painful is reading the accounts of the tortured consciences of those tortured prisoners who gave evidence against their friends and comrades. Trumped up complaints of "anti-party" activities that got friends (and sometimes their families as well), murdered in the purges. And the Tea Party calls health insurance mandates "tyranny."
It's hard to laugh after this, but Khrushchev has a cruel sense of humor (surprise!) and can't help ridiculing the insane vanity of Stalin's cult of personality. His coup de grace is when he quotes Stalin writing his own "biography," a gushing effusion of self-praise in which Stalin tells us, "The leader of this core and the guiding force of the party and the state was Comrade Stalin. ... Although he performed his task as leader of the party and the people with consummate skill and enjoyed the unreserved support of the entire Soviet people, Stalin never allowed his work to be marred by the slightest hint of vanity, conceit or self adulation." He couldn't have said it better himself.
The pamphlet made me think further about "cult of personality" as a phrase in relation to the Tea Party. It occurred to me that their cult of personality is a kind of perverse cult of Obama. They've made a graven image of alien evil out of him. Obama: communist, Muslim, Kenyan, Manchurian candidate, fascist, socialist, capable of all varieties of political malevolence. A supervillain, with superpowers. Who requires super lies to combat.
It's time to take on these superliars and stop them from spreading their poisonous ignorance.
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of The Shakespeare Wars and Explaining Hitler. His latest book is How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.
Photograph of Nevada rally by Ethan Miller/Getty Images. Photograph of New York rally by Spencer Platt/Getty Images. Photograph of Tea Party members in Washington, D.C., by Win McNamee/Getty Images. Photograph of Tea Party protester in Chicago by Scott Olson/Getty Images.