Andrew Bacevich and Me On Tea Parties: Fringe Ephemera, or Brown Shirts Looking for their Couturier
Yesterday I attended a fascinating, depressing talk by Andrew Bacevich (live blogged!) in which he discussed the way the Washington consensus on national security is (a) disastrous and (b) perpetuates itself by trading on the myth of Washingtonian competence and the willingness of those beyond the beltway to defer to the presumed superior expertise and access to hidden information of the national security elite.
He made a powerful case, fleshed out in his new book, Washington Rules, positing that American national security thinking (such as it is) rests on two poles. First there is a “credo”: that “the US and the US alone should lead, save, liberate, transform the world.” (Bacevich added yesterday that his choice of verbs was deliberate — they are all those used by American policymakers.) And then there is his trinity — the idea that the US should maintain a global military presence, configured for power projection, and used for that purpose as needed. (And yes, Bacevich at one point did refer to his atavistic commitment to the Catholic Church of his raising, as if you couldn’t tell…;)
Go check out the live blog if you want more, or better, buy his book. My focus here is on an answer he gave to a question late in the session, on what he made of the meaning of the rise of Tea Party. Here, as close to a transcript as I could make it, is his answer:
My bet is that the Tea Party is an epiphenomenon. Despite all the hooptedoo (sic) and the expectations that the Tea Party will have an impact on the elections this November — don’t think that they will be around much longer . The substance is so thin, and is so based on anger that it isn’t enough to sustain a lasting organization.
I think that’s right…
…but not all that long ago I spent a number of years immersed in the history of 1920s Germany as I was writing Einstein in Berlin. The book was, as advertised, an account of Einstein’s years in Germany’s capital — 1914-1932, but the question I was really trying to understand was how the 20th century went to hell, using Einstein as my witness at the epicenter of the disaster.
So when Bacevich argued that mere rage and the vague and incoherent sensation that the aggrieved Tea Partiers have somehow been done dirt is not enough to propel a political movement to lasting impact, it immediately reminded me of this:
Asked in December of 1930 what to make of the new force in German politics, he [Einstein] answered that “I do not enjoy Herr Hitler’s acquaintance. He is living on the empty stomach of Germany. As soon as economic conditions improve, he will no longer be important.” Initially, he felt that no action at all would be needed to bring Hitler low. He reaffirmed for a Jewish organization that the “momentarily desperate economic situation” and the chronic “childish disease of the Republic” were to blame for the Nazi success. “Solidarity of the Jews, I believe, is always called for,” he wrote, “but any special reaction to the election results would be quite inappropriate.”
We know how that turned out — but rather than just make the facile juxtaposition, I’d add that Einstein was almost right, or should have been right.
There was nothing in 1930 to suggest that Hitler was more than just one more raving rightist whom the establishment would dismiss as soon as conditions improved even slightly. And in fact, through 1930 up to the end of 1932 there remained (IMHO) nothing inevitable about Hitler’s rise to power. He benefitted from all kinds of chance circumstances, all the while riding (skillfully) the larger and overt waves of economic dislocation and political crisis. He was certainly helped by the incompetence of his opponents.
But, certainly, even if the attempt to draw exact parallels across historical space and time never work, the lesson of end-stage Weimar Germany is that it is surprisingly easy in moments of crisis for seemingly fringe movements to rise — and that in their ascent, to seize power that could never be theirs in any ordinary time. And once seized, authority feeds itself — we don’t need to Godwinize the argument to see that; the rapid accumulation of state power by the minority Bush II administration offers plenty of object demonstrations of what happens once folks, however thin or nonexistent their mandate, get their hands on the mechanical levers of power.
All of which is to say I believe we should not wait for the ordinary flow of events to sweep the Tea Party from the stage. Active opposition is what’s needed, rather than the passive certainty that they’re crazy, wrong, and so openly whacked out that no one could possibly actually hand them the keys to the car.
Above all, what the example of the rise of the Nazis tells us is that rage is enormously powerful, and real hardship combined with a sense of class or race or identity-based grievance is yet more potent. Tea Partiers, on all the evidence do believe that something has been stolen from them, and plenty of them, including one running for the United States Senate in the state of Nevada (with a reasonable shot at getting in) have suggested that violence to retrieve their God-given right to rule is acceptable, perhaps required.
Bacevich did speak to that as well. Despite his sense (wrong, in my view) of the minor, temporary danger posed by the rise of the nativist, crazed right, he still painted a picture of establishment GOPers as analogues (my interpretation) to the elite bosses of the German right:
You may have heard Trent Lott the other day — “We need to co-opt these people.” And I think that reflects the cynicism of the Republican party –but the GOP is not going to become the Tea Party.
Recall the former Chancellor of Germany, Franz von Papen, crowing at the deal that brought him the Vice Chancellorship to Hitler’s ascension to the top spot in a short lived coalition, replying to charges that he had been had: “You are mistaken. We have hired him.”
Oops. Whatever else happens, I think Mike Castle would beg to differ with Mr. Lott.
Just one more thing: I agree entirely with Bacevich when he said this: ty ’20s:
You can’t divorce subject of race from all of this — and it is the most troubling part of our current politics. It seems to me that too many of our fellow citizens refuse to accept the legitimacy of this presidency because it is unacceptable to have a black man as President. Republicans would deny this, but I think they are lying through their teeth. Race has not been left in our rear view mirror.
And if we needed any more glances in the 1930s rearview mirror, then I’d suggest that we have a pretty good idea why in times of crisis demagogues go out of their way to paint as less than properly human a minority group that historically has been corralled into segregated settlements and has been both disdained and feared (by majorities wielding disproportionately more power than their scapegoats) — and we have more than just one precedent of what can happen when they do.
Bacevich bets that the Tea Party cocktail of rage, entitlement, ignorance, viciousness and the studied, cynical attempts at co-option will evaporate as times get less fraught. I look at the next few months, and think of the three elections of 1932 in Germany, and wonder…if enough of the madness slips into Senate and House seats this fall, how sure can we be the rump of the GOP won’t follow? And if times remain as hard as they may well through 2012?
Do you feel lucky today?
Well, do you?
I don’t. I’m finally waking up; my personal enthusiasm gap has closed — I’ve hit the “donate” button three or four times today, and as the election gets closer, I’ll be heading up to New Hampshire to see what I can do to help Paul Hodes get over the hump. I urge you all to act similarly as your wallets and geography permit.
Images: Albert Einstein in 1929, playing a benefit concert in a synagogue in support of the Berlin Jewish community. This is the only photograph I’ve been able to find (and I’ve looked) showing Einstein wearing a yarmulke.
Francisco de Goya, “Courtyard with Lunatics,” 1794