Of all the responses to Joe Biden’s alleged comparison of Tea Party Republicans to terrorists, I like Rand Paul’s the best. The Kentucky senator tweeted: “I would prefer to be known as a freedom fighter.” That’s my idea of taking ownership.
Under scrutiny, the truism that one nation’s terrorists are another’s freedom fighters turns out to be, well, true. Anyone condemning Hamas, the IRA, the Irgun, Shining Path or Organisation de l’Armee Secrete won’t have far to look for an opponent who will argue that these people were (or are) fighting for a just cause, and resorted to asymmetrical warfare because it was the only kind within their means. In naming themselves after the disgruntled Bostonians of 1773, instead of, say, Quantrill’s Raiders, conservative Republicans did their side a good turn; as violent secessions go, the American Revolution was remarkably clean. Atrocities — the targeting of civilians and the killing of soldiers considered hors de combat – took place mainly in the South, far from New England, and were evenly divided between the sides. The Whigs, as the British and Loyalists frequently called the revolutionaries, may not have held any patent on virtue, but neither did they hold one on vice.
Even so, Tea Partiers chose to associate themselves with an act of vandalism that gave rise to acts of violence. Indeed, from the very outset, their whole shtick has boiled down to: We bad, in compelling and unprecedented ways. When we hear Sarah Palin’s exhortation to “reload,” or read ralliers’ signs quoting Jefferson to the effect that the Tree of Liberty needs refreshing, we’re given to understand that this is not the party of Lincoln, or Eisenhower, or even Nixon, those mincing, moderate ballerinos.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not trying to claim that most Tea Partiers are violent, or even that, with their rhetoric, they unwittingly inspire lunatics like Jared Loughner and Anders Breivik. But by adopting the language of warfare and mayhem, they did give their numbers and their cause a tremendous boost. In November of 2008, they were nothing but a collection of beaten conservatives with pet peeves so diverse as to defy reconciliation. By spring of 2009, they had fused into a mass movement. By the following November, they’d become the dominant force in American politics. Most amazingly of all, they managed to achieve this transformation without any officially anointed leader.
What these people did have – along with funding — was a brand name. Would a Tea Party by any other name have won so sweetly? I would argue no. Rhetorical allusions to violence may not breed actual violence, but they express confidence and energize people. This is why Tampa Bay does not call its football team the Yachtsmen, and why Notre Dame’s mascot is not the Irish Contemplative Hermit Who, Until the Synod of Whitby, Tonsured Himself in a Really Jacked-Up Way.
Biden and Representative Mike Doyle allegedly said these things in private. I, for one, wish they’d spoken in public. They’d have been turning one of their opponents’ chief strengths against them, in a fine display of Karl Rovian aikido.
Some might argue that the word terrorist, given its associations with 9/11, 7/7, the Ft. Hood shootings, various thwarted plots and the recent Oslo massacre, belongs in a special, locked box. Well, tell that to the countless pundits and politicians who have been throwing the word hijack around like an unchaperoned blonde at a biker rally. I can remember a time when hijacking was a fate that befell only moving vehicles with lots of passengers. Past a certain point, hijacking became a danger for political parties, nations, message boards and the Zeitgeist. That point, it seems to me, was 9/11 — without so vivid a collective memory of a real-life hijacking, the metaphor would have no bite, or rather, no box cutter.
Then there’s the word thug, which has a way of lending itself to descriptions of President Obama. To Michelle Malkin, Obama’s spin doctors are “thugs” for the way they “came after” National Review columnist Stanley Kurtz. To Rush Limbaugh, Obama’s past as a community organizer makes him a “street thug.” Pamela Geller tells readers they live in a “Thug-O-Cracy.” Subtle? Hardly. But that’s the point: in politics, it’s never anybody’s job to make the other guy look good. That few of these people will pause for breath before damning Obama for an arugula-scarfing elitist pays backhanded tribute to the multitudes the man contains.
Rand Paul understands the game. In the same tweet where he re-named himself for posterity, he also accused the president of “holding the economy hostage.” That’s the way. Next week, in a Facebook status update, some leading Democrat can write, “THE REPUBLICANS HAVE TIED THE COUNTRY TO THE RAILROAD TRACKS!” And so on. As Biden himself might say, don’t stand up, Chuck. This is no big deal.