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What fuels the grass-roots rage

So, yes, parts of this movement do seem to be motivated by a new nativism and by racism. But it would be a mistake to see the hostility toward Obama only in terms of race.

Something else is going on in the Tea Party movement, and it has deep roots in our history. Anti-statism, a profound mistrust of power in Washington, dates all the way to the Anti-Federalists who opposed the Constitution because they saw it concentrating too much authority in the central government. At any given time, perhaps 20 to 25 percent of Americans can be counted on to denounce anything Washington does as a threat to "our traditional liberties."

This suspicion of government is not amenable to "facts" -- not because it is irrational, but because the facts are beside the point. For the anti-statists, opposing government power is a matter of principle.

If those who think this way are asked whether an economic collapse would have been better than passing a stimulus and bailing out the banks, the anti-statists typically say yes, even if they might also challenge the premise of the question.

The purest expression of this disposition has come from Rep. Ron Paul, the libertarian Republican from Texas. In 2008, Paul strenuously criticized President Bush's proposed bank bailout for "propping up a failed system so the agony lasts longer." Without a bailout, Paul conceded, "It would be a bad year. But, this way, it's going to be a bad decade."

Understanding the principled anti-government radicalism that animates this movement explains why its partisans see the conservative Bush as a sellout and the cautiously liberal Obama as a socialist. For now, their fears of Obama are enough to tether the Tea Partiers to the GOP. In the long run, establishment Republicans are destined to disappoint them.

ejdionne@washpost.com


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