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The tea party makes trouble with a capital T

By Dana Milbank
Sunday, July 18, 2010; A13

The peaceful hamlet of Mason City, Iowa, hasn't been in the headlines much since it served as the model for River City in Meredith Willson's "The Music Man." But this week, Mason City raised a real Fuhrer.

The geniuses of the North Iowa Tea Party erected a billboard in town depicting three leaders: Adolf Hitler (with swastika), Vladimir Lenin (with hammer and sickle) and Barack Obama (with 2008 campaign logo). Over Hitler were the words "National Socialism," over Lenin was "Marxist Socialism" and over Obama was "Democrat Socialism."

"Radical leaders prey on the fearful & naïve," the billboard informed passing motorists.

Folks, we've got trouble in River City.

The Tea Partyers eventually took the billboard down -- to hush the national uproar they provoked, not because they thought they had done something wrong. "There's going to be a lot of billboards just like this across the United States," the group's leader told the Des Moines Register.

He's probably right about that. The vile sign in Mason City was not a one-off by a fringe group. It was a logical expression of a message supported by conservative thought leaders and propagated by high-level Republican politicians.

Late last month, Thomas Sowell of the conservative Hoover Institution penned an irresponsible column likening Obama's presidency (particularly his pushing BP to set aside funds for oil-spill victims) to the rise of Hitler in Germany and Lenin in the Soviet Union.

After the column came out, Sarah Palin tweeted her followers with instructions to "Read Thomas Sowell's article." Sowell's theme -- that Obama, like Hitler and Lenin, exploits "useful idiots" who don't know much about politics -- was strikingly similar to what wound up on the Iowa billboard.

Sowell to Palin to Mason City: They spread Nazi labels as smoothly as Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance turned double plays. And let's not deny an assist to Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), who went to the House floor to read aloud the Obama-Nazi comparison by the "brilliant" Sowell.

Twenty years ago, the dawn of the Internet Age gave us Godwin's Law: If an online argument goes on long enough, somebody will eventually invoke Hitler. When that happens, it's basically the end of the conversation, because all rational discussion ceases when one side calls the other Nazis.

These sentiments have long existed on the fringe and always will. The problem is that conservative leaders and Republican politicians, in their blind rage against Obama these last 18 months, invited the epithets of the fringe into the mainstream. Godwin's Law has spread from the chat rooms and now applies to cable news and even to the floor of the House of Representatives.

Consider these tallies from Glenn Beck's show on Fox News since Obama's inauguration: 202 mentions of Nazis or Nazism, according to transcripts, 147 mentions of Hitler, 193 mentions of fascism or fascist, and another 24 bonus mentions of Joseph Goebbels. Most of these were directed in some form at Obama -- as were the majority of the 802 mentions of socialist or socialism on Beck's nightly "report."

It's not strictly a phenomenon of the right. California's Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Jerry Brown, likened his opponent's tactics to those of the Nazis, while Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) talks blithely of a health care "holocaust" and an aide to Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) dubs the opposition "Brownshirts."

But at the moment, the anger pendulum has swung far in the conservative direction, and accusations that once were beyond the pale -- not just talk of Nazis and Marxists but intimations of tyranny, revolution and bloodshed -- are now routine.

A few from recent weeks: Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) comes out in favor of lawsuits alleging that Obama was not an American citizen at birth. Sharron Angle, the Republican candidate challenging Sen. Harry Reid in Nevada, speaks about the possible need for violence to overcome the "tyrannical" government. Gohmert, the Sowell admirer, says the children of illegal immigrants are going to return and "blow us up."

Isn't there a grown-up to rein in these backbenchers when they go over the top? Don't ask House Minority Leader John Boehner, the man who would replace Nancy Pelosi as speaker. He accuses the Democrats of "snuffing out the America that I grew up in" and predicts a rebellion unlike anything "since 1776." Boehner also said one Democratic lawmaker "may be a dead man" for his vote on health care and predicted that the bill would bring "Armageddon."

Recall, Mr. Leader, the wisdom of the Mason City billboard: "Radical leaders prey on the fearful & naïve."

danamilbank@washpost.com

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