200 years of tea party paranoia

Published 12:00 pm Friday, October 25, 2013

(EDITORI’S NOTE: This week’s column contains a direct quotation from a Mark Twain novel, Huckleberry Finn, with a word that may be objectionable to readers.)

“It’s easier to fool people,” Mark Twain apparently never said, “than to convince them that they have been fooled.” You can find those words all over the Internet attributed to Twain, but I can locate no credible source.

Too bad, because it’s absolutely correct.

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Twain probably did say something similar, because it sounds like an opinion the acerbic author of “Huckleberry Finn” would have endorsed.

Think of the hilarious episode of “The Royal Nonesuch,” a mangled Shakespearean farce performed by a pair of riverboat scamps called the King and the Duke for the befuddled citizens of a Mississippi river town.

“The duke said these Arkansaw lunkheads couldn’t come up to Shakespeare,” Huck says. “What they wanted was low comedy — and maybe something ruther worse than low comedy, he reckoned.”

And low comedy they got. The plan was to pocket the cash and float off downriver before the yokels got wise.

I thought of that scene watching Sen. Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin outside the White House recently, protesting the very government shutdown they’d fiercely championed — a confederate battle flag fluttering in the background, the emblem of disgruntled losers everywhere.

Is there no scam so transparently farcical that millions of American lunkheads won’t fall for it? Evidently not.

As you read here first, anybody with an eighth grader’s understanding of the U.S. Constitution knew that Cruz’s mad quest to destroy the Affordable Care Act could not possibly succeed. And it was politically self-destructive as well, if not for Cruz, then for the Republican Party.

Of course millions of gullible voters lack that understanding. Meanwhile, the Texas senator and his allies continue to bombard the faithful with emails promising imminent victory and soliciting cash. They’re like the most shameless televangelist faith healers.

Except now the enemies list doesn’t feature only Democrats like President Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, but prominent Republicans such as Paul Ryan, John McCain, Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham.

Anyway, here’s Huck Finn’s daddy, America’s first Tea Party patriot:

“Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment, wonderful. Why, looky here. There was a free nigger there from Ohio — a mulatter, most as white as a white man. He had the whitest shirt on you ever see, too, and the shiniest hat; and there ain’t a man in that town that’s got as fine clothes as what he had … They said he was a p’fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. And that ain’t the wust. They said he could VOTE when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to? It was ‘lection day, and I was just about to go and vote myself if I warn’t too drunk to get there; but when they told me there was a State in this country where they’d let that nigger vote, I drawed out. I says I’ll never vote agin.”

Sound like anybody you know? The professor, I mean.

Try to put Pap’s racism aside; everybody in the novel, set in slave-owning Missouri around 1840, shares it. Among other virtues, Twain was a great reporter. Besides, liberals calling everybody racist are tedious and smug.

Equally striking are Pap Finn’s social anxiety and envy, his anti-intellectualism and paranoia, attitudes which have always run like a dark stain under the surface of American life.

The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik finds another antecedent to today’s Tea Party in the John Birch Society:

“Reading through the literature on the hysterias of 1963, the continuity of beliefs is plain: Now, as then, there is said to be a conspiracy in the highest places to end American Constitutional rule and replace it with a Marxist dictatorship, evidenced by a plan in which your family doctor will be replaced by a federal bureaucrat — mostly for unnamable purposes, but somehow involving the gleeful killing off of the aged.

“There is also the conviction, in both eras, that only a handful of Congressmen and polemicists (then mostly in newspapers; now on TV) stand between honest Americans and the apocalypse, and that the man presiding over that plan is not just a dupe but personally depraved, an active collaborator with our enemies, a secret something or other, and any necessary means to bring about the end of his reign are justified and appropriate.”

Same as it ever was.

Then it was H.L. Hunt; today it’s the Koch Brothers.

But you know what? From the Civil War onward, they always lose. It’s powerlessness that makes people vulnerable to conspiracy theories.

And maybe I’m getting soft, because I’m actually starting to feel sorry for them — the Limbaugh and Cruz fans that send me emails calling Democrats “evil.” Not simply because they’re the pigeons in a giant con game, but because they’re so frightened, like children scared of monsters under the bed.

It must be a terribly unhappy way to live.