The Republican Party has reached its Ninotchka period. Ninotchka, you may recall, was the eponymous Soviet commissar played by Greta Garbo in Ernst Lubitsch's 1939 MGM comedy, released one year after Stalin's show trials resulted in the execution of all of the tyrant's more moderate predecessors in the Soviet leadership. "The last mass trials were a great success," Ninotchka notes. "There are going to be fewer but better Russians."
Like the Stalinists and the Jacobins, today's tea party zealots have purified their movement not by executing but by driving away those Republicans who don't share their enthusiasm for wrecking their country if they can't compel the majority to embrace their notions. Today, there are fewer but "better" Republicans if "better" means adhering to the tea party view that a United States not adhering to tea party values deserves to be brought to a clangorous halt. NBC News-Wall Street Journal polling last week turned up a bare 24 percent of Americans who have a favorable impression of the Republican Party a share almost as low as the 21 percent who have a favorable impression of the tea party.
Also like the Stalinists and Jacobins, today's Republicans devour their past leaders. To the hard-core right wing, the Bushes, Mitt Romney, Bob Dole and John McCain are irritating vestiges of the party's pussyfooting past; none was sufficiently devoted to rolling back the federal government when he had the chance. Thankfully, the Bushes et al. haven't met the fate of Bukharin and Danton but they are as conspicuously absent from today's Republican rallies and state conventions as Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin are conspicuously present.
If anything illustrates just how far today's Republicans have drifted from their traditional moorings, it's the dismay with which their longtime business allies have greeted their decisions to close the government and threaten default. Such pillars of the Republican coalition as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Retail Federation have called for an end to the shutdown and an increase in the debt limit. Bruce Josten, the chamber's executive vice president for government affairs, told The Washington Post last week that his organization is considering backing primary challenges to tea party incumbents.
Today's tea party-ized Republicans speak less for Wall Street or Main Street than they do for the seething resentments of white Southern backwaters and their geographically widespread but ideologically uniform ilk. Their theory of government, to the extent that they have one, derives from John Calhoun's doctrine of nullification that states in general and white minorities in particular should have the right to overturn federal law and impede majority rule. Like their predecessors in the Jim Crow South, today's Republicans favor restricting minority voting rights if that is necessary to ensure victory at the polls.
The remarkable resurgence of these ancient and despicable doctrines is rooted in the politics of demographic and cultural despair. A series of focus groups that Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg conducted of evangelical and tea party Republicans (who, combined, constitute a majority of party members) found that they entertain a widespread and fatalistic belief that the United States is well on its way to becoming a socialist state by virtue of the growing number of non-white Americans' dependence on government. Encapsulating the groups' perspectives, Greenberg writes: "Their party is losing to a Democratic Party of big government whose goal is to expand programs that mainly benefit minorities."
It does not register with these Republicans that Obamacare, which facilitates more widespread access to privatized insurance, is nowhere as socialistic as Medicare and Social Security. It seems that some believe that Obamacare is socialistic because they fear it will chiefly benefit the welfare queens of Republican lore, while Social Security and Medicare beneficiaries include millions of deserving people just like them the disproportionately elderly and white Republican Party's members.
It should not have been surprising, then, that demonstrators waved Confederate flags at the tea party demonstration Sunday on the National Mall in Washington while demanding that congressional Republicans not succumb to the pressure to compromise and that the Obama administration open the Mall's monuments, the World War II memorial in particular. The tea party's theory of government and the fear and loathing that many adherents harbor toward minorities find a truer expression in the Confederate flag than in the Stars and Stripes.
It's not clear whether those waving the Confederate flag on Sunday favored opening the Lincoln Memorial. I suspect, however, that the Republican enshrined there wouldn't have favored them.
Meyerson is editor-at-large of The American Prospect.