The campaign video is such a transparent ploy, the temptation is to ignore it. After all, tea party candidate Rick Barber is a long shot in his July runoff race for the Republican nomination for an Alabama congressional seat.
But then you hit replay, and see again the iconic images you think you must have imagined. They last a fraction of a second, but they are so imprinted on the modern brain that is all it takes to recognize the photographs. Arbeit Macht Frei, spelled out in cold metal on the concentration camp gates. And the skeletal survivors, packed naked in bunks four tiers high.
And now these images appear in a campaign video in which Barber inveighs against the evils of taxation and has an imaginary conversation with Abe Lincoln.
“Hey Abe, if someone’s forced to work for months to pay taxes so a total stranger can get a free meal, medical procedure, or a bailout, what’s that called? What’s it called when one man is forced to work for another?” Extreme close-up of Lincoln impersonator, who solemnly intones: “Slavery.”
Images flash by: African slaves. North Korean prisoners. Concentration camps. “We shed a lot of blood to stop that in the past, didn’t we?” asks Barber, a Marine Corps veteran. “Now look at us. We are all becoming slaves to our government.”
Many words come to mind here, but one is: sacrilegious. To hijack the horrors of the Holocaust and slavery in the service of a political campaign demeans the candidate and, worse, dishonors the victims. Decency demands that some comparisons be off-limits.
Another is: unhinged. The taxes over which Barber is ready to revolt are the product of a democratic system, approved by a majority of elected lawmakers—the system that could produce a Congressman Barber if he somehow wins the runoff against Montgomery Councilwoman Martha Roby to face incumbent, first-term Democrat Bobby Bright, who won in 2008 by just 1,766 votes.
Another, and the reason it is worth paying attention to Barber, is: emblematic. Emblematic of the dangerous take-back-our-country rhetoric that is spread on the conservative airwaves and fueling the tea partyers. Barber may be on the outer edges of this movement but he is not alone there, and he is a predictable outgrowth of it.
If you haven’t spent any time listening to conservative talk radio, you will probably be surprised by the white-hot vehemence of the commentary. The concern and disagreement—over health care legislation, over bank bailouts, over debt—are understandable; the slippery-slope fears of descent into socialism/totalitarianism are incomprehensible. Last I looked, our checks and balances seemed pretty firmly anchored.
Yet it does not take much to imagine the leap from bellicose talk to action for those who sincerely believe that the country they love is being wrested from them. They are delusional but passionate, and they are whipped daily by the Limbaughs and Hannitys and Becks into a frenzy of fear.
Sarah Palin accuses the media of overreacting to her “don’t retreat—reload” approach. But it is hardly surprising when Sharron Angle, the Nevada Republican nominee for Senate, then warns that “If this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies.” Or when Ohio Republican John Boehner, the House minority leader, accuses Democrats of “snuffing out the America that I grew up in,” and warns, “There’s a political rebellion brewing, and I don’t think we’ve seen anything like it since 1776.”
When I spoke by phone with Barber, he was affably extreme, calling “most of our major departments”—he mentioned Education and Energy—unconstitutional and suggesting that Social Security is as well because it is not among Congress’ enumerated powers. “I don’t believe that it’s the government’s job to provide retirement for the nation,” he said.
As to the video, Barber was unapologetic. “We can’t be so naive to think that just because we live in America that can’t happen to us,” he said. “We are being fed a socialist agenda spoon by spoon and we don’t see it coming. In Germany, when Hitler was first elected under the Socialist Party, no one would have thought in a million years it would have gone where it did.”
I would not have thought in a million years that this kind of thinking would be inside the conservative mainstream. If it is not, it is time for rational conservatives to speak up.
Ruth Marcus’ e-mail address is marcusr(at symbol)washpost.com.