What do the tea party ideologues mean when they speak of liberty and freedom and the Constitution that they supposedly revere? Sometimes they are described as libertarians, but the behavior of their leading candidates betrays an authoritarian streak just beneath all the sonorous rhetoric.
The latest example is Joe Miller, the Republican Senate candidate from Alaska, whose private guards roughed up, handcuffed and detained an online journalist covering one of his campaign events last week. The Miller goons seized Alaska Dispatch blogger Tony Hopfinger as he tried to ask the candidate a question at a forum in a public school -- which they later described dishonestly as a "private event" -- and pushed around a couple of other reporters as they captured the incident on video.
Such hostility to the press was warranted on the part of Miller, who turns out to have much to hide. The mistreatment of the journalists in Alaska was part of a Miller strategy that included refusing to discuss his career as a judge and his personal background. That strategy ultimately led to the brutalization of Hopfinger, for insistent inquiries about the candidate's record as a public employee in Fairbanks' North Star Borough -- where he misused computers in partisan politicking. Miller has also been loath to explain why he accepted the kind of government assistance -- including farm subsidies, Medicaid and unemployment insurance -- that he is so eager to deny to everyone else.
Carl Paladino likes to push journalists around, too, as he demonstrated during a widely publicized confrontation with a New York Post reporter. Rather than rely on hired thugs, the Republican candidate for governor of New York is a thug himself.
"I'll take you out, buddy," he snarled at the reporter. Like his Alaskan compatriot, Paladino prefers not to be asked any questions he doesn't wish to answer, although he feels free to smear his Democratic opponent, Andrew Cuomo, with slurs against his conduct as a husband and father.
The general stance of the tea party candidates toward the press (except for Fox News, of course) is epitomized by Sharron Angle, the Republican running for Senate in Nevada against Democratic incumbent Harry Reid. She seems to believe that the sole purpose of media in a democracy is to help her raise money -- and to resent reporters who ask the wrong kind of questions.
Explaining why she has avoided mainstream media outlets where she might have to explain herself and her strange policy views more fully, the grandmotherly Angle said, "We wanted them to ask the questions we want to answer, so that they report the news the way we want it reported."
So all the chatter about liberty boils down to an attitude not easily distinguished from any mean little despot of the right or the left, controlling information and deceiving the public. Then again, Angle talks loosely about "Second Amendment solutions" to her disagreements with Congress, and believes that she was sent by God to run against Reid.
These are the hallmarks of a drearily familiar authoritarian mindset on the American right, where figures such as Christine O'Donnell, the Delaware Republican, are deemed to be qualified for the U.S. Senate even though she doesn't understand that the First Amendment forbids the establishment of a state religion. It is hardly surprising that these self-proclaimed advocates of liberty would deny religious freedom to innocent American Muslims. It isn't even surprising to discover that one of these characters dresses up in Third Reich regalia as a hobby -- and says that we are in no position to judge the behavior of the Nazi SS because they believed that they were defending freedom.
The tea party candidates no doubt believe that they are defending freedom, too. They just don't have a clue what that word meant to the Founders or what it means today.
Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer (www.observer.com). To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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