The Tea Party’s Views on Tyranny, at Home and Abroad

< back to Freedom At Issue Blog
Distinguished Fellow for Democracy Studies

The word “tyranny” has crept back into the American political vocabulary, though in unexpected ways. According to authoritative dictionaries, a tyrant is “an absolute ruler who is unlimited or unrestrained by law or constitution.” We generally think of tyranny as an extreme form of dictatorship: Uganda under Idi Amin, or Iraq during the rule of Saddam Hussein. Political terms are often employed with imprecision, and it is not uncommon for tyranny, dictatorship, or despotism to be used interchangeably when referring to a regime that makes a mockery of democratic standards and tramples on individual freedoms. Recently, however, the “tyranny” label has also been attached to democratic institutions in the United States, including the presidency.

Personalities from the Tea Party movement regularly describe the state of affairs in America as a form of tyranny. A partial list of the institutions that are said to be carrying forward a project to impose totalitarian rule on the American people are the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), for purportedly singling out conservative nonprofits for harassment; the Department of Education, for subjecting American schoolchildren to national standards; the State Department, for supposedly surrendering American sovereignty to the United Nations; and the National Security Agency, for its surveillance policies.

The roster of those who are convinced that a regime of domestic oppression poses an immediate threat to American freedoms is long and varied, including political candidates, elected officials, talk-radio hosts, and Tea Party publicists. Representative Louie Gohmert, a Texas Republican, declared that “this is how a tyrannical government comes into being and perpetuates itself” when speaking of various Obama administration scandals involving the IRS and the Justice Department.

Another Tea Party favorite, State Representative Mike Hill of Florida (the only black Republican in the state legislature), likened the Tea Party spirit to the forces behind the American Revolution, the Civil War, the movement for women’s suffrage, and the civil rights movement, and asserted that today “people are rising up against tyranny, which is tearing down the walls of our constitution.” Joe Miller, a one-time Republican Senate candidate from Alaska, is now considering a new Senate bid because he believes that America is living under tyranny, albeit a “soft tyranny.” Judson Phillips, founder of Tea Party Nation, has accused President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of supporting a system that causes “poverty, tyranny, and occasionally mass murder.” And popular talk-radio host Mark Levin has gone a step further, claiming that the Tea Party “is the only thing that stands between liberty and tyranny.”

While most Tea Party commentary zeroes in on the threat of an oppressive statism here at home, the movement’s sweeping—and warped—interpretation of domestic developments has its complement in a badly distorted perspective on international affairs. At least some Tea Party adherents are as confused about the nature of tyranny outside America’s borders as they are mystified about current American domestic affairs.

Thus while serious enemies of freedom exist in practically every region of the world and have imposed various systems of authoritarian rule, most Tea Party commentary focuses single-mindedly on Islamism and violent jihad, and blithely conflates the two. An op-ed by Judson Phillips, entitled “Obama’s Passion for Tyranny,” accuses the president of seeking to replace secular dictators, such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, with a more “brutal” form of “Islamic tyranny.” In the process, Phillips gets some basic facts wrong. He claims, for example, that Libya’s Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi has been supplanted by Islamic extremists, when post-Qadhafi elections have actually been won by candidates who opposed local Islamists. But jaw-dropping inaccuracy is not uncommon among Tea Party stalwarts. Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota stated during a recent visit to Cairo that the Muslim Brotherhood was responsible for the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Her colleague, Louie Gohmert, characterized Egypt’s current military-backed government as having created a system in which the rule of law was “king,” despite the police massacres, arbitrary arrests, and suspension of due process that have followed the July coup.

The ignorance of conditions in the Middle East that Bachmann and others betray, however damaging to American credibility, pale in significance before the truly shameful remarks made by radio commentator Rush Limbaugh. “There is evidence—mounting evidence—that the rebels in Syria did frame Assad for the chemical attack,” Limbaugh told his audience this month. He continued, “But not only that. But Obama, the regime, may have been complicit in it. Mounting evidence that the White House knew and possibly helped plan the Syrian chemical weapon attack by the opposition.”

Such assertions cannot be dismissed as the delusional rants of an extremist fringe. While Bachmann, Limbaugh, and the Tea Party regulars do not speak for the Republican Party or for conservatism as a whole, they represent a significant faction in U.S. politics. Limbaugh’s daily broadcasts reach as many as 20 million Americans, and mainstream Republican senators have lost their seats to primary challenges by Tea Party candidates.

Perhaps Tea Party loyalists, and others in Washington as well, need to hear the first-hand stories of tyranny’s true victims. Rush Limbaugh might learn something by talking to families of children killed by Bashar al-Assad’s chemical assault, or indeed of the countless Syrians who have been tortured or killed by the Assad regime over the past four decades. Michele Bachmann might temper her enthusiasm for General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi if she met with Egyptians who have been brutalized by security forces that are given carte blanche to arrest, beat, and kill political opponents. Those who speak glibly of “tyranny” at the U.S. Justice Department might come to recognize regimes that truly crush dissenting views by talking to independent journalists from Russia, Cuba, or Ethiopia. Any clear knowledge of the world would convey the real meaning of tyranny, the need and obligation to stand against it overseas, and the orders of magnitude that still separate it from the American system of governance, IRS and all.

Most Tea Party supporters believe they are part of a noble tradition that includes Ronald Reagan, conservatism’s most successful modern president. But however much Reagan disliked Big Government, he never confused Social Security with a tyrannical leviathan. Furthermore, Reagan understood the genuine threat posed by foreign tyrants and was a fierce believer in the American mission to defend and promote freedom abroad. In this regard, the blurred vision offered by the Tea Party has led its supporters toward an alarming betrayal of the Republican Party’s historic commitment to liberty.

Andrew Rizzardi assisted in the preparation of this post.

*Photo Credit: Fibonacci Blue

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

Share this story