AUSTIN, Texas – Normally, I don’t bother to follow the doings of the far right. Having lived in Texas all these years, I figure I don’t have much to learn on that score. But I was much struck by a report in Salon, the online magazine, on the recent conference of the Conservative Political Action Committee.

It sounded no more than usually loony to me – equating Islam with fascism and terrorism, attacks on feminazis, the dread environmentalists, family planning, Harry Potter and other menaces to civilization. No crazier than the John Birch Society or the militia movement I’ve known all these years. But reporter Michelle Goldberg noted one striking difference: The conference was attended by people in power. Vice President Dick Cheney gave the keynote speech, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao spoke, as did House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Senate Whip Mitch McConnell, Republican National Committee Chair Marc Racicot, etc.

“Most of the action took place in a ballroom on the second floor, where speakers lambasted liberals from a stage draped in red, white and blue, and backed by two American flags and two enormous video screens,” reports Goldberg. “It was like a right-wing version of a Workers World rally, with one crucial difference. Workers World is a fringe group with no political power. CPAC is explicitly endorsed by people running the country. Its attendees are Bush’s shock troops, the ones who staged the white-collar riot during the Florida vote count and harassed Al Gore in the vice presidential mansion.”

Cheney told the crowd, “CPAC has consistently championed those ideas that make America great.”

The great ideas that followed were Ann Coulter, who has to be one of the silliest woman in America, attacking “the treason lobby” – the Democratic Party – whose platform “consists in breaking every one of the Ten Commandments.” Aw, Ann, we’re very big on “Honor thy father and thy mother.”

“To attend CPAC is to crash through the looking glass into a world where passionate worship of the president is part of a brave rebellion against government, where Sweden is a hellish dystopia and Tom Daschle a diehard Marxist,” Goldberg observes. “It’s to realize that despite the conservative hold on the White House, the Congress and the Supreme Court, and the utter dejection among Democrats, right-wingers still fancy themselves to be an embattled minority facing an army of wily, ruthless leftists, whom they hate with the righteous fury of the downtrodden.”

Environmentalists apparently stir strange passions on the right. “For CPACers, standing up to environmentalists is not merely a matter of opposing regulations seen as onerous. Rather, they’ve framed it as a creationism-style holy war. Speakers at CPAC were livid even at business that adopted green models out of self-interest. Nick Nichols, CEO of a crisis management group, railed against British Petroleum’s attempts to cast itself as environmentally friendly, calling it ‘a new and improved Neville Chamberlain.’ David Riggs, who runs the anti-environmentalist Green Watch project at the Capitol Resource Center, took to the stage to the sound of jungle roars and declared that ‘environmentalism has nothing to do with bunnies and bambis. It’s about destroying free enterprise and private property.’ Floyd Brown of the Young America’s Foundation announced, ‘A lot of people who used to claim their color was red now claim their color is green.'”

I’ve been red-baited by better people than that, but I do think it’s a bit much to smear all the turtle-savers, bird-watchers, backpackers and nature-lovers with trying to destroy free enterprise and private property. Get a grip, people.

The nastiness of right-wing paranoia is not a new story, but the creepy resemblance of the current crop of true believers to the Leninists of yesteryear is genuinely troubling. Haters are always a menace, and those who turn political differences into jihads are not helping this country.

Molly Ivins is a syndicated columnist.

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