This country is in a world of hurt if the likes of Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry wins the next election. It might be in greater trouble if President Obama does.
I can take no credit -- or blame -- for that analysis. It originated with one of my colleagues, a veteran political reporter, and he shared it one day not long ago as we were chatting in the office. It troubles me for one simple reason: it makes sense.
So here is how his thinking goes. The genteel, pragmatic Republicanism of the past has been supplanted by a pitchforks-and-torches mentality, a funhouse mirror distortion of traditional conservatism. Meaning, of course, the tea party.
These are folks who don't just support the death penalty; they cheer for executions. They don't just oppose health care reform, they shout "Let him die" to the uninsured individual who faces life-threatening illness. They are the true believers: virulently anti-government, anti-Muslim, anti-gay, anti-science, anti-tax, anti-facts and, most of all, anti-the coming demographic changes represented by a dark-skinned president with an African name. They are the people who want "their" country back.
The old guard of the GOP doesn't much like them, but it likes winning so it keeps its mouth shut.
You might think Obama's re-election would solve this, offering as it would stark repudiation of the politics of panic, paranoia and reactionary extremism this ideology represents. The problem is, these folks thrive on repudiation, on a free-floating conviction that they have been done wrong, cheated and mistreated by the tides of history and progress, change and demography. So there is every reason to believe, particularly given the weakness of the economy, that being repudiated in next year's election would only make them redouble their intensity, confirming them as it would in their own victimhood.
And ask yourself: What form could that redoubling take? How do you up the ante from this? What is the logical next step after two years of screaming, rocks through windows, threats against legislators and rhetoric that could start a fire?
An awful, obvious answer suggests itself. You reject it instinctively. This is, after all, America, not some unstable fledgling democracy.
Then you realize it was not so long ago that a man blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City out of anti-government sentiment not so different from that espoused by the tea party. And you remember how that tragedy exposed an entire network of armed anti-government zealots gathering in the woods. And you read where the Southern Poverty Law Center says the number of radical anti-government groups spiked to 824 in 2010, a 61 percent increase over just the previous year.
And you wonder.
This is not a prediction, only a speculation -- and a suggestion that those of us who have regarded the craziness of recent years as an aberration, a temporary temper tantrum from people who feel threatened and dislocated, may have been entirely too sanguine. In less than 20 years, the locus of radical anti-government extremism has moved from remote woods to Capitol Hill.
How should the rest of us respond? That's a question we urgently need to answer. They say they've come to take "their" country back.
Maybe it's time we took them at their word.