What matters is the mythology. These symbols represent America (the shirt), freedom (Rosa Parks), and liberty (Boston Tea Party). And the mythology works extremely well.
How to counter this? Do we engage these extremists, pointing out their distortions of history, thereby risking elevating the status of their myths to "a different point of view?" Do we normals create our own mythologies, justifying our efforts to smooth over the rough edges of our history as service to the "higher truth of a liberal society?" Do we, as Obama did with Reagan, coopt rightwing icons? Do we sidestep the whole notion of mythologies and find some new way to persuade people - and if so, what would that look and sound like?
I have absolutely no idea. But one thing I do know - whatever we're doing now, it's not working well enough. Kevin Drum, typically, thinks it's quite possible that this latest surge in rightwing extremism will fade, especially if the economy improves. What I would give for Kevin's optimistic personality and his lack of paranoia!
But I see no signs that this will go away. What I see is that the so-called Tea Party movement has enabled hitherto marginalized extremists - the militia crazies, the Birchers, the New World Order freaks - to move much closer to the center of public discourse. Oh, and I see no signs of the economy improving in a way that will impact this movement.
This is very serious stuff.
Throw liberal anti-spending (not anti-tax) tea parties. Tea parties with free giveaways and free hot dogs and sodas and coffee. Use better celebrities and speakers, better decorations, better music and media, and better transportation to the event. Include attractions for teenagers at the tea parties.
Probe people's weaknesses, not their strengths. Conservatives and libertarians are all about faith and blind belief, so use their beliefs. Get liberal ministers and priests to give speeches encouraging volunteering at churches and public charities. Use the authority of the church to help get your point of view across, don't work against it.
Isolate the fanatics. Give the authoritarian non-fanatics an alternative to conservative tea parties. Make it fun.
If the militias merge with the tea parties we are in serious trouble. If we do nothing, the vacuum will be filled by someone else.