The Nazi talk also reflects the impact on Republican politics of supporters of Ron Paul, the libertarian Texas congressman who ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. For their own internal ideological reasons, Paulistas use the term “fascism” very promiscuously. Paul did not win many votes, but he raised a lot of money and inspired intense enthusiasm. The Paulistas make a natural activist base for an opposition party -and an eager audience for angry talk radio. In order to gain their support, many Republicans have begun to talk their inflammatory language. The man who attended President Obama’s Portsmouth, NH, event carrying a placard endorsing assassination and bearing a — legal — firearm strapped to his leg was a Ron Paul supporter.

Contra Rush Limbaugh, history’s actual fascists were not primarily known for their anti-smoking policies or generous social welfare programs. Fascism celebrated violence, anti-rationalism and hysterical devotion to an authoritarian leader. To date, the Obama administration has fallen rather short in these departments. Perhaps uncomfortably aware of the shortcoming, the hardliners have developed — okay, invented really — their own mythology about Obama “brownshirts.” (The popular conservative website RedState.org literally uses the term.) The complaint rests on a single case — that of conservative activist Kenneth Gladney, who got into a scuffle at a townhall in St. Louis, Missouri. The altercation was captured on video and you can watch it on YouTube. What you’ll see is a man, already on the ground, and another man stepping back in order to avoid tripping over him. The man on the ground is Gladney. Gladney walked away from the confrontation and later went to hospital, where he was treated for light injuries and released the same day. Whatever happened and whoever started it, this happily bloodless encounter bears not even the most glancing resemblance to the brutality that made Hitler’s brownshirts notorious. And yet, look up Gladney’s name online and he’s suddenly a poignant martyr.