The 2012 presidential campaign has begun in the United States, at least for Republican Party hopefuls. Too often, the rhetoric reminds me of a bad time in the American farm belt and especially of a young, unhappy farmer who had lurched to the far fringes of the ideological spectrum, if only to avoid ruin.

He was the fourth generation of his family to till his farm, a medium-size spread by the standards of eastern Iowa, where farms run big. In the past decade, he’d grown bigger, as the government and bankers had been urging farmers to do, by borrowing heavily to buy a neighbouring farm. Why not? That was the early 1970s when grain exports were high; so were crop prices and farm income. Interest rates were low. This farmer was too young to remember the disastrous days of the Great Depression, so he borrowed to the hilt. He owed his soul to the local bank, but it was great while it lasted.

It didn’t last. By the early ‘80s, when I met him, the Midwest’s farm crisis was on. A few years earlier, president Carter had slapped a grain embargo on the Russians, America’s best customers. Then inflation soared, the result of presidents Johnson and Nixon fighting the Vietnam War without raising taxes to pay for it, and the Federal Reserve Bank raised interest rates to 20 per cent or more to tame it. Farm prices fell, so farmers grew more grain than ever, creating a glut that pushed prices further down.

Across the Midwest, farms collapsed into foreclosure. Some small banks collapsed with them. Newspapers were full of stories about farmers maddened by impending ruin who were shooting themselves, sometimes after shooting their local banker.

But this young farmer thought he’d found a way out. I spent a long, agonising evening with him, listening to him tell me why he really didn’t need to pay the debt he owed. He had fallen into the clutches of some financial snake-oil salesmen who claimed that the Federal Reserve Bank was unconstitutional and the US dollar printed under Fed guidance, was therefore illegal. Since bank debts were denominated in this illegal currency, they didn’t exist. He thought he was off the hook.

I don’t know what happened to this young farmer. I assume he lost his farm. Some farmers refusing to pay went to jail, so did some of the unscrupulous ’consultants‘.

Out on the far-right fringe of this movement were organisations like the Posse Comitatus who claimed that the whole federal government—indeed, any unit of government above the county and its sheriff—were illegal.

The farm crisis of the 1980s ended. Farmers sat on their money for a while then began borrowing and investing again, but more cautiously this time. Most of this madness, including the Posse Comitatus, disappeared.

Now the madness is back. But this time it’s moved from the fringe into what passes for the mainstream of American politics. As Republican candidates hold their televised debates, I feel like I’m back in that Iowa farmhouse listening to that poor farmer tell my why black is white and money isn’t real.

This time it’s two candidates in particular, both from Texas: Congressman Ron Paul, who doesn‘t have a chance, and Governor Rick Perry, who definitely does. Paul argues that the Fed is unconstitutional, while Perry has only accused it of treason in its attempts to stimulate the economy. He’s also promised to treat Fed President Ben Bernanke “pretty ugly” if he comes to Texas, an echo of the inflamed rhetoric that preceded the Kennedy assassination there.

Ron Paul is a true believer, but one suspects that a President Perry would be glad to have the Fed oversee the currency, instead of returning the job to Congress. But the furore and Perry’s part in it say much about the current anti-government atmosphere in the US.

There’s always been a strong frontier mentality here, a Jacksonian streak that resents any government control, especially from Washington. This current, often expressed as states’ rights, rises and falls. It’s what the Civil War was all about. It lay behind Ronald Reagan’s famous dictum that “government is the problem, not the solution,” although he was not shy about exercising Washington’s power.

That tide definitely is running high now. As noted above, its most extreme forms, like the maunderings of Ron Paul, have become mainstream chatter. As expressed by the Tea Party, they can swing elections. Perry has suggested that Texas could secede from the Union. Every Republican candidate opposes the new national health care legislation. Most of them publicly opposed raising the nation’s debt ceiling, even though its failure would have turned Uncle Sam into a deadbeat.

This tide, in time, will fall. But the fact is that the US faces severe challenges—in its economy, environment, education, role in the world—that demand a national response that can only be voiced and led by the leadership in Washington. If that leadership is simply rejected by one of the nation’s two major political parties, those challenges cannot be met and the nation will carry the scars far into the future.