Imagine if, in the midst of Question Time, Joe Hockey suddenly pulled down his trousers and presented his bare buttocks to Kevin Rudd.

Given the traditional deference shown to US presidents at ceremonial occasions, Republican Joe Wilson’s shout of ‘You lie!’ during Obama’s congressional address constituted a snub more-or-less equivalent to an Australian mooning, albeit laced with the racialised connotations arising from a Southern conservative yelling at a black man.

Afterwards, Wilson (kinda, sorta) apologized for what he called his “lack of civility’ — before boasting to a South Carolina radio station that he’d been overwhelmed by support, even from colleagues in Congress. The phones, he said, had “run off the hook”.

Over the past months, the anti-Obama “Tea Parties” (initial references to “tea-bag parties” dropped away after someone discovered the urban dictionary) have become the epicenter of a conservative freakshow. Recently, for instance, anti-Obama protester William Kostric, turned up outside a town hall meeting sporting a loaded gun and waving a sign reading: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of tyrants and patriots.” On another occasion, a fellow brought an assault rifle to a protest outside an Obama event.

Wilson’s outburst illustrates the mainstreaming of the talk show hysteria, racial resentment and rightwing populism involved in the teabagging movement. The specific subject on which he accused Obama of lying related to the provision of health care to illegal aliens, a topic that, like the supposed “death panels” has provided a perennial stalking horse for chat show demagogues. Symptomatically, Rush Limbaugh, the hugely popular shock jock and spiritual leader for the Tea Party phenomenon, has now thrown his support behind Wilson.

Mind you, the talk of liberty facilitates a curious comparison. In February 2006, President Bush also delivered a formal speech, a State of the Union address. One of the guests, invited by Californian Democrat Rep. Lynn Woolsey, was anti-war protester Cindy Sheehan, a woman whose son had been killed in Iraq.

Sheehan did not call Bush a liar. She did not interject in any way. She was, however, wearing a t-shirt reading “2,245 dead. How many more?”, a reference to American war casualties. For that — for simply wearing a shirt — she was arrested, dragged from the event and detained for four hours, during which time, she said, she was roughly treated and left bruised.

The tea-baggers who now howl about Obama’s assault on freedom remained curiously silent during that particular incident. There is, however, a shirt involved in the current circus. It’s rolling off the presses of conservative activists — and it reads simply “I’m with Joe Wilson“.