A Brown Scare is like a Red Scare, except its anxieties involve the right rather than the left; the historian Leo Ribuffo coined the term in his 1983 book The Old Christian Right. (I've written about Brown Scares several times, and at one point in his column Douthat quotes an old blog post of mine.) Here's how Douthat gets there from the IRS story:
I'm willing to guess this much: Even though an American Civil Liberties Union official described their excessive interest in right-wing groups as "about as constitutionally troubling as it gets," the bureaucrats in question probably thought they were just doing their patriotic duty, and giving dangerous extremists the treatment they deserved.
Where might an enterprising, public-spirited I.R.S. agent get the idea that a Tea Party group deserved more scrutiny from the government than the typical band of activists seeking tax-exempt status? Oh, I don't know: why, maybe from all the prominent voices who spent the first two years of the Obama era worrying that the Tea Party wasn't just a typically messy expression of citizen activism, but something much darker—an expression of crypto-fascist, crypto-racist rage, part Timothy McVeigh and part Bull Connor, potentially carrying a wave of terrorist violence in its wings.
Douthat is speculating here, and this is hardly the only possible explanation for what happened at the IRS. Best-case scenario, the employees really were just choosing the most inept and unconstitutional method available to sort the legitimate 501(c)(4) applicants from the fakers. Worst-case scenario, we're looking at some old-fashioned, deliberate, Kennedy- or Nixon-style political harassment via the taxman. And of course all sorts of combinations of motive are possible, too. I look forward to reading the inspector general's report, and I hope a serious Congressional investigation follows.
But the IRS scandal is really just the article's newshook. I don't think Douthat's larger point is the possibility that a Brown Scare explains the agency's behavior; it's the fact that we were drifting into Brown Scare territory in the first place. It may be a few years late, but it's still good to see a New York Times columnist pushing back against the factually dubious narrative of "rising right-wing violence" that seemed to seize the paper's op-ed page in 2009 and 2010. Douthat even throws in a link to a Frank Rich article—not one of Rich's pieces in the Times, naturally, but it's not hard to guess what Douthat thinks about his former colleague's columns on the subject.