07 April 2010

Sherman DeBrosse : Rage, Racism, and the Future of the Tea Bagger Movement

The Tea Baggers:
An identity temper tantrum with a violent edge

By Sherman DeBrosse / The Rag Blog / April 6, 2010

[This is the second in a two-part series on the Tea Bagger movement by Sherman DeBrosse. Go here to read part one.]

Much of Tea Bagger rhetoric reads like some sort of identity temper tantrum and is given to wild claims and exaggerations. Over and over, Tea Bag people talk about getting their country back, and they subscribe to paligenesis, the myth of a national rebirth akin to a phoenix rising from the ashes of destruction.

There is so much anger because on the flip side there is choking fear. These people are afraid that people like them will no longer be dominating this country. They rightly fear that their place in the middle class and future prosperity are threatened by forces they cannot identify. It is no surprise that they are largely whites.

Older voters vote more frequently than younger ones. The older voters were raised with what is called the “strict father morality” and they are deeply attached to the norms and mores of an older America that was less inclusive and tolerant. Though beneficiaries of the New Deal, they respond positively to appeals to Social Darwinism. Many of them were “Reagan Democrats” and were angry about “welfare queens.” The “take back our country” theme, couched in nostalgic patriotic terms, appeals to these voters. They too feel threatened and are often bewildered by contemporary norms and culture.

There is a lot of gender anxiety and white nationalism in the Tea Party movement Sometimes, it seems that many of the Tea Baggers are looking for someone to lead them from the jaws of defeat, a Daddy. Chip Berlet writes that so long as they do not find a charismatic leader, all we have to worry about is the coming of proto-fascism. There is probably too much gender insecurity among Tea Bagger men to permit Sarah Palin to emerge as a Mommy.

All this wild Tea Bagger rhetoric can inspire violence. The same theories led Timothy McVeigh to attack a federal building in Oklahoma City. Perhaps similar talk led a demented man to fly an airplane into an IRS building. Words do have consequences.

By March, 2010, the Tea Bagger rage was moving toward demanding annihilation of liberal enemies and the purgation of the nation of any traces of Democratic policies. A Rush Limbaugh stand in told a joke about what any American soldier would do when left with just two rounds in an elevator with Osama bin Laden, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi. The bottom line was he would shoot the two Democrats and then try to strangle bin Laden. Similarly, Rex Rammell, conservative candidate for governor in Idaho, has joked about hunting President Obama.

Converting people who were not already Republicans

If the Tea Bag strategy only activated the Republican base and people in the various fringe rightist movement, there would be plenty of reason to work. The problem is, as noted in a previous post, that it has attracted so many independents, who by nature look for quick and easy solutions and usually are not very well informed.

As far back as the 1970s, Donald Warren identified another group that he called “Middle American Radicals.” They felt caught between Wall Street and great concentrations of economic power on one side and organized minorities on the other. By no means were they all racists or bent on injuring immigrants. For the most part, they were disconnected from government, unions, churches, and other mediating structures.

In the eighties, more than five million whites fell into poverty, with many more to follow as manufacturing firms moved overseas. Now, there is again a great surge in the number of whites falling below the poverty line. These people think the most important question for debate is, “Who is an American and what will America look like?" The Middle American Radicals have been growing for three decades. We know too little about them, and they are another large, fertile recruiting ground for the militias and Tea Baggers.

These people know that the American system is not working for them, and they think that only the Tea Bag Movement offers an alternative to the status quo. Their situation is analogous to that of many workers in the United Kingdom during the period of economic stagnation prior to Maggie Thatcher’s ascent to power.

They did not like the existing situation and saw in Thatcherism a clear choice. Even though she heaped new tax burdens on them, many British working class folks stuck with her for some years, rewarded with jingoism and Social Darwinist sermons that made them feel good about themselves and superior to those who depended upon the dole.

Many parallels can be found in the history of Europe in the 1920s and 1930s as bewildered and ill-informed working class people sought meaning and comfort by embracing the various forms of right wing populist extremism.

Teabagger Brady LaMotte says "Our government is out of control." Photo from Snapshots of Teabaggers / The Stranger.

Creating true believers

An economic crisis is the perfect time to recruit people for rightist movements. Political neophytes, independents, and Middle American Radicals who were drawn into the Tea Party Movement were landed by powerful tools of persuasion.

Strong convictions can be created in one’s consciousness through clever external information management. This can be done without engaging reason, and it can be easily deployed in the politics of hatred. Fear and anger are powerful motivators. These appeals to basic emotions are most persuasive at a time when there is great economic insecurity. Some Tea Baggers relate that after listening to Glenn Beck or some other shockjock, they literally had a sort of conversion experience. They were reborn. They no longer felt helpless and now channeled their energies into political militancy.

By repeating the same claims about Barack Obama being a socialist and communist, political operatives can embed that information in people's memories as fact. It does not matter that his health care proposals were largely borrowed from Republican proposals. Likewise, repeating the claim that there will be death panels trumps the calm display of facts that this simply is not the case.

When these false claims are linked to appeals to patriotism and membership in the ranks of victimized middle Americans, convictions deepen. Victimhood has a strong claim to moral authority. At this point, people relate to a tribe of virtuous, victimized Americans who have every right to hate liberal elitists.

In Going to Extremes, Cass R. Sunstein shows how people then reinforce their convictions by association with others who share their beliefs. Research and reading are unnecessary to validate what they feel so deeply about. At this point, the beliefs promoted by clever propagandists become part of a person’s identity, which is sacred to him or her.

Minimizing the influence of the Tea Party Movement

Some liberal columnists seem to be whistling as they pass the graveyard when they emphasize that there are some libertarians among the Tea Baggers. One says not to worry; they are just a modern version of the anti-federalists of the late 1780s and 1790s. Maybe or maybe not, but those people took up muskets to make their point.

Some dismiss the Tea Baggers as harmless and compare them to the hippies of the 1960s. There are significant differences. The hippies fought against injustice, while Tea Bagger spokesmen like Glenn Beck seem to justify and explain away injustices. The hippies saw through capitalist propaganda while the Tea Baggers have soaked it up and are saturated by it.

It is true that the Tea Bag movement could eventually be a problem for Republicans because these people tend to oppose Republican efforts to reach out to Hispanics. Already, Hispanics in Idaho, Washington, and Oregon are feeling threatened and intimidated by the Tea Baggers.

We are told not to worry too much about the Tea Baggers because libertarians resent the Christian Right’s inclination to interfere in our personal lives, but we should recall that Republican libertarians have a history of bowing to what the pastors want. Bob Barr has forthrightly spoken out against the Prior Act when he told the CPAC convention that people should not be “seduced by that siren of security over freedom.”

However, the vast majority of Tea Baggers have gone along with what the Republican Party has wanted. When Dick Cheney appeared at the CPAC convention there was something like a collective orgasm, so much did the audience approve of torturing detainees and stripping them of the right to civilian trials. Extreme atavism has always been part of right-wing populism, and that fuels militarism, jingoism, a disregard for the requirements of the law when it comes to the rights of enemies.

As the Tea Baggers were ramped up, the national political atmosphere became more and more atavistic. We got a clue of how the media would approach this super-heated atmosphere when Neocon Dick Gregory, Meet the Press host, commented, “I don’t know that Obama has the same ability to reflect the emotions of the country as Bush did at certain points in his presidency.”

On the same program, Newt Gingrich engaged in pure demagoguery, saying that the Obama administration was more interested in “protecting the rights of terrorists... than protecting the lives of Americans.” The former Speaker of the House is a highly intelligent man and holds a Ph.D. in history. He certainly has a better grasp of our laws and judicial system than that.

The problem of race

Most of the Tea Baggers probably do not hate Obama just because he is black, but his race certainly does not help. Some of their anger is at the emergence of a more inclusive nation where there are greater opportunities for blacks and other marginalized people. This is happening at the same time that many in the middle class perceive that their status and economic security is threatened. Unfortunately, the blacks and other marginalized people will not return to the back of the bus, and it may be too late to reverse all the policies that endanger the middle class.

The Democrats have long had a Caucasian problem. Not since Lyndon B. Johnson have they won the white vote. White males are most likely to vote against Democrats. These “angry white men” resent the gains African-Americans, other minorities, and women have made. Rusty De Pass, a rightist in South Carolina claimed that an escaped gorilla was one of Obama’s ancestors.

It could well be that much of this racism is a problem growing out of the unconscious operations of the brain. In The Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantam talks about unconscious biases that help us “leap to conclusions.” There are unconscious cerebral features that act like an account or reality checker. It tallies information on what are popular views and what are popular biases. It notices economic inequality and discrimination, and this hidden dimension of the human brain might reach some wrong conclusions about African-American people.

Some of the Tea Baggers’ distrust of a black president might come less from real malice than from the brain’s hidden software. Some people, through careful thought and introspection, have managed to overcome unconscious racism; other people are not much into introspection.

At the moment, many Tea Baggers are scapegoating blacks and immigrants. A recent poll showed that 25% of Americans think Jews are responsible for the near meltdown of the banking system. Many on the extreme right share these views and believe the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is legitimate. This conservative anti-Semitism is under wraps now
because the conservatives see the state of Israel as an ally. This could change.

Courting the extremists

The Tea Party movement has clearly activated people who are variously described as survivalists, patriots, militiamen, Constitutionalists, white supremacists, and Christian Identity members. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that the armed “patriots” are on the rise again and infiltrating the Tea Bagger movement. Oath Keepers, comprised of former policemen, firemen, and servicemen, is growing rapidly. They believe they have the right to ignore laws they dislike.

There is a great danger that these people will be able to recruit and indoctrinate some of the many independents who have been drawn into Tea Baggism. The independents usually have few fixed political principles, do not follow politics carefully, and look for quick easy fixes and simple explanations.

At the moment the Republican Party is appealing to extreme states’ rights doctrines, particularly the pre-Civil War notion that through the Tenth Amendment a state can nullify a federal law. Andrew Jackson took on the nullifiers in the 1830s, and many thought the Civil War settled the legal question once and for all. Then George Wallace and others revived it as “massive interposition” in the 1950s and 1960s to fight desegregation. By reviving a legal doctrine last deployed by segregationists and racists, the GOP seems to be legitimizing the strange and archaic body of doctrines advocated by the white supremacists and many militias.

David Frum, a former George W. Bush speechwriter, has worried that the anger has gone too far and could hurt the GOP. He blames it on FOX News and the cable and radio commentators. Frum suggested that the Republican leadership thought Fox worked for them and discovered, instead, they were working for Fox. "The anger trapped the [Republican] leadership," Frum noted , and "the leadership discovered they have no room to maneuver as a result of the anger."

Frum is worried that some independents might be turned off by the Republicans hyperbolic rhetoric and lack of proposals. This matter was obliquely debated within the ranks of elected Republicans, but they seemed to have reached the conclusion that any concrete proposal would provide a target for Democrats. Republicans briefly claimed that Representative Paul Ryan had written a “Republican” health reform plan, but as soon as the press wrote about it, the leadership distanced themselves from it.

No doubt, the GOP think tanks employ experts in cognitive science who have guaranteed that there will be no substantial reaction against extremism so long there is not an economic miracle, with the economy cranking out vast numbers of new jobs. The fact that the think tanks are working so hard to defend the Tea Baggers suggests that eliminationist extremism is not a very short term strategy.

Tea Party indoctrination might be effective

Tea Baggism gives people a collective identity and invites them to buy into a collective memory that could make them committed Rightists for decades to come. Some may also be persuaded to become gun show/gun shop patrons and join one militia or another.

Creating a Tea Bagger collective memory is simply an extension of several decades of Republican mastery of linguistic and cognitive theory. The beauty of collective memory is that it creates memories that can have nothing to do with reality. They can be passionately believed because they become inextricable from identity.

The Tea Baggers are in the process of assuming the identity of American history’s victims -- good, patriotic, productive folks who are victimized by big government that spends too much and does not respect their rights. To be sure, this collective memory will include versions of historical events and processes that are far from the truth. Yet, they will be fervently believed and will become nearly impossible for outsiders to challenge with facts, logic, and analysis. The most powerful collective identities have clear enemies. Of course, liberals are at the top of the list. Others who will have this status are black and brown people.

Collective memory works like “mythic history” -- in the words of Pierre Nora, a French expert on history and memory; it replaces real history and is fervently believed. Collective memories are about our identities, so strong emotions reinforce them. That is why they are considered sacred.

The term “collective memory” is useful and evolved out of Emile Durkheim’s concept of collective consciousness. Yet, we know that there is no particular place spot or place in a collectivity where a memory is stored. It is a common memory existing in the minds of members of an identity group and also in symbols, texts, and other parts of a culture. Some members have a stronger emotional attachment to it than others. The concept is an effort to get at how people’s thinking is shaped by a culture or subculture and by membership in a group.

According to Peter Novick, “Collective memory simplifies, sees events from a single, committed perspective; is impatient with ambiguities of any kind...” It overlooks historicity, all the complexities involved with examining events in the different contexts and in another time. It provides “imaginary representations and historical realities” that are deeply rooted in cultural identity and the values of an imaginary community.

Collective memory emerges from social arrangements and the “ways minds work together in society,” and “totemic meanings” emerge that are part of a community’s super-ego. It is an imaginative form of historical consciousness based “more on myths than facts.” In brief, collective memory refers to how people recall in the context of a group. It is never objective or value-free, and it reflects simulations of the past shaped by present needs. It can be politicized memory. Its formation is, according to Nora, “largely unconscious” and it “accommodates only those facts that suit it.”

Tactics that demonstrate contempt for American democracy

Recently, Bob Schrum said the Tea Baggers moment will be brief. Three decades ago, most observers thought that right-wing populism of the Christian Right was a brief flash in the pan. The folks in the conservative think tanks found ways to keep it going and expanding for decades. Perhaps maintaining exclusionism at a high level depends on continued economic crisis, but it is possible that Republican strategists have figured out how to sustain it for a long time.

If we are to experience a period of sustained stagnation and high unemployment, it is possible that many more working people will find solace in the Tea Bag movement. The Democrats can attempt to help people who are suffering with unemployment insurance and the promise of health benefits, but man does not live by bread alone. The right-wing populism strategist have long known this and have found contemptible ways of shoring up people’s identities and giving them meaning simplistic things to believe in.

Historian Chip Berlet of Political Research Associates has written that “fascism is the most militant and violent form of right-wing populism.” This is an interesting and useful way of relating the two phenomena, and the concept of eliminationism permits us to locate the Tea Baggers as an extreme form of right-wing populism, one that could be the anteroom to some form of authoritarianism. Tea Baggism is clearly a reactionary political movement and something very different from genuine conservatism. The Tea Partiers are not about preserving what is best in America, and their rhetoric and tactics threaten to seriously disrupt the Democratic process.

Democracy depends upon an open public market place of ideas, but these people try to shut it down. It requires reason, civility, willingness to compromise, and truth-telling. The frenzied Tea Party people reject these ideals.

Perhaps they can be partly excused because, like many of us, they are suffering from serious economic dislocations. But what are we to think of the politicians who know what democracy requires and still use these people, who abuse Senate rules to produce stalemate, and now fold their arms and say they will punish their opponents by refusing to cooperate again in 2010?

They have shown utter contempt for our political system but still stand a good chance of increasing their power in November. Something is very wrong!

[Sherman DeBrosse is a regular contributor to The Rag Blog. A retired history professor, he also blogs at Sherm Says and on DailyKos.]

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