01 April 2010

Sherman DeBrosse : The Resistible Rise of the Tea Bagger Movement

Dale Robertson, who claims to have founded the Tea Party movement. Photo from February 27, 2009, Tea Party in Houston.

Not by bread alone:
Why the Tea Baggers are successful
Anger and fear have a way of spreading, and the Tea Bag spirit has essentially taken over the Republican Party.
By Sherman DeBrosse / The Rag Blog / April 1, 2010

[This is the first installment of a two-part series by Sherman DeBrosse about the genesis and impact of the Tea Bagger movement.]

In January, 2010, David Brooks wrote “In the near term, the tea party will dominate the Republican party.” At that time, the Tea Bag movement had a higher approval score -- 41% -- than either of the major parties.

It has shown such strength that Mitch McConnell and his minions have decided to base campaign for additional seats in November 2010 on Tea Baggism and repeal of the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act. Perhaps inspired by the recent outbreaks of Tea Bag violence and threats, former Governor Sarah Palin has repeatedly called upon her followers to “reload.”

Reflecting on the Tea Party people’s incivility, the cerebral Barney Frank said, "I think they do more harm than good." Palin and most of the Republican leadership are betting that the opposite is true.

Tea Baggism is what Robert Reich called the “ ‘mad as hell’ political party.” Only it is less a political party than a wing of the Republican Party.

It is an extreme form of right-wing populism that includes an intense desire to isolate or somehow eliminate the influence of opponents. It is marked by hate speech, identity politics, and a rejection of democratic dialogue and debate. Rather than attempt to reason with opponents, it aims to completely eliminate their influence.

Some call this phase of right-wing populism “eliminationism” and suggest that it has para-fascist tendencies. It certainly has a strong energizing and activating capacity, and for the moment it appears to have co-opted much of the American conservative movement. Of late, the apocalyptic language of the right-wing fringe is frequently being heard in the vast Republican echo chamber.

The Religious Right represents a somewhat milder form of right-wing populism. For the most part, the two phenomena are on the same page and are not in conflict.

The first serious signs of the Tea Bag movement appeared during the 2008 presidential campaigns, when some Republican rallies took on the aspect of Klan rallies, with people shouting ugly things about Obama and menacing the press. From there the movement gathered steam as large numbers questioned whether Barack Obama was born in the United States.

Many had an identity problem as they saw an African American President, a female Speaker of the House of Representatives, and then a very bright Hispanic lady nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court. They felt that they were losing their country, and their identity as the people who owned America was severely challenged.

Soon, Tea Party people were disrupting town hall meetings about health care. Sometimes, people brought firearms to the meetings to intimidate others. In August 2009 Tea Baggers carried out vandalism against the district offices of a number of Democrats.

More recently, the final days of the fight against health care reform were certainly animated by the spirit of the Tea Baggers. Protesters gathered around the entrance to the Capitol, some bearing crude signs showing Obama as Hitler. A demonstrator spat on one black Congressman and another yelled the “N” word at Representative John Lewis, a hero of the civil rights struggle. The Democratic whip reported that all but one black member of the House received similar treatment.

Sign at Tea Bagger event. Photo from Smarty's World.

Inside the Capitol, protesters shouted sexual epithets at Barney Frank, an openly gay Congressman. When Representative Bart Stupak announced his support for reform after having obtained a presidential executive order banning the use of the bill for abortions, an angry Congressman Randy Neugebeuer yelled “baby killer.” This was the same Texas representative who introduced a bill requiring candidates for president to file their birth certificates -- his way of claiming Obama was born in Kenya.

During the final debate, protesters from the galleries shouted at Democrats. Republicans on the House floor cheered the disrupters and egged them on. Minority leader John Boehner tailored his final arguments to fit in with the Tea Bagger spirit -- he ranted, shouted, and even used profanity.

The day after the vote, Rush Limbaugh called the Democrats “bastards” and promised to “hound, hassle and wipe out” liberals. Then, there were attacks on the Capitol offices of a number of House Democrats. Ten of them were threatened and had to be provided with protective units from the FBI and Capitol Hill police. Bart Stupak received many vile and threatening telephone calls; some of them must have come from anti-abortion people who were supposed to be Christians. The house of one Congressman’s brother was targeted.

The Tea Bagger is supported by FOX (Faux) News and counts among its leaders people like Dick Armey, Dennis Hastert, and the wife of Justice Clarence Thomas. She is a long-time Republican operative, and was working for the party when her husband helped hand the election of 2000 to George W. Bush. Joe the Plumber (Joe Wurzelbacker), who was part of the John McCain campaign apparatus in 2008, is a prominent Tea Bagger.

They are well funded, and their meetings have been arranged by skilled corporate lobbyists. Republican Party chairman Michael Steele has been meeting regularly with Tea Party leaders to make certain the movement does not get away from its handlers and financers. The Leadership Institute funds the training of young Tea Baggers, would-be “Hitler Jugend.”

Rage and wild rhetoric

The predominant characteristic of the Tea Baggers is their paranoia, rage, and incivility.

Anger and fear have a way of spreading, and the Tea Bag spirit has essentially taken over the Republican Party. A few days before the final vote on health care reform, John Boehner, the House Republican leader, told The Hill that he is always cool and never shouts. Two days later he stood in the well of the House shouting and using profanity.

People in the galleries were shouting insults at the Democrats while Republicans on the floor egged them on. Afraid of fueling more rage, the Democrats’ presiding officers did not clear the galleries and meekly asked for order. Veiled threats were left on the benches of some of the uncommitted Democrats.

Some of their most outspoken members are strongly anti-tax and anti-government. Some of them come from fringe movements and are strongly libertarian. However, it is doubtful that all or even most of the Tea Baggers are libertarians.

They claim to be anti-elitist though they are bankrolled by powerful interests. Most of them are deeply conservative. They claim to be bipartisan and they criticize both parties. That means, they would prefer even more conservative leadership in the Republican Party. They lean strongly Republican.

Theirs is the cult of victimhood, and the movement is marked by mushy nostalgia, screaming paranoia, scapegoating, demonization, rank hypocrisy, jingoism, and militarism. Richard Armey said, “When Republicans are fighting against the power of the state, we win.” It may be more accurate to say that Republicans are best at fighting the power of the state when they are out of power.

Few complained about excessive spending under George W. Bush or the unprecedented expansion of the power of the state then. The tea bag types were bizarrely silent when the Bush deficit kept increasing, and those who were in Congress voted to ramp up the spending.

There is much dissatisfaction within the Tea Party movement with some who run the Republican Party, but there is little they can do to change the leadership. Here and there, they will try to nominate some of their own people for office, but in the end they have little choice but to stay with the Republicans. As in the past, when Republicans have activated the extremists, there were subsequent efforts to dial them back a bit. We see signs of this again, but Tea Baggism seems too powerful now and will surely move the GOP more than just a few notches farther toward the far right.

Tea Baggers and the English language. Photo from series at Teabonics / Flickr.

Interesting comparisons

Tea Bag people are extraordinarily effective at getting across their message. Michael Hastings, a founder of the Tea Bagger movement, recommended that his followers borrow the playbook of the great leftist organizer Saul Alinsky. They adopted some of his tactics and had great success disrupting the health care town meetings.

Some see in the Tea Baggers a revolt against educated America because these people seem to oppose the educated elite, but one sampling of those attending the recent Tea Bagger convention showed that three-quarters had gone to college and that their incomes were above the national average. (This was not a scientific sampling, and those attending the convention might reflect a better-educated Tea Bagger subset.)

It has been suggested that the Tea Baggers are to the Republican Party what the Greens are to the Democrats. Of course, a major difference is that the Tea Baggers are not operating as a political party or fielding their own candidates. They are essentially a wing of the GOP. Like the Greens who represent left-wing orthodoxy, Tea Baggers represent the purest incarnation of the principles of the Right. Both are dissatisfied with the leadership of the major parties.

Comparisons with the John Birchers might be more apt. The Tea Baggers seem to believe many of the conspiracy theories that were hatched by the John Birch Society. In the Southern Poverty Law Center’s The Second Wave, it is noted that “fringe conspiracy theories [are] increasingly spread by mainstream figures.”

The Tea Baggers resemble the Patriots, whose first wave seemed to subside in the late 1990s. Within the Tea Party movement, there is much interaction between Patriot-types and mainstream people, and there is the danger that the extremists will recruit from the Tea Bagger membership. Like the Birchers, they are xenophobes and ultra-nationalists. Although they talk a lot about the constitution many take the view that “terrorists don’t have a right to a trial.”

More than a half century ago, the great historian Richard Hofstadter noted that the right has a particularly strong proclivity for political paranoia, a witches brew of massive exaggeration, super-heated anger, conspiratorial fantasy, and deep suspiciousness. This right-wing populism boasted a special ability to “see through” official claims and also a remarkable skill in detecting the plots of elitists who have disdain for ordinary middle Americans.

Tea Baggers roar their approval when an orator refers to Obama as “commander in thief.” Glenn Beck rants on about Obama leading a bunch of fascists, communists, and socialists. Apparently the poor man does not know that there is a great deal of difference between fascists and communists. Tom Tancredo’s call for a return to the literacy test of the Jim Crow South won great approval among Tea Baggers. Angling for Tea Bagger and white supremacist backing in his quest to become governor of South Carolina, Lt. Governor Andre Bauer talked about not feeding stray animals because they breed.

Rep Steve King of Iowa lamented the suicide/murder of Andrew Joseph Stack III and used it to explain that the IRS is unnecessary. He took the standard Tea Bagger line; Stack was a lone lunatic but sort of admirable because the IRS drove him to a foolish action. They cannot admit that Tea Bagger rhetoric can promote violence.

King went on to tell C-Pac that there are many enemies in America, “They are liberals, they are progressives, they are Che Guevarans, they are Castroites, they are socialists.” He even added “Trotskyites, Maoists, Stalinists, Leninists, “Gramscites---ring anybody’s bell?”

In fact, many of the better-known Trotskyites have long since become “Neocons” and made their way into leadership positions in the Republican Party. They no longer worry about the problems of the working class and have become very effective defenders of Wall Street. As for Gramscites -- the only people who admit to reading this Italian socialist are Grover Norquist and some other Republican strategists. Unfortunately, they mastered the communication and organizational skills he wrote about, while Democrats seem to have learned nothing from his prison writings.

Former Reagan official Frank Gaffney compared Obama to Hitler and said he “may still be” a Muslim and involved with the Muslim Brotherhood. At a recent meeting, former Colorado Lt. Governor Jane Norton sat quietly as a Tea Bagger twice assured the assemblage that Obama was a Muslim. With the occasional exceptions of John McCain and Lindsay Graham, Republican leaders have failed to correct any of the Tea Party excesses.

At the CPAC convention, Joseph Farrah electrified the crowd with his claims that Obama was not born in the United States. Tea Bag blogger Erie Erickson claimed that Justice David Souter was a “goat fucking child molester.”

In Ohio Tea Bag protesters threw dollar bills at a disabled man, shouting “No handouts here,” and in Washington they sported a sign that said “Your Health. Your Problem.”

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

Next: Rage, racism, and the future of the Tea Bagger movement.

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