April 16, 2009

Are the Tea Parties Radical and Paranoid Enough?

According to Paul Krugman, the some 700 “€œTea Parties“€ that sprung up in all 50 states yesterday weren”€™t really about taxes and government spending. They were instead an opportunity for the disposed yahoodom of fly-over country to huddle together and grunt about Barack Obama’s Muslim faith and the wickedness of the theory of evolution, and perhaps consider persecuting a dissenter or two”€”all of it funded/manipulated by “€œthe usual group of right-wing billionaires.”€

The things Krugman associates with the grassroots Right are, of course, easy to mock. But whenever I read articles like this, I find myself wishing that the GOP base actually were just as “€œcrazy”€ as establishment liberals like Krugman think it is”€”that at Takimag we”€™d be spending our time warning heartland conservatives about the dangers of full-out anarcho-capitalism and deconstructing the nuttier anti-Washington conspiracy theories, and not wincing every time we hear a Republican voter mouth “€œIslamo-fascism.”€

The kernel of truth in Krugman’s op-ed is that ever since the collapse of Lehman Bros. this fall, the conservative grassroots has”€™t been responding to “€œIslamo-Fascism”€ talk; indeed, they haven”€™t seemed much interested in foreign policy at all. For the first time in at least a decade, conservatives appear to be rediscovering their “€œDon”€™t Tread on Me,”€ Old Right tradition. People like Krugman are always diagnosing right-wing tendencies as either sub-rational pathologies, or effects of an opiate fed to them by billionaire industrialists. It’s worth noting, however, that while only two years ago, Krugman & Co. were fretting over conservatives”€™ embrace of some kind of democracy-spreading clerical fascism, they”€™re now depicting the grassroots Right as something akin to the 9/11 Truth Movement and the machine gun enthusiasts of Knob Creek. This is a major shift. 

At the Tea Party I attended outside New York City Hall, where the crowd stretched on for some three blocks, Newt Gingrich was the featured speaker. Newt has always been attuned to grassroots discontent, often publishing an instabook or two that jive with the prevailing conservative mood. Newt has also been quite skilled at harnessing populist, anti-government animus and utilizing it for the election of Republicans to high office. After conservatives were split in “€™92 by Buchanan’s insurgency in the primaries and Ross Perot’s third-party run in the general, Newt put the movement back together again just two years later”€”conveniently helping push NAFTA through a Democrat Congress right before the new class was sworn in and swiftly delimiting the “€™94 “€œrevolution”€ with a focus-grouped “€œContract with America.”€ Six years later, the GOP was in power, to be sure, but Newt was gone, government hadn”€™t retreated an inch, the revolution had fizzled out into a finger-wagging campaign over Bill Clinton’s sex life, and George W. Bush had emerged as the Republican standard bearer promising “compassion.” 

Groups like the Campaign for Liberty, which was out in force yesterday, should take note of this cautionary tale. Nevertheless, it must be surprising”€”and rather gratifying”€”for them to think that this time “€˜round, it’s groups like the CfL, and the Ron Paul movement as a whole, that Newt & Co. are attempting co-opt. In the two plus hours of speeches I heard yesterday, only once did a speaker, a gruff talk-radio host of some sort, bloviate about the war on terror; and when he did, he was interrupted by a colorful figure straight out of a Ron Paul rally”€”dressed in boxer shots, wearing sunglasses, and holding up a sign reading “€œThe Banksters Robbed Me Blind”€”€”who was shouting above it all “€œAbolish the Federal Reserve!”€ In a crowd of thousands, I saw only two or three blue-blazer-and-kakis Frumbots”€”and hundreds of normal Americans holding up signs reading “€œEnd the Fed,”€ “€œIf I Wanted to Be a Commie, I”€™d Stay in China”€ and “€œRepublicans + Democrats = National-Socialism.”€ The Department of Homeland Security, the centerpiece of Bush’s post-9/11 government expansion, was mentioned by the speakers only with scorn and distain, particularly after it was revealed this week that Secretary Janet Napolitano will be going after “€œright-wing radicals”€ and not just “€œthe terrorists.”€ The New York Tea party felt a lot like all the big Ron Paul rallies I attended last year, and a very little like the priggish and intolerably boring CPAC.

The Bush-Rove Republicans never reached out to any of these Tea Party people, despite Dubya’s Midland accent and promises of a “€œhumble foreign policy,”€ and certainly never considered sounding an anti-Washington message. (The prized independents were instead Latinos, the mostly ideologically agnostic evangelicals Christian, and the Clintonite and suburban “€œsoccer moms,”€ all of whom were wooed with talk of a welfare-statist “€œcompassionate conservatism.”€ By 2004, the soccer moms had acquired a “€œsecurity”€ monicker and were still voting Republican, but by 2006, most had returned to the Democrat fold. The Latinos never really came on board.)

There’s no question that the Republicans would love to co-opt the Tea Party movement to strengthen their prospects in 2010, but my sense last night was that the “€œDon”€™t Tread on Me”€ crowd might be a bit too radical to be neutralized and Republicanized easily. Drudge is reporting that Texas Governor Rick Perry, who until this past week appeared to be a Dubya’s second coming, is saying Kinky Friedman-worthy stuff, like that Texas has right to secede from the Union. The Republican grassroots is becoming less focused on Iraq, Israel, and Putin and beginning to direct its ire towards Washington. With any luck, this Tea party movement might turn out be just as “€œcrazy”€ as Paul Krugman thinks it is. Let’s hope so.  

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