It’s been a long time coming, in large part because I really spent my time reading and thinking over this book, but I finished it last night and want to recommend it: The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters, and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama by Will Bunch. The timing of the book couldn’t be better. It’s out right as all the trends he crosses the country to record are coming to electoral fruition. In fact, Bunch spends a lot of time in Delaware, recording the growth of the 9/12 Patriots that eventually managed to oust Mike Castle from his front-runner position and nominate Christine O’Donnell for the Republican slot on the ballot for Delaware Senator. But he crosses the country from one end to the other, interviewing Tea Party activists. And what he concludes, at the end of the day, is that all these folks are getting took.
If you want to hear Will talk about his own book, I interviewed him here. It’s really great, very deep and interesting.
Which isn’t to say that they’re necessarily wonderful human beings who aren’t playing a major role in their own process of getting took. They’re generally pretty racist and paranoid, prone to throwing entitled fits and sinking into comforting delusions instead of facing reality. Even when they’re being nice to Will, it’s hard to shake the general feeling that your average Tea Partier is a sanctimonious bigot who thinks the Jesus whose name they drop so regularly was just kidding when he talked up glass houses. It’s a testament to Will’s skills as an empathy-driven journalist that he makes the reader still see them as human beings whose emotional needs aren’t being met and who are therefore perfect targets for the not even remotely hidden loose conspiracy of billionaires and Republican politicians who are exploiting them for profit.
The pitch is that the Tea Partiers can make their mark, become important by working with the Tea Party revolution. The reason they’re getting took is there is no revolution. It’s just a fantasy constructed to get out the vote and, just as importantly, drain their wallets.
Tea Partiers like to fancy themselves as grassroots organizers, and while Will shows that there is some truth to that, at the end of the day, they’re easy marks for astroturfing efforts like Glenn Beck’s or the Koch brothers’, because they authoritarians who fall in line easily behind leaders. What Will found is no matter how much any Tea Partiers he met styled themselves as mavericks taking back the country, they tended to be in love with Glenn Beck because they saw him as someone they could follow without asking too many questions, because of “character”. And said leaders are all about using the language of revolution to meet their own ends, but they’ve carefully crafted a “revolution” that is practically designed to do nothing, for a few reasons that Will is great at teasing out:
*The participants are simply too old. Invariably, someone will scream “ageist!” when I point this out, eager to police without thinking about nuance. But it’s not a slam on older people to suggest that you don’t create a revolution out of 50-80-year-olds. You’d be hard-pressed to do it with a group that was mostly over 30. In fact, it’s a testament to older people that they’re harder to organize in such a way, because their—our—main reason to call in sick when things get heated is that we have too much to lose. This is a repeated theme you can’t take for granted: too much to lose. On just the revolution standpoint, it’s one thing to buy a bunch of guns and shoot them off on weekends and feel like a big man. It’s another to actually dedicate yourself to the violent overthrow of government. There’s a reason armies, state-sponsored or not, are composed mainly of people 18-24. It has less to do with how strong they are and everything to do with the fact that it’s way harder to get people to drop it all to fight when “it all” means a spouse, children, responsibilities, attachments—the kind of things you accumulate with age.
Invariably, when I point this out, someone trying to score points will point out the occasional outlier of a middle-aged man who does act violently. Many of our “walk into crowded places and start shooting” types are middle-aged men. But these guys are outliers. Look at Scott Roeder, the guy who murdered Dr. George Tiller. The decades leading up to this crime were a long series of losses that left him with literally nothing left to lose—his son hates him, he has no wife, he had no home, no family, and he was surrounded by anti-choice fanatics. You’d probably think prison was an even trade, too.
*Their demands are scattershot and abstract. Even those things they think they can agree on are incredibly unlikely, in no small part because the goals are so awful the Tea Partiers don’t have the nerve. Once again, this is a too much to lose situation. It’s easy to slam big government, but as we’ve discovered from the incoherent political messages put out by the Republicans, the people who oppose “big government” want to hear that this phrase doesn’t include Medicare or Social Security. Or farm subsidies or disability. “Big government” is an abstraction that differs from person to person, and usually means “money I’m not getting, but someone else is”. Organizing behind an empty set of principles can create a lot of momentum, but in terms of setting out a goal and achieving it so everyone can go home? Not gonna happen.
*They’re more interested in fantasy than realities. Birthers, Tenthers, militia men, evangelical blooey, keep going. When what motivates you is basically bullshit, you can always be kept on the hamster wheel with further lies and bullshit.
I cannot emphasize this enough, and I think Will’s book provides a lot of emphasis for this: the conservative movement was created and is maintained to make sure that it’s a hamster wheel of impotent outrage. The goals are unachievable by design. The fantasies beget more fantasies. The people are recruited specifically because they can grouse, give money, and vote, but they won’t do much more than that. The beast gets to take naps during Republican administrations, when the financiers pull out the propaganda cash to buy their mistresses more nights in hotels with diamonds and bottle service, but it’s always on hand to activate should Democrats ever get power and bring up the threat that the wealthiest people in the country might pay 1% more in taxes.
Read the book for in-depth reporting on the specifics of how the Tea Partiers are getting took. I’m particularly intrigued by Will’s theory that the reason this big con is so effective on the Tea Party marks is that it exploits, at the end of the day, the fear of death. Fear of change is what fuels the racism, the nostalgia for a half-forgotten past, the eagerness to hippie-kick. And fear of change is rooted in fear of death—if the world changes so dramatically after you lived, you’re that much more likely to be forgotten and seem like you never mattered at all. Thus, the way that Tea Partiers are all ears for the high-falutin’ language about how theirs is a revolution that will forever change the world.
I want to take a little time to point to this post of David Neiwert’s as an example of what’s going on. He’s banking off an article from Justin Elliott, and the gist of it all is that Joe Miller, the Tea Party candidate who is running for Senate from Alaska, is a right wing extremist who is steeped in paranoid nonsense that comes straight from the Patriot militia movement. Mainly, Miller’s a Tenther, which is someone who is particularly enamored of secessionists fantasies, though these fantasies come in various levels, from outright secession to simply claiming the federal government doesn’t have powers the courts have repeatedly shown that it has.
Alaska is a particularly good example of how the conservative movement is all hepped up on fantasies that are out of reach, guaranteeing that followers will stay on the hamster wheel of outrage. As David notes, epic chunks of Alaska are federal property. As a state, they are more intertwined with the federal government than most, and as a community, they are more dependent on their relationship to the larger American community than most. The fantasies speak to a desire that can’t actually lived out by the people who have it, or at least not without them paying a price in economic collapse that they’re not willing to pay. It’s a perfect little outrage wheel, because the goals can be restated and restated and restated for the purposes of getting money and votes out of believers, but everyone has a gentleman’s agreement that actually trying to achieve those goals is madness that would be stopped by political outrage in a second. It’s so perfect that it’s no wonder the Republicans are warming up to the idea of making paranoid outrage their entire party platform.