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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12 Responses to Sherman DeBrosse : The Resistible Rise of the Tea Bagger Movement

  1. Alex Porter says:

    From what I’ve read on the subject this movement is essentially about libertarians who are pro-constitution and anti-war (something which brings them into conflict with the GOP) and against the rapid rise in the size of the US government and the legitimate grievance that a banking elite now has massive influence over US policy – an elite which unarguably exists.

    From what I can gather many young people have been electrified by this grass-roots movement and it has even drawn many from the left who are anti-war and against the corruption which is now endemic througout the political system.

    Clearly Bush increased the size of government hugely and trashed the constitution and now Obama is accelerating the process.

    This movement was born out of grievance about the size of government doubling over 10 years and the bail-outs which started under Bush and pushed by Obama.

    Clearly what is happening is that the corporate elite which controls both parties is against such a movement and will move heaven and earth to discredit it. The demonstrations are obviously awash with ancien provocateurs sent to cause mischieve and change perceptions.

    Your analysis seems to me to be a little reactionary. I think that in a short time the left and much of this movement will unite on a soft-social agenda with a strong constitutionalist bent.

    You mention that many of the Tea Party movement see Obama as backing communists and fascists. Well both are very different but are similar in the sense they both like big government. As for the bankers a combination of communists and fascists would be ideal as you draw strength from combining both extremes and control the system.

    I think many bloggers should think long and hard about shutting down dissent in the USA. Your democracy is largely gone. All dissent must be encouraged and those who seek to manipulate the dissent understood. The powers that be just want it to go away. And fomenting a left v right battle is very much in their interests. In that sense a black Democrat president could not have been better hand-picked by Wall St.

    You should be encouraging dissent if you love your country and not fall for the games that are sent to distract us. All dissent is legitimate and an obligation under your constitution. Careful that you don’t become an unwhitting spokesman for those who would rob your country blind while you were busy fighting each other..

  2. As long as you have guys like Sherm spewing out this kind of “info”, the Tea Party will just pick up steam. I always worried that Progressives would somehow figure out how to mount a serious challenge to the Tea Parties. But the more I listen, read and learn, the more I am sure you have been neutered and have no clue how to proceed. Name calling, petulent feet stomping, and misinformation seem to be your most common response to the Tea Partiers. Good luck with that.

    When it comes to confrontation, I am not the norm in my groups. They prefer to debate how to take the country back to a constitutional approach to governing via the ballot box. I prefer to just burn Washington down and start over. I am unapologetically in favor of demonstrating anger when its appropriate, impassioned speech, publicly venting frustrations, and angry mobs. As long as no one gets hurt and nothing expensive gets broken, I dont really care which PC group gets their feelings hurt. Besides, if three tea partiers get together the lame stream media, and folks like Sherm will label us an angry mob anyway.

  3. Anonymous says:

    The history of mobilzation of angry mobs in which no one gets hurt & nothing “expensive” gets damaged is pretty limited. Are such mobs assumed to be self-monitoring? Or does prudence dictate some kind of policing authority? And, if such authority were not in cahoots with our purportedly (simultaneously) fascist, communist, socialist, liberal, deceitful, scheming government – who might it be? Who’s going to reimburse the owners of “inexpensive” casualties of mob action? And who will clean the streets or other sites of mob action. Oops, would that be the responsibility of another arm of slimy authoritarian institutions?
    Be careful before you suggest burning down Washington & start again-your might not like living with the results.

  4. Alex Porter says:

    Eh, let’s not forget that angry mobs created your country. And let’s not forget that no angry mob could ever cost the taxpayers as much as the bankster conspiricists which now run it.

    By the time Obama finishes the job that Bush started 10s of millions of your population will be happy to clean streets in return for some food never mind shelter.

    It is your duty to stand against those who usurp your government.

    It seems to me that Obama has been used as left cover to allow the banksters, his bosses, to continue looting your citizens. The Obamanoids just can’t get it into their heads that citizens must always question what their government does. You’re now closing your eyes to an escalation in wars and geo-political tension.

    This false left v right stageshow is marching your country into a totalitarian state and it seems to me that the ‘progressives’ are in a state of denial. That makes Obama the perfect selection as president for Wall St.

    There is no left v right now. You simply have to reinstate your constitution or perish because as you like to say on that side of the pond ‘going to hell in a handbasket’ and black Jesus is only giving hope to the bankers.

    When a government is stolen the people have an obligation to take it back. I never thought I’d hear the day an American would stigmatise an angry mob. And one with an agenda of political reform at that.

    How very, very sad.

  5. Pollyanna says:

    Today’s (4/2/2010) Doonesbury explains the bond between the old New Left and today’s Tea Party pretty succinctly. Sorry I don’t have a link; saw it in the pape this a.m. — basically says, you guys are bringing the goofiness back to politics; we’ve missed that! For every stripe-hatted psuedo-patriot y’all can produce, the 60s counterculture had a star-spangled counterpart. It’s nice, really, to see some folks who should have been part of that, and who were too buttoned-up to turn on, tune in, and drop out, finally letting their freak flags fly.

    It’s only your analysis (read: “reality check”) that is uninformed and peurile. Hush, hush; maybe you’ll live long enough to see where you’re going wrong.

  6. I always enjoy hearing from Pollyanna. Even when she (Sounds like a female name) admonishes others (usually me), she does it with a deftness that only woman have seened to master.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Doonesbury for today.

  8. Anonymous says:

    It’s getting tiresome, after reading a remarkable article, to come upon the chain-car wreck of the comments section here. I think it may be a failed experiment, this encouragement of “dialogue” with certain people with whom dialogue is impeded by nasty intransigence and closed-off ideology. I’ve seen an occasional hopeful exchange or two, but the pleasure of reading the articles here is being outweighed by access to the comments section from faux-thoughtful unadulterated propagandists (who have the gall and all the ignorance it takes to accuse someone like Sherman of propagandizing). Enough’s enough, in my opinion. Please do something!

    – News Nag

  9. Pollyanna says:

    Thanks, Previous-but-one Anonymous, for posting the Doonesbury link; apparently the story got started a few days ago, when Zipper encounters a Tea Party rally. Recommend to all that they scroll back through this remarkable beginning; hopefully Trudeau has more in store.

    Extremist, now really; I admonish others, too; not everyone comes back for more! A good argument can be hard to find!

    NO really — one big problem with the Tea Party movement that I see is the very same one the New Left had when it got started: we didn’t have commonly-agreed-upon, fact-based definitions of a lot of terms that got tossed around especially as scare words, and we didn’t have a consistent way to analyze events that would allow us to correctly identify a) who was being served, and b) who was doing the serving. When we started trying seriously to develop our political abilities, we became the target of destructive government forces of all types, and in too many cases, due sometimes to pure naivete, we became tools of our own defeat.

    What I don’t hear the Tea Party talking about is a CLASS ANALYSIS. That is some kind of anathema, I guess, “commonism”. Yep. Strongly recommend it if you want to correctly identify, amid a maze of propaganda, conspiracy, and defeat, who are your allies and who are your exploiters.


  10. Alex Porter says:

    I wouldn’t worry about those who comment on blogs. The very fact that people bother reading these blogs should be a cause for celebration. How many of your countrymen can read anything except what’s written on their big mac carton? I would revel in dialogue however much you believe people don’t deserve the right.
    And I don’t think your emotional rant is needed by the author. The author is clearly a big boy who can handle the fray. If you are gonnie get into the political blog game you better have a thick skin..

    The author is not holy and will therefore be wrong at least once in his life. For a start calling Barney Frank cerebral has to be laughed out of the court of public opinion. No-one has done more to kibosh investigations into the banksters looting of your country than Barney. The man knows virtually nothing about economics.. I think support in the article for Barney is blind partisanship.

    And yes, calling them ‘tea-baggers’ is puerile and undermines the thesis, if there is one.

    And I love this quote: “Theirs is the cult of victimhood” and that from someone who would squeal ‘racism’ at the drop of a hat just because they can.

    If only you could see this from afar. I would encourage you to think about Yuri Bezmenov on subversion. Try this:

    No longer can Americans sort out problems among themselves. At the drop of a hat they are at each other’s throats. That is a process which is destroying your nation. Think about that before you write articles which lump together all your ideological opponents with destructive motivations.

    You are being divided and conquered. Think before you dismiss your fellow citizens. And for heaven’s sakes glory in their right to oppose government!

  11. Didier says:

    “What idea do we have, leaders and ordinary people in America, of our future as individuals and as a group?… Almost everybody has a secret self — his real self — that he feels nobody else really ever knows. Almost everybody lives a private life, his “own” life, which may consist of nothing but the vaguest dreams and reveries, and a public life …The success of a civilization can be measured by the degree to which inner vision and outer reality match ” Kenneth Rexroth Two Questions About Modern Life April 3, 1960 San Francisco Examiner

    For a “outsider”, the American outer reality is frightening.

    Most european countries are “welfare states”. The French idea of our future as a group is called “social contract” . Sarkozy is challenging this idea and the right wing will loose the 2012 election, making place for a “new left” (Socialists, more Greens, less Communists)

    A nightmare for conservatives. : Increase of the public spending, (universal health care, new jobs in the public sector – health, education…., ) and so on. A “strong” state, insuring the allocation of ressources between “have” and “have not”. This crazy idea is called “national solidarity” and , let’s say, 85% – 90% of the population do agree with it.
    Freedom – Equality – Fraternity (To be improved., nobody’s perfect)

    Our inner vision, as well, is foolish. We’re are not living for working. We are working for living. And working 35 hours a week is enough for our individual and collective needs. (A good life)
    Power (government) is tolerated.when it respects the social contract and the (collective) will of the people. If not, people takes over the streets. (a popular national sport like soccer and strikes). Roadblocks and cobblestones throw are forming a part of our national culture.

    So, we have a “strong government” with little authority. We know where Empire leads. We, the people , (not necessarily our politicians) have learned the lesson.

    The Tea Bagger movement and the radical movement in the sixties cannot be compared.. The first is a sum of individual (and heterogeneous) visions of the future . The second was a collective (even if minority and also heterogeneous) vision. The first is a conservative movement .The second a progressive one.

    Ideological purity is dangerous. But even more dangerous ( and a ideology, too) is the concept of no ideology.

    The question remains : What’s your idea of your future as a group ? How can you inner vision and the outer reality match ?

  12. Kudos to Sherman for an excellent article!

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