Matt Taibbi explores what the "Tea Party 2.0" revolt is, and what it means to the rest of us
"At root, the Tea Party is nothing more than a them-versus-us thing. They know who they are, and they know who we are ('radical leftists' is the term they prefer), and they're coming for us on Election Day, no matter what we do . . ."
-- Matt Taibbi, in "Tea & Crackers,"
in the Oct. 15 Rolling Stone
If you haven't already read Matt Taibbi's "Tea & Crackers," you really owe it to yourself to do so. As I e-mailed a friend to whom I passed on the link over the weekend, who reported loving the piece, I think Taibbi is in a class by himself, and for writing as topical as his political coverage clearly is, his pieces have a remarkable shelf life. They often look even better six months or a year or more after the fact.
The new piece is far from just about the teabaggers -- a term, let me stress, that Taibbi never uses. He's concerned above all with where the "movement" (as we'll see, he's at pains to establish that it isn't a movement in any coherent or cohesive sense) came from and where it fits into our political and social reality, and especially the way it has been coopted by the rich and powerful business elites who now clearly run our show whatever pips our political pipsqueaks may squeak.
So how does a group of billionaire businessmen and corporations get a bunch of broke Middle American white people to lobby for lower taxes for the rich and deregulation of Wall Street? That turns out to be easy. Beneath the surface, the Tea Party is little more than a weird and disorderly mob, a federation of distinct and often competing strains of conservatism that have been unable to coalesce around a leader of their own choosing. Its rallies include not only hardcore libertarians left over from the original Ron Paul "Tea Parties," but gun-rights advocates, fundamentalist Christians, pseudomilitia types like the Oath Keepers (a group of law- enforcement and military professionals who have vowed to disobey "unconstitutional" orders) and mainstream Republicans who have simply lost faith in their party.
So while you should read the piece even if you don't think you need or want to read any more about the 'baggers, it does seem to me the definitive piece on the subject.
At the voter level, the Tea Party is a movement that purports to be furious about government spending -- only the reality is that the vast majority of its members are former Bush supporters who yawned through two terms of record deficits and spent the past two electoral cycles frothing not about spending but about John Kerry's medals and Barack Obama's Sixties associations. The average Tea Partier is sincerely against government spending -- with the exception of the money spent on them. In fact, their lack of embarrassment when it comes to collecting government largesse is key to understanding what this movement is all about . . .
[T]he Tea Party doesn't really care about issues -- it's about something deep down and psychological, something that can't be answered by political compromise or fundamental changes in policy. At root, the Tea Party is nothing more than a them-versus-us thing. They know who they are, and they know who we are ("radical leftists" is the term they prefer), and they're coming for us on Election Day, no matter what we do . . .
This seems to me an incredibly important insight: that "the Tea Party doesn't really care about issues," that "it's about something deep down and psychological, something that can't be answered by political compromise or fundamental changes in policy." Which, unfortunately for them and for us, makes the 'baggers --
easy prey for the very people they should be aiming their pitchforks at. A loose definition of the Tea Party might be millions of pissed-off white people sent chasing after Mexicans on Medicaid by the handful of banks and investment firms who advertise on Fox and CNBC.
From his extensive wanderings among the teabaggers, Taibbi draws a detailed portrait of "their cultural victimhood, surrounded as they are by America-haters like you and me or, in the case of foreign-born president Barack Obama, people who are literally not Americans in the way they are" -- and "the appalling horseshit" they're "shockingly willing" to believe.
The world is changing all around the Tea Party. The country is becoming more black and more Hispanic by the day. The economy is becoming more and more complex, access to capital for ordinary individuals more and more remote, the ability to live simply and own a business without worrying about Chinese labor or the depreciating dollar vanished more or less for good. They want to pick up their ball and go home, but they can't; thus, the difficulties and the rancor with those of us who are resigned to life on this planet. . . .
The bad news is that the Tea Party's political outrage is being appropriated, with thanks, by the Goldmans and the BPs of the world. The good news, if you want to look at it that way, is that those interests mostly have us by the balls anyway, no matter who wins on Election Day. That's the reality; the rest of this is just noise. It's just that it's a lot of noise, and there's no telling when it's ever going to end.
Taibbi stresses that what he calls "Tea Party 2.0" has little in common with the original political Tea Parties of Ron Paul's 2008 libertarian campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, which attracted so many educated younger voters. He offers this dazzling field report (which I've regretfully compressed somewhat):
After nearly a year of talking with Tea Party members from Nevada to New Jersey, I can count on one hand the key elements I expect to hear in nearly every interview. One: Every single one of them was that exceptional Republican who did protest the spending in the Bush years, and not one of them is the hypocrite who only took to the streets when a black Democratic president launched an emergency stimulus program. ("Not me -- I was protesting!" is a common exclamation.) Two: Each and every one of them is the only person in America who has ever read the Constitution or watched Schoolhouse Rock. . . . Three: They are all furious at the implication that race is a factor in their political views -- despite the fact that they blame the financial crisis on poor black homeowners, spend months on end engrossed by reports about how the New Black Panthers want to kill "cracker babies," support politicians who think the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was an overreach of government power, tried to enact South African-style immigration laws in Arizona and obsess over Charlie Rangel, ACORN and Barack Obama's birth certificate. Four: In fact, some of their best friends are black! . . . And five: Everyone who disagrees with them is a radical leftist who hates America.
Taibbi is relatively unapologetic about the residual affection he feels for Ron Paul, whose 2008 campaign won the hearts of a number of campaign-trail reporters "for one simple reason . . . he's honest."
[W]hat he represents is something of a sacred role in American culture: the principled crackpot. He's a libertarian, but he means it. Sure, he takes typical, if exaggerated, Republican stances against taxes and regulation, but he also opposes federal drug laws ("The War on Drugs is totally out of control" and "All drugs should be decriminalized"), Bush's interventionist wars in the Middle East ("We cannot spread our greatness and our goodness through the barrel of a gun") and the Patriot Act; he even called for legalized prostitution and online gambling.
Which didn't, Taibbi says, stop the Republicans from "borrowing his insurgent rhetoric and parts of his platform for Tea Party 2.0." Recalling the new teabaggers' gestation in the rant of "CNBC windbag" Rick Santelli, he writes:
The impetus for Santelli's rant wasn't the billions in taxpayer money being spent to prop up the bad mortgage debts and unsecured derivatives losses of irresponsible investors like Goldman Sachs and AIG -- massive government bailouts supported, incidentally, by Sarah Palin and many other prominent Republicans. No, what had Santelli all worked up was Obama's "Homeowner Affordability and Stability Plan," a $75 billion program less than a hundredth the size of all the bank bailouts. This was one of the few bailout programs designed to directly benefit individual victims of the financial crisis; the money went to homeowners, many of whom were minorities, who were close to foreclosure. While the big bank bailouts may have been incomprehensible to ordinary voters, here was something that Middle America had no problem grasping: The financial crisis was caused by those lazy minorities next door who bought houses they couldn't afford -- and now the government was going to bail them out.
Taibbi is as interested in the evolution of Rand Paul's Kentucky U.S. Senate campaign as he is in Rand's dad's presidential bid. It started as just as lonely a fringe. Rand's campaign manager for the primary, David Adams, recalls, "We had the entire Republican establishment of the state and the nation against us." And then, "in the space of almost exactly one year," after Rand routed the party's hack candidate for Bunning's Senate seat, he "was transformed from insurgent outsider to establishment stooge." He stresses that the Kentucky Republican establishment is "among the most odious in the nation."
among the most odious in the nation. Its two senators -- party kingmaker and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell and mentally disappearing ex-jock Jim Bunning -- collectively represent everything that most sane people despise about the modern GOP. McConnell is the ultimate D.C. insider, the kind of Republican even Republicans should wonder about, a man who ranks among the top 10 senators when it comes to loading up on pork spending.
Teabaggers aren't racists, says Taibbi, they're narcissists, "shockingly willing to believe the appalling horseshit fantasy about how white people in the age of Obama are some kind of oppressed minority" -- which may not be racist, he says, but "is incredibly, earth-shatteringly stupid." He recounts the experience, at an amusement park in northern Kentucky, of conversing with a half-dozen teabaggers, who "speculat[e] about how Obamacare will force emergency-room doctors to consult 'death panels' that will evaluate your worth as a human being before deciding to treat you." Out of this conversation, he forecasts "the future of the Republican Party":
Angry white voters hovering over their cash-stuffed mattresses with their kerosene lanterns, peering through the blinds at the oncoming hordes of suburban soccer moms they've mistaken for death-panel bureaucrats bent on exterminating anyone who isn't an illegal alien or a Kenyan anti-colonialist.