The Tea Party: fascism, or therapy?
Over at The Standard, which probably nowadays counts as New Zealand's most popular left-wing website, a couple of bloggers and scores of commenters have argued that Loughner's shooting spree presages an explosion of violence from America's far right. The Standard's line on the Tucson shootings is not particularly original. Many left-wing websites in America have warned that the right wing of the Republican Party, and the Tea Party movement in particular, represent the beginnings of a mass fascist movement which may well attempt to seize political power by force of arms.
There are certainly actions by leading members of the Tea Party movement which can be invoked to support the sort of analysis put forward by The Standard. Sarah Palin's decision to put gun sights around portraits of Giffords and some of her other political enemies has been justifiably criticised in the aftermath of the Tucson massacre, and Tea Party favourite Sharron Angle's talk of finding 'second amendment remedies' to America's problems has also become infamous. There are hundreds of blogs, some of them quite popular, which couple support for the Tea Party with calls for violence against Obama's 'communist' government.
It seems to me, though, that commentators who present the Tea Party as some sort of nearly-unstoppable movement, motivated by a sharply-drawn ideology and ready to launch a civil war in America, are giving Sarah Palin and her friends far too much credit. The Tea Party is in reality a fragmentary, chaotic, and ideologically very confused response to the continuing decline of America as an economic and geopolitical power. The Tea Party is filled with people who want to escape from reality, not change reality.
As I noted last year, the very incoherence of the Tea Party's rhetoric - its frequent condemnations of Obama as a 'fascist communist, or a 'Muslim Nazi', and even a 'corporate-loving socialist' - point to its essential lack of seriousness. The Tea Party supposedly demands massive cuts to government spending, but neither its leaders nor its rank and file membership have been able to specify in much detail which areas of spending they want to cut. Elderly Tea Partiers rail against Obama's healthcare legislation as an evil plot against America, but are aghast at the suggestion that their own state-funded Medicare programme ought to be abolished. Sarah Palin poses as a champion of ultra-small government, but as governor of Alaska she was happy to keep that state's most profitable asset in public hands, and to continue the almost Keynesian economic policies of her predecessors. The reaction of the Tea Partiers to the criticism they have received in the aftermath of the Tucson attack shows the hollowness of the aggressive rhetoric that sometimes appears in their speeches and on their blogs. If they were serious about pursuing a 'second amendment' remedy to Obama's government, the Tea Partiers would surely have offered some sort of tactical support to Loughner, or at least have accompanied condemnations of his killing of bystanders in Tucson with a justification for his attack on Giffords.
The fact is, though, that even the most overexcited Tea Party activists and bloggers - the sort of people who call for Obama's trial and execution, or for his deporation to Kenya, or for a 'Second American revolution' against his policies - have reacted with horror to the suggestion that they might have anything to do with, or any sympathy for, Loughner's spree. Palin's complaint that she has been subjected to a 'blood libel' by the liberal sections of America's media perfectly sums up the outraged self-pity of the keyboard and megaphone warriors of the American right.
The recent statements of one of Sarah Palin's staunchest Kiwi fans can be used to demonstrate the essential unseriousness of the movement she leads. In recent years, a Tauranga resident named Russell Fletcher, who uses the nom de plume 'Redbaiter' for political activities, has gained notoreity for the frequency and intemperance of his polemics against 'liberal fascists' and 'creeping communism' on popular centre-right websites like David Farrar's Kiwiblog.
Fletcher, who considers even John Key and Judith Collins 'cultural Marxists', has long denounced the timidity of most right-wing blogs, and recently established his own rival to them, which he calls, appropriately enough, True Blue NZ. A gun and the slogan 'Don't run - you'll only die tired' grace the upper right hand corner of the home page of Fletcher's site.
Egged on by a gaggle of Tea Party visitors and by one or two local fundamentalist Christians, 'Redbaiter' has repeatedly cast his eye beyond New Zealand and endorsed the notion of a violent struggle against Obama's 'communist' regime, while at the same time talking about Sarah Palin in almost desperately passionate terms. In a post made shortly before the Tucson shootings Fletcher really let rip:
There has been a bit of talk around about a civil war...I think its long overdue. These poisonous communist bastards are out to destroy the US from the inside. They have been tolerated too long. Its time to defend the Constitution, or abandon the Constitution. The choice is that simple, and there really is no choice. The Constitution must be defended, and therefore its time to recognize the Democrat Party and their supporters as traitors and fifth columnists and take whatever action is necessary to restore the correct degree of respect for the Constitution and the freedoms it protects. I’m not in the US these days, but anytime you guys over there feel like really starting something, just let me know. I’ll be there with bells on...
I’m well aware the Republican Party has its fair share of anti-Constitution traitors too. It too is basically a vehicle for the imposition of cultural Marxism. That is essentially what the Tea Party is all about. Countering that Marxist influence in the Republican Party and everywhere else.
We might reasonably assume, on the basis of this and many similar statements on his site, that Fletcher approves, at least in principle, of violent attacks on senior political allies of Obama like Gabrielle Giffords. In the aftermath of the Tucson attack, though, Fletcher began to protest indignantly that he was a man of peace, that Sarah Palin was being unfairly associated with bellicosity, and that leftists were the real advocates and exponents of political violence.
It would be unfair to accuse Russell Fletcher of hypocrisy, or even of chutzpah. Like the rest of the other armchair warriors who characterise Obama as some sort of cross between Hitler and Stalin and issue ever-shriller calls to arms, he is engaged in a sort of therapy, not in politics. And, for all his sabre-rattling and his calls for a war against the left, Fletcher suffers from an ideological incoherence as great as that of Palin and the rest of the stateside Tea Partiers. On the homepage of his website, beside the gun and the slogan which threatens leftists with death, is a quote from that lifelong socialist George Orwell.
To get a real sense of the meaning of the Tea Party movement we ought to drop the comparisons with Hitler's Stormtroopers or Mosely's Blackshirts, and instead consider the deep similarities which connect Palin and her fans to their supposed opponents on the liberal side of American politics.
It may seem counterintuitive to suggest that Sarah Palin and Barack Obama and their respective sets of supporters have much in common. Palin and Obama are certainly, in many respects, very different people. Obama is a cosmopolitan intellectual who likes nothing better than to slip into the White House's extensive library; Palin is a backwoods ignoramus who didn't have a passport until 2007, and who was famously unable to name a newspaper during a 2008 interview. The grassroots movement which gathered around Obama in 2007 and 2008 drew its members from America's big cities and universities; the Tea Party movement Palin leads is strongest in rural and small town America.
But there are interesting similarities between Obama and Palin. Both were obscure figures who became, in a very short time, objects of veneration for sections of the American population; both won their support not with nuanced political arguments but with essentially apolitical rhetoric about national crisis and national salvation; and both continue to avoid any detailed discussion of the real problems which face their country. Neither Palin nor Obama is ever likely to make the crisis of profitability of American manufacturing, the export of jobs to Asia, the long-term fall in the average American wage, the rise of China and India as world powers, and America's loosening grip on regions like the Middle East and South America into the subject of a speech. Instead, they both like to appeal, in their different ways, to a mystical American national 'soul', and to a mythical American history. Both are heirs to a very American tradition of political evangelism.
And both Obama and Palin owe their success to a popular desire to evade rather than confront the problems that America faces. With the end of the Cold War twenty years ago, the wilting of the radical section of the US labour movement, and the decline of a left-wing intelligentsia which once appeared so dynamic, the space in which American capitalism used to be critically analysed has largely disappeared. There is a sad irony at work here. In the 1960s and '70s, when American capitalism was still in rude health, campuses and the streets were full of radical political scientists, economists, and sociologists ready to diagnose the ills of the system, and prescribe alternatives to it; today, when capitalism is obviously failing tens of millions Americans, as factories close, whole suburbs are abandoned in cities like Detroit, Baltimore, and Flint, and Chinese and Indian investors snap up properties at mortgagee sales, there is an almost total absence of serious discussion of the travails of the nation's hegemonic mode of production. In the absence of such discussion, confused and frightened citizens turn towards the rhetoric of messianic figures like Obama and Palin. Politics becomes therapy. The aggressive political talk of the Tea Party is comparable to the fire and brimstone rhetoric of the fundamentalist churches many of its members favour. Just as a happy clappy congregation's love for God is heightened by the contemplation of the Devil and his domain, so the Tea Party's celebrations of an idealised America are intensified by a contemplation of another, fallen America - a hellish America of welfare queens and drug dealers and flagburning protesters and perverted college teachers and corrupt trade unionists. Because of his skin colour, his geographical and sociological support bases, and his air of intellectual arrogance, Obama has come to symbolise this 'other' America for many Tea Partiers. For Obama's hardcore supporters, who are just as prone to hysteria as the Tea Partiers, Palin has become, especially in the aftermath of the Tucson shootings, a sort of rival devil, the leader of an America where Klansmen stand before burning crosses and Darwin is banned from schools and gun nuts shoot at anything that comes within a hundred metres of their fortified homes.
EP Thompson liked to talk about the way that, faced with the economic crises and challenges to British economic and political power created by the French Revolution and later by the Napoleonic Wars, both rich and poor Britons took refuge in hysteria. While the upper classes raged against the perfidy of a handful of 'Jacobite' intellectuals who supported the French revolution, and furiously appealed to a non-existent 'national spirit', the poor escaped from their plight into the new creed of Methodism, which rejected calls for social justice and political reform in favour of hysterical but vague appeals to moral renewal.
In his masterpiece The Making of the English Working Class, Thompson argued that the 'psychic masturbation' represented by Methodism and similar escapes from reality helped explain the failure of British society to reform or revolutionise itself in the nineteenth century. It seems to me that both the Tea Party and its opponents on America's liberal left are practising forms of 'psychic masturbation', rather than engaging with and suggesting solutions for the very serious problems which are behind America's decline as a world power. By buying into the rhetoric of Obama's supporters, blogs like The Standard obscure the real nature of the Tea Party and, by extension, the real situation of American society in the second decade of the twenty-first century.