When I published an unflattering assessment of the tea party movement, I anticipated a spirited response. In every form I've encountered, the rhetoric of the far right prizes belligerence and sneers at diplomacy. I never expected an invitation to share a pot of Earl Grey's best and talk things over. But considering the advanced age of the average tea-bagger—half of them must be even older than I am—I suppose I expected a certain gruff courtesy. We graying generations weren't raised to snarl and threaten and hurl epithets like tomahawks. What would our mothers say? It was a later generation of shock jocks and bellicose bloggers that reduced political discourse to tantrums and toxic drivel.
I admit they surprised me, these old guys who've enlisted in the geezer rebellion. Their prostates may be compromised but their bile is potent. The first e-mail message I opened accused me of committing sex acts with Bill Moyers and with several domestic animals. One gentleman interrupted his tirade every third sentence or so, interjecting "Answer me, damn you!" as if he were shaking me by the shirt collar to force a confession. Alarming stuff. Another rabid individual accused me of ignoring left-wing atrocities (pregnant women attacked in their cars for displaying George Bush bumper stickers?) and concluded that I was "a hypocritical little bitch." Betraying a certain lack of media sophistication, some assumed that I lived in the city where they happened to read my essay, and threatened to pay a visit to my house. Most of them signed their names, too.
My memory doesn't extend back to anything quite like this, nothing so animated by rage yet devoid of content. As a friend of mine wrote several years ago, everything's like pro wrestling now: taunts and scowls, fantastic narratives and pantomimes of violence, empty conflict aimed at inflaming an audience of oafs. And of course we're aware that the wife of the founder of World Wrestling Entertainment, herself a participant in some of those preposterous ringside narratives, is spending a fortune to win a U.S. Senate seat in Connecticut. One key difference is that most tea party combatants come armed with deadly weapons, engineered to shed real blood. Dialogue, as I learned dramatically, is not their style. But what sort of dialogue can we imagine with a fierce minority virtually lobotomized by its gullibility, a minority of bubble-dwelling reactionaries whose every "fact" has been distorted or manufactured? The assaults on the pregnant women—is that something available in the right-wing blogosphere, something Michael Savage or Hal Turner was selling on the radio? Nearly every city has its own instigator, its mini-Limbaugh peddling bizarre conspiracy theories and assuring eager racists that Barack Obama is a Muslim/ communist/ antichrist born in Kenya and educated by terrorist mullahs in an Indonesian madrasah.
Most tea party mythology is so ridiculous that reasonable people will grin and ignore it. Sometimes they do so at their peril. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who passes for a moderate conservative in her home state of Alaska, lost the Republican primary to a Wild Right challenger because—observers theorize—she failed to respond to a fusillade of savage attack ads from the Tea Party Express (the same kamikaze group supposedly expelled from the party for posting a grotesquely racist "satire" of the NAACP on its blog). "They literally accused her of almost everything imaginable," one pollster reported. No doubt Murkowski thought that answering them was like trying to answer monkeys who scream and throw nuts and excrement from the treetops. In the shadow of Sarah Palin, she should have known better than to overestimate the intelligence of Alaska's Republicans. In this age of reality-proof information bubbles, lies and labels become deadly weapons.
The tea party's "Restoring Honor" rally on Aug. 28 in Washington was sponsored by the media demagogue Glenn Beck, self-anointed messiah of America's meanest morons. It was staged inappropriately—some say obscenely—at the site and on the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King's famous plea for civil rights, the speech remembered as "I Have a Dream." A throng of grizzled white insurgents cheered and whistled as Beck and Palin, an odd couple of vulgarians waxing very rich on their admirers' simplicity, appealed America's fate to a Higher Power. They exhorted us to pray on our knees for deliverance from socialism and recycled the apocalyptic language of the tent revival. "For too long, this country has wandered in darkness," preached Beck, prophet of a lurking new darkness that would make our old one look like a tropical sunrise. A T-shirt favored by his audience read "Babies, Guns, Jesus."
Compromise with such countrymen seems remote. For want of a leader they've embraced Beck, an evil clown whose classic megalomania is metastasizing before our eyes and cameras. Yet for all their dreadful manners and gross taste in role models, I can't help feeling a twinge of compassion for my contemporaries who fall into traps like the tea party. At an age when answering e-mail or mowing the lawn can be a critical drain on our energies, these seniors are out marching and waving banners. For some it may be a last stand, a final surge of adrenaline before the finish line looms. Those of us who disparage Americans for apathy feel obliged to applaud the physical and emotional energy tea-baggers bring to their cause. And it's such a terrible waste. Because, of course, they're clueless pawns who've been co-opted from the start and sent marching in the wrong direction.
It was the late fuhrer himself, a poor general but a supremely successful demagogue, who wrote, "The great masses of the people will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one." "Big government" is the big lie that our tea party has swallowed whole, with a hogwash chaser. An overripe canard from the conservative Chamber of Horrors, "big government" still works wonders with the logically impaired. (Hitler also wrote "All propaganda has to accommodate itself to the comprehension of the least intelligent of those whom it seeks to reach.") Did they notice that during the let-the-fat cats-feast administrations of George W. Bush, there was never a word about big government from the Glenn Beck section? Not even when deficits soared, hopeless wars drained the treasury and the White House expanded its powers in flat defiance of the Constitution.
If there's one firm truth, one persuasive image that might change the lives of hypnotized tea-baggers—I know, I'm dreaming—it would be this one, to wit: The relationship between corporate, special-interest America and our government is exactly the same as the relationship between a rider and a well-broken saddle horse; the horse is only cursed and kicked on the rare occasions when it bucks or bridles. Barack Obama saw health care reform and emergency regulation of the financial industry as self-evident necessities, but to the big riders who hold the reins in this country they registered as the kind of high-spirited fractiousness that's punished with whips and spurs. We never hear the words "socialist" and "communist" unless someone tries to dilute the absolute economic power of white men. Take a course in American history. Movements to abolish slavery (free labor), liberate women (free labor) and unionize workers (cheap labor) were all attacked tooth and claw by white men whose power and profits were threatened, who suddenly saw Bolsheviks behind every bush.
The current "big government" wave of right-wing rhetoric is about as populist, at heart, as a string of polo ponies. It's the latest attempt by the plutocrats to restore discipline to their stable of safe politicians—an uglier correction in this case because the new president is not white. Where does the tea party fit in? Old white men they may be, but everyone knows that white men of the ruling class don't wear T-shirts that say "Babies, Guns, Jesus." Past their prime, lower-middle class but not entirely uneducated, tea party soldiers may in some cases even understand that the gap between America's richest 1 percent and the rest of us has widened scandalously since 1980, and even more radically since the Bush tax cuts and the market crash of 2008.
The United States of America has become a cruel, winner-take-all society. What sets it apart from every other developed country (aside from its psychotic fetish for firearms) is the huge number of Americans who support that arrangement because they believe—against all evidence—that they are, or could be, among the winners. Ignorant and frustrating these losers may be, but almost touching in their hopeless hopefulness. They're the engine that drives the Republican Party, a fantastical coalition of wealthy cynics and gullible proletarians.
Tea party patriots belong to this sad class of manipulated stooges, marching in chains even as they proclaim their freedom. Unwittingly for the most part (their racism, too, has been excused as unwitting), they provide a populist smokescreen for corporate revenge. Even the lamest, tamest captive media might balk at parades of angry investment bankers in pinstriped Armani suits. Enter Joe the Plumber and Sarah the Hockey Mom. And it isn't rhetoric only that Big Business supplies for this "grassroots" movement of disgruntled Americans. Jane Mayer revealed in The New Yorker that the tea party's principal angels are the mega-billionaire Koch brothers, David and Charles. The Koch family, one of America's half-dozen wealthiest, has been bankrolling the far right at least since the brothers' late father committed his oil money to the John Birch Society back in the 1950s. The Kochs' reactionary royalty control foundations and energy-industry political action committees that have lavished several hundred million dollars on the tea party and other right-wing causes in the past decade alone. Theirs are not the only corporate treasure chests available to the armies of the right. The New York Times recently exposed the personal largesse and fund-raising genius of Paul Singer, the hedge-fund ($17 billion) tycoon whose pet projects have included the appalling "Swift boat" attacks on John Kerry in 2004.
All intelligent Americans, the ones who deplore it and the ones who profit from it, are well aware of this populist scam. Everyone except the aging warriors out marching in the uniforms of the Continental Army. Their blindness is a greater shame, as I see it, because the tea party gets one very important thing right: The system is broken. Awash in money and mendacity, America's democracy is like a big animal that can't swim, floundering and drowning in 2 feet of water. Cash and slander rule—huge wallets, huge lies. If you won't lie and can't pay, you have no future in American politics. If you aspire to public service, try to find a country with a Supreme Court majority that doesn't spell "free $peech" with a dollar sign. The court's Citizens United decision last January, one that the Koch brothers must have toasted with Champagne, simply legitimized and institutionalized everything that's most disgusting about our system. To grasp the absurdity and obscenity of equating free corporate spending with free speech, visualize an actual political gathering, and put it to the bullhorn test. The crowd is huge, row after row, as far as the eye can see. One candidate has a huge bullhorn that reaches the back rows easily; his opponent has such a tiny bullhorn that his voice is inaudible beyond the 20th row. When he asks why he can't use a big bullhorn, too, they tell him, "Because you can't afford it." Think that's unfair, un-American? Tell it to the Supreme Court.
"We either get the money out of politics or we lose the democracy," Molly Ivins warned shortly before her death in 2007. In the brief span since, Michael Bloomberg spent more than $100 million to be re-elected mayor of New York, sinister players like the Koch brothers poured uncounted millions into the tea party's puppet theater, and the price of high office in important states rose into the tens of millions, with more and more billionaires and corporate titans prepared to pay it. No midterm election cycle has seen as many reckless big spenders as this one. Candidates had spent $400 million before the end of August, including unprecedented price tags on the campaigns of Meg Whitman ($104 million to date) and Carly Fiorina in California. Linda McMahon, the wrestling mogul, pledged to spend up to $50 million, if necessary, for Connecticut's Senate seat. This is a woman who once kicked her husband in the testicles on TV, as part of a phony McMahon family feud that had their Cro-Magnon wrestling fans in stitches. Remember when money was associated with class?
The right loves to talk about the Founders and original intent. Do they think the Founders meant to auction off the highest offices to the highest bidder? The Constitution never had a fighting chance against billionaires' egos or the Koch brothers' brand of checkbook democracy, which has frozen favored incumbents in office and swallowed up both Democrats and Republicans. They flip-flop in and out of power, regardless of their failures, because voters have no memory and no real options; third parties can never raise enough money to stop the revolving door. What's left of the two-party system is contemptible. The Democrats are reliably gutless, corrupt, selfish and indecisive—and perpetually the lesser of two evils since the Republican Party sold its meager soul to a thousand howling devils.
Epitomized by its recent standard-bearer, John McCain, the 21st-century GOP has renounced every constraint of integrity or responsibility and now fits snugly into H.L. Mencken's definition of a politician, regarded as humorous exaggeration when he wrote it in 1926: "A man who has lied and dissembled, and a man who has crawled. He knows the taste of the boot-polish ... He is willing to embrace any issue, however idiotic, that will get him votes, and he is willing to sacrifice any principal, however sound, that will lose them for him ..."
Republicans exist only to keep cash-and-power channels open for the richest and mightiest of America's invincible special interests. To achieve that they bond with any bigot, fanatic or neo-fascist extremist who can promise them votes. Most Republican congressmen now refuse even to work at their jobs. They live off our tax money, serve only to obstruct legislation and turn savagely on any colleagues who try to take part in the patient compromise that creates laws.
Expelling incumbents is nearly always a good idea, but with what do you replace them? Replacing the unappetizing Harry Reid with the unspeakable Sharron Angle is like treating your arthritis by cutting off your hand; replacing Barack Obama with Sarah Palin is like curing your gout by stepping on a land mine. Are the voters that stupid? A great many, I'm sure, and most of them drink Tea. "Larry, the people stink," the comic/ commentator Bill Maher said on Larry King Live, impressing me by ignoring the prime media taboo against bad-mouthing the sacred "American people."
The conventional wisdom is that America's sick economy and emotional discontent will benefit Republicans this fall, which is outrageously unfair; it was their ill-conceived wars and tax cuts and regulatory negligence that caused all the pain President Obama is struggling desperately to alleviate. Worse than unfair, it's plain crazy. But when were politics fair or rational? We all knew Bush's sins would be the ruin of Obama.
Throw the bums out, by all means. How many bums would we miss? But beware of what might come after. The right is not monolithic. All its serious money comes from the same sources, but the reactionary bestiary houses a variety of strange creatures with strange dreams. Tea party grandfathers dream of a 50-foot fence around Mexico, penal colonies for gays and abortionists, a warm gun in every holster and Fox News in every nursing-home dayroom. Rank-and-file Republicans dream only of regaining power, of Dick Cheney's Halliburton foreign policy once more set loose in the world. The Koches dream of a tiny, toothless government about the size of a cherry pit. As for Glenn Beck, don't let those bursts of tears and piety fool you. He's a refugee from a nightmare, he's fresh blood on the staircase. On a recent radio show, Beck recommended a book (The Red Network: A "Who's Who" and Handbook of Radicalism for Patriots) written in 1934 by Elizabeth Dilling (1894–1966), the notorious anti-Semite, racist and Nazi sympathizer who called President Eisenhower "Ike the Kike" and JFK's New Frontier "the Jew Frontier." In her day, most people thought Dilling's deadly venom damaged right-wing causes. Will the same be true of her pop-eyed disciple?
A frightening array of opportunists, egomaniacs and amateur entertainers have stepped forward to exploit the national discontent, this supposed Thunder on the Right. Freed from the straitjackets of dignity or proportion, the scramble for office resembles a "reality" TV show—America's Got Candidates?—aimed at an audience that loves Jersey Shore. (Sarah Palin, her daughter Bristol and Bristol's loose-cannon ex, Levi Johnston, are all currently shooting reality shows.) But out of the swirling, often incoherent dreams of the American right, a sterner, more dignified figure emerges and commands attention. This is the libertarian, and, before you dismiss him as a fossil crackpot, note that it was the libertarian high priest, Ron Paul, who rebuked the whole chorus of conservative demagogues for their rabble-rousing protests against the Islamic community center and mosque near Ground Zero.
Unlike most of his fellow travelers on the right, a real libertarian does not pander. He has principles he actually understands and follows conscientiously. Libertarians blend the highest ideals with a holy sort of innocence and an unfortunate adolescent narcissism. Unlike most of us, they actually identify with Ayn Rand's supermen, those will-powered would-be masters of the universe whose destiny is impeded by lesser mortals and their silly laws. (Ayn Rand was by all accounts a repugnant personality, so self-important as to be the next thing to an idiot.) You may or may not be surprised to learn that I was a deep-dyed baby libertarian, allergic to all authority and infatuated with Barry Goldwater. Libertarianism appeals not only to free-market fundamentalists like the Koches, who dream of commercial rape and pillage, but also to the nonconformist and self-reliant. Most intelligent people have flirted with it. This stark dichotomy between small-government conservatives and regulation-loving socialists is a Fox News creation. Who honestly loves bureaucrats and laws that curb personal freedom? No one I've ever met.
The problem, of course, is that libertarians are supernaturally naive. They operate in neurotic denial of human nature. Like most ideologies—communism, laissez-faire capitalism, anarchism—libertarianism is based on the belief or disingenuous claim that human beings will naturally behave well. All evidence cries out to the contrary. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow, perhaps, but certainly the business editors of The New York Times. If you read the business pages every day, as I do, you understand that no government on earth could afford enough regulators to police the avaricious who take unfair and criminal advantage. From Bernie Madoff and the Ponzi industry to recalls of shoddy pacemakers to insurance companies (Prudential) who steal from the survivors of dead soldiers, the parade of greed and deceit would make a sneering cynic of Winnie the Pooh. And still deregulation is a passionate religion. The free-market right raged against regulators and environmentalists for decades, while the government babied the oil industry with incestuous concessions. Then came the disastrous BP oil spill, right on schedule. Naturally the bastards apologized and took it all back, right? Right.
The limits of libertarianism were dramatized when Ron Paul's son Rand (named after you-know-who?), Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, suggested that we were being much too hard on British Petroleum. Further limits were displayed when Rand Paul declared that civil rights laws should not apply to private businesses, causing one journalist I know to declare Paul "crazy as a tick" and another, an African-American, to suggest that in Rand Paul's America, he could drive from West Texas to Pennsylvania without finding a welcoming restroom.
The late Molly Ivins made a critical distinction between the right libertarian, who, like a spoiled child, pursues only his id, his Randian "I want," and a left libertarian, a category in which Ivins included herself and where I also feel comfortable. A left libertarian wants to be left alone, too, but he doesn't think that what he wants is more important than what other people need.
This spreading national narcissism, this petulant demand to have one's way, is infecting liberals as well. Many of them refused to vote for Obama, or have already given up on him, because they wanted a liberal messiah and got a pragmatic centrist who shies from confrontation. (At least liberals don't threaten to overturn election results by force of arms, the "Second Amendment Solution" favored by some treasonous tea party maniacs.) For a successful democracy of sane adults, it's never what we want but what we can reasonably expect, and achieve, in a communal context. And a sovereign nation is nothing if not a communal context.