Requiem For A Teabag(ger)

The Nutbaggers, In A Teashell
…er, Teabaggers, In A Nutshell 😉
(click photo for an amazing set of similar ones)

I’ve been thinking about the teabagger protests this past weekend in Washington, and what (if anything) it all means.

I just can’t seem to get them out of my mind, probably in part because I was out of town on family stuff (brother-in-law was getting married, both kids were in the wedding), and I was thus (intentionally) without Internet connection or even TV for much of the weekend. It’s more than just that, though. The other reason I can’t seem to stop retrospectively chewing the Day The Teabaggers Had Their Picnic over in my mind is this sense that the entire teabagger movement is nothing more than old wine in a new bottle. Come with me after the jump, and I’ll explain how:

How can that be? I mean, isn’t this the first public “conservative” protest of any size in modern American history? Well, yes…it is – and in that sense, the Grand Teabagger Convergence is noteworthy.

But if you pop the hood on the teabagger movement even just for a casual glance, you’ll see some awfully familiar sights and hear some awfully familiar-sounding refrains. The Agonist blog had an insightful piece about the teabaggers yesterday:

These teabag parties represent the newly disenfranchised white, rural voter – the backbone of the Republican Party and its southern strategy. The outburst this week by Rep. Joe Wilson, the obscure South Carolina Congressman who called President Obama a liar during his speech to a joint session of Congress, was prompted by Obama’s statement that nothing in the healthcare reform package he is proposing would provide care for illegal immigrants.

I think this is exactly right, and it’s been hinted at, around the edges, by a number of people in various venues recently, coming at the issue from various angles. Over at Daily Kos, Dark Syde had a mostly-tongue-in-cheek post along the same lines, wondering why the number of self-professed “libertarians” and “conservatives” has increased so sharply while the number of self-identified Republicans is at or near an all-time low (my favorite: “If you think state execution of mentally retarded convicts is good policy but prosecuting Scott Roeder or disconnecting Terri Schiavo was an unforgivable sin, odds are you’re not really a Libertarian”). And over at Digby’s place, she reaches waaay back into the archives to remind us of how little of the teabagger’s “newfound” anger is new, with this utterly shocking handbill which was circulated in Dallas on November 21, 1963 (that’s one day before the assassination, if you remember):

Go ahead and have a long, close look at that flier. Read it all, and tell me whether any of it would have sounded out of place at last weekend’s teabagger rally in D.C.? I don’t think it would have (other than the obvious historical issues). But the point is that the right wing has been doing this for a long, LONG time. I think that it may actually be one of the literal building blocks of the stripe of fearful, hateful conservatism we see on display here – the fear and loathing of anything new, of progress away from the tried, true and familiar (especially when that tried, true and familiar tends to benefit one’s own group). Hence the animosity towards the immigrants who are changing (literally) the color of this country, as well as its social and cultural makeup. Hence the fear of truly new ideas. Hence the instinctive distrust of openness and acceptance.

I wrote a while back about a fantastic article by perhaps the greatest modern political historian, Rick Perlstein, in which he said much the same thing (albeit with much more thorough historical references). Perlstein pointed out long-forgotten instances of similar lunatic wingnuttery throughout the 20th century. In the ’30s, it was Father Coughlin, the fiery anti-FDR, pro-fascist preacher who ultimately ended up disgraced. In the ’50s, it was Wisconsin’s junior Senator, Joseph McCarthy, who ultimately ended up disgraced, after beginning to see (and chase) Communists literally everywhere. In the ’60s, at the rise of the Kennedy era, it was the John Birch society…which ultimately ended up disgraced (though it still lingers on, on virtual life-support but little else) because it was prominent Republicans of the day such as William F. Buckley, who finally and publicly turned squarely against the Birchers and particularly their founder and leader, Robert Welch (see this article for a fascinating latter-day account of how that went down, in Buckley’s own words, if you’re interested), thus discrediting them in the eyes of conservatives and the nation. In the 1990s, it was what Hillary Clinton once dubbed the VRWC (Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy), perhaps an unfortunate choice of words, but nevertheless mostly accurate. David Brock, the former right-wing hit man (who penned the seminal hit-piece on Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings) documented just how well-organized this “conspiracy” was in his insider’s tell-all book Blinded By The Right. This association of right-wingers may have been far less coalesced than the John Birch Society, but they were no less virulent nor lunatic: it was from these quarters that sprang not only the Paula Jones deposition in the Whitewater case which would ultimately lead to Clinton’s impeachment, but also many less-stable charges, such as the famous (and discredited) Clinton Body Count, and the even-loonier notion that the Clintons had run a sizable cocaine-smuggling operation out of an airport in Mena, Arkansas.

Through all of it, the point has been: hatred (and fear) of popular Democratic Presidents, and fear of change away from accepted ways – especially when those ways benefit conservatives (racism, Christianity-first, etc.). And the even more-important point has been that in each case, the relegation of the particular instigators of lunacy of their day to the fringes and eventually to the scrap-heap of American political discourse, did not begin in earnest until prominent conservatives and/or Republicans acted responsibly and turned away in disgust from the worst elements of the fringe, just as Buckley turned against Welch and the Birchers. FDR had the right approach to Coughlin – he ignored him, for the most part, or only referred to him jestingly, as if he were not to be taken truly seriously. To engage Coughlin would have been to legitimize him and raise, rather than lower, his status in the public’s eyes – exactly the opposite of the intended outcome. When McCarthy’s reign of terror seemed unstoppable, it was only two factors which managed to bring him down. The first was Edward R. Murrow’s courageous decision to “go right at” McCarthy, despite the risks this presented for not only his entire team, but for CBS news as well. But the second one was truly the piece of the puzzle without which things might not have gone as they did, and that was the gradual realization by prominent elected (and some non-elected) Republicans such as Congressman George Bender, that McCarthy’s methods had (in Bender’s own words) “become a synonym for witch-hunting, Star Chamber methods, and the denial of…civil liberties.” Not until he lost the institutional support of the GOP did McCarthy’s star begin to wane.

And so it remains today. The GOP has, at times in the past, embraced this fearful and hateful rump of paranoid citizenship, as in the 1960s, when, after the defeats of the Kennedy years, they made a conscious choice to go after the racists in the south and elsewhere with the now-infamous “Southern Strategy.” And they have at other times (at least in the leadership circles, where it has mattered) rejected it, as Buckley did with the Birchers, as numerous congressmen finally did with McCarthy. When the GOP institution formally rejects these people, they lose their sting and their influence, and they return to their rightful place among the everpresent fringes of legitimate discourse. America isn’t unique in having a fringe element. But we’re becoming unique, via relatively newly minted institutions such as FOX News and the modern GOP apparatus, in terms of inviting these fringe elements into the mainstream of acceptable discourse and thereby legitimizing them. And unfortunately, until a large-enough segment of powerful Republicans (either elected officials or intellectual thought-leaders) make the conscious choice not to eat at Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh’s All-Nite-Buffet-‘O’-Crazyâ„¢, this will not stop, I fear. Let us hope it stops before another Democratic President is assassinated, further dividing the country….or worse.

To their eternal credit (and though I consider him a not-particulary honest broker overall), some influential righties have already started to come to the understanding that they cannot continue to court or even accept as legitimate the likes of Beck and Limbaugh and the teabaggers who showed up on the Capitol steps last weekend with literally no coherent message beyond rage at being “disenfranchised” (which for them means “not in control any longer”) and fear of change. David Frum is one of the few who’s looked down the road and seen the edge of the cliff, not only for his party, but for the country, that lies at the end of the road the GOP’s currently on. In a recent column in The Week, Frum points out what many on the left (and even the center) have been observing for some time – only it comes with special significance when it comes from someone like Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush and undisputed GOP insider:

It’s not enough for conservatives to repudiate violence, as some are belatedly beginning to do. We have to tone down the militant and accusatory rhetoric. If Barack Obama really were a fascist, really were a Nazi, really did plan death panels to kill the old and infirm, really did contemplate overthrowing the American constitutional republic—if he were those things, somebody should shoot him.

But he is not. He is an ambitious, liberal president who is spending too much money and emitting too much debt. His health-care ideas are too over-reaching and his climate plans are too interventionist. The president can be met and bested on the field of reason—but only by people who are themselves reasonable.

Exactly. Frum knows it – and he’s justifiably worried at not only the damage to his own beloved GOP, but the much more real damage to the entire country which would ensue should some crazed Scott Roeder-type loner (or small group of like-minded individuals), egged-on by Limbaugh/Beck/Coulter rhetoric, succeed in pulling a gun on and killing not just another popular Democratic President, but the country’s first black President. He may not be old enough to remember the aftermath of 1963 well (neither am I), but he’s enough of a student of history to understand the damage it did (along with RFK and MLK’s assassinations). And he’s enough of a believer, apparently, in the rightness of his own well thought-through ideas that he believes he can win the public’s confidence in a straight-up, honest ideological battle with liberals. Good for him. That’s the kind of conservative with whom I may rarely agree, but with whom I’d be proud to debate, any time. Our system of government only works well when all major parties come to the table in good faith: the bargaining table, and also the debating table. And that hasn’t been the GOP for some years now. Frum knows it. Let’s all hope that enough of his fellow influential conservatives realize it before it’s too late to put the genie of rage and fear back into the bottle.

Though I began this tirade with a link to (and quotes from) a recent post referring to the teabaggers’ picnic last weekend, I’ll end with a very different one, from the depths of early 2002, when 9/11 was still fresh in everyone’s mind, and the Cheney-inspired darkness seemed impenetrable. This one was written by the late, great Hunter S. Thompson, who proves once again that behind all the swagger and hallucinatory rhetoric, the reason he remained a widely-read (and quoted) observer of the political scene was that despite the often deliberately profane verbiage, he had moments of truly piercing political insight. He understood what hurt and what didn’t, what counted and what didn’t, in American politics. And in this column (edited for brevity), it’s as if Thompson can see the teabagger movement already fully-formed, from the perch of 2002, and he knows the (as he would put it) “bad-craziness” which would accompany it:

(from the book “Kingdom Of Fear,” 2003)

The capacity of these vicious assholes we elected to be in charge of our lives for four years to commit terminal damage to our lives and our souls and our loved ones is far beyond Nixon’s. Shit! Nixon was the creator of many of the once-proud historical landmarks that these dumb bastards are savagely destroying now: the Clean Air Act of 1970; Campaign Finance Reform; the endangered species act; a Real-Politik dialogue with China; and on and on.

The prevailing quality of life in America-by any accepted methods of measuring-was inarguably freer and more politically open under Nixon than it is today in this evil year of our Lord 2002…

When Muhammad Ali declined to be drafted and forced to kill “gooks” in Vietnam he said, “I ain’t got nothin’ against them Viet Cong. No Cong ever called me Nigger.” I agreed with him, according to my own personal ethics and values. He was right. If we all had a dash of Muhammad Ali’s eloquent courage, this country and the world would be a better place today because of it. Okay. That’s it for now. Read it and weep….

See you tomorrow, folks. You haven’t heard the last of me. I am the one who speaks for the spirit of freedom and decency in you. Shit. Somebody has to do it. We have become a Nazi monster in the eyes of the whole world-a nation of bullies and bastards who would rather kill than live peacefully. We are not just Whores for power and oil, but killer whores with hate and fear in our hearts. We are human scum, and that is how history will judge us… No redeeming social value. Just whores. Get out of our way, or we’ll kill you.

Well, shit on that dumbness. George W. Bush does not speak for me or my son or my mother or my friends or the people I respect in this world. We didn’t vote for these cheap, greedy little killers who speak for America today- and we will not vote for them again in 2002. Or 2004. Or ever.

Who does vote for these dishonest shitheads? Who among us can be happy and proud of having all this innocent blood on our hands? Who are these swine? These flag-sucking half-wits who get fleeced and fooled by stupid little rich kids like George Bush? They are the same ones who wanted to have Muhammad Ali locked up for refusing to kill “gooks”. They speak for all that is cruel and stupid and vicious in the American character. They are racists and hate mongers among us-they are the Ku Klux Klan.

That’s exactly right. And that’s why I’ve so little patience for Republicans who call themselves “conservatives” or “libertarians” today: because the things they’re screaming at Obama for now – excessive spending, violating civil rights – are things that they didn’t utter a peep about when Bush did them only a few years ago. This isn’t about retroactively “bashing Bush” or even about evening scores. It’s about making consistency matter, about dealing in good faith (and not looking the other way when bad stuff goes on, just because it’s one of “your guys” doing it), and perhaps most of all, it’s about recognizing what’s legitimate policy, argumentation and behavior, versus what should be off-limits for EVERYONE, not just “the other guys.” As conservative economist Bruce Bartlett (one of the guys who helped develop the whole “trickle-down, supply-side” theory of economics (and another of the very few influential conservatives/Republicans who’ve figured it out) recently said:

In my opinion, conservative activists, who seem to believe that the louder they shout the more correct their beliefs must be, are less angry about Obama’s policies than they are about having lost the White House in 2008. They are primarily Republican Party hacks trying to overturn the election results, not representatives of a true grassroots revolt against liberal policies. If that were the case they would have been out demonstrating against the Medicare drug benefit, the Sarbanes-Oxley bill, and all the pork-barrel spending that Bush refused to veto.

I believe that political parties should do penance for their mistakes and just losing power is not enough. Part of that involves understanding why those mistakes were made and how to prevent them from happening again. Republicans, however, have done no penance. They just pretend that they did nothing wrong. But until they do penance they don’t deserve any credibility and should be ignored until they do. That’s what my attacks on Bush are all about. I want Republicans to admit they were wrong about him, accept blame for his mistakes, and take some meaningful action to keep them from happening again. Bush should be treated as a pariah, as Richard Nixon was for many years until he rebuilt his credibility by more or less coming clean about Watergate with David Frost and writing a number of thoughtful books.

One reason this isn’t happening is because the media don’t treat Republicans as if they are discredited. On the contrary, they often seem to be treated as if they have more credibility than the administration. Just look at the silly issue of death panels. The media should have laughed it out the window, ridiculed it or at least ignored it once it was determined that there was no basis to the charge. Instead, those making the most outlandish charges are treated with deference and respect, while those that actually have credibility on the subject are treated as equals at best and often with deep skepticism, as if they are the ones with an ax to grind.

Yup – and the sooner more influential Republicans like Bartlett and Frum come to this same realization and spend some time in the wilderness, figuring out what role they played in making some of these mistakes, the better. But until that time, for all the Republicans who not only voted to re-elect Bush but did so gladly and never raised a word of complaint — and who still don’t believe he did much of anything wrong, I conclude with the words Dr. Gonzo used to conclude his piece, above: “I piss down the throats of these Nazis. And I am too old to worry about whether they like it or not. Fuck them.”