Rick Perlstein on the Tea Party

Rick PerlsteinWith all the talk about Rick Perlstein’s new book, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, it got me looking for some lectures by him that I could listen to while I made dinner.[1] And I came upon this conference at Berkeley he was part of back in 2010. His talk is called, “The Tea Parties Now.” I’ve embedded it below and it is well worth listening to the whole thing. But a couple of things stuck out to me.

Left vs Right Wing Reactions

Perhaps the biggest thing was the idea that government authorities have generally been concerned about left wing movements but only in an indirect way. The concern is that left wing movements might cause a right wing backlash that would be hard to control. To some extent, I think this is just a convenient excuse for people who always want the status quo, no matter what it is at any time. And so these people have come up with this as a reason to justify suppressing entirely reasonable and nonviolent left wing movements. But I don’t think that’s all.

For a long time, I’ve been worried about the right wing gun movement. I don’t mean to be cute, but as a movement, it has a hair trigger. It is a revolutionary movement. And it could go off over the slightest of things. And we saw a bit of this recently at the Bundy Ranch. Now, it’s also true that I think these people are mostly chick hawks. But things could easily and quickly get out of hand. And this is more generally true of right wing movements like the Tea Party. These are people who all convinced (as they have been for at least the last six years) that communism is coming to America any day now.

I know the caricature of the left wing revolutionary. But these are all based on teenage hippies from the sixties. Kids do stupid things all the time. In general, although the (far) left is in a state of constant disappointment, we see the erosion of our preferred country as a gradual thing. For example, in 2012, we didn’t think that if Romney became president it would mean the end of freedom in America, even though what he planned to do was far more radical than anything Obama ever even mentioned. Those on the far right see catastrophe just around the corner, so it isn’t hard to imagine them reacting quickly and violently to actual liberal policy suggestions, much less implementations.

What Is the Tea Party?

The other thing he had to say that stuck out was what I thought was a pretty good description of what the Tea Party is all about. In the talk, he discusses how similar the movement is to the John Birch Society of the 1950s and 1960s. I’ve long noticed this. I first noticed it when I started hearing Tea Party folks talking about the dangers of fluoridated water. What’s wacky about this is that this interest was at the start of the Tea Party movement, but it was what got the John Birch Society thrown out of the mainstream conservative movement in the 1960s. It was brilliantly lampooned in Dr Strangelove:

So this is always what I most associate the Tea Party with. And it is certainly true that most of their concerns are no more reasonable than those of Brigadier General Jack Ripper. But Perlstein gets at the same thing in a more (but not completely) serious way:

Why is America like this? Why is the white American middle class so susceptible to rage—so susceptible to a message that they are somehow being profoundly dispossessed—so susceptible to the poetics of scapegoating and cultural demagoguery? My answer these days have a lot to do with a certain kind of psychoanalytic trauma that comes not from being not dependent on government but on being dependent on government, in a country where being dependent on government is shameful and not valued—a learned helplessness that comes from not being helped—not being taken care of… [In other words, they pretend independence because they are dependent but aren’t getting the help they need.]

Jefferson Cowie in another great book, Stayin’ Alive, talks about the characteristic note of country music as a paradoxical combination of rebellion and patriotic nationalism. “The state is his enemy, the nation his mystical identity.” So if I can do a recitation [of] “God Bless the USA,” which I think has had just a extraordinary life—a country song by Lee Greenwood that I’m sure everyone would know the words to at any Tea Party anywhere in America.

If tomorrow all the things were gone I’d worked for all my life
And I had to start again with just my children and my wife
I’d thank my lucky stars to be living here today
Because the flag still stands for freedom and they can’t take that away

And I’m proud to be an American where as least I know I’m free
[Won’t forget the men who died, who gave that right to me]
And I’d gladly stand up next to you and defend her still today
‘Cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land God bless the USA

The storyline is basically, “Yes, in America, you—interpolated as the white male patriarch—can be dispossessed of your livelihood at any time. And that’s fate! That’s just it, and there’s nothing you can do about it. But at least, like W E B Du Bois talked about the psychic wage of whiteness that white southerners had that at least they weren’t black, there’s this psychic wage patriotism—that this is still the best possible country no matter what, because one can remain free even after one’s boss fires you without cause—fires you for starting a union—and takes away all the things that you’ve worked for all your life. There is nothing in the mystically true America that can hold you back from deliverance. But America is polluted by its internal enemies. And that sounds like a Tea Partier to me.

I’d go further. That sounds like just about any conservative to me. Remember just five days after 9/11, Andrew Sullivan writing, “The middle part of the country—the great red zone that voted for Bush—is clearly ready for war. The decadent left in its enclaves on the coasts is not dead—and may well mount a fifth column.” And that’s from an Obama voter: an extremely moderate conservative.

There’s an obvious retort to this: but liberals think that conservatives want to destroy the country! That’s not really true. Liberals think that conservatives will destroy the country. We think that conservative middle class voters manage to vote against their economic interest in the name of social issues that don’t really matter and dog whistle politics that they aren’t even aware of. And we think they are led by politicians who are even more cynical than our own and who are incompetent. We also think they are revolutionaries, who have a mythical view of America that never actually existed and cannot become a reality. But we don’t think conservatives want to destroy the country—just that they will if given a chance.

Watch the whole thing. I’ve cued it to the start of his talk:

[1] For the record: mushroom quiche from The Moosewood Cookbook. You see, it’s true: real men don’t eat quiche. I’m so not a real man that I cook it.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

8 thoughts on “Rick Perlstein on the Tea Party

  1. Actually I’m not that frightened by a left-wing action inspiring right-wing gun owners. What would it inspire them to do? Shoot people? Then they’d be put in jail. And if that inspired more of them to shoot people then more of them would be put in jail. Most left-wing actions have considerable poll support, so any violent reaction against them would be disliked by the vast majority.

    I do worry about right-wing gun owners being inspired by right-wing actions. Say, in pogroms against demonized American tiny minority groups organized by a right-wing administration. It could happen and has happened before (Pinkerton detectives against strikers, for example.)

    They are at heart a revolutionary movement, but revolutions require organization, not just inspiration (as the unfortunate, admirable participants in the Arab Spring have recently reminded us.) Simply being outraged won’t do it; you have to have a plan and a lot of logistical structure/support. I’m sure there are all kinds of fiendish right-wing plans going on at think tanks using private security to put down Occupy-style leftist movements, yet I doubt any serious plan is in motion to enroll right-wing gun owners in some sort of coup. Not yet!

  2. @JMF – I’m not concerned they would be successful. Any rebellion could be easily squashed. But there are a couple of problems. There is a lot of sympathy for the gun nuts in the military. Also, when it came to the Bundy Ranch, you have a whole television network that would skew the narrative. Now it is possible that even [i]Fox News[/i] wouldn’t go that far, but I’m not certain of it.

    And yes, the biggest problem is a kind of lynch mob mentality. But I think that’s more or less what Perlstein was getting at: that the gun types might go to war on the OWS types. I was amazed during the OWS protests just how angry some not terribly political "real" men were about it.

    (Note: most gun nuts I know are [i]not[/i] that political. They are just political about that one thing. And that’s what makes them such great useful fools: even more than the abortion crowd that at least gets something for voting Republicans, the gun nuts get nothing at all because the Democrats long ago gave up trying to do anything about our gun problems.)

  3. Just started watching the video . . . he is so charming! I’ve paid far to much attention to the dark side of humanity lately and can’t watch much more, but I will watch the rest later and have requested his latest book.

  4. Hi guys,

    While I appreciate Mr. Perlstein’s opinion, I must respectfully disagree with much of his assumptions.

    I think Andrew W.K. (Village Voice) does a nice job pointing out a fatal flaw that affects both the Left and Right wing’s socio-political stances on many issues. His piece was not about this particular topic but, I think it is wholly applicable to the way one side views the other. The link to his blog piece at ‘Ask Andrew W.K.’ is:

    [url=http://blogs.villagevoice.c…]Ask Andrew W.K.: My Dad Is a Right-Wing Asshole[/url]

    Give it a read & see what you think.


  5. @ThrashMikki – I dealt with this exact point. It’s in the paragraph that starts, "There’s an obvious retort to this…" I really don’t like the false equivalence here. Neither Perlstein nor I share the outlook of "Son of A Right-Winger."

  6. With all due respect, I wasn’t implying that the two issues are equivalent, only that Andrew W.K. makes a valid point when describing the way individuals choose to view/categorize those who hold differing opinions and beliefs. Political parties are comprised of individuals who have the option of thinking for themselves and working in cooperation with those who hold differing socio-political ideologies.

    The left’s argument that the right-wing WILL destroy this nation by "…clinging to their guns and Bibles…" has as much merit as the right-wing’s argument that the left-wing WILL destroy this nation through their liberal "open borders", "entitlement" spending, etc.

    I’m not aware of any Tea Party groups actively plotting the violent overthrow of the federal government or planting explosives at federal buildings or the houses of federal employees. (Timothy McVey wasn’t a member of the Tea Party, and, he was an anomaly much the same as the Weather Underground was to the left-wing folks back in the day.) Saying "They’ll pry my guns out of my cold, dead hands" is a long way from actively coordinating and implementing military action.

    Hope all is well.

  7. @ThrashMikki – Fair enough. But I was very involved with the libertarian movement at the time of Timothy McVeigh, and I know that he was [i]not[/i] an anomaly, except in the sense that he actually did something. His act caused a lot of reflection in the movement, and the violent rhetoric came to a rather sudden stop. But it’s crept back in and certainly was as bad in 2010-2011 in the Tea Party and other parts of the far right.

    I think you still misunderstand the argument. I do think that Bibles and guns and a couple of other things cause a lot of people who are economically liberal to vote for economically conservative politicians who are destroying the middle class republic that I think America is because that’s what it was when I was growing up. But it’s the policies that do it, not the people. I think I was pretty clear above. The "guns and Bibles" allow people to be elected who push bad economic policies. You should know: my issue is economics. I’m a social liberal, but that isn’t what I care about most.

    Finally, conservatives only complain about open boarders and entitlement spending when a Democrat is in the White House. I can always have good, constructive conversations with conservatives [i]until[/i] the issue has been politicized by [i]Fox News[/i]. I simply don’t see an equivalent on the other side. But I know where you’re coming from and we normally disagree about this kind of stuff.

    I’m doing well. I was working on a play about my life, but then I realized [i]No Exit[/i] had already been written…

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