The Wing-Nut Code: What Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin Are Really Saying to Their Followers
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Editor's note: As members of the Tea Party and patriot movements march and rally in Washington, D.C., on September 12, they will be out in full regalia, and you can expect the speeches to be loaded with code -- signals to various factions of their coalition, some of them armed, to mobilize politically on specific issues (health-care reform, energy reform, net neutrality) and against President Obama himself. Here's a glossary of the symbols and shorthand likely to be employed in this weekend's smoke-and-mirrors display of purported right-wing power.
When Glenn Beck offers an odd-looking icon for his 9-12 Project , or Sarah Palin says something about her native state that sounds a bit to off-kilter to the ears of those in the lower 48, it's tempting to think, well, they're just nuts.
Perhaps they are, but that's beside the point. The point is that when Beck throws up a graphic of a segmented snake as his project's mascot, or Palin speaks of her native land as the "sovereign" state of Alaska, they're blowing a kind of dog-whistle for the armed and paranoid who make up the right-wing, neo-militia "Patriot" movement and the broader "Tea Party" coalition.
The loose affiliation of right-wing groups under the Tea Party umbrella can make it difficult to discern who's truly dangerous, and who's just an angry blowhard.
For instance, in its report about the resurgence of the militia movement, the Southern Poverty Law Center notes that a Minuteman militia in Southern California uses the Tea Party anthem as its call to arms.
Scott Roeder, the militant anti-abortion activist who is charged with the killing of Dr. George Tiller, counts himself among the members of the patriot movement.
But in Pittsburgh earlier this month, I sat among a group of disgruntled senior citizens at a conference sponsored by the astroturf group, Americans for Prosperity, who probably don't spend their weekends training for a war with the government, but nonetheless consider themselves to be part of the Tea Party coalition -- and perhaps even the patriot movement. Nonetheless, when conference speakers made reference to gun rights, they received heartfelt applause.
The Tea Party coalition is mobilizing for what it promises will be a big march on Washington on Sept. 12. As the date approaches, expect to hear more disguised shout-outs to patriots and tea-partiers, as right-wing politicians seek to placate the hordes said to be on their way to the nation's capitol.
Members of the far-right Tea Party and patriot movements love the iconography of the American Revolution. They fancy themselves as "patriots" in the mold of Ethan Allen and Charles Gadsden -- men who led militias against the troops of England's despotic King George III.
Yet much of their ideology stems from the states' rights philosophy of the Confederacy in the Civil War, and sometimes the ideas and symbols of the two wars are drawn together in a tangle of rage.
Some self-described "patriots" take part in the resurgent militia movement, but many do not. However, gun enthusiasts are rife in their ranks, and many view their role as one of "resistance" to what they see as government encroachment in their lives.
They oppose virtually all forms of taxation and almost anything run by the government. (Hence, the title of the site run by Grassfire.org known as ResistNet.)
Here are some words and images used by right-wing political and media figures as signals to the patriot and Tea Party constituencies, signals used to organize the throngs against health care legislation, environmental reforms and all things identified with President Barack Obama.
1. Snakes! -- Even before the American Revolution, the rattlesnake -- native to North America -- was a potent symbol for the American colonies. The patriot movement has appropriated the use of a number of Revolutionary War militia flags that feature rattlesnakes, often accompanied by the words, "Don't Tread On Me."
The most recognizable of these is the Gadsden flag, a yellow flag emblazoned with the image of a coiled snake, and the "Don't Tread On Me" slogan.
It's the image that graced the sign carried by the New Hampshire man who showed up with a gun strapped to his leg outside the venue where Obama was scheduled to conduct a town-hall meeting on health care reform.
At the Americans for Prosperity Conference that I attended, a group called American Majority offered for sale a poster that featured the same coiled-snake image.
Beck, when creating the iconography for his 9-12 Project -- an organizing hub for town-hall disrupters and people preparing to join the Sept. 12 Tea Party march on Washington -- found a slightly more obscure version of the colonial snake that would resonate, nonetheless, with the patriot types.
The image is a variation on this one, by Benjamin Franklin, which is thought to be the first political cartoon to run in an American newspaper.
Franklin's snake is segmented into eight parts, representing what were then only eight American colonies. His cartoon implores all eight to join together to fight the French in the French and Indian War and is labeled with the slogan, "Join, or Die."
Bottom line: Any time you see the snake used as a graphic element by right-wingers, you can safely assume it's a call to the often-armed and sometimes-violent members of the patriot movement.
2. The tree of liberty -- This reference comes from a famous Thomas Jefferson quote: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of tyrants and patriots." You'll often find it used in bits and pieces as a form of code.
Outside the New Hampshire town hall, the armed man held a sign that not only featured the coiled snake of the Gadsden flag, but a reference to the Jefferson quote: "It is time to water the tree of liberty."
Note the call of secessionists speaking just this week on the steps of the Texas state capitol building.
Fringe gubernatorial candidate Debra Medina may have flubbed the Jefferson quote, but her intent is clear: "We are aware that stepping off into secession may be a bloody war," she said at the rally called by the Texas Nationalist Movement. "We are aware that the tree of freedom is occasionally watered with the blood of tyrants and patriots."
In an example of how more-establishment types signal the far right in code, Ralph Reed used another piece of the quote while speaking at an Americans for Prosperity-sponsored rally against health care reform in Atlanta on Aug. 15:
"Our right to protest has been purchased with the blood of patriots who paid the ultimate price so that we could be free men and women and have the ability to petition our government. We will not be intimidated, we will not be silenced, and we will not go away."
That "blood of patriots" bit? Dog whistle to the gun nuts.
3. Patriot -- A patriot is a member of a movement seen by its participants as the resistance -- often armed -- to the perceived conspiracy of socialists, Jews, blacks and other people "not like us," who have taken over the government, the global banking system and the world.
Some self-identified patriots are armed to the teeth and seem pathologically violent; others, not so much.
As Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons wrote in a 1995 edition of The Progressive about the patriot movement:
Attending a patriot meeting is like having your cable-access channel video of a PTA meeting crossed with audio from an old Twilight Zone rerun.
The people seem so sane and regular. They are not clinically deranged, but their discourse is paranoid, and they are awash in the crudest conspiracy theories.
When you hear a right-wing politician or media figure refer to someone as a "patriot," watch out! That patriot may think it his patriotic duty to take you out.
4. Tea Party -- The Tea Party coalition encompasses a broad swath of the right -- including members of the religious right and the patriot movement. (There's even an organization called Tea Party Patriots.)
Taking its name from the Boston Tea Party -- a famous incident that foreshadowed the American Revolution -- the Tea Party coalition was initially drawn together under the anti-taxation umbrella by such astroturfing outfits as FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity and Grassfire.
(The Boston Tea Party was an act of civil disobedience at which revolutionaries threw overboard, as a tax protest, the cargo of three tea-carrying British vessels. King George III had slapped a hefty tax on the tea, in a defiance of the colonial Continental Congress.)
5. Sovereign -- In the right wing, this term has two meanings. The most troubling refers to a notion called "sovereign citizen," a term popularized by the violent Posse Comitatus militia formation in the 1970s to argue that white people have a superior form of citizenship to that of black people. More commonly, the term "sovereign" refers to a states' rights philosophy that is consonant with secessionist ideologies.
Before she left office in July, Palin signed a " sovereignty resolution," reasserting Alaska's rights as a "sovereign state" under the U.S. Constitution.
Legislators in 36 other states have introduced similar resolutions, according to the right-wing Tenth Amendment Center.
Palin, you'll recall, sent a video shout-out last year to the secessionist Alaska Independence Party, of which her husband, Todd, was a member for seven years.
6. Tenth Amendment -- The final amendment to in the Bill of Rights reads simply: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people."
Secessionists and states' rights enthusiasts argue that the federal government has already unconstitutionally usurped all sorts of powers from the states. Bear in mind that the argument for states' rights and state sovereignty provided the justification offered by the states of the Confederacy during the Civil War.
The issue at had was not slavery, per se, the argument went -- it was the federal government overstepping into the jurisdiction of the states when it began to regulate slavery.
The 10th Amendment movement is tied in with the Tea Party and patriot movements: On the Web site of the Tenth Amendment Center, one finds yet another version of the "Don't Tread On Me" flag, and links to 35 state groups identified as part of the patriot movement -- a number of them state chapters of Glenn Beck's 9-12 Project .
State-sovereignty enthusiasts are known as "tenthers".
7. Second Amendment -- The right to bear arms, the patriot movement's cornerstone. Beck devotes a whole channel of his 9-12 Project Web site to this most-precious amendment to the Constitution.
Members of the Tea Party and patriot movements read this amendment in absolutist terms, arguing that the Constitution allows the federal government no earthly role in the regulation of firearms.
The amendment is simple, and was passed at a time when the young United States was dependent on state-based militias for the nation's self-defense: "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."
Earlier this year, legislators in the states of Montana and Tennessee decided to test the limits of the Second Amendment by passing gun laws designed to conflict with federal regulations, in the hope of calling forth a showdown on not just the Second Amendment, but the Tenth Amendment, as well.
At issue is the federal regulation of firearms produced within each state for use within that state's boundaries. In the past, the federal government has justified federal regulation of firearms based on the constitutional power granted for the regulation of interstate commerce. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has responded to both states, taking issue with their new laws -- a mere volley in what promises to be a constitutional showdown.
8. Revolution -- When these folks talk about a revolution, they're not talking in merely philosophical terms. No, this is no paradigm shift, no sea-change. This is about guns.
Remember, they're all little Ethan Allens and George Washingtons, ready to take on the tyrant's guard.
So when Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., told a town-hall meeting last week, "We're almost reaching a revolution in this country," he's giving a nod to the patriot movement.
9. The government -- Plain and simple, all things bad and evil. Oklahoma's Republican junior senator, Tom Coburn, gave the patriots a nod last month when he told David Gregory, host of NBC's Meet the Press that members of Congress who face threats of violence over the prospect of health care reform have "earned" that response, because Congress has caused people to "stop having confidence in, in our government."