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The Tea Parties: Built on Fear, Violence and Race Resentment

Racism and xenophobia have been central to the Tea Party movement from the start; while not all of them are racist, they swim in a sea of white racial resentment.

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For example, the demonization of “liberals” by the conservative talk radio and media establishment (in which eliminationist rhetoric suggesting that liberals are a cancer to be destroyed is the norm) has legitimized Tea Party political thuggery. Likewise, the unruly behavior and violence at health care townhall meetings are another symptom of a civic culture in serious decline. In perhaps the most visually stunning episode in recent memory, the heckling and near assault by Tea Party protesters of a man suffering from Parkinson’s disease illustrated in stark terms a profound lack of decency on the part of the populist right-wing. The hostility and lack of civic virtue on display at these events are not separate and apart from racism and prejudice. Rather, they are parallel and intersecting cousins to one another.

Lest we forget: McCain and Palin’s appeals to “the real America" during the 2008 presidential campaign were echoes of a political strategy that is largely based upon inflaming social, racial and economic divides. In turn, this fear and anxiety is clearly manifest by the Tea Party and the populist Right’s repeated appeals to save “our America.”

As recent surveys have revealed, the America the Tea Party yearns for looks like them: it is predominantly and overwhelmingly homogeneous and white. It is conservative. It is Republican. It is Christian. And it is straight. The predictions that America will be a majority minority nation by 2050 terrify the Republican base and the Tea Partiers. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that the election of Barack Obama while certainly a referendum on the Bush administration and the Republican Party can also be seen as a signal of a changing America. Although not yet “post-racial” (and it is debatable if America will ever move beyond race as a central and defining social category) America is certainly moving toward a different place demographically than where it was 40 years ago. 

In stoking these anxieties for political and material gain, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News (among others) expound narratives centered upon a premise that America’s first black president is somehow "un-American."

To point: On a daily basis Obama is smeared by conservative media darlings such as Glenn Beck as the illegitimate ruler of a tyrannical state. In these performances, Beck makes a series of key rhetorical moves that demand exploration as we look at the ways in which racial resentment has become one of the primary motivations for anti-Obama animus.

In Beck’s script, you, the viewer, are a patriot. It is us versus them. Political disputes are cast in apocalyptic tones. The Republic is imperiled unless “you” stand against some enemy.  

“We” have to defend the Constitution against “those people.” Democrats are villains to be eliminated. It is only through the efforts of patriotic Americans (read: the Tea Parties and other right-wing populist groups) that power can be returned to the people.

One must note how dangerously close Beck’s narrative hews to sedition: he actively assaults Obama as illegitimate and then appeals to his audience to engage in acts of “resistance.”  But somehow this is not treasonous speech. In Beck’s logic, this is loyalty to the Constitution. In fact, in the eyes of the Birthers and many of the Tea Partiers, Obama is not eligible to be president because “he was not born here.” Alternatively, he is a secret Muslim, a Manchurian candidate, and socialist who will destroy America from within.

The deep ugliness and bigotry on display here is centered on a basic idea: Obama is not really one of “us.” He, because of his race, his personhood, and his color can never be a “real American.” For the Tea Party and right-wing populists, Obama is not fit to rule because as a person of color he is a perpetual outsider and racial Other.

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