Why We Got Ayn Rand Instead of FDR: Thomas Frank on How Tea Party 'Populism' Derailed a New New Deal
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This was no act of defiance by the little man. It was astroturf of the most ersatz kind; plastic grass with extra vinyl content. The event was swarming with well-known conservative movement personnel. The blogger Michelle Malkin took a turn with the megaphone, as did Joe the Plumber, the itinerant proletarian, who was there to show working-class America’s faith in the cynical idealism of billionaire America. Lots of people were in suits, and some were wearing name tags from the Conservative Political Action Conference, which was going on a few subway stops away.
The protestors denounced deficit spending and bailouts and the item that had triggered Santelli’s explosion: the possibility that government might help people modify their mortgages. Where communities once used to rally to help out a foreclosed-upon neighbor, the prototypical populists now wanted to see that uppity neighbor get evicted from the oversized home the rascal had no business buying in the first place.
The symbols, costumes, and confusion that the nation would soon come to know so well were all pretty much present at that first gathering: the snake flags, the three- cornered hats, the Constitution worship, even the epidemic of spelling errors. And, of course, the small-minded vindictiveness that for years now has masqueraded as brave back-talk to arrogant authority. Photographing Tea Party protest signs would soon become something of a cliché, but on that first occasion, a woman proudly held up for my camera a homemade declaration of befuddled outrage that read as follows:
Can anyone on
Capital Hill read?
If so read the
we do not have the right:
To a house
To a car
To an education
Americans have a right
to persue happiness
not to have it given to
There was talk about the conflict of “freedom versus tyranny,” as though the real danger Americans faced was not economic collapse but some bid to crack down on personal liberty. And there was a slogan, a cry of existential anxiety from the bitter '70s— or, rather, a confused homage to Rick Santelli— as speakers began one after another to repeat a famous line from Network: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.”
“Anymore”? Barack Obama had been in the White House for a little over a month at that point, and yet already their suffering at his hands was more than they could bear. “They’re” not going to “take this”? For decades, politicians had catered to every short- fused demand that economic conservatives raised. This was a group that had been singularly well served by the political system; they had received exactly the deregulated world they now said they wanted.
But “mad as hell”? Oh, that note rang true. Even I could be roped into that sentiment. And for everyone who was livid about the financial crisis and the bailouts, those first-generation Tea Partiers had a simple proposal: “Let the Failures Fail.” That was the slogan I saw on one protest sign, and I have probably heard some echo of it hundreds of times since then. “Let the failures fail.”
Here, in one sentence, was a key to the amazing success the Right would shortly enjoy. They had an answer to the bailout outrage, and it was not modulated by lawyerly subtleties or votes-taken-with-nose-held, like the House Democrats who had voted for the TARP. “Let the failures fail”: it was a line that would allow the revived Right to depict itself as an enemy of big business, rooting for the collapse of the megabanks. The Tea Partiers may have looked ridiculous in their costumes, but their central demand was anything but.