News & Politics

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.

I used to be able to watch Glenn Beck and shake my head at his antics. I would listen to Rush Limbaugh and watch Fox News for their entertainment value as theaters of the absurd. I would laugh at the television as Sarah Palin struggled through the easiest of public policy questions. The Tea Party gatherings were comedy gold as one part failed agitprop and one part Village People reunion—fully equipped with protesters dressed in Revolutionary War regalia, carrying misspelled signs, and reciting half-cooked political slogans to a backdrop of bad country music.

The lunatic fringe had taken over the Republican Party. It was high comedy.

Since the passage of the health care bill matters have taken an ugly and horrible turn. Congress members have been spat upon and assaulted by Tea Party protesters. Bricks have been thrown through the windows of representatives who voted for health care reform. Racial and homophobic slurs such as “nigger” and “faggot” have been hurled by Tea Party protesters at members of Congress. A casket was left on the lawn of Representative Russ Carnahan. Right-wing vigilantes targeting Tom Perriello instead accidentally cut the gas main of his brother’s home.

Members of Congress who voted for health care reform are seeking police protection for fear of their safety. In what is ostensibly the most advanced democracy in the world, political thuggery is escalating into political violence as the Tea Party right-wing populists vent their rage and frustration. Having failed to effect policy through normal politics, the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party is now pursuing extraordinary means to see their political agenda served.

The behavior of the Tea Partiers—and the unwillingness of the Republican Party leadership to disavow them—is evocative of my favorite episode of the classic television series "The Twilight Zone." In "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” seemingly nice, polite, good citizens and neighbors turn on each other in fits of rage and paranoia after a power outage. Rumors spread, people are shot, and a community is left in ruins after extraterrestrial invaders use fear to amplify the latent ugliness that lies within us all. The moral of the story: we are the monsters, every one of us, and we can be easily pushed into the worst of behavior by our own weaknesses and the provocations of others.

Sadly, after watching the poor behavior, bigotry, and lack of civility on display by the Tea Party and their confederates, the joke is now clearly over.

There has been a great deal of hand-wringing by the media over the Tea Party phenomenon. Where did this movement come from? How did our politics become so dysfunctional? What do they want? For fear of using too broad a brush, many pundits have been afraid to state the obvious about the right-wing, anti-Obama, Tea Party movement. I will dare say what some have been afraid to: Racism and xenophobia have been central to the Tea Party movement from its very inception. While not all of them are racists, they swim in a sea of white racial resentment. And based upon the behavior witnessed at the Washington Tea Party gathering where John Lewis and others were threatened with violence, the Tea Party and its leadership give aid and comfort to the bigots in their midst, whether consciously or subconsciously.

The violent outbursts surrounding the health care bill, while surprising, were not unpredictable. Moreover, the racism and threats of political violence against members of Congress both spring forth from the same mean-spirited divisiveness that has typified American politics since (at least) the 1980s. The brandishing of firearms at Tea Party rallies, and the repeated references to uprisings and revolution at those events were more than hints at a propensity toward violent behavior; they were a clear sign of this movement’s willingness to surrender to its most base impulses.

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.

Returning to the seeds planted by Glenn Beck, the belief that President Obama is illegitimate has a secondary and perhaps even more dangerous implication. Because Obama is not really eligible to be president, his office is not worthy of respect. Obama’s presidency is itself illegitimate. By extension, the State is not worthy of respect or loyalty from its citizens.

For example, in the debate around health care reform we have seen anachronistic phrases such as states' rights, nullification and intercession batted about by the right-wing and the Tea Parties as legitimate rationales for citizens and local governments to “resist” federal authority. The rhetoric of the Republicans and the Tea Party in response to Obama’s efforts to pass health care reform is eerily reminiscent of that used by opponents of the civil rights movement.

Not surprisingly, the right-wing media and the Republican Party are seemingly immune from accepting the fact that racist elements are operating in the Tea Party movement. Just as they have reframed language in a disturbing type of Orwellian “newspeak” (in which, for example, according to Glenn Beck, progressives are now “fascists” and Hitler was really a “liberal progressive") the obvious signals to white racism at the Tea Party events are dismissed or minimized as irrelevant or non-existent. Predictably, those who call attention to the use of racially incendiary language, signs and posters that speak to the worst stereotypes of Obama as an “African” or “witchdoctor,” and caricatures of the president as a racial terrorist in the guise of Adolf Hitler, are overly sensitive, and/or are playing the omnipresent and devious “race card.”

The few people of color at these events are trotted out like mascots who work to immunize the Tea Party from charges of racism. The black and brown faces of the right-wing also serve as fetishes that legitimize any rhetoric, however racist, xenophobic or bigoted by the conservative establishment or its followers. See Michael Steele’s excuse-making for the racist behavior of the Tea Party. In the extreme, conservatives believe themselves to be “colorblind” by definition. In this twisted understanding of American politics and society, it is in reality white men during the age of Obama who are the most aggrieved victims of some imagined type of reverse racism as they suffer under the jackboots of Jim Crow 2.0.

A quick survey of Fox News, the Republican establishment, or the right-wing blogosphere reveals a similar meme about the racist happenings at the Washington anti-health care rally: There were no real racists at the event; if racist language was used it was because the Tea Partiers were provoked and angry; Democrats are the real racists and likely planted agent provocateurs among the crowd; Barack Obama and the Democrats want the Tea Party to be violent and if violence comes it was duly provoked; and my favorite -- we didn’t hear any racial or homophobic language so it could not have possibly happened because conservatives and the Tea Party are incapable of such things.

In a testament to the durability and power of the right-wing media establishment, this self-contained world operates within its own bubble. It enables a willful myopia that is incapable of acknowledging and confronting racism even where obvious. While superficially unrelated to issues of race and justice, the conservative media bubble also enables a set of beliefs about social reality more generally that are patently and demonstrably untrue: Death panels will come into being if the health care bill is passed; Obama is foreign-born and not eligible to be president; Obama is a socialist; he is doing many things that Hitler did; ACORN stole the election for Obama; Iraq was connected to Al-Qaeda and September 11th; And weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. This haze nourishes the toxic political environment in which Tea Party racism finds safe harbor.

In these trying times, this bubble must be burst if we are to find common ground in a community of shared political interests. However, as reinforced by the conservative media apparatus, this is a very difficult wall to tear down.

Where Do We Go From Here?

A healthy democracy rests upon a responsible media, a responsible public, and responsible political parties. These three pillars of American democracy have all in some part failed as evidenced by the violent and racist high-jinks of the Tea Party movement both before and after the vote on health care reform. In the worst examples, the conservative media have encouraged the fear-mongering, anger and violence of the Tea Party movement. The Republican Party has failed to condemn the racism and violence of their populist wing. Instead they have made excuses for their excesses as “the reasonable actions of upset people.” The Tea Party public has failed to the degree that they have not been given reasonable and accurate information by the conservative media, information that they can in turn use to make reasoned decisions about health care. All three have failed the test of good citizenship and civic virtue.

Tragically, many of the fears driving the Tea Party movement are shared by most Americans. The United States’ economy is seemingly broken. Corporate power runs amok and unchecked. There is a crisis in faith in our government. We live in a world in which America’s preeminence is rapidly declining. Ultimately, the social contract between citizens and the State is seemingly bent if not broken--the Great Recession has exposed that the American civil religion of upward mobility, job security and economic prosperity is a cruel lie. Instead of coming together in these trying times, we are being driven apart.

Worse yet, the Tea Party uprising is being heralded by leading thinkers as an example of “people power” or a revitalization of the best radicalism of the 1960s—just differently rooted in the middle America, Walmart crowd. If history tells us anything, it is that in times of economic tumult race and racial resentment come to trump mutual class interests. In keeping with this lesson, the sad reality of the Tea Party movement is that while its members imagine that they are speaking truth to power, in many ways they are being manipulated, motivated and funded by the very same economic forces that are exploiting them in the global economy.

Where are the adults in the room who will explain this to the Tea Party populists? When will responsible Republicans stand up and demand moderation and reason? Will someone put their hand on the shoulders of the Becks, Limbaughs, Hannitys, Palins, and O’Reillys of the world and tell them that enough is enough?

All of the Tea Partiers are not racists. To suggest as much would be unfair and imprecise. Nevertheless, in the aggregate they have dropped their masks and are showing the American people who they have always been. Racism is their ether. Fear of change is their drug. Bad behavior and violence seem to be increasingly their modus operandi. They are quite likely not bad people per se. But, we acquire the qualities of our deeds. We are also colored by the actions of those whom we claim as allies.

By standing mute while racism, hostility, and incivility run rampant in their midst they are racist by virtue of accommodation, encouragement, and agreement.

The choice is theirs. The good folk in the Tea Party movement can choose to stand up and say “Not in my name.” Or they can stand mute and be judged by the deeds of their compatriots. I do hope they do the former.

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