Americans, it’s been said, learn geography when they go to war. Now, it seems, many get their history when they go to a Tea Party rally or tune in to Glenn Beck.
History is a “battlefield of ideas,” as Beck recently put it, while looking professorial in front of a blackboard filled with his trademark circled names connected by multidirectional arrows, his hands covered with chalk dust. In this struggle, movement historians like Beck go all in, advancing a comprehensive interpretation of American history meant to provide analytical clarity to believers and potential converts alike. As paranoid as it may be, this history is neither radical nor revisionist, since the Tea Party activists and their fellow travelers pluck at some of the major chords of American nationalism.
It’s easy to dismiss the iconography of the movement: the wigs and knee breeches, the founding-father fetishism, the coiled snakes, and, yes, the tea bags. It’s no less easy to laugh at recent historical howlers like the claims of Dick Armey, who heads FreedomWorks, a corporate Tea Party front, that Jamestown was settled by “socialists” or the Texas School Board’s airbrushing of Deist Thomas Jefferson from its history textbooks. It’s fun to ridicule Beck, as Jon Stewart recently did, when he goes all “Da Vinci Code,” and starts connecting Woodrow Wilson, Mussolini, and ACORN in order to explain 2008’s economic collapse.
But historical analysis is about making connections, and there is, in fact, coherence to the Tea Party version of history, which allows conservative cadres not just to interpret the world but to act in it. And yes, it is all about race.
The 1040 Archipelago
At the heart of Tea Party history is the argument that “progressivism is fascism is communism.” Conceptually, such a claim helps frame what many call “American exceptionalism,” a belief that the exclusive role of government is to protect individual rights—to speech, to assembly, to carry guns, and, of course, to own property—and not to deliver social rights like health care, education, or welfare.
At Tea Party rallies and on right-wing blogs, it’s common to hear that, since the time of President Woodrow Wilson, progressives have been waging a “hundred-year-long war” on America’s unique values. This bit of wisdom comes directly from Beck, who has become something like the historian laureate of American exceptionalism, devoting many on-air hours to why progressivism is a threat equal to Nazism and Stalinism.
Progressives, he typically says, “started a hundred-year time bomb. They planted it in the early 1900s.” Beck has compared himself to “Israeli Nazi hunters,” promising, with language more easily associated with the Nazis than those who pursued them, to track down the progressive “vampires” who are “sucking the blood out of the republic.”
As Michael Lind pointed out in a recent essay at Salon.com, behind such Sturm-und-Drang language lurks a small group of relatively obscure historians, teaching in peaceful, leafy liberal arts colleges, many of them influenced by the late University of Chicago political theorist Leo Strauss. They argue that the early twentieth-century progressive movement betrayed the very idea of universal natural rights invested in the individual, embracing instead a relativist “cult of the state.” As a result, a quest for “social justice” was elevated above the defense of “liberty”—a path which led straight to the gulag and the 1040 short form. From there, it was an easy leap to History’s terminus: the Obamacare Death Panels.
These historians and their popular interpreters, especially Beck and Jonah Goldberg, the author of Liberal Fascism, naturally ignore the real threats to individualism that the turn-of-the-twentieth-century progressive movement was responding to—namely a massive concentration of corporate political and economic power and Gilded Era “wage slavery.” Instead, they present history as a zero-sum, all-or-nothing “battlefield of ideas,” with the founding fathers, Abraham Lincoln, and Winston Churchill on one side, and Jefferson Davis, Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Stalin, Hitler, and Obama on the other. The individual versus the state. Freedom versus slavery.
In such an epic view of American history, there is, however, a fly in the ointment or, more accurately, a Confederate in the conceptual attic—and that’s the inability of the Tea Party and affiliated right-wing movements to whistle past Dixie.
Is the Tea Party Racist?
Of course it is. Polls confirm that Tea Party militants entertain deep-seated racial resentment. In April, a New York Times/CBS News study revealed that most tea partiers tend to be over 45, white, male, affluent, and educated and think that “too much has been made of the problems facing black people.” A high percentage of them also believe that Obama favors blacks over whites.
But to say the movement is racist based only on the spit and vitriol hurled at African-American congressmen and civil rights activists like Emanuel Cleaver, or on the placards depicting Obama as a monkey or a pimp, allows for rebuttal. The minute the reality of the spitting incident is challenged and “Don’t Tread on Me” is substituted for “Go Back to Kenya,” voilà, the movement is instantly as wholesome as apple pie.
A debate over a recent University of Washington poll helps us understand why the movement is racist no matter which slogans and symbols it chooses to use. The poll found that “support for the Tea Party remains a valid predictor of racial resentment.” When right-wingers offered the criticism that the pollsters’ methodology conflated racism with support for small-government ideology, they reexamined their data and found themselves in agreement (of a sort) with their critics. “Ideology,” they wrote in a follow up, was indeed an important factor, for “as people become more conservative, it increases by 23 percent the chance that they’re racially resentful.” In other words, it wasn’t membership in the Tea Party movement per se that predicted racism, but conservatism itself (though the Tea Party does have a higher percentage of members who displayed racism than conservatism in general).
This should surprise no one. After all, the Founding Fathers cut Thomas Jefferson’s description of slavery as an “execrable commerce” and an “assemblage of horrors” from the final draft of the Declaration of Independence, and race has been crucially embedded in the conception of the patriot ideal of the sovereign individual ever since. As Harvard historian Jill Lepore has written about the original Boston Tea Party, the colonists had a choice: “either abolish slavery… [or] resist parliamentary rule. It could not do both.” Many in Virginia, of course, didn’t want to do both. Instead, they simply defined the defense of slavery as part of American liberty.
While Jefferson, himself a slaveholder, failed in his effort to extend the notion of individual inalienable rights to blacks, he was successful in setting two rhetorical precedents that would continue to influence American political culture. First, he used chattel slavery as a metaphor for British tyranny, equating the oppression of Africans with the oppression of the white colonists. At the same time, he stoked racial fears to incite rebellion: King George III, he wrote, was “exciting” blacks to “rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them by murdering” whites. One could draw a straight line from these words to George H.W. Bush’s infamous 1988 Willie Horton ad.
From then on, the ideal of the assertion and protection of individual rights was regularly bound up with racial demonology. Anglo genocidal campaigns against and land theft from Native Americans, for instance, contributed to the influential theories concerning property of John Locke, who before Beck arrived on the scene, was considered “America’s philosopher,” the man most associated with the notion of God-given inalienable individual rights and restricted government.
Once such theories were formulated, they were then used to further justify dispossession, contributing, as law professor Howard Berman put it, to the “Americanization of the law of real property.” The nineteenth century was known for a frenzied speculative capitalism that generated staggering inequality. At the same time, eliminationist wars that drove Indian removal, the illegal invasion of Mexico by the United States in 1846, and the ongoing subjugation of African Americans helped stabilize the Daniel Boone-like image of a disciplined, propertied, white male self—and did so by contrasting it with racial enemies who were imagined to be unbridled (like the speculative capitalists), but also abject and property-less.
The Civil War cemented the metaphor whereby the free individual was defined by (and endangered by) his opposite, the slave, and has been used ever since to frame conflicts that often, on the surface at least, don’t seem to be about race at all. It’s a point nicely illustrated recently by Dale Robertson, a prominent Tea Party organizer, who carried a sign at a rally that read: “Congress = Slaveowner, Taxpayer = Niggar.” Beck, for his part, has identified ACORN, the Service Employees International Union or SEIU, the census, and the healthcare bill, among other threats, as laying the foundation for a “modern-day slave state” in which, of course, his overwhelmingly white following could be reduced to the status of slaves. As to progressives, he has said that, “back in Samuel Adams’ day, they used to call them tyrants. A little later I think they were also called slave owners, people who encourage you to become more dependent on them.”
Sometimes, though, it really is just about race: “Obama’s Plan,” announced one placard at a Wisconsin Tea Party gathering, would lead to “White Slavery.”
When Tea Partiers say “Obama is trying to turn us into something we are not,” as one did recently on cable TV, they are not wrong. It’s an honest statement, acknowledging that attempts to implement any government policies to help the poor would signal an assault on American exceptionalism, defined by Beck and likeminded others as extreme individualism.
The issue is not really the specific content of any particular policy. As any number of frustrated observers can testify, it is no use pointing out that, say, the healthcare legislation that passed is fundamentally conservative and similar to past Republican healthcare plans, or that Obama has actually lowered taxes for most Americans, or that he gets an F rating from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. The issue is the idea of public policy itself, which, for many on the right, violates an ideal of absolute individual rights.
In other words, any version of progressive taxation, policy, and regulation, no matter how mild, or for that matter, of social “justice” and the “common good”—qualities the Texas School Board recently deleted from its textbook definition of “good citizenship”—are not simply codes for race. They are race. To put it another way, individual supremacy has been, historically speaking, white supremacy.
This helps explain why it is impossible for the anti-Obama backlash to restrain its Tourette-like references to the Civil War to frame its fight, or its rhetorical spasms invoking secession and nullification, or its urge to carry Confederate flags as well as signs equating taxpayers with slaves. That America’s first Black president’s first major social legislation was health care—something so intimately, even invasively about the body, the place where the social relations of race are physically inscribed (and recorded in differential mortality rates)—pushed the world-turned-upside-down carnival on display every night on Fox News, where the privileged fancy themselves powerless, another step toward the absurd.
The deepest contradiction may, however, lie in this: the teabaggers who reject any move by Big Government when it comes to social policy at home remain devoted, as Andrew Sullivan recently wrote, to the Biggest Budget-Busting Government of All, the “military-industrial-ideological complex” and its all-powerful commander-in-chief executive (and surprising numbers of them are also dependent on that complex’s give-away welfare state when it comes to their livelihoods).
As James Bovard, a consistent libertarian, has observed, “many ‘tea party’ activists staunchly oppose big government, except when it is warring, wiretapping, or waterboarding.” For all the signs asking “Who is John Galt?,” the movement has openly embraced Arizona’s new “show-me-your-papers” immigration law and mutters not one complaint over the fact that America is “the most incarcerated society on earth,” something Robert Perkinson detailed in Texas Tough, his book on the Lone Star roots of the US penitentiary system. The skin color of those being tortured, rounded up, and jailed obviously has something to do with the selective libertarianism of much of the conservative movement. But this passion for pain and punishment is also an admission that the crisis-prone ideal of absolute individualism, forged in racial violence, would be unsustainable without further state violence.
Behind the lock-and-load populism and the kitsch calls to “rearm for revolution” is a recognition that the right’s agenda of corporate deregulation—the effects of which are evident in exploding coal mines in West Virginia and apocalyptic oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico—can only be achieved through ceaseless mobilization against enemies domestic and foreign.
Here’s an example: “I know that the safety and health of coal miners is my most important job,” said Don Blankenship at a corporate-funded Friends of America rally held in West Virginia last Labor Day, where speakers such as Ted Nugent and Sean Hannity spoke out against tyrants, regulation, “Obama and his cronies,” taxes, cap-and-trade legislation, unnamed “cockroaches,” China, green technology, and, naturally, gun control. Blankenship just happens to be the CEO of Massey Energy, owner of the Upper Big Branch mine where 29 workers recently lost their lives.
He is also famous for waving the banner of individual rights even as he presides over a company that any totalitarian state worth its salt would envy, one that intimidates “its workers into a type of lock-step compliance that most often takes the form of silence,” including threats to fire workers who take time off to attend the funerals of the dead miners. Wrapping himself in the American flag—literally, wearing a stars-and-strips shirt and baseball cap—Blankenship told that Labor Day crowd that he didn’t “need Washington politicians to tell” him about mine safety. Seven months later, 29 miners are dead.
The End of American Exceptionalism
And here’s the irony, or one of them anyway: in the process of defining American exceptionalism as little more than a pitchfork loyalty to individual rights, Beck and other right-wingers are themselves becoming the destroyers of what was exceptional, governmentally speaking, about the United States. Like John Locke’s celebration of inalienable rights, Founding Father James Madison’s distrust of the masses became a distinctive feature of American political culture. Madison valued individual rights, but in the tripartite American system of government he worked hard to help fashion, a bulwark meant to contain the passions he knew they generated. “Liberty is to faction what air is to fire,” he wrote in 1787, and in the centuries that followed, American politicians would consistently define their unique democracy against the populist and revolutionary excesses of other countries.
Today, though, not just Fox News Jacobins like Beck and Hannity but nearly the entire leadership of the Republican Party are fanning those flames. Newt Gingrich hopes the Tea Party will become the “militant wing of the Republican Party,” looking to hitch his political fortunes to a movement now regularly calling for a “second bloody revolution.” It is hard to think of another time in American history when one half of the political establishment has so wholly embraced insurrectionary populism as an electoral strategy.
Considering the right’s success at mimicking the organizing tactics of the left, it would be tempting to see recent calls for rebellion and violence as signs that the conservative movement is entering its Weathermen phase—the moment in the 1960s and 1970s when some left-wing activists succumbed to revolutionary fantasies, contributing to the New Left’s crackup. Except that violence did not really come all that easy to the American leftists of that moment. There was endless theorizing and agonizing, Leninist justifying and Dostoevskian moralizing, from which the left, considering the ongoing finger-pointing and mea culpas, still hasn’t recovered.
In contrast, conservative entitlement to the threat of violence is so baked into American history that, in moments like this, it seems to be taken for granted. The Tea Party crowd, along with its militia, NRA, and Oath Keeper friends, would just as easily threaten to overthrow the federal government—or waterboard Nancy Pelosi—as go golfing.
On the 15th anniversary of the bombing of the Oklahoma Federal Building, which left 168 people dead and 600 wounded, gun-rights militants held a rally at the capital mall in Washington, along with a smaller, heavily armed one across the Potomac, where speaker after speaker threatened revolution and invoked the federal siege of Waco to justify the Oklahoma bombing. This is the kind of militancy Gingrich believes the Republicans can harness and which he tenderly calls a “natural expression” of frustration.
Where all this will lead, who knows? But you still “don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”
Greg Grandin is a professor of history at New York University. His most recent book, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City, just published in paperback, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was picked by the New York Times, the New Yorker, and NPR for their “best of” lists. A new edition of his previous book, Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States and the Rise of the New Imperialism, will be published later this year.