The Tea Party: phoney freedom fighters

The right-wing movement is outraged by excessive government - except when it is wielded by Republicans in the name of counter-terrorism.

Wendy Kaminer

Topics USA

19 April is Patriot’s Day in America, commemorated here in Boston by a re-enactment of Paul Revere’s ride and the Revolution’s first skirmish on the Lexington Green, as well as by the Boston Marathon. 19 April is also the anniversary of one of the worst domestic terror attacks in American history – the 1995 bombing of a federal office building in Oklahoma City by army veteran Timothy McVeigh.

Trained by the government he grew to hate (or scapegoat), McVeigh travelled on the fringes of homegrown, violent extremist movements, which intensified in the mid-1990s after the horribly misconceived FBI siege of a religious cult in Waco, Texas in 1993. 19 April, Patriot’s Day, is also the anniversary of the final, fatal FBI assault on the Waco compound that ended in the deaths of some 80 people, including 20 children. So maybe McVeigh considered himself an avenging, patriotic angel, but he murdered 168 innocent people without inflicting any measurable harm on the federal government, much less advancing anyone’s liberty. Instead, his attack facilitated dramatic deprivations of liberty that persist today.

As former President Clinton recently said, the Oklahoma City bombing, ‘prompted Congress’ to pass his Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which (as the former president didn’t say) included provisions eviscerating habeas corpus rights for death-row inmates, allowing the use of secret evidence in deportation proceedings, and dangerously expanding presidential power to designate and persecute suspected terrorist groups and their associates. This 1996 counter-terrorism act for which McVeigh unwittingly lobbied, so murderously, laid the foundation for the Patriot Act of 2001. The Waco siege should have led to renewed checks on federal law enforcement power; instead the Oklahoma City bombing led to its expansion.

Some viewed McVeigh as a distinctly American villain – the disturbed, disaffected product of a cowboy culture. Images of the US as a particularly violent country are caricatures – a predilection for violence is a human failing not a national one – but America’s revolutionary roots and its self-image as the ‘don’t tread on me’ land of the free do tend to mythologise political violence. Popular notions of patriotism are shaped in no small part by romanticised images of armed rebellion. This is most obvious in the gun rights movement, where love of country is virtually equated with love of guns, and twenty-first century would-be Minute Men (in eighteenth-century garb) remind us that the country was founded on the willingness of armed colonialists to wage war against tyranny.

The passion of pro-gun advocates combined with right-wing hysteria about the ‘tyranny’ of healthcare reform and Obama’s ‘socialist’, ‘communist’, ‘Marxist’ or ‘fascist’ agenda, produces quite a lot of heated rhetoric, at least. A small Patriot’s Day rally of armed gun owners at a national park in Virginia featured calls for violent resistance if federal agents try to arrest people for not buying health insurance (the idea that violating a new federal insurance mandate is a criminal offence is a persistent right-wing myth). ‘We must declare war against oppression and against socialism, and you are the people to do that’, Republican Congressman Paul Broun exhorted during another Patriot’s Day rally of Second Amendment advocates in Washington. (Broun has compared Obama to both Hitler and the Soviets and issued warnings of an impending dictatorship.) ‘We’re in a war. The other side knows they are at war, because they started it’, one Patriot’s Day protester told CNN. ‘Our nation was won via the individual right to keep and bear arms’, protest organisers stress. ‘It is the one right that protects all others.’

American revolutionary kitsch is clearly in vogue. It inspires the Tea Party Movement, obviously, but ‘taxed enough already’ Tea-Partiers are not focused on expanding gun rights, according to a recent New York Times/CBS poll. (Over half of them believe that gun control laws should ‘be kept as they are now.’) What do Tea Party patriots believe, and who are they anyway?

Just in time for tax day on 15 April and a flurry of Tea Party rallies, the New York Times released a profile of this telegenic movement. It confirmed, in part, what casual observers have surmised: self-identified Tea-Partiers, who constitute a little less than one fifth of the population, tend to be white, male, married Republicans, and over 45 years of age. The poll also provided a little empirical evidence of the movement’s cognitive dissonance: a majority of the people surveyed in this anti-tax uprising ‘describe the amount they paid in taxes this year as “fair”’. Ninety-two per cent believe that Obama ‘is moving the country toward socialism’ (52 per cent of the general public agree); and the movement’s primary goal is reducing the size of government. But these advocates of smaller government and spending cuts are generally supportive of social security and Medicare – which many receive or look forward to receiving.

If Tea-Partiers oppose cuts in their own, massive entitlements (which, as the New York Times notes, constitute America’s biggest domestic programmes), how do they imagine it will be possible to reduce spending? They want to cut ‘waste’. (Who doesn’t?) You can infer what they mean by waste from their complaints about Obama’s alleged socialism: over half of them (56 per cent) believe that the Obama administration favours poor people, 25 per cent believe it favours blacks over whites, and 52 per cent believe that ‘too much has been made of the problems facing black people’ (as opposed to 28 per cent of the general public). It is worth noting that Tea Party members are ‘wealthier and more well-educated than the general public’, with 78 per cent describing their personal financial situations as ‘fairly’ or ‘very good’.

These findings suggest that a primary Tea Party complaint about the government is that ‘it favours them over us’. To Tea Party supporters of social security and Medicare, ‘socialism’ apparently means the extension of government benefits to other people, especially poor people who need them most: 73 per cent believe that extending benefits to poor people helps them remain poor – a particularly notable finding in the wake of recession and persistently high unemployment.

But this is an old, apparently recession-proof story about class, race, and welfare, dating back to the mid-twentieth century, after the years of the civil rights movement. It helped establish a Republican majority that twice elected Richard Nixon and made an icon out of two-term president Ronald Reagan, whose frequently repeated anecdote about a mythic welfare queen deftly exploited racial stereotypes as well as anger about welfare fraud – real, exaggerated or imagined.

The Tea Party movement is sometimes at odds with the Republican establishment, but it is dominated by Republican voters (who constituted two thirds of members surveyed), who adore current and former Republican officials (notably Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann and Fox News star Sarah Palin) and it is organised with the help of Republican money. (, a right-wing advocacy group led by former Republican congressman Dick Armey and former presidential candidate, gazillionaire Steve Forbes, aggressively promotes Tea Party protests.)

Given the movement’s strong Republican support and sympathies, it’s not surprising to find members united in fierce opposition to Barack Obama. Their doubts about his citizenship (only 41 per cent believe he was born in the US) and suspicions about his religious and ethnic loyalties (reflected in their frequent, snide use of his middle name – Hussein), combined with their concern about an excessive focus on the ‘problems of black people’, their ‘Take Back Our Country’ mantra, and the overt racism that has regularly surfaced in Tea Party protests, suggest that Obama’s race plays no small part in stoking his opposition’s fire (as many have noted). But Bill Clinton faced furious opposition as well, which erupted in constant investigations and a crusade to impeach him over a blowjob which, looking back, seems even more surreal than it appeared at the time.

So the Tea Party movement, marketed as a novel, spontaneous uprising of mostly independent voters, is actually a more familiar, partisan revolt against a dramatic loss of power. Bush-era Republicans who envisioned a permanent majority were jolted out of their reveries by the 2008 election of a Democratic president, a clear majority in the House and (briefly) a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Neither party likes losing elections, but Republicans tend to win and lose them with a vengeance. (As a Pew Research Center report observes, ‘Trust in government is typically higher among members of the party that controls the White House… However, Republicans’ views of government change more dramatically, depending on which party holds power, than do Democrats’.)

George W. Bush was hated by a lot of Democrats, it’s true, but he confronted nothing analogous to the Tea Party movement, or the right-wing crusades that crippled the Clinton administration. The passion with which Tea-Partiers chant ‘Take back Our Country’ may be exacerbated by an undercurrent of racism and xenophobia (reflected in doubts about Obama’s citizenship) but essentially they want to take our country back from Democrats and give it to Republicans once again.

Without wishing them luck (and I don’t), you might still admire their energy and engagement in this exercise in democracy. You might – if they didn’t denounce majority rule as a form of tyranny when they find themselves in the minority. Healthcare reform, passed by clear majorities in both houses of Congress and signed into law by a president elected by a clear (uncontested) majority of the popular vote, is a particularly potent symbol of liberal ‘tyranny’ on the right. Liz Cheney, daughter of former vice-president Dick, condemned the passage of the healthcare bill (by democratically elected majorities) as ‘one of the most arrogant power plays in American history’.

Why does this transparently cynical talking point resonate with Tea-Partiers? How might they justify opposing majority rule only when Democrats are in power? They simply don’t believe that the Democratic president and Congress represent the majority. According to the New York Times/CBS poll, the 18 per cent of Americans who identify themselves as Tea-Partiers are convinced that they represent the majority instead: 84 per cent of them agree that ‘the views of the people involved in the Tea Party movement generally reflect the views of most Americans’. This is perhaps the FOX News effect: if you get all or most of your information from one partisan Republican source that confirms your status as a patriotic American and characterises your opponents – including moderate Democrats – as extremists, you might reflexively universalise your own convictions.

Diversify your news sources and you might learn that public opinion is divided over heath care reform, mainly along partisan lines. Shortly after reform was enacted, it enjoyed the support of about half of all Americans, who characterised its passage as a ‘good thing’ (according to a USA Today/Gallup Poll). In any case, only a very spoiled, solipsistic populace that has never experienced tyranny would characterise federal healthcare reform as tyrannical (whether or not it’s wise policy).

Even if you concede for the sake of argument that a mandate to purchase healthcare implicates civil liberty, you’ll be hard pressed to explain why it is a more grievous civil liberties violation than, say, un-controversial, mandatory social security fund contributions; but that is a trivial challenge compared to the futility of arguing that the new healthcare law is a primary threat to freedom in our post 9/11 world.

If ‘arrogant power play’ is, at best, a hyperbolic condemnation of healthcare reform, it’s an understated description of the many life-threatening, privacy-destroying abuses of liberty that Liz Cheney and her allies have actively supported, or engineered. They include (but are hardly limited to): the Patriot Act, rammed through a craven Congress by the Bush administration in the weeks following the 9/11 attack; the administration’s extensive, illegal surveillance programme; and President Bush’s appropriation of unilateral power to designate people ‘enemy combatants’ and imprison them without judicial review, forever. If Cheney and the Tea-Partiers were genuinely opposed to tyranny they might also decry Obama’s assumption of power to order the assassination of an American citizen, as well as the decision by his administration to indict a whistleblower who exposed gross mismanagement at the National Security Agency.

There are no good excuses for Tea-Partiers and their Republican allies to ignore or endorse gross abuses of the national security state while complaining about the ‘totalitarianism’ of healthcare reform. There are only unflattering explanations. You can support the indefinite detention without trial and occasional torture of suspected terrorists only by assuming that all suspects are guilty (contrary to the evidence of the past eight years) and only by describing torture as ‘enhanced interrogation’ and effectively denying that it occurs. You can assume that all suspects are guilty only by harbouring blind faith in the infallibility of the executive branch and trusting it to identify actual terrorists with unfailing accuracy. Obviously, Tea-Partiers and other anti-government protesters don’t trust the executive branch these days – that is, they don’t trust its current leader. But they don’t object in principle to presidential power, so long as it is wielded by one of their own, against none of their own.

Freedom fighters don’t just fight for their own rights, much less their own privileges, prerogatives, or entitlements. They fight for the rights of others. The Founding Fathers, whom right-wing protesters regularly invoke, did not interpret ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ to mean ‘Do Tread on Them’. Instead they enshrined respect for everyone’s rights in the Constitution, establishing a limited, tripartite system of government, led by a president and not a monarch – a system of government that counter-terrorism laws and policies vesting unaccountable power in the executive are effectively dismantling, with Tea-Partiers tacit support, at least. Indeed their hysterical, enraged opposition to Obama partly reflects the unprecedented powers he inherited. Dick Cheney, George W Bush, and their appointees and allies did not intend to expand the unilateral authority of the executive branch for the benefit of a Democratic president. They’re understandably anxious to take that authority back. The right-wing politicians and cable TV stars now trying to harness the energy and votes of the anti-Obama movement – Liz Cheney, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, and many others – strongly support an imperial presidency, which some of them hope to inhabit. They may pose in tri-cornered hats, but they seek to inherit a crown.

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer, writer and free speech activist. Her latest book is Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity, and the ACLU. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

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