Tea Party rhetoric uses the language of civil rights to manipulate America’s white working class
This November, the United States will hold elections for 37 crucial seats in the Senate. At present, Democrats hold 57 out of 100. It’s a tenuous balance: if the Senate ends up with a Republican majority, President Obama’s ability to advance any part of his policy initiatives will be in grave doubt. As a result, this is already shaping up to be one of the meanest campaign seasons in history.
Enter Glenn Beck, a recovered alcoholic and cocaine addict, darling of the Tea Party movement, a loose association of arch-libertarians, social conservatives and those who are diffusely angry at “liberal elites”. Having hovered at the edge of rightwing shock jock media for years, Beck burst onto the national scene only recently, thanks in large part to the sponsorship of Roger Ailes, former Republican party adviser to Presidents Reagan and George HW Bush, and current head of Fox News.
Beck’s poisonous power to manipulate the sense of disenfranchisement felt by white middle- and working-class citizens is serious business. He scares me, he scares Democrats, and he even scares many traditional Republicans who feel he panders to extremists. Listening to Beck is not unlike attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. The world is broken down into simple ideals, laddered steps toward enumerated goals, reiterated creeds of belief and renunciation. As in AA, God is the only authority; admission of an engulfing corruption is the necessary starting point; and “restoration” of sanity is the goal.
Beck’s expressed agenda involves rescuing America from what he depicts as its current state of depravity. While Beck frequently claims that he is “not political” – “I’m an evangelist for America” – his diatribes draw relentless divisions among We, You, Them and Those. “We” are “patriots”. “They” are “traitors”, “progressives”, “socialists” and “Nazis”. Beck is a masterful narrator of “reverse” race and class grievance. Despite all data to the contrary, he asserts that it is whites who collectively suffer at the hands of black racists – Obama and his seven circles of “radical” “comrades” being the prime and reiterated example. “We” will “reclaim the civil rights movement” in the name of individual rights and freedoms, says Beck. “We will take that movement because we were the ones who did it in the first place.”
Beck is the founder of something called the 9.12 Project, designed to bring back the kind of American unity he believes was widespread on the day after September 11 2001. It is indeed an odd nostalgia – this “unification” coalesced by terror, trauma and inconsolable loss. On the other hand, it is very much in keeping with Beck’s apocalyptic view of the world: he speaks constantly of the “rivers of blood” that will flow if America does not realise her Divine Destiny. In any event, whatever unity he envisions seems not to include the survivors and families of those who died in the fall of the twin towers. He has advised them to “shut up” because they are “always complaining… We did our best for them”.
Beck has staged a series of rallies around the US, all premised on “taking back” what has been seized and sullied by faux Americans. The most controversial of these was “Restoring Honor”, on 28 August, the anniversary of the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 and Martin Luther King’s 1963 march on Washington, as well as Obama’s nomination as the Democratic candidate for president in 2008. When asked why he chose that particular date to hold a rally – and on the Washington Mall, site of King’s march – Beck said that black people “don’t own” Martin Luther King.
So we endured the spectacle of Sarah Palin standing beside Beck in the Mall’s shadowy marble embrace of Abraham Lincoln, intoning her admiration of a “reclaimed” civil rights movement.
Palin had not long before tweeted her endorsement of Dr Laura Schlesinger, another Fox radio personality. You may recall that Dr Laura, a perpetually angry authoritarian passing as a psychologist, had taken a call from a black woman married to a white man, who asked what she should do when her husband’s friends made derogatory racial comments. Dr Laura told the woman that she had “a chip on her shoulder” and advised: “Listen to a black comic and all you hear is ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger’ … If you’re that hypersensitive about colour and don’t have a sense of humour, don’t marry out of your race.” Thankfully, there was a public outcry. What was Palin’s view? “Dr Laura, don’t retreat… reload!”
Given all this, it was extremely hard to swallow Beck and Palin’s assurances that the Tea Party’s march on Washington was either colourblind or apolitical.
A bit of history. Phrases such as “social justice” and “restoring honor” go back a very long time. After the civil war, southern states began enacting “separate but equal” laws as part of a huge backlash against the 14th amendment’s guarantee of political equality for ex-slaves. This partitioning of public space was upheld as not violative of blacks’ political rights in the 1896 supreme court case of Plessy v Ferguson; and that legitimation led to the rapid growth of legalised segregation throughout the south.
As the majority opinion in Plessy put it: “Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts… If one race be inferior to the other socially, the constitution… cannot put them upon the same plane.” Half a century later, the 1954 case of Brown v Board of Education overruled that infamous opinion but, to this day, segregationists and some strict constructionists decry the Brown holding as having “forced” social equality upon those who merely want to associate with whomever they choose.
When, therefore, Beck insists: “We are the ones that must stand for civil and equal rights. Equal justice. Not special justice, not social justice, but equal justice,” he invokes a century-old system of connotation in which “equal justice” nevertheless encompassed the apartheid of “separate but equal”. Wittingly or not, Beck echoes the very wrong side of battles about affirmative action, school integration, anti-miscegenation, harassment in the workplace, eugenics, segregated graveyards, and so much more.
There are those who view Glenn Beck as simply psychotic. But whatever his mental state, the more interesting dimension of the Beck phenomenon is his backing: the financial donors, corporate advertisers and media empire whose support has lifted this Mad Hatter to his current heights of influence. This includes much of the Republican party establishment – and many of the same people who are most responsible for the continued deployment of the so-called “southern strategy”, a tactic that has divided elections along racial, class and economic lines for generations.
This strategy was perfectly explained in a 1981 interview with the late Lee Atwater, former chair of the Republican party: “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’ – that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced bussing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites … ‘We want to cut this’ is much more abstract than even the bussing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘nigger, nigger’.”
In what some have called the “southernisation” of American politics, however, there has been a much more widespread deployment of late, spread by the nonstop yammering of radio shock jocks, and the ubiquitous influence of Fox News. This confluence of mass media has affected US opinion significantly. Beck’s contemptuous language and extremist ideas seem to have found foothold with large numbers of Americans. And whether he reflects, follows or drives the trend, if one is living in a bubble of fear that Obama was born on Mars, that all Muslims are terrorists, that civil rights laws enslave white people and that free healthcare is Hitlerian … well, only in that universe could you nominate for senator (as just happened in the primaries in Delaware) Christine O’Donnell, a vacuous, unemployed Palin lookalike who lies about having a college degree, lists her campaign headquarters as her home, and expresses her belief that masturbation is a form of adultery.
And only in that universe would you nominate as Republican candidate for governor of New York a foul-mouthed billionaire (Carl Paladino) who shrugs off as “humourless” and “oversensitive” those who object to his having sent loads of emails to co-workers that display blatant misogyny and racism.