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The Great American Tea Party

NEW YORK – Who were those flag-waving, cheering, hollering, singing, and praying Americans who gathered in Washington DC on the last Saturday in August at a rally to “restore the honor” of the United States? This tax-free jamboree of patriotism was ostensibly non-partisan (otherwise it could not have been tax-free). The main organizer and speaker was Glenn Beck, the right-wing populist radio and TV personality, who promised to restore not only the nation’s honor, but “American values,” too.

The other star was Sarah Palin, the darling of the populist Tea Party crowds, who began by paying her respect to Martin Luther King, Jr. For it was here, on this very same spot and date, that he gave his “I have a dream” speech in 1963. She then quickly proceeded to give a long celebratory speech about the heroism of US soldiers “fighting for freedom” abroad.

It seemed an odd – and to many offensive – transition: from King’s great plea for civil rights to Palin’s sentimental clichés about the military. But then there was something odd about the entire event, just as there is something odd about the Tea Party movement itself. This latest surge of American populism is financed by some extremely wealthy men, including a couple of oil billionaires named David and Charles Koch, who favor cutting taxes for the super-rich and abolishing government subsidies for the poor, such as Social Security and President Barack Obama’s health-care plan.

This agenda might seem selfish, though understandable from the point of view of an oil billionaire. But who are all those people wildly cheering for the billionaire’s dream, on of all days the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s speech? They are almost uniformly white, largely middle-aged and above, and for the most part far from wealthy.

The majority have no college degree. Many say that they are afraid of losing their jobs. No doubt quite a few of them would have trouble paying the astronomical costs of American health-care bills without government assistance. In other words, they would benefit from the publicly financed programs that the Tea Party’s sponsors wish to abolish.

And yet, there they are, denouncing as “socialism” Obama’s health-care legislation, or a slight tax increase for the richest 1% of the population. To them, “socialism” means “European”, or simply “un-American.” Unlike the movement’s sponsors, the crowds chanting “USA! USA!” do not appear to be motivated by economic self-interest.

It is possible that many Americans are still so convinced that anyone who works hard will end up rich that they will support anything that favors billionaires. But it is more likely that the grassroots of American populism are motivated by something else. Populism everywhere is driven by fear and resentment: fear of being powerless, without status or privilege, and resentment of those – educated liberal elites, foreigners who supposedly take our jobs, and Muslims, Jews, blacks, or illegal immigrants – who seem to enjoy undeserved benefits.

These fears and resentments exist everywhere, now more than ever. But they are not expressed in the same way in every country. Rural Americans, living on the vast plains, uprooted and isolated from the outside world, have a history of expressing their longing for community and mystical identity by gathering in large numbers in churches and tents, listening to the grand statements of charismatic hucksters. Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck are heirs to a long line of preachers and politicians who made their fortunes by stirring up anxious crowds, promising them Heaven on Earth, or at least a place in Heaven.

In the case of Beck’s rally in Washington DC, the link with history of rural churches and religious “revival” meetings was overt. America, after “wandering in darkness… today begins to turn back to God,” Beck declared, in the typical style of a TV evangelist.

Part of such rabble-rousers’ stock-in-trade is to conflate patriotism, freedom, and God. This is the myth of the US, the God-blessed land of the free. Underlying Beck’s “non-partisan” preacher’s talk about restoring American honor and values was a message that everyone in the crowd understood: such un-American elements as the liberal elites in New York and Washington, Democrats, and other God-less socialists had robbed America of its honor and values.

After the event, Beck gave an interview, in which he criticized Obama – not for his tax policies, but for having the wrong religious beliefs. Obama, he said, believes in “liberation theology,” which means that he must be a “socialist,” thus un-American.

This is also what Palin means when she tells her Tea Party crowds that they are the “real Americans,” implying that all Americans who disagree with her views are not. They are aliens who have no right to govern the nation.

The success of the Tea Party movement has made many Democrats (and some sober Republicans) nervous. There are calls for the Democrats to fight back. This is not impossible. Democratic politicians have a populist tradition, too. Talk of God, freedom, and nation is not unique to right-wing radicals or Republicans. Franklin D. Roosevelt knew how to inspire the patriotism of working men. John F. Kennedy was good at selling the American dream. Lyndon B. Johnson had the common touch of rural Texas.

Barack Obama is from urban Hawaii but has all the rhetorical gifts of an old-fashioned preacher. Alas, he has several distinct disadvantages, too: he was educated at two elite universities, his middle name is Hussein, and his father was black. Any one of these would be a handicap at a time of rising populism, but the combination of all three is lethal. The Tea Party movement – an economic agenda for the rich masquerading as the salvation of God-fearing white Americans – knows that all too well.