Thomas Frank: From Televangelism To The Tea Parties

Thanks to Google, we break through the Murdoch paywall:

It turns out the health-care vote in Congress was a Waterloo, although Sen. Jim DeMint, the South Carolina solon who predicted as much, got a few details wrong.

That is the estimation, anyway, of David Frum, the former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. In a widely circulated essay written in the wake of Sunday’s vote, Mr. Frum laid the blame for the GOP’s defeat with its strategy of pure, unrelenting negation, which favored denunciation over compromise and thus ruled out the acts of legislative compromise that might have made the package more palatable to conservatives. The result is that the Democrats’ bill is now law, and it is almost certainly permanent.

What bothers Mr. Frum is the political ineptitude of his fellow Republicans. But it’s fair to ask just how much that sort of politics matters to conservatives anymore. After all, the right-wing populist ground swell that has dominated the scene for the past few months doesn’t seem to be driven by the logic of legislative effectiveness. What it craves are exaggerated moral showdowns and superhuman ideological feats. And in its mind the health-care bill was magnified from a feeble compromise into a baby-slaughtering, communist power grab.

This kind of rhetoric was standard fare both inside the House of Representatives and out on the west lawn of the capitol, where I stood amongst the protesters on Saturday and listened to warnings about the advent of tyranny and even what the actor Jon Voight, who was in attendance, called “this destruction of America.”

The most revealing line, though, came in a speech by Republican Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri, who warned that “we are being fitted with the gold chains of socialism” and then asked the crowd to choose between sunshiny “freedom” or “the gloomy shadows of some European cynical society.”

“Cynical,” you see, is what the snake-flag set imagines that it is not. Cynicism is something that other people do, particularly people who live on a smarty-pants continent where they read aristocratic authors, eat snob food, and enjoy access to health care from cradle to grave. Cynics are people who have convinced themselves of the highbrow idea that unregulated self-interest does not always deliver optimal results.

But what gathers before the capitol dome under the banner of the viper is idealism. That’s what motivated the protesters when they painted the words, “You Lie” on their shirts in homage to their favorite South Carolina congressman, or when they blamed the health-care system’s problems on government screw-ups, or when they waved signs that read “Barak Tse-Tong” and “Coffin Makers Want Obama.” Idealism refuses to compromise.

I do not fully understand the mechanics by which the great events of recent years—namely, the self-destruction of Wall Street and the presidency of Barack Obama—triggered a mania for Revolutionary War costumes and the high-flown cadences of Jeffersonian English. But that is nevertheless what has happened. Not only do the protesters wave the flags of that era, but they know the quotes as well, shouting out favorite passages from the works of the Founders as they came up in the various speeches, giving the whole thing the air of a TV game show.

In reality, of course, they aren’t protesters at all—they are “freedom fighters,” as two of Saturday’s speakers insisted. And maybe they are something even more exalted than that. Darla Dawald, an organizer for the national protest group ResistNet, called on those in the crowd “who know that this nation was built on Christian principles . . . to stand here and declare that this bill be killed in the name of the Lord.”

It is tempting to understand the tea party movement as a distant relative of the lowest form of televangelism, with its preposterous moral certainty, its weird faith in markets, its constant profiteering, and, of course, its gullible audiences.

Tea partiers fancy themselves a movement without leaders, but this is only true in the sense that, say, the nation’s Miley Cyrus fan clubs don’t have a central leader. They don’t need one—they have Miley Cyrus herself. And the tea partiers, for their part, have Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and the various personalities of Fox News, whose exploits were mentioned frequently from the speaker’s platform on Saturday. But it was only after I watched an online video of Capitol Hill protesters earnestly instructing one another in what sounded like Mr. Beck’s trademark theory of progressivism that I understood: This is protest as a form of fandom.

These are TV citizens, regurgitating TV history lessons, and engaged in a TV crusade. They seem to care little for the give and take of the legislative process. What seems to make sense to them is the logic of entertainment, the ever-escalating outrage of reality TV.

But maybe, one of these days, the nation is going to change the channel.

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