The Accidental Truth-Teller: Glenn Beck, the Tea Party and Race

This is really weird -- but Glenn Beck and I are upset about the same thing this week. Less surprisingly, we got to the same place by very different routes, and in the case of the deposed former king of all right-wing media, Beck conveniently overlooks his own critical role in creating the situation he is now bemoaning. Nevertheless, he wants an answer to this question, and so do I:

Why is everyone overlooking the role that race -- some would call it racism, but I would describe more broadly and more typically as racial anxiety and fear -- played in the rise of the Tea Party Movement, and thus in the current state of the Republican Party, the big dog that's been wagged for nearly three years by its right-pointing, tea-laden tail?

You may have heard by now that Beck -- in an appearance on the Fox Business channel, sister to the Fox News Channel that he left so ingloriously this summer, speaking with the like-conspiracy-minded Andrew Napolitano -- lashed out on Friday at Newt Gingrich, whom he sees as a big-government promoter in the vein of the Beck-hated GOP progressive Teddy Roosevelt. He added:

“So if you've got a big government progressive or a big government progressive in Obama, one in Newt Gingrich, one in Obama, ask yourself this Tea Party: Is it about Obama's race? Because that's what it appears to be to me. If you're against him but you're for this guy, it must be about race. It's the policies that matter.”

Completely by accident, Beck stumbled onto a greater truth. In recent months, a myth has been allowed to fester and take root about how the Tea Party Movement came about, and what it stands for. In particular, it is the falsehood that the Tea Party came about because of anger against the 2008-09 bailout of big banks and Wall Street. It was disturbing to see this lie repeated so often -- usually in the context of trying to make forced and ultimately confused comparisons between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street -- and not just in the usual conservative media sources, either.

I lost count of how many times I've read assertions like this one put out there by Charlie Gasparino in the New York Post on Oct. 27, 2011:

The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements were both born out of the despair following the 2008 financial crisis, and both have tapped into the public's anger over the unfairness of bank bailouts and huge bonuses for the risk takers while the rest of the country has struggled with unemployment, falling home prices and anemic economic growth.

Here's a similar claim by Fox Business:

At their core, both groups formed as a response to populist anger in the wake of the U.S. government's decision in 2008 to bail out the country's biggest banks. In an effort to stave off what policy makers at the time felt was the pending collapse of the global economy.

No. No. No. No. No. No.

The rise of the Tea Party had nothing to do with bank bailouts.

Remember, the federal government and the Bush administration (remember them?) started bailing out Wall Street and the banking industry in the fall of 2008, six months before the first Tea Party rally, or anything remotely like it. There was no great outpouring of anger from the rank-and-file of the American right. The $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, was signed into law by Bush on Oct. 3, 2008. It was supported by Bush's successor, then-Sen. Barack Obama, but it was also supported by Sen. John McCain, his running mate and future Tea Party queen Sarah Palin, Herman Cain, and even by none other than Glenn Beck. Simply put, there was no Tea Party movement, and no public protests by conservatives (or liberals for that matter) in 2008.

Instead, the Tea Party formed within days of Jan. 20, 2009, the date that Barack Obama became America's 44th president. The famous “Tea Party rant” by Rick Santelli credited with helping to launch the protests wasn't about bailing out banks or Wall Street but the idea that Washington would provide relief for middle-class homeowners who were under water. Another seminal moment came less than a month into Obama's presidency when a young Seattle conservative activist named Keli Carender organized a public protest. Against the bank bailouts and TARP? No. It was against the first major action of the new president, the $787 billion stimulus proposal that included infrastructure projects, saving blue-collar government jobs, and tax cuts (yes, tax cuts) for the middle class.

To convince myself I wasn't crazy after reading so much false revisionist history in recent weeks, I just went back and read the New York Times round-up article after the first day of nationwide Tea Party rallies, on April 15, 2009. The story notes:

The events were meant to protest government spending, particularly the Obama administration's $787 billion stimulus package and its $3.5 trillion budget.

Later on, it adds:

In downtown Houston, there were some in the crowd of 2,000 that poured into the Jesse H. Jones Plaza who also wanted Texas to secede. They were joined by other conservative groups like anti-abortion activists, Libertarians and fiscally conservative Republicans. American flags abounded, along with hand-painted placards that bore messages like “Abolish the I.R.S.,” “Less Government More Free Enterprise,” “We Miss Reagan” and “Honk if You Are Upset About Your Tax Dollars Being Spent on Illegal Aliens.”

Among the words or phrases not appearing anywhere in the article are “Wall Street,” “bank bailouts,” or “TARP” -- because that had nothing to do with it. As a Philadelphia Tea Party activist admitted this year, the movement was never mad at Wall Street. So what was it all about, then?

In the latter part of 2009 and early 2010, I interviewed scores of rank-and-file Tea Party activists for a book called “The Backlash.” More than anything else, I wanted to know what motivated these people -- many of whom didn't have a background in political activism -- to join the movement. Again, I can assure that TARP and the bank bailouts didn't come up. Instead, I heard many variations on this theme: That they were uneasy, if not terrified, by the arrival of an American president named Barack Hussein Obama -- often because of the information they had learned about Obama from Fox News or from right-wing radio hosts such as Glenn Beck.

I made multiple visits to the Delaware 9-12 Patriots and spent considerable time with its leader, the weathered Vietnam veteran Russ Murphy, whose activism had been inspired by his fondness for Beck and Beck's favorite book, The 5000 Year Leap(by an author who believed that slave owners were the real victims of slavery), by reports on Fox News about Obama's ties to '60s radical William Ayers and ultimately by his belief that the president "is fundamentally not American." His movement cohort Theresa Garcia “felt very uncomfortable” the first time she saw Obama on TV. In Chester County, Tea Party support Lorraine Whayland told me that she'd learned from Fox's Sean Hannity that Obama was tied to the Chicago mob. And so on and so forth.

It's remarkable the extent to which the birther movement -- the notion that America's first black president must not be a citizen of America, which was widely believed during my travels among the Tea Party, before the long-form birth certificate was made public -- has been tossed down the memory hole. When I spent a weekend at the Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot in Kentucky, no one mentioned TARP, but merchants sold Photoshopped pictures of a young Barack Obama with Adolf Hitler. These recurring images and ideas were undeniably tied to anxiety about social change in America which had a racial component -- from the abstract notion that whites would eventually be a minority in the United States in the 21st Century to the not-so-abstract notion that an African-American was suddenly in the Oval Office.

Of course, it's patently ridiculous for Glenn Beck to claim to have suddenly discovered this -- since Beck's 2009 spike in popularity was fueled in attacks on black allies of Obama like Van Jones and when he famously accused the president of harboring “deep-seated hatred” of white people. It's also quite strange that Beck would just now be questioning whether race had something to do with the Tea Party's bonding with Gingrich, himself a former longtime Fox analyst who just last year accused Obama of "Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior" and who -- rightly, in my opinion -- has been tagged for sending "dog whistles" in several recent remarks, such as calling Obama a “food stamp president.” This outburst doesn't seem to be a case of the former “Morning Zoo” jock Beck becoming perceptive overnight, but more likely a fit of pique that the candidate who seems to be backed by many right-wing pundits for an array of conflicted reasons -- i.e., Mitt Romney -- is going down in flames.

But whatever his reason, the idea that Beck re-injected into the national conversation -- that race and the Tea Party are linked -- is an important one. The media needs to re-ground itself in the fact that on the playing field of social movements, Occupy Wall Street, despite its flaws, is rooted in a reality of billionaire-bought economic injustice, while the Tea Party is based heavily on an emotion. The ideology that was created in the wake of that emotion -- distrust of any government steps to ease a jobs crisis, distrust of elites even if that means not believing in established science such as man-made global warming -- continues to steer the current debate, even if actual Tea Party activists have all but vanished the scene. So any dose of honesty is a breath of fresh air, even if emerges from the fetid swamp of Beck, Inc.