Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.
I grew up politically in the times of New Deal, left-wing liberalism when, in my Brooklyn neighborhood, Republicans, conservatism and capitalism were synonymous and dirty words. Now, crazy as it seems, some of these loony teabaggers on the far, far right are killing conservatism and trashing capitalists, even if they don’t realize it. The trouble is they’ve gone so far right they may have come full circle to that which they say they’re denouncing, but more on that later.
That these semi-orchestrated mobs are really ranting and raving against traditional, mainline Republican conservatism and corporate America came to me when a bona fide liberal, Frank Rich, wrote in The New York Times of September 20, that the racist, demagogue godfather of the teabaggers, broadcaster Glenn Beck, is like a stopped clock that can be right twice a day.
By that, Rich meant that Beck has also tapped into the mob’s resentment of the Wall Streeters who have cost the taxpayers hundred of billions of dollars. “Wall Street owns our government,” Rich quoted Beck as saying. “Our government and these gigantic corporations have merged.”
He has also denounced General Electric, General Motors, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and even Wal-Mart (along with labor unions).
Rich calls this “right-wing populism,” but racism, Christian fundamentalism and anti-banker, anti-corporate, anti-eastern establishment, anti-government populism are part of what the great historian Richard Hofstadter called, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” It came from the left as well as the right. Democrat and Christian fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan was the anti-banker leader of midwestern populism. “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman of South Carolina, a racist, and Huey Long of Louisiana, were anti-corporation, anti-Wall Street southern populists.
As Rich points out, much of the rhetoric of the teabaggers strangely and perhaps unknowingly echoes the central character in another Times story of the day, Michael Moore, producer of his new documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story.
It is a scathing critique of Wall Street and corporations in general, and Goldman Sachs and the Obama administration’s bailout of these thieves and its failure so far in restoring the New Deal era restraints such as the Glass-Steagall Act separating commercial from investment banking.
Maybe not coincidentally, the same September 20 Times carried a couple of pictures that illustrated the pallid corporate-friendly liberalism under assault by the likes of Moore and Beck: The photo on the left is of my kind of liberal, Franklin D. Roosevelt signing Glass-Steagall into law in 1933.
The one on the right shows a smiling Bill Clinton signing its repeal in 1999, with then Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and other bankers applauding. The accompanying story by Peter Goodman traced much of the blame for the financial system catastrophe to that act of kindness for Wall Street.
That repeal and the subsequent end of any restraint on commodity futures trading in 2000, approved by Clinton but sponsored by then Republican Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, further encouraged the financial meltdown and the recession that has brought teabaggers out and the rest of us to grief. That was a marriage of traditional Republican big business conservatism, and Democratic neo-liberalism, with Wall Street and investment banking.
It was a giant government giveaway. The architects included the Fed’s Greenspan, Clinton’s Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who quickly took a multi-million job with Citigroup, which the repeals helped create, and Lawrence Summers, who succeeded Rubin as Treasury Secretary and now runs Obama’s National Economic Council. It seemed, to borrow a famous phrase, that what was good for Wall Street (and General Motors) was good for the country.
Is it any wonder that these people and politics should become targets of the left-wing Moores and the right-wing Becks?
Over the same weekend, I picked up on another important piece of thinking about what the teabaggers, the Becks, the Limbaughs and the Christian fundamentalists are really doing to American politics. That was a truly enlightening conversation September 18 between Bill Moyers and Sam Tanenhaus, a top New York Times editor, an expert on the traditional conservative movement and the author of a new book, The Death of Conservatism?Another guest by proxy was the journalist Max Blumenthal, author of The Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Party.
Blumenthal, who has probed deeply into the far right and its ultra-fundamentalist Christians, had videotaped some of the more shocking paranoid participants at the Washington teabagging march. Much of it was staged, but Moyers quoted Beck:
“This is a collection of Americans who want both parties to stop with the corruption, stop with the spending and start listening to the people.”
Moyers wanted to know how these thousands of right-wing protesters squared with Tanenhaus’ belief in the death of conservatism, or Blumenthal’s view that the fundamentalists and the far right were destroying the Republican Party.
While traditional conservatives have used and honored political institutions, Tanenhaus said,“now we’ve reached a point, quite like Richard Hofstadter described...where ideologues don’t trust politicians...Many of the protesters or demonstrators insisted they were not demonstrating just against Barack Obama but against all the politicians...They don’t believe in politics as the medium whereby our society negotiates its issues...They believe in a kind of revolution, a cultural revolution...”
So far, the messages and demands of the far, far right are unformed and inchoate, flailing at government, politics, corporations, Wall Street, Democrats and what’s left of traditional Republicans. They decry socialism, but beat at the institutions of capitalism. They damn a Democratic president, but condemn traditional conservative Republicans.
The teabaggers and the loonies among them may not know it, but I fear they are like tinder, living “on the verge of apocalypse,” as Tanenhaus said. And history has taught that a movement that goes too far to the right (or left) becomes the totalitarianism it claims to oppose.
Hofstadter had faith that paranoia passes and American politics rights itself. Franklin Roosevelt also faced paranoia, the opposition of every major newspaper, and real fascists of the Silver Shirts and the German-American Bund. But he wore the label “liberal” proudly, he lived up to his liberal promises and he did not seek nonexistent bipartisan support. And he prevailed.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today: Linda Carmi: Goodbye Shoes