Defining the American Dream

Taking America back

Posted on Friday, November 5, 2010

Mary Rakovich cannot pinpoint the moment she realised she was losing her country. But she started to get that feeling in early 2008 during a very heated phase of the Democratic primary contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The TV networks had picked up tapes of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright's sermons and were replaying the most incendiary clips over and over: "God damn America", "God damn America," "God damn America."

The internet was awash with rumours that the clips of Obama’s Chicago pastor would be followed by another even more troubling release. One persistent rumour had it that Michelle Obama was on tape condemning “whiteys”. Conservative websites focused on the fact that Obama, unlike other presidential candidates, tended not to wear the American flag pin on his lapel. Already there were rumours that he had not been born in America and was a closet Muslim.
For 53-year-old Mary, an automotive engineer who had recently lost her job at General Motors in Detroit and moved with her husband to Florida, it was a moment of awakening. For the first time in her life she began to surf the internet. “I never realised how much you could learn,” she said over a seafood meal near her new home in Cedar Key, central Florida. “It opened up a new world to me.”
Mary looked up the website of the Revd Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ. “I came across black liberation theology, which I’d never heard of before,” she said. “It really freaked me out. I mean, if you went on to John McCain’s website and found all this stuff about white liberation theology wouldn’t you be freaked?” I nodded in agreement.
Socrates said that to understand a thing you must first name it. It was not until February 2009 that the Tea Party movement got its name (after the 1773 Boston protest against punitive British taxes). That was when Rick Santelli, the CNBC anchor, erupted into his now famous live “rant” in which he stuck the moniker on the growing but inchoate conservative backlash against Barack Obama. President Obama had yet to complete a month in office.
It could just as easily have happened during the election. At their rallies, John McCain and Sarah Palin would often be drowned out by beer hall chants of “USA”, “USA”. (Palin surfed it, McCain just looked awkward.) It could have happened on October 3 2008, when Congress passed the $700bn Wall Street bailout unleashing a flood of hate mail to lawmakers who had voted in favour.
It might have happened six weeks earlier when Obama addressed the Hollywoodesque Democratic convention at the Mile High stadium in Denver – an event that sent liberal spirits soaring but which only deepened the foreboding of conservatives. “We kept thinking, who is this guy? Do we know anything about him?” says Ron Rakovich, Mary’s husband, 52, who, like his wife, had recently been evicted from his job at GM.
But it was Santelli on February 19 2009 who put a name to the feelings of the Rakoviches and millions like them. His angry soliloquy was sparked by Obama’s announcement of an otherwise unexceptionable – and ineffectual – plan to stem the ... floodtide of home foreclosures. For Santelli it was another wasteful bailout for the undeserving – although in this case the undeserving were poor.

Tea Partyer Eric Wilson is the founder of the northern Kentucky 9/12 chapter. ‘Even before Obama came to power,’ he says, ‘I felt in the pit of my stomach things were going wrong.’
“This is America!” Santelli began. “How many people want to pay for your neighbour’s mortgages that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills? Raise their hand! President Obama, are you listening? … It’s time for another tea party! What we are doing in this country will make Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin roll over in their graves.”
It is a phrase that crops up again and again. Tea Partiers are constantly invoking the outrage of long-dead Founding Fathers. There are many kinds of Tea Partier. Richard Armey, the former Republican leader, who heads Freedom Works, one of the most prominent Tea Party Groups, refers to the movement’s decentralised character as “beautiful chaos”. “The fact that we don’t have a leader is a strength not a weakness,” he says.
Whether they belong to Freedom Works, like the Rakoviches, the 9/12 group, which was set up by Glenn Beck, the talk radio host (“the day after 9/11 we were all Americans”), the Tea Party Patriots, or one of the dozens of allied outfits, they share a burning sense that the US Constitution is in mortal danger. More than anyone before or since, it is America’s 44th president who personifies that danger. “Obama is the most un-American president we have had,” says Mary.
Having been through the ordeal of being told to clear their desks within minutes of being fired (at separate times), Mary and Ron subsequently also forfeited their suburban home to the bank. They moved south to look after Ron’s ailing father in Florida (he died a few months later) and finally settled on the secluded tranquillity of Cedar Key. Once a railroad hub, it is now a sleepy town on the Gulf coast side of the state.
The Rakoviches live a few miles inland, past the bayous and mudflats in a prefabricated home surrounded by trees and water. At the end of their unkempt, potholed drive stands a warning sign: “Second Amendment Security” – after the amendment that specifies the right to bear arms. Tea Partiers revere the constitution. But some amendments are more equal than others.
Mary’s Chevrolet Trailblazer is covered with bumper stickers: “Legalise the Constitution”, “Embryo on Board”, “America was Founded by Right-Wing Extremists!” Their home is overrun with cats. Sometimes alligators wander out of the swampy pond beside their house. “I can never get used to the ’gators,” says Mary. “Ron’s fine with them.”
. . .
Like many Tea Partiers, the Rakoviches are open, talkative, and keen to tell their story. Their deep disdain for the “mainstream media” (MSM) in general seems to be suspended at the personal level. Like their peers, they very rarely in fact ever read the MSM, view it or consume it.
Instead they watch Glenn Beck’s show on Fox News, listen to Rush Limbaugh, the king of talk radio conservatives, and click on the links – usually to conservative sites, such as NewsMax, or Breitbart – that are posted on the Tea Party’s sprawling ecosystem of Facebook pages. “Now the internet was something that Obama taught us,” says Mary, who has picked up the habit of Tweeting.
Mary’s coming of age as a grassroots activist came just a few days before Santelli’s missive when she protested against Obama, who was speaking in a stadium in Fort Myers, Florida. The president was there to publicise the benefits of the fiscal stimulus Congress had just passed. If the bailout had raised the temperature, Obama’s $787bn fiscal injection took it close to boiling point.
Mary, who had turned up with only two other protesters, kept getting shifted further from the stadium by the Secret Service. They were heavily outnumbered by the hundreds of well-wishers. But they stood their ground. Their sign “Jobs, Not Pork” reflected outrage at some of the fiscal package’s content. Mary cited a $650m item to boost DirecTV and a $60m grant to fund a museum about the mob in Las Vegas.
Fox News heard about Mary’s lonely protest and set up a live feed to interview her. She said Obama was bankrupting America. “I’ve no idea if I made any sense at all,” she said, laughing. “But I just talked away.” Whatever it was, it obviously worked. Mary has been a Tea Party celebrity ever since.
Ron, who, like Mary, is unemployed and living on disability cheques (Mary recently had a hip replacement operation and Ron has a chronically bad back), keeps a file of cuttings about Mary.
Neither sees a contradiction between their dependence on government dollars and their anti-government activism. “Both of us have worked and paid taxes and followed the law all our lives,” says Ron.
A few days after the Fort Myers episode, the Rakoviches had a beach party to celebrate Santelli’s rant. Three hundred people showed up. A few weeks later, they, and tens of thousands around America, held a Tea Party protest on April 15 – Tax Day, a date people dread since that is when they must file their annual tax returns. “I don’t want to sound corny or anything, but we feel like we are part of something bigger than ourselves – a movement to take back our country,” says Mary.
Some observers dismiss Tea Partiers as subliminal racists. Others believe the Tea Party is an avatar of the Christian moral majority movement, which lost steam somewhat with the deaths of televangelists, such as Jerry Falwell. And some, noting their disgust with America’s rising national debt, choose to take the Tea Party at face value – as a fiscally conservative movement that aims to shrink the federal government.
All these traits are present. But insinuations of racism touch a raw nerve. Tea Party rallies are almost wholly white. Mary monitors her rallies and weeds out banners that could be construed as racist (Obama with a Hitler moustache apparently does not count). “My son-in-law is black, and I have mixed-race grandchildren,” says Ron, who, like Mary, is on his third marriage. “If anyone says we’re prejudiced they don’t know what they’re talking about.”
What all Tea Partiers share is an obsession with defending what they see as the endangered US constitution. Although little known outside Tea Party circles, W Cleon Skousen’s, The 5,000 year leap, A Miracle That Changed the World, is something of a bible. It depicts the Founding Fathers as divinely inspired individuals whose 1776 Declaration of Independence and 1787 Constitution marked a five-millennia leapfrog for humankind. The US constitution was God’s gift to the world.
It follows that any attempt to tamper with it is un-American and Godless – the two are often synonymous. It explains why Christine O’Donnell, the colourful Tea Party-backed Republican Senate candidate for Delaware, this month asserted that the US constitution did not separate Church and State. No accredited scholar, or judge, could possibly agree with her interpretation of the constitution. But for O’Donnell, as for the Rakoviches, God is its ultimate author. Any talk of it as a secular document is for them nonsensical. Unlike many other Tea Party candidates in next week’s midterm congressional election, O’Donnell is expected to lose.
“I wouldn’t take the Tea Party arguments seriously,” says Ronald Dworkin, a leading constitutional scholar at New York University. “There is no scholarship behind them. The Constitution was a product of the Enlightenment, which took society away from religion, not towards it.”
To scholars like Dworkin – who talks, somewhat resignedly, like he has seen it all before – the Founding Fathers were flesh and blood. Three of them, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, owned slaves. Brilliant though they were, the notion that they could have disgorged a timeless blueprint strikes him as absurd. Mary, of course, ... sees things differently. “Where in the constitution does it say everyone has to have healthcare insurance?” she asked more than once.
Dworkin also finds it hard to conceal his exasperation at the notion that the “Founding Fathers” were of one mind, and that modern America should limit itself to working out what they intended. In fact, they often disagreed. “The constitution was a document that reflected the political realities of the late 18th century,” says Dworkin. “It struck a hard-fought compromise between the slave states of the south and the non-slave states of the north. That is the factual reality.”
If the stimulus brought matters close to boiling point, Obama’s healthcare bill set the kitchen alight. “Is this what our Founders had in mind?” asks Beka Romm, a touring lecturer for the American Majority, a group that gives history lessons to Tea Partiers around the country. “I don’t think so.”
A young lady in her late 20s, Romm is lecturing a group of 30 or so Tea Partiers in Williamstown, Kentucky. No one in the audience is under 60. The town has turned into a backwater since the interstate highway was completed 45 years ago. But it is a hive of Tea Party activity. Within Kentucky’s whisky and tobacco belt, places like Williamstown are the ground zero of the Tea Party movement. They have the key ingredients: disaffected blue-collar and less well-paid white-collar Americans who share the sense the world is passing them by. “It is not the past that is a foreign country,” writes the historian Jill Lepore of the Tea Partiers. “It’s the present.” One local group is called Citizens for a Christian Constitutional Commonwealth. The “9/12-ers” are also here in force.
Speaking in the breezy tones of a business motivator, Romm downloads a potted Tea Party history of America. Things started to go wrong in about 1900. “For our first 120 or so years America was governed as the Founding Fathers wanted,” says Romm. “The economy was controlled by the private sector. But then the progressive era began. Are you following … ? OK!” The upshot – and one many Tea Partiers, and Glenn Beck fans, can recite virtually word-for-word – is that the progressives, led by presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson (“the most evil man we’ve had in office,” says Beck) set about undermining the American project. They regulated the economy. Wilson created the US Federal Reserve and passed an amendment to enable federal income taxes. Roosevelt even dabbled in healthcare.
The other three who qualify for the pantheon of evil are Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr, a Supreme Court Justice, Robert Lafollette, a progressive from Wisconsin, and Herbert Croly, founder of the liberal New Republic magazine. “They were the ‘utopian statists’ who moved America away from its ideals,” says Romm. “Obama is also a utopian statist. Do you think this is what the Founding Fathers wanted for us?” she asks. “No? ... I didn’t think so.”
When Romm mentions the “horrific healthcare bill” there are murmurs of agreement. My host, Eric Wilson, a 9/12 stalwart, who has generously offered to take me to as many Tea Party meetings as I want, is a devoted follower of Glenn Beck. When Eric appeared on the Glenn Beck show in New York, somebody asked him on the return flight whether he had been there on business or pleasure. “I thought about it long and hard. But I just couldn’t answer the question,” he said.
Beck often refers to Obama’s healthcare bill as “reparations” in an unsubtle dog-whistle intended to conjure up thoughts of slavery’s angry descendants. It is also meant to invoke the belief that most of the beneficiaries of the bill are non-white (untrue, although the percentage of uninsured blacks and Hispanics is higher than their respective share of the population).
It occurred to me that the Tea Party’s abhorrence of mounting federal spending might be less to do with the spending than with its beneficiaries – greedy bankers included. American populism has always tended to demonise both the undeserving rich and the undeserving poor. It is always the honest-to-God middle Americans who get swindled.
That was the sentiment that sustained Father Coughlin – the angry radio priest, whose railings against Roosevelt’s New Deal often spilled over into anti-Semitism – in the 1930s. It was also the animating spirit of Joe McCarthy’s “Red scare” witch-hunt in the 1950s. Xenophobia is never far from the surface. But it is not precisely the same as racism.
“Race is usually a factor, but rarely in a simple way,” says Michael Kazin, one of America’s leading scholars of populism. “To describe the Tea Party movement as racist would be simplistic and probably wrong. But if you walk around Tea Party rallies and you look at their faces, you realise that it is Obama who looks like today’s America, not the Tea Partiers. Maybe that enrages some of them.”
. . .
A father of two, who moved to Kentucky in order to be near his favourite place of worship, a Sovereign Grace Baptist church, Eric Wilson is far from being a racist. His wife, Lydia, also 40, is a Mexican-American. Although very mild-mannered, Eric was clearly affronted when I mentioned the allegation. A day after we met, he e-mailed me a picture he took of an African-American girl waving a stars and stripes at Glenn Beck’s large “Restoring Honor” rally last August at the Washington Mall.
Awakened by Glenn Beck’s famous March 2009 broadcast in which he said “You are not alone”, Eric founded the northern Kentucky 9/12 chapter, which now has 2,300 members. In his broadcast, Beck trotted out nine principles and 12 values (9/12). The first principle states: “America is good.” What most struck Eric was the seventh: “I work hard for what I have and I will share it with who I want to. Government cannot force me to be charitable.” And the second: “I believe in God and he is the centre of my life.”
When we sit down for lunch at a very New Age, cranberry and tofu-style café near his home, I ask Eric whether he believes the Tea Party is just about limiting the size of government, or something larger. At an inaugural session I attended of a neighbourhood group in a farmhouse near Cincinnati, the organisers were candid in spelling out that the Tea Party had for tactical reasons chosen only to emphasise its fiscal conservatism. When asked, everyone there said they were “strongly pro-life”. “How can we rescue America from fiscal bankruptcy if we don’t tackle its moral bankruptcy?” asked one of the attendees. The organiser replied that the two were one and the same. “Look at what we will defund. We will close the Department of Education, the National Endowment of the Arts, cut welfare, etcetera – is that moral or fiscal?”
Eric was candid too. A statistical forecaster who works for a Lexington-based mattress maker, and earns around $65,000 a year, he admitted that before he got involved with 9/12, he had almost no friends. “Now I have so many,” he said. Back at their single-storey “ranch” (bungalow) on the outskirts of Georgetown, Kentucky, Eric and Lydia offered their definition of the Tea Party while their almost laughably cute 18-month-old daughter kept trying to grab my pen.
The US Constitution, said Eric, was an act of divine providence at the end of the first Great Awakening – the Protestant revivalist fervour of the mid-to-late 18th century. America had a second Great Awakening in the mid-19th century. Now it was embarking on a third. “Even before Obama came to power, I felt in the pit of my stomach that things were going wrong,” he said. “This is not the way it is supposed to be.”
Like Mary and Ron, Eric and Lydia are fixed on a past scholars see as mythical, but which to them is as real as the ground beneath their feet. It is an age-old dialogue of the deaf between faith and reason, which flares up at times of distress – particularly economic distress. Then it dies down. Meanwhile, the future keeps on coming. America used to be a slave-owning country. Now it has a black president.
I ask what it is that prompts Eric and Lydia to devote their precious spare time to the cause. “For our daughter,” they answered in unison. “We want her to grow up in the America our parents grew up in, where people worked hard and had values,” added Eric. “Right now America’s future looks pretty bad. We have forgotten who we are.”
By Edward Luce
Financial Times

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