The Tea Party – Or: Laughing our way to fascism

They think Obama’s a socialist. They think climate change is a hoax. They think that Obama’s a Muslim, and that all Muslims are out to get us. A lot of them think the Earth was created sometime before last Tuesday by a magic invisible man who forgot to mention dinosaurs in his history of the universe. Some of them still think Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. They believe that Obama is a foreign-born Manchurian candidate who wants government “death panels” to decide whether their great aunt gets the operation she needs. They can’t tell the difference between Hitler and the Soviet Union. And they think that all their problems are due to a combination of liberal “socialists”, immigrants, uppity women and minorities, and the Homosexual Agenda. In short, they believe a whole lot of stupid bullshit.

They see their salvation in multimillionaire con artists like Rush Limbaugh and soap opera melodramatist demagogues like Glenn Beck. And every time that the protofascist Sarah Palin says something that makes us long for the eloquence and erudition of George W. Bush, they applaud her even more for enduring the ridicule of the educated classes.

It’s hilarious stuff. Really priceless. But don’t laugh too long, because if the followers of Beck and Palin ever come into any real power, these will be the stormtroopers who burn down mosques and shops suspected of being Muslim-owned, who break the windows of GLBT community institutions and lynch those inside. They’ll be the ones looting gynaecologists’ offices and that independent feminist bookstore you get your copy of Bitch from.

Ha, ha. How entertaining – and if it comes to pass, we will only have our own arrogance, laziness, and tactical stupidity to blame.

They are pissed off, and as much as many of us seem to regard anger as scary and uncouth (preferring, apparently, an attitude of detachment that borders on ennui) – they have every reason to be pissed off. Their jobs have disappeared, their wages have stagnated, their benefits have been plundered, their communities have been decimated, and their kids are probably going to be even worse off than they are. And the politicians, the Times, and the Post would have them believe they’re living in unparalleled prosperity.

They believe a lot of crazy, stupid shit. Of course they do – they wisely don’t trust the mainstream of the corporate media – and the only source they know of that even begins to acknowledge that they have a reason to be angry and scared are fundamentalist hustlers and far-right propaganda outlets like FOX News, Vdare, and talk radio. People are only as smart as the information they have access to. And who’s talking to them every day, empathising with their rage, and giving them a framework – loony as it may be – to understand it? Certainly not us. We laugh at their misspelt signs and bizarre theories, and feel so much smarter, whilst we abandon them to the tender mercies of the Beck-Limbaugh-Palin Gang.

A history lesson is in order here. The Nazis didn’t need a majority to come to power; they just had to make an electoral showing strong enough that the mainstream right had to govern with them in order to govern at all. Goebbels’ propaganda – diabolically brilliant though it was – didn’t achieve that result alone. He was aided by a “Social-Democratic” Party that had sold its working-class base down the river, a Communist Party that took its marching orders from Russians who had no understanding of German politics, and a left that ignored the countryside, preferring the safety of the cities, where they could preach to the choir. In this setting, Hitler,–who was bankrolled by rich industrialists and the deposed Hohenzollern nobility – could plagiarise Left issues and offer distorted versions of Left solutions – and win over the working class and the petite bourgeoisie as the only party that had not (yet) sold them out.

Every fascist success is also a Left failure.

What there is of a Left in the United States suffers from chronic amnesia. There is no real continuity between the struggles and organisations of one generation and the next. We start from scratch every time, and occasionally succumb to the illusion that a few good mass demonstrations and direct actions are all that is needed to have an effect on policy. We forget that there needs to be “someone operating the mimeograph machine”, as Noam Chomsky once put it, and that movement building means going to places where we’re currently absent, and talking to people who may not (at least initially) be happy to see us. These are lessons that the far right has learned. They have people going door to door, managing phone trees, and constantly talking to the people they’re looking to win over, strengthening the allegiances of the existing members and mining the prospects for new ones. They make sure that there isn’t a major issue of the day that people don’t hear their version of. Of course, they also have a bankroll fattened by the Scaifes, Coors, Schlaflys, and other sources of concentrated wealth with reactionary sympathies, a budget of which a real popular movement can only dream.

The Greek Left has passed down knowledge and insight from generation to generation – from the struggle against the Nazi occupation, to the struggle against the Allied-backed fascist-monarchist régime, to the struggle against modern state capitalism. Greece has a mass antiauthoritarian Left movement with real popular support (when the cops come after their demonstrators, people in the neighbourhood can be counted on to provide them with shelter).

We, on the other hand, have the Tea Party.

And a choice to make. Either we can continue to amuse ourselves with the latest idiotic sign or sublimely stupid claim, and chuckle to ourselves over the fact that these people have named themselves after the practise of dipping one’s scrotum in another man’s mouth, or we can start talking to the same people that they get their support from. Some of them are probably unreachable – dyed-in-the-wool, hardcore racists, fascists, and fundamentalists who won’t hear any argument, and who would be saying the same thing even if this society were run for the benefit of the working class and poor majority. Others are just there by default. How many of each there are is anyone’s guess, but if we are actually serious about creating a socially just, participatory society, we will not consider it an academic question.