MILWAUKEE, WISC.—Milwaukee’s "tea party" last Saturday provided a predictable display of incoherent, hallucinatory rhetoric aimed at President Obama ("He’s a socialist! He’s a Nazi! He’ll pull the plug on Grandma!") and a total lack of policy alternatives.
But the rally of about 10,000 "teabaggers" also revealed that the ongoing recession has opened up class wounds that could be exploited by more skillful conservatives, who may eventually figure out how to simultaneously denounce Wall Street and any measures to help the bottom 80 percent.
Apart from a giant black octopus kite which occasionally loomed over the crowd on Milwaukee’s lakefront, it was a sunny day. The rapidly-advancing progress of "socialism" in the U.S. was denounced from a stage, with speakers’ faces magnified by two giant (and very costly) jumbotrons.
The keynote speaker was right-wing mega-star Michelle Malkin, who has been working hard to top Ann Coulter with attention-grabing off-the-wall comments. Malkin was joined by radio talk show hosts from around the state, and Americans for Prosperity State Director Mark Block (who was co-cited for using illegal campaign tactics in a Supreme Court election), along with others.
Like a Republican convention, the stage was stuffed with plenty of people of color, like Malkin Sheriff Clarke, greenhouse-effects-denier Dr. Willie Soon and others. But as with other GOP productions, the virtually all-white audience remains a problem.
The speakers were predictable in their outrage at a federal government that dared to exceed its proper mission of of "national defense" (manning a military empire spanning at least 750 bases in 130 nations) "public safety" ( a draconian state that has locked up some 2.2 million citizens) and handing out subsidies to "free enterprise" CEOs.
The fact that the that bailout of banks and U.S. automakers had begun under arch-conservative George W. Bush made no imprint on any of the speakers, who concentrated their fire at President Obama, the man who inherited the multiple crises that occurred on Bush’s watch.
The essence of the speakers was a total and flat-out denial that government could ever possibly play any positive role—except basically repressive ones—and that taxes amounted to robbery, with "the only difference behind taxation is that there is gun and a mask," as public servant Sheriff Clarke put it.
While interviewing members of the crowd, I sensed a divided consciousness: a simmering fury at Wall St. and a more open rage at the government that bailed out big business.
My interviewees tended to take somewhat contradictory turns. A couple of the moderate-income individuals conceded that insurers and pharmaceutical firms made too much money at the expense of the public, noting that his ex-wife’s medications cost $3,900 a month. But he went on to insist, "Everyone has a right to make a living."
Their frame was that America was divided between people willing to work hard—tax providers—and those too lazy to find jobs—tax consumers—who collect welfare and unemployment benefits and will soon benefit from "socialist" healthcare coverage.
In this framework, rally attendees were part of hard-working, tax-providing America that includes for-profit insurance executives making $24 million per year (like Aetna’s CEO) and billionaires stashing their fortunes in Bermuda or the Cayman Islands to avoid their fair share of taxes.
Talk of "healthcare reform" was distorted and trivialized by people I spoke to. The first item one man brought up was the need for "tort reform" to protect doctors against "frivolous lawsuits."
This is a standard conservative talking point that doesn’t begin to stand up to scrutiny: total costs of all medical malpractice cases in the U.S. account for less than 50 cents of every $100 spent on healthcare.
Scott, a soft-spoken 42-year-old lower-management figure in a suburban firm, admitted that he had no insurance to cover his family, including a wife and two children. His solutions: "They need to get the cost down" and "reduce the liability for doctors."
He expressed divergent views on reform that might provide his family with coverage. "If everyone could afford it, that would be OK," he said, minutes after insisting that "giving everything away to everybody just won’t work."
Pat holds these views despite being familiar with people facing unaffordable medical payments. He mentioned a couple who pays $2,000 a month for insurance and a woman who was axed by Wal-Mart after 12 years of service and now must rely on Badgercare, which she viewed as a form of welfare.
Nonetheless, despite his familiarity with hard-working people in desperate need, Scott fell back on the familiar frame of self-reliance: "People need to help themselves. Why should I pay for a bunch of deadbeats?"
Joe a tall, powerful man of about 40 clad in biker clothes, is a maintenance supervisor at a suburban factory in South Milwaukee. He shared the same fear of "socialism," claiming that Obama was actively "redistributing" income.
"Small business is just so important, it has to be protected, he declared, apparently seeing threats to small enterprise as self-evident. "Obviously there’s a need for social programs," Joe went on, but "once everyone is in a social program, that’s socialism."
Like the "town hall" meetings on healthcare that triggered instances of shouting down speakers, physical intimidation, and open toting of weapons like AR-15s, the tea bag rally summoned together people unsettled by the combination of profound economic shock and a recognition that their views are held by a minority of Americans.
Interviewed about the explosive displays of emotion at the town-hall meetings on healthcare, Dr. Marcia Angell of Harvard Medical School made some observations that seem to apply to those attending Saturday’s rally as well.
I think people are worried a loss of equity in their homes, a loss in value of their retirement funds, job security and unemployment, and the fragility of health insusrnace…. I think Americans are suffering. There’s a sort of free-floating anger and distress…there’s a kind of inchoate rage, and there’s almost nothing coherent about i.
A long-time advocate of single-payer healthcare who opposes the particulars of the main Democratic plans, she nonetheless was stunned by the attacks on Obama’ motives. "I disagree with [Obama's] plan, but he is trying to make their lives more secure," she said.
However, at this crucial moment, President Obama seems to have lapsed into speaking policy-wonk bureaucratese. He seems to have lost a willingness to win over some of the teabaggers who hold contradictory ideas about the role of government.
From some interviews with participants, I perceived an incongruous strand of economic anxiety mixed with standard right-wing opinions about taxation, social programs and healthcare reform, which echoed the line-up of right-wing stars on the stage.
When facts clearly didn’t align with what the speakers were depicting as reality, the audience was undisturbed. In the words of political linguist Geroge Lakoff, "When the facts don’t fit the frames, the frames are kept and the facts ignored."
And yet the appeal of the rhetoric is understandable: Right now, the teabaggers and their allies are the only organized force speaking to the deep rage welling up in America, a fact that allows them seize the initiative and portray themselves as the voice of the Real America.
As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote yesterday, President Obama must begin to speak in populist terms. But whether he is willing to or not, America needs a loud and visible populist movement taking to the streets.