It was a strange spectacle in Washington, the last Saturday of August, exactly 43 years* after Martin Luther King gave his famous speech on civil rights equality on the exact same spot. Who were those people who were jumping with the flag in their hands, cheering and especially praying to “restore the honor of the United States of America”?
This festival for patriots was supposedly politically neutral (otherwise, the costs were not tax deductible). The main instigator was Glenn Beck, a popular demagogue on radio and TV. He not only promised to restore the honor of the U.S., but also “American values.” The most important “value” seems to be that the national government is reduced to a minimum, along with taxes — especially for the richest.
The other star was Sarah Palin, the idol of the so-called tea party movement. She began her speech with a small homage to Martin Luther King (this was, after all, his anniversary) and then started a much longer eulogy on the heroism of the American troops who fight all over the world “for our freedom.”
It was a remarkable — and for many people, offensive — transition from King’s legendary plea for civil rights to Palin’s clichés on military heroism. But the whole event was remarkable, just like the tea party movement itself. This wave of populism is, for a large part, financed by some enormously rich men — among them, two oil billionaires from Texas, Charles and David Koch. The Koch brothers and their friends want taxes for the super-rich to go down and provisions for the poorer part of the population, such as free medical care, abolished.
These demands are not completely incomprehensible from the perspective of a billionaire. But who are all those people who are cheering for these rich men’s dreams? They are almost all white, the majority older than 45 and not very wealthy. Many are said to be afraid of losing their jobs because of the crisis. Many would undoubtedly have trouble paying the astronomical American doctors’ bills without large subsidies from the state. In short, the majority is more or less dependent on the welfare provisions, which the sponsors of their tea party movement want to abolish.
Yet, the plans of President Obama to make health care accessible for more people are mocked away by the tea party crowd as “socialism,” along with Obama’s idea that taxes for the richest 1 percent of the population could go up slightly. In their opinion, “socialism” stands for “European,” is therefore “un-American” and thus, reprehensible. Economic self interest is clearly not the main incentive of these people, who loudly yell, “USA! USA!” It is, of course, possible that many Americans still deeply believe in the national dream that every newspaper boy who gets his hands dirty ends up a millionaire, so that they are willing to support the interest of the richest in everything.
But it is more likely that the infantry of the tea party is ruled by other motives. Populism is driven everywhere by fear and rancor: fear of being left behind economically and receding in status; and rancor against those who seem to benefit from our misfortune — the leftist elite, the immigrants who steal away our jobs, etc.
These sentiments are not similarly expressed everywhere. Rural Americans, surrounded by endless plains — isolated and often displaced — have long had the habit of seeking solidarity in churches and tents, where they let themselves be led by charismatic preachers who earn their money from the fear and loneliness of the people. Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck are the newest members of this long tradition of demagogues who promise heaven on earth, or at least a privileged place in the afterlife.
With Beck, the echoes of rural churches and religious jamborees are very clear. He spoke in Washington about America — that “America today begins to turn back to God. For too long, this country has wandered in darkness.” It goes with the style of the evangelical demagogue to mix patriotism, freedom and God — America as the land of freedom, blessed by God. Behind the “impartial” speeches of Beck and Palin on restoring values and honor lay a clear message: that honor and those values have been taken from us by leftist elites, Democrats and other godless socialists.
After his speech, Beck criticized Obama. This time, he did not talk about taxes or health care, but about the wrong belief of the president — a belief in “freedom theology,” which was “socialistic,” and thus un-American. Palin implies the same when she comments on the difference, time and again, between “real Americans” and her political opponents.
Those are not real Americans, so they have no right to rule the country. Democrats (and some Republicans) get very nervous about the success of the tea party movement. The Democrats — mainly Obama — should fight back harder. This is possible. The Democratic Party also has a populist tradition. Franklin D. Roosevelt managed to inspire the patriotic working class; John F. Kennedy was a gifted salesman of the American dream; And Lyndon B. Johnson knew to hit the right tone as farm boy from Texas.
Barack H. Obama comes from Hawaii, but he also has the rhetorical talents of a minister. Unfortunately, he also has big handicaps. He has studied at two top universities, his middle name is Hussein, and his father was black. One of these flaws is already problematic during a wave of populism. Three is deadly. The tea party movement — for whom God is not only an American, but also still a white person — knows that all too well.
*Editor’s Note: The event was held 47 years after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Had a Dream” speech.