At the Tea Party

The Wing Nuts, Whack Jobs and Whitey-Whiteness of the New Republican Right… And Why We Should Take It Seriously.

Laura Flanders, Editor

“A lively and informed expose of the most explosive new force in American politics. Combining investigative zeal, hard facts, and a leavening of sharp wit and political passion, At the Tea Party stands out as a must-read for anyone interested in the turbulent future of American politics.” —The Nation

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About the Book


In the wake of the November elections, the Tea Party has gone from a well-funded, media-savvy, fringe group to become the new kids in the class of the 2011 Congress. Their presence is unpredictable and potentially explosive. Sarah Palin looks increasingly likely to mount a bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. Tea partiers Rand Paul, Mike Lee and Dan Coats now sit in the Senate alongside the GOP’s new poster boy, Marco Rubio. In total some 30 Tea Party supporters won seats in Congress. Their party is evidently here to stay – but what exactly does that mean for the future of the country?

Just published by OR Books, At the Tea Party presents a lively and informed expose of this explosive new force in American politics. It doesn’t paint a pretty picture. Read these pages and you will come to understand the coalition of anti-abortion, pro-gun advocates who comprise the tea parties’ shock troops. You will discover what MSNBC contributor Melissa Harris-Lacewell and Going Rouge editors Rich Kim and Betsy Reed have to say about the racism, homophobia and sexism that fuels the tea party fizz. You will follow the money that flowed from the shadowy organizations of the super rich to pay for the ads that won the races. You will learn about the unscrupulous gold-peddlers who are virtually the sole underwriters of Glenn Beck’s Fox News show. And you will get the up-close-and-personal scoop on movement’s biggest stars – Sarah from Wasilla and the mercurial, crying clown, Glenn Beck.

With contributions from a wide range of leading experts, At the Tea Party sorts the facts from the frenzy. Most importantly, it looks forward. Will the tea partiers in Congress launch a civil war within the Republican Party? Could they take over the GOP and end up running the country? And what role can the Left play in preventing the tea partiers from remaking America in their own fervid image?

Combining investigative zeal, smart, hard facts, and a leavening of sharp wit and political passion, At the Tea Party stands out among books on the Tea Party phenomenon as a must-read for anyone interested in the turbulent future of American politics.

Contributors include: Chip Berlet, W. Kamau Bell, Max Blumenthal, Eric Boehlert, Joanna Brooks, Rachel Carroll, Veronica Cassidy, Alexander Cockburn, Lisa Duggan, Barry Eisler, Bill Fletcher Jr., Greg Grandin, Glenn Greenwald, Arun Gupta, Melissa Harris-Lacewell, Peter Hart, Chris Hedges, Jim Hightower, Jack Hitt, Julie Ingersoll, Sarah Jaffe, Michael Johns, Richard Kim, Sally Kohn, David A. Love, Mike Madden, Jonathan Meadows, Stephanie Mencimer, Shannyn Moore, Bob Moser, Scot Nakagawa, Ed Ott, Rick Perlstein, Suzanne Pharr, Katha Pollitt, Sarah Posner, Tarso Ramos, Betsy Reed, Steve Rendall, Ruth Rosen, Rick Rowley, Ken Silverstein, Michael Tomasky, Rebecca Traister, Eric Ward, Marcy Westerling, Tim Wise, Richard Wolff, Kai Wright, JoAnn Wypijewski, Gary Younge, Alexander Zaitchik and Deanna Zandt.

Laura Flanders is the host and founder of GRITtv and the author of Blue Grit and Bushwomen, a New York Times bestseller.

Publication November 1st 2010 • 288 pages
paperback ISBN 978-1-935928-23-2 • ebook ISBN 978-1-935928-22-5

About the Author

Laura Flanders is the host and founder of GRITtv, a daily discussion for people who want to make a difference. GRITtv airs nationally on Free Speech TV, on DISH Network (Ch 9415) and DirecTV (CH 348) as well as on cable and public television stations and seemingly everywhere online ( Flanders is also the author of Blue Grit: True Democrats Take Back Politics from the Politicians (Penguin Books, 2007), an investigation into what people at the grassroots know that Democratic party leaders could learn, and BUSHWOMEN: Tales of a Cynical Species (Verso, 2004), an expose of women in George W. Bush’s Cabinet. Publisher’s Weekly called Flanders’ New York Times best-seller, “fierce, funny and intelligent.”

She wrote on Hillary Clinton in The Contenders (Seven Stories Press, 2007) and edited The W Effect: Sexual Politics in the Age of Bush, in 2004 (the Feminist Press).

Before founding GRITtv, she hosted “The Laura Flanders Show” on Air America Radio and launched the daily flagship show, “Your Call,” on public radio KALW in San Francisco. She blogs at The Nation and the Huffington Post and has appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher, Larry King Live and The O’Reilly Factor. She is regular commentator on MSNBC. She tweets as @GRITlaura

Flanders was founding director of the Women’s Desk at the media watch group, FAIR and for more than ten years she produced and hosted CounterSpin, FAIR’s nationally-syndicated radio program.

She is also the author of Real Majority, Media Minority; the Cost of Sidelining Women in Reporting (Common Courage Press, 1997) about which Susan Faludi wrote, “If only there were a hundred of her.” Katha Pollitt called it “Funny, angry, fact-filled and brilliant.”

In the Media

KGO News Talk, November 14th 2010

The Big Picture, November 12th 2010

Read an Excerpt

Introduction: Behold The Becchanal!

by Laura Flanders

“Hello America.”

The chatty man on the TV grins, and gives his audience a come-on wink. Fox News’ Channel’s Glenn Beck is about to let his audience in on a little secret.

Flourishing a slim bound pack of pages, Beck begins:

“Last week I showed you this, the playbook of the Left. It is the manifesto from the Weather Underground. These guys exemplified what it meant to be a 1960s radical… Freaks… They hated America and they would do whatever it took to overthrow America and — their words — “institute communism and a dictator.””

Notwithstanding a speckled yellow tie, a jauntily pinstriped shirt and baby blue framed eyeglasses, Beck stares out, severe.

“Two years ago I would have said, this is crazy talk. Two years ago I would have made fun of these people.” Breathy pause. “Don’t do it….“

Funnily enough, not so long ago, that’s what I might have said about Glenn Beck. I might have said – and I heard plenty of people say – that Beck’s fans were simply wackos, wing-nuts, whitey-white fringe elements from people-scarce states. I might have said that people like that always fret when they lose power or jobs, or get smacked in the face by change, like the first non-white president and his family settling into the White House. I might have pointed out that in tough times, frustrated folks are always easy to fire up, and the filthy rich have always been wiling to pay for the match whenever regulators came anywhere near high office. Indeed, as Rick Perlstein, historian of the pre-Goldwater, Goldwater and Nixonian eras has remarked, outbreaks of reactionary ranting have a habit of accompanying liberal victories: it happened in 1993, 1977, ’71.

Except today it’s ranting with rocketing ratings. And it’s not far off; it’s close. A man I know well, a contractor-friend who for ten years has brought devilled eggs to our very large, very metro-sexual Thanksgiving in Manhattan; Carl is telling me I must watch Beck. He and his twin brother, both 80 years old, watch daily, in Brooklyn. In fact, says Carl, “we only got a TV to watch Glenn Beck.”

So what is Glenn Beck saying this hot afternoon in August? As real unemployment stands at over 16 percent and an estimated 29 million Americans are looking for work, Beck’s telling his audience that the 1960s Weather Underground planted bombs and blew things up, and now they’re wielding power.

“[The Weather Underground] believed back then, and they believe now, the ends justify the means,” says Beck. “Most of these radicals were part of Students for A Democratic Society (SDS.) It’s code language, goes all the way back to Lenin…[SDS] is the group that birthed the Weather Underground. Now they are in positions of power.”

Just when I’m thinking that Plato might object to ceding to Lenin the whole “democratic society” concept, Beck moves over to his blackboard. He clutches photographs purporting to be the headshots of former SDS members: Andy Stern former president of the SEIU, Wade Rathke, founder of the poor people’s group ACORN and Jeff Jeffords, now a member of the green jobs outfit called the Apollo Alliance (whose occupation Beck describes as “spending the stimulus bill.”)

“They’re just kind of behind the scenes, but we know how all this is working,” Beck intones. “This radical thought is commonplace with the powers in and around the current administration.”

To explain what he means by “radical thought,” Beck quotes the mission statement (he calls it the “battle-cry”) of a separate group, founded by different people, forty years after SDS. The “New SDS” (founded in January 2006) aims to “take back our schools, our communities, and our nation.” Lest anyone think that refrain sounds familiar to a million mild non-profits and, frankly, to the so-called Tea Party mobilization that Beck helped to launch, our host helps his viewers spot the sinister: “Not only is this the violent rhetoric from the ’60s, but it’s coming straight from those who actually blew stuff up.”

Except it isn’t. In fact, the loudest people talking about blowing things up today tend to name Beck at their inspiration (See Eric Boehlert’s “Almost a Body Count.”) Still, Beck continues, in a lowered voice: “2006 – that’s two years before Barack Obama was elected, but about the time the campaign was starting up.” All but scratching his chin, he calls on his viewers to help him connect the dots: “Help me Watchdogs!”

This is a book for those who’d like some dots connected but may not have millions of willing “watch-dogs” to help them (or hours to spend watching Fox News Channel.) It’s a book for those who’d like a better grasp of what’s happening around them – the “Carls” in their own lives –and what, if they care to, they might do in response.

Want to know whether to take Beck seriously? There are contributors here (like former CIA officer turned best-selling novelist Barry Eisler, or performer Kamau Bell) who’ll remind you that Beck’s an entertainer. At best a mediocre novelist (“more poodle than panther” as Eisler puts it, in his scathing review of Beck’s novel “The Overton Window.”) Beck’s called himself every self-deprecating – as well as every self-aggrandizing –name, including “rodeo clown,” which actually nails it.

Today Glenn Beck boasts a monthly audience of 30 million, a nationally syndicated talk radio show, a self-titled cable news show, six New York Times best-sellers and an activated cult (his “9/12 Project”) which shows up to his rallies with signs declaring “Beck/Palin 2012.” He is Fox’s prime preacher-recruiter-publicist for the Tea Parties, many of whose members, it seems, actually believe his stories. (Read JoAnn Wypijewski’s curious conversation with a tea partier.) But as Beck’s very unofficial biographer Alexander Zaitchek reminds us in a conversation with Rick Perlstein (reprinted here from GRITtv,) when it comes to politics, Glenn Beck’s a neophyte. When Bill Clinton was elected, Beck was drinking to excess, snorting cocaine and hustling for ratings as a goofy radio “zoo” morning host in marginal markets. Others made the rodeo in which Beck is clowning.

Arun Gupta writes that the reactionary outburst that is today’s Tea Party is not a new movement; it’s the latest expression of an old sort. Likewise, Beck, as Fox News’s own Eric Burns has put it, “is Huey Long without the political office. He is Father Coughlin without the dour expression. He is John Birch without the Society.”

Beck’s personal rodeo has been built by big business. First, by Clear Channel (the radio empire) and then News Corps (the TV, print & publishing monster owned by Rupert Murdoch.) Both are behemoths brought to us by politicians who have eviscerated congressional oversight of broadcasting, loosened the limits on media ownership and been rewarded generously by aspiring media monopolies as a consequence.

Before Beck, the country’s most widely-heard red-and-race baiter was Bob Grant. Grant (Beck’s hero,) was chased off New York’s WABC, the flagship station of the ABC Radio Network, in the mid-1990s after African American groups and FAIR raised a ruckus about his racism and tolerance of white nationalists. (Grant’s favorite name for African Americans was “savages;” for Haitian refugees, “swine” and “sub-human infiltrators.” He had a habit of letting National Alliance advocates onto his airwaves. Grant eventually returned to WABC with a slightly toned down message.)

By the time Beck hit his stride in political talk, the power of a single media company (News Corps,) was so great, and its interest in Beck’ s anti-regulatory tirades so strong, that when Beck called President Obama a racist as he did in early 2009, even an organized boycott of his show by Color of Change and more than 200 past and potential advertisers didn’t dislodge him. Today Beck’s prime advertisers are a pet-druggist and a gold peddler. (See Stephanie Mincimer’s “Beck’s Golden Fleece.”)

There have long been paranoids with pamphlets. Ron Arnold, for example, at the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise tried to scare the world about the left-wing terrorists long before Beck took up the task. Arnold was testifying in Congress about what he called “the Eco-Terror threat” when Beck was still boozing and snorting. When Beck trashed the Apollo Alliance and began his assault on Van Jones, Arnold gushed on his website: “Fox talk show star goes a little over the top, but seems to have been reading the [CDFE’s website].” But whereas Arnold took on activists at the edges, Beck goes after government officials. And it works. Arnold was to Earth First’s Judi Bari what Beck is to Van Jones (namely, a character assassin.) But baiting only works when someone takes the bait. In Jones’ case, the most powerful man in the world, the President of the United States went along with Van Jones’ resignation as Green Jobs Tsar. After the Jones case, Obama’s administration went one worse, letting the Agriculture Department’s Shirley Sherrod go when she came under attack, before even asking for her side of the story.

Liberals too, can draw spidery maps of influence, and they have, tracing the links between private funders like the Bradley, Scaife, Olin and Koch families, and right-wing think-tanks, lobby groups and fake grassroots (“astro-turf”) organizations. Ideologically minded funders have long paid for influence in Washington and Beck feeds at a familiar food line. You only have to tune in to find out whose stuff he’s reading. As oil was tinting black the lungs of Gulf Coast shellfish in the summer of 2010, Beck was thanking Charles Koch – on the air – for helping him to pillory big-oil’s critics. The multi-billionaires behind Koch Industries (oil, gas and chemical guys who own the second largest privately held company in the country) have funded decades of anti-regulatory propaganda. And it’s worked. Koch funded propagandists from the Cato Institute or Reason Magazine have long been accepted as legitimate “experts” and embraced by mainstream journalists. With Fox and Beck, Koch et al have their own network and their own astro-turf. Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Works (both funded by Koch) called the first Tea Party rallies on tax day 2009; Beck talked it up and hosted live coverage on The Fox News Channel.

The point is, reactionaries are nothing new; it’s the reaction to them that makes today’s clutch dangerous. As Perlstein’s pointed out, fifty years ago, the reactionary revolt that greeted the election of J. F. Kennedy (the nation’s first Catholic president) and led to the nomination of Barry Goldwater, was met with a certain amount of tsk’ing disdain by the establishment and their media. “Whenever the ultras arise,” Time magazine observed in 1961, “they cause domestic acrimony” and should be “wooed back into normal channels of political expression.” The same magazine, in 2009, put Glenn Beck on its cover: “the hottest thing in the political-rant racket … tireless, funny, self-deprecating … at once powerful, spellbinding, and uncontrolled … a huge bestseller … has lit up the 5 pm slot in a way never thought possible by industry watchers.” [1]

Will Beck and the Tea Partiers claim seats in Congress? It’s possible. It’s also not, primarily the point. Congress – and the White House — cower plenty, already. (Just ask Van Jones, or Shirley Sherrod.) The fact that a housing bubble a bank collapse, an economic depression and two disastrous wars is being accompanied by a Right-wing revolt rather than a Left one, speaks to how well ensconced are the reactionaries.

Beck isn’t the beginning; he’s the Becchanal. He, Palin and the Tea Parties are expressions of the riotous victory of the rule of the irrational over the rest of us.

The rodeo clown’s job is to distract. The really dangerous bull that’s rushing at us today isn’t Beck, it’s a whole slew of once “fringe” ways of looking at the world that have become what he calls “Common Sense.” The idea that civil rights are special rights and regulations are theft; that taxes are bad for the economy and the poor are best helped by helping the rich…. In the absence of any more persuasive explanation for the situation so many are facing, what Lisa Duggan calls Beck’s “pedagogy of shock” works.

This August, Carl turned 81. He’s still working with his hands, in an economy that’s driven wages for men like him down for his entire adulthood. Medicare is the first health insurance he says he’s ever had. He rents cheaply and devises good business plans that never get funded. While I see deregulation and globalization and the assault on workers as an explanation for his plight, he sees greedy union bosses, busy-body bureaucrats and lazy newcomers in business. When it comes to threats-that-we-face, I see war and the starving of a nation’s revenues for things like education and culture and health; I see the growing schism between America’s rich and poor; Carl sees government by pencil-pushers who’ve never met a payroll and the seizure of private assets by politicians like those who took over GM and punished British Petroleum.

That Carl could have listened to Air America Radio plenty and yet fall for Beck, I take as a personal defeat (even if Air America never had the ad dollars or the production values or the corporate bank-rollers Clear Channel has.) Similarly, that anyone could be confused about what a Palin presidency might mean for women speaks volumes about how shallowly journalists cover women politicians. (See Sarah Jaffe, and Katha Pollitt and Shannyn More’s contributions here.) That so many women could be working their hearts out for Tea Parties speaks to how hungry many women still are for gratifying engagement – and how welcomed — or not — they’ve felt in other places.

There’s no excuse for Tea Party racism, but while many like to finger point, it is also true that as a nation we have yet to disarm our stockpiles of racial resentment. That’s why the hot buttons remain so toasty. Instead, we keep the weapons of white supremacy sharp, just out of sight, for emergency use, in the losing part of Hillary Clinton’s primary race, say, or in the process of abandoning the state’s commitment to affirmative action, or welfare. The idea of a special, white, American, Christian state is a handy thing too, when it comes to waging war on other (other- looking) people. Glenn Beck’s not the first to notice that in the USA it’s easy to get away with questioning the patriotism of minorities. And Barack Obama’s hardly the first person to discover that unless you’re white and Christian and straight (and ideally, male) it takes more than a birth certificate to be accepted as truly “American.” The good people at the Tides Foundation aren’t the first to feel the chill of being targeted for violence by men calling themselves “patriots.” (Just ask immigrants, and LGBT people, and abortion providers. )

Alexander Cockburn’s contribution here takes a stab at what’s happened on the Left as the fringe-right went mainstream. While we’ve vilified people’s movements, we’ve permitted puppet armies to fight our political fights, funded and fenced-in by foundations and private interests. Chris Hedges hints at what’s needed to correct the balance, as does Bill Fletcher Jr in his short piece about the US Social Forum. Sally Kohn point out that however much Beck rails at community organizers, he is a pretty nifty organizer. The conversations from GRITtv, with a Tea Party leader and member of a white supremacist group are the kind of conversation I believe we need more of. I’m particularly happy to reproduce for the first time here, the transcript of a panel convened by the Western States Center in Portland, looking at fight-the-Right strategies of the past, present and future.

Those on the Left can laugh all they like at the absurdity of Beck and his conspiratorial chalkboard dating maps. But they’d be better off figuring out how Beck’s megaphone grew so big while ours shrank so small. I hope this book is just a beginning.

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