The Many Faces Of The Tea Party

Malice in Wonderland - Tea PartyOn the cover of the new Weekly Standard is a caricature of two people that the magazine’s cover story regards as the banner carriers of the Tea Party movement. They are Rick Santelli, a correspondent for the cable business network CNBC, and Glenn Beck, a delusional Fox News host with a Messiah complex. The title of the cover story is The Two Faces Of The Tea Party.

The article by Matthew Continetti is an overly verbose examination of the Tea Party founding and philosophy. It employs a comparative clash between conflicting visions of the movement represented by Santelli as a sober, businesslike advocate for economic rationality, and Beck as a feverish, paranoiac warning of impending economic and social doom. The problem is that, even as Continetti defines the battle in terms of this duality, he entirely misses the real source of the Tea-volution. He insists on distilling it down to these two charactors, despite recognizing in his opening paragraph the multiple personalities residing in the body of the Tea Party:

“Is the anti-Obama, anti-big government movement simply AstroTurf fabricated by Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks? Is it a bunch of Birthers, Birchers, conspiracists, and white power misfits? Is it a strictly economic phenomenon [...] Or are the Tea Partiers nothing more than indulgent Boomers [...] Reagan Democrats and Perotistas?”

Continetti correctly answers his own question saying, “All of the above.” However, he then immediately retreats to present the argument as one between Santelli and Beck for the remainder of his interminably long essay. And Continetti takes sides. He characterizes Santelli and Beck in starkly different terms. Santelli is the “former businessman” who “you’d expect to find at the Rotary Club,” while Beck is the “former Top 40 DJ” who “was addicted to alcohol and drugs.”

On Santelli: They are the words of a man who is worried about America’s future, but who thinks the right mix of policy and leadership can cure the nation’s ills. They are the words of a forward-looking, optimistic, free-market populist.

On Beck: For Beck, conspiracy theories are not aberrations. They are central to his worldview. They are the natural consequence of assuming that the world hangs by a thread, and that everyone is out to get you.

As if to confirm Continetti’s portrayal of Beck as perennially victimized, Beck’s producer, Stu, posted a response that blasts the article and the magazine with both barrels. He condemned the author for his laziness and accused him of deliberately lying. But worst of all, says Stu, is that these attacks appeared in the Weekly Standard, an organ he must have presumed would always be friendly.

But Stu wasn’t finished. He helpfully published the Standard’s phone number so that readers could boycott the magazine by canceling their subscriptions. And then, in a fit of hysterical hypocrisy, Stu adds a postscript asserting that he doesn’t believe in boycotts.

The Weekly Standard (until recently owned by Rupert Murdoch) is one of the few remaining advertisers on Beck’s program. They may not take kindly to spending scarce advertising dollars on a program whose producer is encouraging people to cancel their subscriptions. Is this a trend on the part of Beck and company to insult their advertisers? Just a few weeks ago the Vermont Teddy Bear Company was blindsided by Beck bashing Mother’s Day in an intro to the company’s ad for Mother’s Day gifts.

I have to give Continetti some credit for drawing sensible distinctions between Santelli and Beck. Not that Santelli was right. He basically rallied a bunch of commodities traders to whine about financial aid for working people while supporting bailouts for their employers. But there is still a difference between his greed-infused ranting and Beck’s fear mongering.

There are many faces of the Tea Party that Continetti didn’t even mention. Nowhere in his eight page opus did he recognize Tea Party Queen, Sarah Palin, even though he is the author of a book called “The Persecution of Sarah Palin.” I think he is desperately trying to shift attention to folks he feels are reasonable and away from the Becks of the world. But Continetti’s most egregious failing was something that ought to have been pretty obvious. As the Tea Party was forming, neither Santelli nor Beck were representatives of the people. They weren’t activists or politicians or academics or citizen advocates. They were, and are, media personalities. They represent a class of elite, well-to-do broadcasters working for giant, multinational corporations.

Look back at the opening paragraph of Continetti’s article where he identified lobbyists, birthers, racists, etc., as the components of the aborning Tea Party. Notice that he left out what is arguably the most influential component of all – the media. Fox News acted as the public relations arm of the Tea Party. They hosted the early organizers and candidates. They produced lavish rallies that aired live with custom graphics and music. They dispatched their top anchors across the country to perform the duties of masters of ceremonies. They literally branded Tea Party events as Fox News productions.

The question as to what the face of the Tea Party is can be debated for hours on end. But there is one thing that is indisputable: Without the media, there would not have been any Tea Party.