The Tea Party’s ideas were wrong, and their often racist rhetoric and physical threats were unacceptable. But they understood how to wield political power and made two critical strategic decisions. First, they organized locally, focusing on their own members of Congress. Second, they played defense, sticking together to aggressively resist anything with President Obama’s support. With this playbook, they rattled our elected officials, targeting Democrats and Republicans alike.There are a couple of problems with this. First of all, Republicans didn't need to be forced away from compromise with the Obama administration -- they'd already decide on a stance of uncompromising resistance, as Sam Stein noted in 2014:
Politics is the art of the possible, and the Tea Party changed what was possible. They waged a relentless campaign to force Republicans away from compromise and tank Democratic legislative priorities like immigration reform and campaign finance transparency. Their members ensured that legislation that did pass, like the Affordable Care Act, was unpopular from the start. They hijacked the national narrative and created the impression of broad discontent with President Obama.
As President Barack Obama was celebrating his inauguration at various balls, top Republican lawmakers and strategists were conjuring up ways to submarine his presidency at a private dinner in Washington.Second, while Tea Party groups may have organized locally, they received significant financial backing and strategic assistance from Koch-funded groups, as well as a torrent of publicity from Fox News, which literally lent the Fox brand to the movement:
The event ... serves as the prologue of Robert Draper’s much-discussed and heavily-reported new book, “Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives.”
... For several hours in the Caucus Room (a high-end D.C. establishment), the book says they plotted out ways to not just win back political power, but to also put the brakes on Obama’s legislative platform.
“If you act like you’re the minority, you’re going to stay in the minority,” Draper quotes McCarthy as saying. “We’ve gotta challenge them on every single bill and challenge them on every single campaign.”
The Tea Party also had very little difficulty making the case that President Obama was evil because racist and evil-Democrat ideas and memes were already well entrenched in heartland white America, the result of years of propaganda from Fox, talk radio, and online right-wing media sources. Tea Party activism broadcast to America what right-wingers were already saying to one another in Free Republic threads and on radio call-in shows, as well as what Fox News blasted into living rooms on a daily basis.
Right-wing propagandists have much more experience at crafting effective memes than our side does. We're seeing this again today.
You may already be aware of a story out of Chicago about four young blacks who restrained and physically assaulted a young mentally disabled white man. The assaults were streamed live on Facebook. The attackers were heard saying "Fuck Trump!" and "Fuck white people!"
I hope the attackers are severely punished. I don't think it's unreasonable to look into hate-crimes charges, though we need to know more.
But notice what's happening on social media. One of the top trending topics on Twitter right now is #BLMkidnapping. The right is pinning responsibility for this crime on the Black Lives Matter movement, though there's no evidence of a link.
This points up a huge advantage the right has over the left. Right-wing propagandists keep their target audience angry all the time. Fox, Breitbart, and talk radio depict Black Lives Matter as a Klan-like hate group even when there's no obvious news peg. So the audience for the right-wing media (which is much larger than the audience for, say, MSNBC prime time) has outrage as its baseline. That's not true for most liberals and progressives.
And then, when whatever's going on in the country or the world fits the right's well-honed frames, the anger goes to 11.
In today's New York Times, there's an op-ed by Robert Leonard, an Iowa radio news director, about attitudes in the white heartland. I don't agree with much of what Leonard writes, but there's a kernel of truth in this:
One recent morning, I sat near two young men at a coffee shop here whom I’ve known since they were little boys. Now about 18, they pushed away from the table, and one said: “Let’s go to work. Let the liberals sleep in.” The other nodded.These people are wrong -- I've met plenty of lazy rural people, and New York City, where I live, runs on caffeine and hustle. But what's important here is that conservatives all believe this. It's not just these young people -- it's the vast majority of the right-wing rank-and-file. They believe they're surrounded by the enemies Fox enumerates every night, and as a result they're in a constant state of rage.
They’re hard workers. As a kid, one washed dishes, took orders and swept the floor at a restaurant. Every summer, the other picked sweet corn by hand at dawn for a farm stand and for grocery stores, and then went to work all day on his parents’ farm. Now one is a welder, and the other is in his first year at a state university on an academic scholarship. They are conservative, believe in hard work, family, the military and cops, and they know that abortion and socialism are evil, that Jesus Christ is our savior, and that Donald J. Trump will be good for America.
They are part of a growing movement in rural America that immerses many young people in a culture -- not just conservative news outlets but also home and church environments -- that emphasizes contemporary conservative values. It views liberals as loathsome, misinformed and weak, even dangerous.
So they were easy for the Tea Party or the Trump campaign to rile up. They already had a well-established narrative of their alleged enemies' perfidy -- all the teabaggers or Trump had to do was allude to what they already believed.
We have far fewer people on the left who start out angry. And we don't have any megaphones as large as Fox's or talk radio's, nor do we have funders as generous as the Kochs. So we have a much, much harder climb.