Populism: It's All The Right-wing Rage These Days

[media id=10917] Glenn Beck's shows have become so full of wingnuttery these days that it's really becoming hard to keep up (though Media Matters doe

Glenn Beck's shows have become so full of wingnuttery these days that it's really becoming hard to keep up (though Media Matters does a great job of that anyway). It's such a constant barrage of right-wing extremism that the bigger picture gets lost in the onslaught.

The kind of wingnuttery Beck is embracing -- and promoting -- is a product of the kind of politics that now has conservative America in its thrall: right-wing populism. And it's not just Beck -- it's Sarah Palin, the Tea Parties, and the broad mainstream of the American Right who are careering down this path.

Take this prime moment in yesterday's Beck show as an example. Beck -- being our Fearmonger in Chief, as usual, with handy chalkboard in hand -- told the audience that we have three potential economic outcomes facing the USA: Recession, Depression, or Collapse. In other words, Disaster, Doom, or Total Annihilation. It was, as always, an uplifting scenario. He also described how we normal folks respond at each step. Paying off our debts, building fruit cellars, that sort of thing.

Then he got to the third one:

Beck: The third one is Collapse. That's 'Get out of debt and save,' plus, 'Have a fruit cellar,' plus -- I like to call the "three G system" here for this -- it's, uh, God, Gold, and Guns.

Now personally, you might take God and put him as an umbrella over the whole thing. And then you got your gun and your gold down here too. But that's your choice.

"God, Gold and Guns" has quite the ring to it, doesn't it? And the thing about it is, it could stand in all three aspects as the Battle Cry of Right-Wing Populism -- not just now, but as we've known it for most of the past thirty years and more. Before Beck, there was the Posse Comitatus, and the militias, and the Ron Paul wing of the GOP -- all right-wing populists, and all focused largely on the mythology of right-wing "constitutionalism", whose three great appeals to the masses have revolved around embracing the notion of a "Christian nation," returning the U.S. to the gold standard, and defending gun rights.

The third segment of Sarah Palin's interview with Bill O'Reilly also aired last night, and the subject, indeed, was right-wing populism:

Palin: If there is a threat at all that perhaps I represent, it is that the average, everyday, hard-working American, that their voice is going to be heard, and their -- what our voice is saying right now is, we're telling the federal government, and we're telling the elites who think that they are -- can and should call all the shots for all the rest of us. Trust us in that we know what our federal government's role is supposed to be in our lives, it's supposed to be minimal.

O'Reilly: But that sounds logical. That doesn't offend me.

Palin: That's why it's perplexing as to why I would be, you know, kinda clobbered left and right --

O'Reilly: You don't know -- really. You're sincere about you don't know why you're the lightning rod, you don't know why?

Palin: Only if it is because I'm representing a normal American who is --

O'Reilly: Well, why don't they like normal Americans? Why don't the New York Times like normal Americans, or NBC News? Why should they have disdain for the regular folks?

Palin: Because I think that, obviously they wanting so much control over our lives, I think perhaps there is a little bit of threat there, that the average American is gonna rise up and our voice is going to be louder and louder, and we're going to tell our government, 'No, we expect you to work for us, we're not going to work for you, we expect things to turn around here quite quickly,' even if that means the elites are not gonna be in control anymore.

I'm talking about the media, I'm talking about those that are in bureaucracy that are calling the shots for us -- I -- that's why the Tea Party movement, I think is beautiful. And I think that it is, it is empowering for so many of us to be watching what's going on with the Tea Party movement where we saying -- 'That's -- that's me!' I think it's beautiful what's going on right now. And perhaps that is threatening to some who don't want to cede any control.

O'Reilly: I think that's a good analysis, but what I get from talking to you for the past hour is that you, Sarah Palin, want to lead that movement. You want to lead it.

Palin: I do not need a title, and I do not necessarily be the one to lead it, I don't -- need to --

O'Reilly: You -- no spin. You want to lead that populist movement. I can see it in your eyes. You want it.

Palin: I'm willing to assist. I know in my heart and soul that the experiences that I have gone through -- I believe that's all been kind of put together in my life -- can benefit the average, everyday, hard-working American because I have been where they are. I'm experiencing what they're experiencing. And I'm willing to assist, but again, I don't have to be the top dog.

This is all fitting, of course, because the the April 15 Tea Parties really signaled the takeover of the American Right by its populist wing. And Palin, of course, had established herself as a right-wing populist well before the parties began, during the 2008 campaign.

The Tea Parties, in every incarnation -- from the Tax Day protests to the health-care town halls to the "Tea Party Express" and the "912 March on Washington" to Michele Bachmann's lame "Super Bowl of Freedom" -- has been all about populism, and it is distinctly right-wing populism.

A giveaway moment came during Sean Hannity's April 15 evening "Tea Party" broadcast from Atlanta, when he brought in a live feed from the Rick and Bubba Tea Tantrum in Alabama:

Hannity: And I'm going to tell you one other thing: When did we ever get to a point in America where, we're nearly at the point where fifty percent of Americans don't pay anything in taxes! Nothing!

[Crowd boos]

Rick: The numbers out are just astounding that, that, how much that the very top taxpayers actually pay. I feel like these taxpayers are disenfranchised. I want them to have a share of the burden just like they have a share of the vote.

That's right -- it's the wealthy top percentage of the country that needs a tax break. After all, they are the one Obama's targeting, right? So at least they're being upfront about just who "the taxpayers" are whose interests they're out marching to defend.

You could find similar sentiments on the right only the month before, in mid-March, when it was revealed that executives at the insurance giant AIG – which had just been the recipient of a massive government bailout – continued to pay themselves multimillion-dollar bonuses with bailout money. This spurred a loud round of protest, mostly from liberals and labor groups angry about the abuse of taxpayer dollars.

But Rush Limbaugh defended the bonuses, telling his radio audience: "A lynch mob is expanding: the peasants with their pitchforks surrounding the corporate headquarters of AIG, demanding heads. Death threats are pouring in. All of this being ginned up by the Obama administration." Glenn Beck had a similar rant on his Fox show: “What I really, really don’t like here is the idea that we are willing to give in to mob rule. And that’s what this is: The mob in Washington getting everybody all – I mean, the only thing they haven’t said is, ‘Bring out the monster!’ It’s mob rule! They are attempting to void legally binding contracts.”

This kind of obeisance to the captains of industry and their utrammeled right to make profits at the expense of everyone else is a phenomenon known as Producerism, which is a hallmark of right-wing populism. It's accurately defined in Wikipedia as:

a syncretic ideology of populist economic nationalism which holds that the productive forces of society - the ordinary worker, the small businessman, and the entrepreneur, are being held back by parasitical elements at both the top and bottom of the social structure.

... Producerism sees society's strength being "drained from both ends"--from the top by the machinations of globalized financial capital and the large, politically connected corporations which together conspire to restrict free enterprise, avoid taxes and destroy the fortunes of the honest businessman, and from the bottom by members of the underclass and illegal immigrants whose reliance on welfare and government benefits drains the strength of the nation. Consequently, nativist rhetoric is central to modern Producerism (Kazin, Berlet & Lyons). Illegal immigrants are viewed as a threat to the prosperity of the middle class, a drain on social services, and as a vanguard of globalization that threatens to destroy national identities and sovereignty. Some advocates of producerism go further, taking a similar position on legal immigration.

In the United States, Producerists are distrustful of both major political parties. The Republican Party is rejected for its support of corrupt Big Business and the Democratic Party for its advocacy of the unproductive lazy waiting for their entitlement handouts (Kazin, Stock, Berlet & Lyons).

Chip Berlet has written extensively about the long historical association of producerism with oppressive right-wing movements and regimes:

Producerism begins in the U.S. with the Jacksonians, who wove together intra-elite factionalism and lower-class Whites’ double-edged resentments. Producerism became a staple of repressive populist ideology. Producerism sought to rally the middle strata together with certain sections of the elite. Specifically, it championed the so-called producing classes (including White farmers, laborers, artisans, slaveowning planters, and “productive” capitalists) against “unproductive” bankers, speculators, and monopolists above—and people of color below. After the Jacksonian era, producerism was a central tenet of the anti-Chinese crusade in the late nineteenth century. In the 1920s industrial philosophy of Henry Ford, and Father Coughlin’s fascist doctrine in the 1930s, producerism fused with antisemitic attacks against “parasitic” Jews.

The Producerist narrative is why Henry Ford – who, as the ostensible author of The International Jew, a 1920 conspiracist tome that inspired Hitler’s paranoia, and whose capital later helped build the Nazi war machine in the 1930s, was also (and not coincidentally) perhaps the ultimate American enabler of fascism – is such a seminal figure for American right-wing populists, both as a leader in the 1920s and ‘30s, as well as a figure of reverence today. (Glenn Beck, in fact, has on several occasions on his Fox News show referenced Ford as something of a holy figure for his efforts to resist FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s.) The same narrative is also why, in today’s context, Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged – a tendentious novel speculating on the disasters that would befall the world if its great industrial leaders suddenly chose to stop producing – are so important in their mythology.

Right-wing populism is essentially predicated on what today we might call the psychology of celebrity-worship: convincing working-class schlubs that they too can someday become rich and famous -- because when they do, would they want to be taxed heavily? It's all about dangling that lottery carrot out there for the poor stiffs who were never any good at math to begin with, and more than eager to delude themselves about their chances of hitting the jackpot.

The thing about right-wing populism is that it’s manifestly self-defeating: those who stand to primarily benefit from this ideology are the wealthy, which is why they so willingly underwrite it. It might, in fact, more accurately be called "sucker populism."

Nonetheless, right-wing populists have long been part of the larger conservative – though largely relegated to its fringes. Some of the more virulent expressions of this populism, including the Posse Comitatus movement, Willis Carto’s Populist Party, and the “Patriot”/militia movement of the 1990s, have been largely relegated to fringe status. However, there have been periods in America’s past when right-wing populism was not thoroughly mainstream but also politically ascendant. Probably the most exemplary of these was during the wave of Ku Klux Klan revival between 1915 and 1930.

It seems to have slipped down the American memory hole that this later Klan, built on a romanticized image of the original post-Civil War Klan, was – albeit briefly – a real political force: a nationwide organization with chapters in all 48 states that briefly became a political powerhouse in a number of states, including Oregon, Indiana, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Maine, where the Klan played a critical role in the 1924 election of Owen Brewster to the governorship. That same year, the Klan made waves at the Democratic Convention when the Klan-backed candidate, William Gibbs McAdoo of Georgia, declined to denounce them. Al Smith of New York managed to block his nomination, largely on these grounds, and West Virginia's John Davis emerged as the compromise selection. He lost to Calvin Coolidge.

The Klan, however, was about much more than mere racism, which was more an expression of its larger mission -- enforcing, through violence, threats, and intimidation, "traditional values" and what it called "100 percent Americanism." It was essentially populist, presenting itself as a vigilante force for “the people,” but there was no mistaking it for anything "progressive." The latter, in fact, was its sworn enemy. And like all right-wing populist movements, it promoted a Producerist narrative in which noble white people, the cream of creation, were being culturally assaulted by a conspiracy of elites and ignoble nonwhites.

The Klan’s populist vigilantism was applied broadly to the community, and not merely on racial or religious issues (this Klan was singularly anti-Catholic). David Chalmers, in his landmark work on the Klan, Hooded Americanism, describes (pp. 32-33) how Col. William J. Simmons, the man most responsible for the revival of the Klan in the 1915-20 period, shifted the Klan's focus from merely attacking nonwhites to a very broad menu of targets:

To the Negro, Jew, Oriental, Roman Catholic, and alien, were added dope, bootlegging, graft, night clubs and road houses, violation of the Sabbath, unfair business dealings, sex, marital "goings-on," and scandalous behavior, as the proper concern of the one-hundred-percent American. The Klan organizer was told to find out what was worrying a community and to offer the Klan as a solution.

Simmons' conception of the Klan as a special secret service bustling about spying on radicalism and questionable patriotism and generally reliving its wartime grandeur, was translated into a more enduring system of societal vigilance. The Klan was brought to Muncie, Indiana, by leading businessmen to cope with a corrupt Democratic city government. It entered Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Herrin County, Illinois, to put down bootlegging. When a newly formed Klan chapter would write to Atlanta for suggestions as to what to do first, the response was almost unvaryingly to "clean up the town," an injunction which usually came to rest it emphasis on the enforcement of the small-town version of the Ten Commandments.

This Klan crumbled in the late 1920s under the weight of internal political warfare and corruption; many of its field organizers later turned up in William Dudley Pelley’s overtly fascist Silver Shirts organization of the 1930s. After World War II, most of these groups – as well as the renowned anti-Semite radio preacher Father Charles Coughlin, and lingering American fascist groups like George Lincoln Rockwell’s American Nazi Party – were fully relegated to fringe status. So, too, were subsequent attempts at reviving right-wing populism, embodied by Willis Carto and his Populist Party, as well as other forms of right-wing populism that cropped up in the latter half of the century, from Robert DePugh’s vigilante/domestic terrorist organization The Minutemen in the 1960s, to the Posse Comitatus and “constitutionalist” tax protesters in the 1970s and ‘80s, to the “militia”/Patriot movement of the 1990s. As it had been since at least the 1920s, this brand of populism was riddled with conspiracist paranoia, xenophobic white tribalism, and a propensity for extreme violence.

Yet beginning in the 1990s, as mainstream conservatives built more and more ideological bridges with this sector – reflected in the increasing adoption of far-right rhetoric within the mainstream – the strands of populism became more and more imbedded in mainstream-conservative dogma, particularly the deep, visceral, and often irrational hatred of the federal government. One of the more popular "mainstream" figure among this bloc in the 1990s was Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. And so when he created something of a sensation with is campaign for the Republican nomination in 2008, it meant that these ideas and agendas started receiving widespread circulation among the mainstream Right -- and with it, an increasing number of conservatives who called themselves "libertarians", when what they really meant was "populists."

But if Ron Paul opened the door for right-wing populism, though, he scarcely could have anticipated the overnight political star who would, in short order, come waltzing through it to great fanfare – namely, Sarah Palin. Hers is a somewhat different, more mainstream-friendly brand of right-wing populism – and as a result, it was embraced by a significantly greater portion of the American electorate.

Palin has always been a populist figure, right from the start of her political career as a member of the Wasilla City Council and then the city’s mayor. Shortly after winning her first council term on a pro-tax liberal agenda, Palin flipped her political allegiances and formed an alliance with a group of anti-tax, right-wing populist local citizens who would form her initial political base. This included a long association with one of the local leaders of the secessionist Alaskan Independence Party, which was also a major conduit for militia/Patriot organizing in the state in the ‘90s. Palin channeled those associations during her first run for the governorship (she was the AIP’s unofficial candidate in the race, since it had no candidate of its own that year).

And her populism emerged for national view shortly after John McCain announced her as his running mate. It was more than just the aggressive, McCarthyite attacks on Obama as a “radical” who “palled around with terrorists” and the paranoid bashing of “liberal elites” -- most of all, there was the incessant suggestion that she and McCain represented “real Americans” and were all about standing up for “the people.”

Populism, yes, but indisputably right-wing, too: socially and fiscally conservative, business-friendly, and hostile to progressive causes. The Producerist narrative was a constant current in Palin’s speeches, particularly when she would get the crowd chanting, “Drill, baby, drill!” In her singular debate with Joe Biden, Palin continuously cast herself and McCain as essentially populist. Here are some typical outtakes of Palin’s responses in the debate:

So there hasn't been a whole lot that I've promised, except to do what is right for the American people, put government back on the side of the American people, stop the greed and corruption on Wall Street.

Indeed, Palin’s populism probably saved the Republican ticket from the ignominy of a national landslide, even though they did eventually lose, because the standard corporate-style Republicanism that McCain represented had become profoundly unpopular by the end of the Bush era. Moreover, after the election, Palin has remained unusually popular among American conservatives, while McCain has become an object of frequent excoriation, particularly by the Glenn Beck conservatives, who have begun labeling him a “progressive Republican.”

Now it is becoming increasingly clear that Sarah Palin is going to be running for president, and has a better-than-even chance of becoming the GOP nominee -- there is simply no one else in sight who can match her for sheer star power on the Right. And the Right loves its stars.

The wingnutosphere, and even much of the Establishment Right, seems content to embrace right-wing populism, because it's the only path they can see to returning to power.

But as we have seen through the long and sordid history of right-wing populism in this country -- and particularly the way it has always unleashed violent, extremist rage -- it may just be a deal with the devil.

About David Neiwert

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