I’ve observed the Tea Party with a surprisingly high amount of apolitical fascination, considering my political past on the other side of the spectrum. There is something about the movement—at least, its libertarian-oriented 2009 incarnation—that kind of appealed even to me, and I had an idea that it might be possible to join with them in a bipartisan populist groundswell against the forces of Big Corrupt Business and Big Corrupt Government. However, the movement has subtly changed since its inception, and I don’t think this is possible any longer. The change has to do with the general perception of reality within the Tea Party ranks. The Tea Party movement is actively encouraging the mindset of a conspiracy theorist.
It comes as no real surprise to me that existing conspiracy theories such as birtherism and trutherism are commonly held by Tea Partiers. Clearly, birtherism—the idea that President Obama was born a citizen of the British Empire—is more common in a right-wing movement than trutherism, but both make plenty of appearances. Trutherism, I should note, is the idea that the attacks of 9/11/2001 were a controlled demolition or were perpetrated by some entity other than Al-Qaeda. (This is not the same thing as questioning whether the United States government did everything it could legally do to prevent the attacks from occurring.) Some flavors of trutherism are extremely anti-Semitic and invoke the New World Order conspiracy theory. However, when I speak of a “conspiracist mindset” within the Tea Party, I do not merely mean an unofficial embrace of pre-existing conspiracy theories. I mean that the movement itself is increasingly losing any semblance of what one could call a political ideology, and instead focusing on a version of reality that can only be called a conspiracy theory.
One of the hallmarks of a conspiracy theory is the idea that all sources of information except a select few are part of the conspiracy. Now, I have some experience with the media. Even for some completely innocuous feel-good stories about the local “whiz kid” in the National Spelling Bee, the media managed to grossly misquote me more than once. For one front-page article, they misspelled my name, ironically enough. If the media can mess up harmless, inoffensive stories like that, then of course anything they say should be viewed with a certain amount of suspicion as to detail. However, this is not the way the Tea Party sees it. It is not about incompetence or laziness to them. The media, to them, are not just avoiding the conspiracy point of view because they cannot substantiate it, nor are they doing it for a mercenary reason; they are actively involved in furthering the conspiracy because they support it. The Tea Party movement has adopted this notion, and among most of the Tea Partiers, there exist only a few “trustworthy” sources of information: Fox News, Rush Limbaugh’s radio show, certain right-wing blogs and websites, Sarah Palin’s palm… but I digress. The point is that any source of information other than the accepted ones is automatically suspect to the Tea Party.
Needless to say, this is deeply ironic for a movement that got started because of a staged on-screen rant made by a CNBC reporter. However, there actually is a method to the madness. The Tea Party accepts this view of the media because it purports to be a dissident revolutionary movement within an authoritarian country. They differ as to whether it is a fascist or communist dictatorship (or perhaps they don’t know the difference), but they are united in the view that we are under some form of authoritarianism. In dictatorships, “official” sources really can’t be trusted to report the truth, and real information has to come from the underground or outside the country. I am unsure how many Tea Partiers know that Rupert Murdoch is Australian, but even if a majority do, this probably does not bother them. In the 1990s, conservatives called Fox News “Radio Free America,” an homage to Radio Free Europe, which was funded by the American government and countered the Communist Party line in the days of the Soviet bloc. For those Tea Partiers who know that the owner of their favorite TV station is not American, they probably see it as a plus because it fits with their worldview in which American media are controlled by the government as part of the conspiracy. Presumably, the fact that Australia has a government censor on Internet Service Providers located there escapes them entirely.
But it’s not just a distrust of the media that powers the Tea Party conspiracy theory. One must keep in mind that, in their view, America has become a dictatorship. Once you understand that this view underlies everything they believe about the country we live in, it makes perfect sense within that framework.
Dictatorships always have players officially outside the government to keep order. To the Tea Party, a key player is ACORN, an organization that I had never even heard of until 2008. Many of the Tea Party adherents believe, or at least entertain the idea, that this nonprofit group “stole the election” for Barack Obama. They compare it to the idea that many on the left side of the spectrum had that voter suppression, ballot-box stuffing, and possible electronic machine fraud flipped the state of Ohio to George W. Bush in 2004. This ignores several pertinent facts about the 2004 election. This is a diversion, I’ll admit, but since I’ve seen this “defense” made by a lot of people, I’m going to head it off at the pass:
- In 2004, a credible means was proposed for the alleged fraud, as well as a credible scale on which it could possibly have taken place. Voter suppression has a long and sordid history in the U.S. and every election has it reported. Additionally, as a software engineer, I can assert that election security has been a professional concern for this community, not just a political one. The machines in question were deemed insecure and shockingly easy to tamper with, so much in fact that many states (including Florida of electoral infamy) ditched theirs after only a few elections.
- In 2004, eyewitness reports of young and minority voters being illegally turned away from the polls surfaced. In addition, the Secretary of State was known to have ordered thousands of new voter registrations to be rejected because the wrong weight of card stock was used for the registration forms.
- In 2004, a populous county in Ohio closed its doors to all observers when it counted its votes, citing a terrorist threat to the area. When the FBI was later questioned about it, agents said that there was no such threat issued by any agency.
- In 2004, seriously suspicious anomalies turned up. Some precincts reported more votes cast than there were registered voters. In some highly Republican counties in southern Ohio, a Democratic candidate for Chief Justice who had not advertised in the area received more votes than the Democratic presidential ticket. Even more suspiciously, in these same counties, there were many more votes against a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage than there were for the Democratic ticket. Nowhere else in the state did these bizarre patterns occur. The same county that lied about a “terrorist threat” is located in this region.
- The U.S. Senate, when presented with all the information, saw it as suspicious enough to warrant an objection to the Ohio slate of presidential electors and a hearing into the voter suppression aspects of the story.
It’s been a while since I looked at this information, and there is probably more that I’ve forgotten. A Congressman, John Conyers, compiled everything into a concise book that hit the shelves of mainstream bookstores. However, the point is that the two situations—2004 and 2008—are not comparable. In 2004, the only allegation raised was that voter suppression and possible ballot stuffing or vote-switching may have illegitimately flipped the vote of one very closely contested state. No credible allegations were made about the national popular vote or multiple states, and those making the allegations about the state of Ohio came bearing evidence. On the flip side, the Tea Party embraces the idea (because so many of its members hold it) that the organization ACORN “stole the election” without, apparently, recognizing what it would actually imply if that were true. For ACORN to have stolen the election, they somehow had to have created 10 million fake voter names across the country that made it past the Secretaries of State or Departments of Elections, and they sent out 10 million people to vote fraudulently under those names on Election Day. Alternatively, they had the polls stacked with people who stuffed 10 million fake votes into ballot boxes.
This is not a rational idea. This is a conspiracy theory of the first order. However, it seems that in dictatorships such as Afghanistan and Iran, massive ballot-box stuffing does occur, as well as outright lying by the vote-tallying sources about who won. If one believes that the United States of America is a dictatorship, then of course such a notion is plausible. The idea of ACORN as the tyrannical government’s private ballot-box stuffer is so prevalent in Tea Party circles that Doug Hoffman, the candidate in the New York special election last year supported by Tea Partiers, blamed it for his loss, despite that the district he ran in is extremely rural and ACORN is pretty much exclusively an urban group. It didn’t even have an office close by.
Another common behavior of dictatorships, real and fictional, is to turn children against their parents and convince them that their family members are enemies of the state. George Orwell noted this and made it an important detail of his masterpiece 1984. Naturally, the Tea Party movement has taken this to a ridiculous extreme in their dictatorship conspiracy theory. Glenn Beck recently said on his program that Obama was “turning kids against their parents to get elected.” This is not just a dog-whistle to the conspiracy-minded who think we are living under a dictatorship. In a shout-out to the new 2010 vintage Tea Party, which is less Libertarian and more Religious Right, Beck goes on to say that this is against the Mosaic commandment to honor one’s parents. Seriously? These people worry about a dictatorship and yet think that young adults have no inherent right to vote differently from their parents or get their parents interested in casting a vote at all? Let alone the idea that voting a certain way is at all comparable to turning in family members for crimes against the state. In a deep, massive irony, during the Bush era, there was an official statement from the Department of Homeland Security that we should all keep an eye on our neighbors for signs of terrorist sympathies or suspicious behavior.
A year ago, the Tea Party movement was planning protests on Tax Day. These protests were purportedly about the bank bailouts and the failed “cramdown” mortgage restructuring attempt. I had issues with the concept of protesting the government’s attempts to help people avoid homelessness, but at least there was a coherent message to the Tea Party. The movement could say that it was about small government and keeping the government out of any form of bailout, and it would have some validity. It was a Libertarian populist movement, and you could take that or leave it. However, something happened to the group over the course of the year. They embraced the Religious Right, for one, and the New World Order conspiracy theory is a dusty old skeleton in this group’s closet that many do not want to acknowledge. Even those who do not accept the NWO theory often believe that there is a nebulous “secularist” conspiracy to ban the Bible (and presumably also to repeal the First Amendment, which is what it would take). It makes some sense that these people would bring their version of reality into the ranks and allow it to distort Tea Party views. But they also embraced groups that had heretofore been deemed fringe: the birthers and the militia movement, for starters. By taking these people into their ranks who did not all necessarily share the Libertarian economic viewpoint, or have it as their chief issue, the Tea Party had to find something to unify its adherents. The “secret dictatorship” conspiracy theory seems to have been what was used for this. It has come at a price, though. In times of economic distress, there is often great appeal in a populist movement, but the appeal becomes limited when that movement loses its touch with reality.