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American Quixote

October 7, 2010

By now, it should come as no surprise that a solid 25% of Americans are capable and even willing to believe that Obama is a Muslim or that he was “probably” or “definitely” born in another country. That is no accident. The fact that such statements are capable of being ascribed political legitimacy (if not truth) is a result that has taken persistence and concerted action, whether that action was always conscious and willful or not. This phenomenon has little to do with any individual’s efforts (despite the attractiveness of an ad hominem attack); as with so much in American politics, public attitudes are the result of various competing wills and forces seeking to protect and preserve themselves. Without ascribing evil motives, at stake there are dozens of millions of dollars in annual income in book deals and television appearances reaped by Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, their fellow Fox News correspondents, and various other conservative talking heads, not to mention the billions of dollars the backers of the Tea Party stand to gain ($700 billion in tax cuts for the top 2 percent of income-earners at last count). It should therefore come as no surprise that money and power will expend itself inciting a campaign for the sake of its own preservation. That very clever campaign to protect money and power cleverly utilizes the guise of the populist and self-organized Tea Party to cloak its grab in semblances of legitimacy.

But surely the larger motive for [Karl Rove’s flip-flop on Christine O’Donnell] was the dawning recognition of just how valuable O’Donnell is to the G.O.P.’s national aspirations in November — even should she ultimately lose her own race in blue Delaware. Whatever her other talents, she’s more than willing to play the role of useful idiot for her party. She gives populist cover to the billionaires and corporate interests that have been steadily annexing the Tea Party movement and busily plotting to cash in their chips if the G.O.P. prevails.While O’Donnell’s résumé has proved largely fictional, one crucial biographical plotline is true: She has had trouble finding a job, holding on to a home and paying her taxes. In this, at least, she is like many Americans in the Great Recession, including the angry claque that found its voice in the Tea Party. For a G.O.P. that is even more in thrall to big money than the Democrats, she couldn’t be a more perfect decoy.

By latching on to O’Donnell’s growing presence, the Rove-Boehner-McConnell establishment can claim it represents struggling middle-class Tea Partiers rather than Wall Street potentates and corporate titans. O’Donnell’s value is the same as that other useful idiot, Michael Steele, who remains at the Republican National Committee only because he can wave the banner of “diversity” over a virtually all-white party that alternately demonizes African-Americans, Latinos, gays and Muslims.

The Tea Partiers have some grounds for their disaffection and distrust of authority, since America is essentially becoming a plutonomy: “According to Moody’s Analytics, the top 5 percent of American earners are responsible for 35 percent of consumer spending, while the bottom 80 percent engage in only 39.5 percent of consumer outlays.” The problem is that Tea Partiers don’t realize that their madness lacks a method. The Tea Party, if it stands for anything, very transparently stands for mainstream America’s infantile rejection of globalization and the corresponding changing global realities. Tea Baggers are essentially romantics; they yearn for a non-existent history of what the Constitution meant, for de facto (if not de jure) racial and cultural superiority, for certainty that they are on a safe, secure, and winning path. But now, in an increasingly globalizing and flattening world, where merit rather than privilege is the name of the game, they are faced with facts that undermine these longings and an American dream that is dangling in the increasingly far-off distance. Nothing is comfortable and safe in the real world, but the Tea Partiers nonetheless demand immunity to competition.

It should come as no surprise that the vast majority of Tea Partiers are old, white Christians. These are the people who have an entitlement attitude toward American exceptionalism, who still believe in the achievement of the American dream by means of Manifest Destiny rather than a Protestant work ethic. That work ethic has been passed off to the minorities of the world who are willing to do the hard work and compete on the merits (the brown and black people that cause so much of the Tea Partiers’ subconscious bristling), despite the fact that they were born in societies far less opportunity-laden than America.

So faced with a world that is in the process of outdating the provincial ideals of the American 1950s, the Tea Party is America’s Don Quixote. Blithely (to any onlooker, read: insanely) mistaking the windmills of those global realities as enemies that might be brought down with enough heroic effort, Tea Partiers seem to think their political crusades will eradicate corruption in politics, restore American honor and dignity, and solve problems ranging from global warming to inefficient government expenditures. In essence, these self-deluded geriatrics believe that they are the heroes that are called upon to stave off apocalyptic consequences. And they believe that they are those heroes because they are constantly told they are. This is where Beck, Palin, etc. come into play. They comprise the Sancho Panza that validates Don Quixote’s fantasies by mainstreaming their most unspeakable fantasies.

As I said out the outset, I think it is unnecessary to ascribe malevolent motives to the Sancho Panzas of the right wing. Some of them may sincerely believe the apocalyptic predictions they espouse, and are merely enabled by the millions of dollars backing them. After all, Panza followed Quixote out of hope of his imaginary island governorship, and in Part Two reluctantly agreed to perpetuate Quixote’s fantasies at the whims of the wealthy patrons pulling the strings for their own benefit. How can one not think of Glenn Beck’s willing (self-)deception when one thinks of perpetuated fantasy?

The Anti-Defamation League identified the secret to Beck’s success when it noted that he, unlike other prominent right-wing talkers, was willing “to give a platform to the conspiracy theorists and anti-government extremists.” But he does it in the most disarming way—with props, costumes, gags, imitations, and on-air crying jags. Watching the shtick of the 46-year-old recovering alcoholic and cocaine addict, typical Beck viewers probably have no idea he is introducing them to some of the most controversial fields of Mormon theology, such as the White Horse Prophecy, which envisions the Latter-day Saints rescuing the U.S. Constitution….

Beck polls the audience about whether they believe, as he does, that the modern world will collapse within a decade. Most in the hall applaud. He asks whether they agree with O’Reilly that a 10-year forecast for the world’s demise is “unreasonable.” There is relative silence.

Reading Dana Milbank’s excellent profile of the crying clown, there’s no doubt that Glenn Beck is quite the character. If he’s Sancho Panza mock-gallantly/reluctantly assisting Don Quixote in his senility, there is still the possibility that he could disengage and try to disrupt the fantasy. Sadly, America seems less likely to snap out of it.

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