Tea party bigotry on parade

March 25, 2010

Nicole Colson looks at the disturbing politics of the tea party fanatics--and how leading Republicans are doing everything they can to encourage them.

THE VICIOUS underbelly of the "tea party" movement was on full display in the run-up to last weekend's vote on health care.

The days before the vote were filled with protests in Washington by supposed "grassroots" tea party groups. From the start, they displayed the same naked racism (and naked stupidity) as similar protests in the past--references to Obama as a Nazi, dressed in Hitler garb; questions about where he was born; references to the health care bill as a communist plot that would mean "death panels" for senior citizens.

But tea party protesters sunk to a new low when they verbally abused Georgia Rep. John Lewis, calling him "nigger."

Lewis, a civil rights movement veteran who was brutally beaten by a white mob--and not for the only time--in 1961 when he participated in the Freedom Rides, was outside the U.S. Capitol building on March 20 when protesters began chanting "Kill the bill, kill the bill" at him. When Lewis responded by saying "I'm for the bill," people in the crowd reportedly chanted, "Kill the bill, nigger."

Tea party protesters in St. Paul, Minn., protest the Democrats' health care legislation
Tea party protesters in St. Paul, Minn., protest the Democrats' health care legislation

"It was a chorus," Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), who was behind Lewis and heard the chants, told McClatchy Newspapers. "In a way, I feel sorry for those people who are doing this nasty stuff--they're being whipped up." Cleaver, who is also Black, was spat on by a protester.

"They were shouting, sort of harassing," Lewis told McClatchy. "But, it's okay--I've faced this before. It reminded me of the '60s. It was a lot of hate and anger and people being downright mean."

Also targeted by the tea partiers was openly gay Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who was called "faggot." Some reportedly mocked Frank with "lisping" chants.

The openly racist and anti-gay slurs seem to have finally dented the consciousness of the mainstream media--newspaper and cable TV reports gave greater prominence to the tea partiers' hate than in the past.

But the bigotry didn't stop, even after the vote. Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), another veteran of the civil rights movement, told MSNBC's Keith Olbermann that his office received racist faxes, including an image of a noose, following the House vote for health care legislation.

Meanwhile, the offices of Democrats were vandalized before and after the vote in several areas. The Tucson, Ariz., office of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords appeared to have been shot out with a pellet gun, and bricks were tossed through windows of the New York offices of Rep. Louise Slaughter and the Monroe County Democratic Committee headquarters, as well as through the window of the Democratic headquarters in Sedgwick, Kan.

According to CNN, a note was reportedly attached to one of the bricks, which read "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice"--a quote from 1964 Republican presidential candidate--and civil rights opponent and "states' rights" supporter--Barry Goldwater.

IN SOME cases, Republican lawmakers were directly responsible for inciting the ugly crowds. According to a report from Dana Milbank in the Washington Post, before the vote:

Republican members of Congress stood on the balcony of the people's House and stirred an unruly crowd. As lawmakers debated their way to a vote on the legislation, dozens of GOP members walked from the chamber, across the Speaker's Lobby and out onto the balcony to whip up thousands of "tea party" protesters massed on the south side of the Capitol, within about 50 feet of the building.

Some lawmakers waved handwritten signs and led the crowd in chants of "Kill the Bill." A few waved the yellow "Don't Tread on Me" flag of the tea party movement. Still others fired up the demonstrators with campaign-style signs mocking House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and offering messages such as "Let's Meet 'em at the State Line."

And then, of course, there was Republican Rep. Randy Neugebauer of Texas, who--not content with an Obama executive order denying women any federal funds for abortion--shouted "baby killer" at Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak for changing his vote in favor of the bill.

While most Republican officials were smart enough to distance themselves from the racist and homophobic slurs directed at Lewis and Frank, at least one--California Rep. Devin Nunes--claimed that the Democrats' "totalitarian" tactics were to blame for the tea partiers spewing their hate. On CSPAN, Nunes stated:

The left loves to play up a couple of incidents here or there, anything to draw attention away from what they are doing...When you use totalitarian tactics, people begin to act crazy. And I think, y'know, there's people that have every right to say what they want. If they want to smear someone, they can do it.

This sentiment was echoed by right-wing bloggers like Glenn Reynolds, who had the nerve to ask "Does Clyburn owe tea party protesters an apology?" He added, "The bogus racism card has been played so often that I no longer find such charges very credible."

Meanwhile, as Gawker.com noted, while Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele and House Minority Leader John Boehner condemned the protesters, these are "the same protesters who they encourage and inspire with dog-whistle phrases and sly hints."

Sarah Palin, meanwhile, twittered to her followers: "Commonsense Conservatives & lovers of America: 'Don't Retreat, Instead RELOAD!'" and linked to a map of Democratic districts with rifle targets on them.

SUCH RHETORIC is a barely disguised attempt to whip up the worst elements of the right wing. These kinds of tactics are hardly surprising, however. For all the claims that the "tea partiers" are an independent "grassroots" movement, the truth is that they represent, for the most part, the same old reactionary core of the Republican Party.

Not only is the tea party movement propped up--sometimes behind the scenes, sometimes openly--by various political action committees tied to well-connected Republicans like Dick Armey and Steve Forbes, but the "stars" of the tea party movement include prominent Republicans like Sarah Palin. Likewise, the tea partiers themselves are likely to support Republicans when it comes to voting.

In February, a CNN/Opinion Research poll found that some 11 percent of Americans described themselves as having given money, attended a rally or engaged in some other "active support" for the tea party movement.

The demographic is striking. Of those "active" supporters, 60 percent were male, 80 percent were white, and 66 percent made more than $50,000 a year. In fact, the largest income group of tea party activists (34 percent) was those making $75,000 or more per year. More tellingly, 87 percent said they vote for Republican candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives (as opposed to 46 percent of all respondents), and 77 percent described themselves as "conservative."

In other words, tea party activists are not working-class populist independents, but one of the core demographics of the Republican Party--the same reactionary base that the Republicans have appealed to in nakedly racist fashion for decades.

As Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor wrote during the run-up to Obama's election:

[The race card] has been a staple of American politics since African Americans could vote, most successfully since the invocation of the so-called "Southern strategy" employed by the likes of Richard Nixon and then Ronald Reagan.

The Black political movements of the 1960s and 1970s made it impossible for politicians to be brazenly racist, and so different racial monikers and codes were developed to implicate African Americans without mentioning them by name. Richard Nixon implored the rights of the "silent majority"--as opposed to the vocal minorities demanding civil rights. Ronald Reagan created myths and lies about "welfare queens," law and order, and demanded a war on drugs. All of these inferences and many others were meant to tap into the insecurities and racism of whites, without being accused of racism.

Today, the tea party protests are part of a "movement"--and it should be emphasized that it is by no means the mass movement that the media portrays it as--that recycles these same myths and lies for a new generation.

Hence, the emphasis on Obama's "Muslim-sounding" middle name or the repeated assertions that he wasn't born in the U.S. While most Republicans may be smart enough to disavow nakedly racist rhetoric and distance themselves--for example, from the tea partiers who yelled "nigger" at John Lewis--many are more than willing to hitch their wagons to the tea party movement.

RATHER THAN call out these racist and bigoted attacks for what they are, the leadership of the Democratic Party, has been all-but-silent.

Last September, former President Jimmy Carter asserted that racism was a major factor in the tea party opposition to Obama. As he told students at Emory University:

When a radical fringe element of demonstrators and others begin to attack the president of the United States as an animal or as a reincarnation of Adolf Hitler, or when they wave signs in the air that said we should have buried Obama with Kennedy, those kinds of things are beyond the bounds. I think people who are guilty of that kind of personal attack against Obama have been influenced to a major degree by a belief that he should not be president because he happens to be African American.

But rather than take up the issue, the Obama White House immediately distanced itself from Carter. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters that Obama did not believe the criticism directed at him and his policies was "based on the color of his skin," but a reasonable frustration with government.

Worse still has been the response of the Democrats to the furor over the health care bill. Rather than focus on the Republicans' incitement of bigotry, the Obama administration took one opportunity after another to talk about how much Republicans should appreciate the bill--because it delivers major items on their wish list.

As author Matt Taibbi noted:

Only in America could we have a situation in which the GOP punts away a political opportunity by having a some Texas congressman shout "Baby Killer!" during a debate--and then the Democrats fumble that punt by celebrating the Republican-ness of the historic bill they just passed.

As she inched toward the triumphant win, Nancy Pelosi issued a fact sheet about the bill that cheerfully quoted an E.J. Dionne editorial. The passage: "An op-ed by E.J. Dionne on Friday reveals that the current health reform legislation pending before Congress was 'built on a series of principles that Republicans espoused for years.'"

The Democrats not only won't fight the bigotry and right-wing attacks used against them, but they celebrate what they have in common with the bigots--and make concession after concession to accommodate them, as the health care debate showed all too plainly.

The result is that racism and hate only fester. According to a recent Harris poll, 67 percent of Republicans (and 40 percent of Americans overall) believe that Obama is a socialist; 57 percent of Republicans (32 percent overall) believe that Obama is a Muslim; 45 percent of Republicans (25 percent overall) agree with the "birthers" that Obama was "not born in the United States, and so is not eligible to be president"; 38 percent of Republicans (20 percent overall) say that Obama is "doing many of the things that Hitler did"; and 24 percent of Republicans (14 percent overall) say that Obama "may be the Antichrist."

While there are questions about the Harris survey's sampling and methodology, this poll isn't unique in showing the large number of Republicans who have reactionary ideas, particularly about Barack Obama. But the Democrats refuse to actively take on such ideas, preferring to talk up "common ground."

Right-wing extremism, whether racism, anti-gay bigotry or Islamophobia, has to be challenged--period. There can be no common cause with bigotry.

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