The hatred was palpable on the State Capitol’s steps. Hatred for taxes, hatred for government, hatred for state workers, hatred for teachers, hatred for Democrats, and hatred for all of the strawmen that leap from the imaginations of talk radio jocks. But the most hated figure of all at today’s “Tea Bag” anti-tax rally in Sacramento was President Barack Obama. One of the first placards I saw as I entered the Capitol grounds read: “Wake Up! Fresh Prince of Belair is Destroying Us — Stop Drinking the Red Koolaid.” A state police officer told me that he thought the crowd was “a couple thousand.”
It was a sea of American flags of all shapes and sizes and many “Don’t Tread On Me” yellow flags as well. The crowd was predictably very white, very Republican, and on the older side. I didn’t see one African American (except for one of the musical performers on the stage who denounced Obama), and I didn’t see any Latinos. George W. Bush could have been the focus of some of this rage because theoretically their hatred could just as well be aimed at him. But since he is a “good” Christian, white Republican Bush remained unscathed. I didn’t see one sign that would indicate that it was anything other than a Republican hate rally.
Several placards called Obama the “Teleprompter in Chief” probably because Glenn Beck denounced the president for using one. The crowd chanted in unison: “No More Bail Outs! No More Stimulus! No More Taxes!” I was given an ice-cold coke from a vender who was handing them out for free and I strolled around for a good hour taking in the scene. There was one Jumbotron television or otherwise I couldn’t see the stage because of the number of people packed into the Capitol grounds. It was a sizeable rally. Bigger than many of the anti-Iraq War protests I attended there. Obama’s name or face was featured with sickles and hammers so much that his likeness became synonymous with something deeply un-American.
An elderly woman on a scooter — I didn’t ask her if Medicare paid for it — had a sign affixed to her chair: “If I wanted Socialism, I’d Move to Europe.” Many of the participants in today’s Tea Bagging protest seemed to be as old as John McCain but there were a smattering of families with little kids and some tweens who were waving American flags.
Speakers from the local right-wing talk radio establishment led the crowd in chants: “Vote Them Out! Vote Them Out!” There were plenty of signs depicting Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid as criminals, or the Three Stooges, or terrorists. One local talk radio speaker denounced Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano daring her to come and arrest this crowd. The strawman being that President Obama and the Democrats have somewhere denounced their tax revolt as being “un-American.” In the land of Fox News and right-wing talk radio truth and falsehood blend together in an ideological muck that denounces Obama and the Democrats as “socialists,” “fascists,” “communists,” and “terrorists” all at the same time. Speakers at the rally attacked labor unions and “card check” (a reference to the Employee Free Choice Act), which was ironic because most of the people in the crowd were clearly working class.
The Right has a monopoly on Sacramento’s AM radio dial (1380 and 1530 where Rush Limbaugh started his career). So it was easy for them to pump up the volume and get people out. There’s no progressive or even liberal information flowing on the public’s AM airwaves in this region of California but somehow the Right always gets to play the “oppressed” victim. Ironically, after denouncing the “Liberal Media” and anyone else who suggested the Tea Bagging phenomenon was a product of cheerleading from Fox News and right-wing talk radio, a local AM jock confirmed to the crowd just that: “A lot of this is because of talk radio and Fox helped us defend ourselves!” This statement brought a huge cheer from the crowd. The right-wing talker also complimented channels 1380 and 1530 for bringing in people “from Rancho Cordova, Placerville, and El Dorado Hills.” And he said the liberals want to impose the “fairness doctrine” that would undermine the good work of right-wing radio and urged people to go to “Talkback.com” to find out how they can save talk radio from the Democrats.
With the U.S. military base at Mather Field close by the veteran contingent loomed large. They were older vets though, mostly Vietnam, I only saw a few I thought were the age of the average Iraq or Afghanistan vet. There was a contingent of Republican state legislators and their staffers milling about who stood out because they were the only ones wearing suits and ties. Most of the people there were crusty-looking, grizzled biker types with American flag T-shirts and jeans, men with gray beards and baseball caps, women with big sunglasses and cheap jewelry. None of those people looked to me like they earn anywhere near $250,000 a year (like the AM jocks or Republican legislators do).
And therein lies the beauty of the whole Tea Bag “movement.” Affluent people like Michelle Malkin and Grover Norquist and the army of radio “personalities” convince working people, most of who have a relative or are themselves on Medicare or Social Security, to denounce taxes on affluent people. Many of the people at the rally were from the eastern foothill communities that are pretty impoverished and would benefit from Obama’s health care, economic, and education policies. The foreclosure rate alone east of Sacramento would lead one to think that far more people in this region could use some government help.
We will see if the Tea Bag phenomenon can be sustained or if it is just a one-time Republican gimmick. But remember, in 1994, Newt Gingrich took the House of Representatives with a similarly cornball gimmicky set of “principles” that channeled the same kind of blind right-wing hatred and anger. The lesson from today I think is that Congressional Democrats and the Obama Administration should work together to make the public AM radio airwaves more competitive so more diverse voices are heard. As long as the Republicans and the Right hold on to their monopoly on AM radio they’ll be able to stage these kind of hate-fests easily and more often. I’d take the Tea Baggers seriously and move to use the FCC to open up the public airwaves and also use the Anti-Trust Division of the Justice Department to break up Rupert Murdoch’s media empire along with the other media corporations that have become as dysfunctional to our democracy as the “too big to fail” financial corporations.
George W. Bush’s entire eight years was nothing but a neo-liberal experiment in skewing government and every other public good toward serving the interests of profiteers and the rich. That was apparently fine with these rightwingers as long as the government money was flowing upwards into the hands of the rich and corporations. But as soon as a Democratic administration is elected to power everything’s different now. The sky was the limit during the Bush spending binge on war and giveaways to Wall Street and lavish contracts for shoddy or nonexistent “government” services and corporate welfare and so on and on.
But now with Democrats trying to put a little spare change in the pockets of the other 95 percent of the population who gained nothing from the Bush years all of a sudden the sky is falling! The Tea Baggers I encountered were very polite and well-mannered, even passive. They need cajoling to act out. They need their anger stoked. They need straw men to knock down and people to hate — people like state workers and teachers and Democrats. I couldn’t help but think that the whole damn thing is just one big constructed product of the propaganda from right-wing talk radio and their ideological soulmates at Fox News.
by Joseph Palermo
Joseph Palermo is Associate Professor of American History at CSU, Sacramento. He’s the author of two books on Robert F. Kennedy: In His Own Right (2001) and RFK (2008).
Originally published by The Huffington Post. Reprinted with permission from the author.