The hundred or so gathered outside the Arizona state capitol today were subdued by Tea Bagger standards. Most of them, holding signs decrying socialism or paying tribute to the Founding Fathers in ways that betrayed a very loose understanding of history, leaned against trees or lazed in the grass, as others perused the right-wing populist paraphernalia at the merchant tents behind the stage. Polite applause and murmurs of agreement greeted speakers, where raucous chants or inflammatory outbursts might have otherwise been heard.
When State Treasurer Dean Martin, a possible Republican primary challenger to Governor Jan Brewer in 2010, mounted the stage and took the microphone, his soft-spoken address was in keeping with the general tenor of the event. His words, however, were more appropriate being shouted to a howling throng where Obama’s image is burned in effigy.
“Envision a world Nancy Pelosi wants,” Martin said. “Grandma wants a hip replacement. Do you want to show up at an event where Nancy Pelosi is and make her mad?”
If he meant it to be funny, nobody was laughing. In fact, the crowd nodded gravely. That under Obamacare, if one of them were to accidentally spill wine on the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives she would not only have the inclination but the ability to make sure your grandmother is denied hip surgery, was clearly a possibility they had considered and decided likely.
“How many people,” continued Martin, “are already afraid to speak out because they’re afraid they’ll get audited?”
Judging from the reaction of the crowd, who recognized themselves as the brave souls standing alone against the Obama socialist juggernaut, though certain doom or denial of coverage awaited them, the only explanation for their ranks not being larger on this day was because of what Martin went on to term “a very quiet fear.” The population, it would seem, is too paralyzed in terror of Obama’s godlike wrath to give him a negative rating – he is approved of by well over half of the nation’s voters right now according to polls.
“This is not just about health care,” Martin said, wrapping up, “but whether or not we are in control of our own destiny.” He then went on to praise our veterans, remembering at last that it was ostensibly Veteran’s Day that had brought everyone out, and not the opportunity to get their fear injection from the state treasurer.
We are in control of our own destiny, Treasurer Martin might be reminded, and the lever of our control is the ballot. The votes cast last year for the president and his party were votes in favor of overhauling health care in this country, and for a new way to approach war and diplomacy, and a new focus on education and the environment, and smart fiscal policy, and so forth.
It is not easy to tell people that they put their chips on the wrong roullette spin, that the program they followed loyally and wholeheartedly led us to this state of national affairs; that they were complicit in our degradation as a country. It is much easier to tell people to be afraid.
This fear is a frightful thing. The patriots in the park today did not gather when it was revealed that the communications of U.S. citizens were being monitored by the government without warrants, or when a CIA operative was outed in retribution for what her husband did – to wit, telling the truth about the trumped-up reasons for the Iraq War. Somehow these Sons of Liberty failed to rally around the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag when journalists were bullied into dropping certain lines of inquiry the Republicans didn’t want to see pursued, or government officials fired because their ideology did not align with the administration’s political orthodoxy. When the vice president established a “shadow government,” formed the nation’s energy policy in conjunction with people who would later be convicted of fraud, directed no-bid contracts to the company he had headed until he ran for office, oversaw the obstruction of a federal inquiry and claimed to be part of no branch of government, the Tea Baggers were silent.
Yet now, they are outraged. And they are afraid. This fear is not supported by any evidence, and cannot be assuaged by any logic. It is the outgrowth of a mindset that embraces complete duality at the expense of nuance, and asserts any means as justified that lead to a desired outcome. When Bush was in office, Democrats were obstructionist for demanding a role in decision-making, and unpatriotic for questioning the administration’s goals and methods. Now that Obama is president and backed by large majorities in the House and Senate, it is autocratic to spend the political capital gained by the people’s unequivocal decision to put the nation in the Democrats’ hands. Even though the will of the electorate was clearly exercised last November, these Tea Baggers yet maintain that these election results should be overturned, and the minority given an equal or superior voice to the majority.
It is hard not to see where the fear comes from. It is clear to these protestors who “us” and who “them” is. Perhaps not even a majority are racists to any appreciable degree. Obama’s otherness, his “them”-ness, is not limited to the color of his skin or his name. He comes from strange places, like Hawaii and Indonesia and Cambridge, Mass. He is a Christian with a Muslim name, and an elite from modest circumstances. He is an intellectual, a great speaker, a man of reason and deliberation. His understanding of the world, like his parentage, is neither black nor white, but a balance of both.
This is something the Tea Baggers either cannot or refuse to comprehend, and that which they cannot comprehend they fear. It is easier for them to accept the demise of Medicare (a government-run health insurance program which would probably be paying for grandma’s hip surgery as outlined by Treasurer Martin), which is predicted to happen before the year 2020, than attempt a new course to change it. Having inexorably cast their lot with the Right-Wing Jacobin crowd, there is nothing for them to do but ride it out and ramp up their level of self-delusion if they fail.
Dean Martin recognizes how useful this fear is, and how willing people such as these are to be told whatever justifies their senses of self and place, no matter how nonsensical it is. Nobody should believe Treasurer Martin actually subscribes to a vision of the president as the boogeyman he is painting for Republican voters. He simply understands the dynamic of Republican primaries these days, which is that the candidate who controls the right flank wins the battle.
However, Martin’s ability and desire to use the vague phantoms that terrify this slice of the electorate should be taken as very sincere. He has the resume and ambition to become the consensus candidate of the right wing of the GOP, and if he can lock
Fortunately, this crowd is small. Today, it was 100 people, and all of them could have fit on the massive bus Dean Martin brought along, which announces his gubernatorial primary bid even if he thus far does not. But as history has taught time and again, a small group of very fearful, very self-assured and very ignorant people can cause a lot of trouble for everyone else.
As Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” In this case, though, it is the fear shared by those in a certain radical faction that we should be afraid of.