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The Next to Last Refuge of a Scoundrel

October 18, 2011

Here's a handy cheat sheet for those trying to make sense of the protest movements of the past three years. Tea Party followers were mad about losing the 2008 election; Occupy Wall Street demonstrators are angry about losing the American Dream. But for defenders of the Tea Party, that unhappy band of especially ardent Republicans, the Occupy movement's critique of economic hardship, income inequality and corporate political power hits a little too close to home. Which may be why right-wing propagandists are now accusing the protestors in America's streets of anti-Semitism.
Any mass movement will attract a diverse set of causes and fringe beliefs. As the hard-to-categorize amalgam of people seeking jobs, curbs on corporate influence and an end to America's wars (just to name a few) reflects, Occupy Wall Street is no exception. But the right and the far right have seized on stereotypes (and stereotypes of stereotypes) to mount a particularly slanderous assault against thousands of Americans just looking for relief from economic hardship.
Taking a page straight out of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the American Nazi Party tried to jump on the OWS bandwagon because is their fascist mythology, rich Wall Street bankers must be Jews. And in the telling of conservative commentators, their presence, along with some signs in support of the Palestinians, show an Occupy Wall Street movement apparently rife with anti-Semitism.
For its part, the Anti-Defamation League put the issue in context, noting that while "some individuals holding anti-Semitic signs...we believe that these expressions are not representative of the larger views of the OWS movement." But over the past 24 hours, the right-wing echo chamber's complaint has turned into a drumbeat. At Red State, a writer regrets "I cannot afford a gun" because "the anti-Semitic and socialist fever of the Occupy Wall Street movement fills me with sense of dread." Writing in the Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin decried the "lefty mob" and asked, "Does anyone care about the anti-Semitism?" Her column copied and pasted from the Emergency Committee for Israel, led by Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol:

"It's not surprising that elements of the modern left are anti-Semitic," said ECI chairman William Kristol in a statement. "It is surprising that respectable liberals have praised the protesters while ignoring the anti-Semitism. Liberals have pretended to see nothing hateful and hear nothing hateful, and therefore have said nothing to rebuke their allies. Will they now speak up?"

To which one can only ask of Kristol and his conservative allies, where have you been the past three years?

Leave aside for the moment Glenn Beck's vilification of George Soros, for which the Tea Party mouthpiece was criticized by the ADL. (The ADL would doubtless be even more concerned about Beck's reading list.) Forget for the moment the ADL's detailed reporting on "White Supremacists and Anti-Semites Plan to Recruit at July 4 Tea Parties" or Stormfront founder Don Black's declaration that "many of our people are involved in the Tea Party." As Michelle Goldberg documented in July, "A startling number of white-power candidates are seeking public office." And those "Former (and current) Neo Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members, neo-Confederates, and other representatives of the many wings of the 'white nationalist' movement [who] are starting to file paperwork and print campaign literature for offices large and small" are not running as Democrats. As the report "Tea Party Nationalism" published by the NAACP last year found that the vast majority of Tea Party supporters "are sincere, principled people of good will," some of their state and local leaders are a different story.
Today's conservatives on the watch for anti-Semitism within the ranks of the OWS demonstrators were silent when it was on display in the Texas State House. As ThinkProgress reported:

In Texas, a leadership battle is brewing over the election of the next state Speaker of the House. State Rep. Joe Straus (R-TX) appears to have the votes to win, but a coalition of Tea Party and right-wing Republican groups -- including the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity, the Austin Tea Party Patriots, the Texas Pastor Council, and Texas Eagle Forum -- are staging an effort to elect a more radical right Speaker. This morning, the Dallas Morning News reported that several of the Tea Party activists in the aforementioned coalition have been circulating e-mails with anti-Semitic messages against Strauss, who is Jewish.

From the beginning, Tea Party protesters openly carrying guns and signs proclaiming "It is time to water the tree of liberty" became fixtures at President Obama's appearances. Given calls from the likes of Glenn Beck and Michele Bachmann for revolution and for Americans to be "armed and dangerous," it's no surprise that episodes of right-wing violence were increasing around the country. That might explain House Speaker John Boehner's assessment of the Tea Party last year:

"I've been to my share of Tea Party events. ... Let me tell you about these events. Yeah, there's some disaffected Republicans there. There are always some Democrats there. Always a couple of anarchists who want to kill all of us in public office. But I'll tell you this: 75 percent of the people who show up at these events are the most average, everyday Americans you've ever met."

As for what the NAACP decried as "racist elements" with the Tea Party (including those that called American Congressmen "n**ger" and "f*ggot" as they entered the U.S. Capitol), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made clear had no comment:

"I am not interested in getting into that debate...Look, there are all kinds of things going on in America that make me uncomfortable, both on the right and on the left. I have got better things to do than to wade in to all of these disputes and discussions that are going on out in the country."

Mitch McConnell's discomfort is understandable. After all, the data show that the Tea Partiers are the very heart of his Republican Party.
From the beginning, those front groups for Dick Armey and the Koch brothers funded and coordinated the Astroturfed Tea Party movement, even distributing strategy memos on how to disrupt Democratic town hall meetings.

But largely lost in that seeming consensus about the triumph of right-wing populist anger in November was the inescapable truth about the Tea Partiers. That is, these older, whiter and more ideologically conservative voters are just Republicans by another name. And by the time the 2012 GOP presidential primaries roll around, they will be indistinguishable from the rest of the Republican hard line base.
To be sure, the 2010 exit polls confirmed that Tea Baggers are just Republicans who shout louder. The national House exit poll found that 40% of those surveyed supported the Tea Party. That's virtually identical to the 41% favorable opinion of the Republican Party. Unsurprisingly, their behavior in the voting booth was also identical, as the GOP captured 87% of the Tea Baggers' ballots.
If you had any lingering doubts that the Tea Party's righteous rage and town hall takeovers was just a continuation of the 2008 presidential campaign by others, just take a quick look back at any McCain-Palin rally from that fall. Or, you can turn to the growing mountain of studies of showing that Tea Party Republicans are nothing new under the sun.
In August, professors Robert Putnam and David Campbell published their findings from a sampling of 3,000 Americans. As their summed up what they learned about these ever more extreme - and unpopular - social conservatives:

Our analysis casts doubt on the Tea Party's 'origin story.' Early on, Tea Partiers were often described as nonpartisan political neophytes. Actually, the Tea Party's supporters today were highly partisan Republicans long before the Tea Party was born, and were more likely than others to have contacted government officials. In fact, past Republican affiliation is the single strongest predictor of Tea Party support today.
What's more, contrary to some accounts, the Tea Party is not a creature of the Great Recession. Many Americans have suffered in the last four years, but they are no more likely than anyone else to support the Tea Party. And while the public image of the Tea Party focuses on a desire to shrink government, concern over big government is hardly the only or even the most important predictor of Tea Party support among voters.
So what do Tea Partiers have in common? They are overwhelmingly white, but even compared to other white Republicans, they had a low regard for immigrants and blacks long before Barack Obama was president, and they still do.

That finding only confirmed a 2010 survey from the University of Washington which revealed that, despite right-wing claims to the contrary, the lily-white Tea Party is boiling over with racial animus. Professor Christopher Parker's polling suggested that initial assumptions about the motivations of some Tea Party members may not be far off the mark. Among white respondents, southerners are 12 percent more likely to support the Tea Party than those in other parts of the country. And tellingly:

Approximately 45 % whites either strongly or somewhat approve of the movement. Of those, only 35% believe blacks to be hardworking, only 45 % believe blacks are intelligent, and only 41% think that blacks are trustworthy. Perceptions of Latinos aren't much different. While 50% of white tea party supporters believe Latinos to be hardworking, only 39% think them intelligent, and at 37%, fewer tea party supporters believe Latinos to be trustworthy.

Those attitudes are reflected in the not-so-subtle racism of the the Republicans' Tea Party faithful. While the studies above reflected the virulently racist attitudes of some Tea Party members, its elected officials called him "Tar Baby" and "boy" and have circulated emails portraying the President as a pimp, a monkey and a target for assassination.
At the end of the day, racism and anti-Semitism have no place in a progressive political movement. The growing numbers of Americans taking to the streets of their cities seeking economic justice and a financial future shouldn't hesitate to say so. But for Tea Partiers and their right-wing apologists who wrap themselves in the American flag while denouncing large groups of Americans, the charges that Occupy Wall Street is riddled with anti-Semitism ring hollow. If their brand of grandstanding patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, that hypocrisy isn't far behind.
UPDATE: Michelle Goldberg provides more background, and concluddes the right-wing's charge that Occupy Wall Street is "shot through with anti-Semitism is dishonest and deceptive. But it's built around a kernel of truth." Meanwhile, Jeffrey Goldberg rejects the conservative OWS smear outright.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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