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Wolves in Populist Clothing

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They emerged from the back of the arena, the handsome beaming couple, air-handshaking their way along barricades erected to allow easy passage for the dignitaries. “Realtors for Perry” signs bobbed joyfully in front of the stage. Other audience members whooped and stomped and waved signs, made to look “homemade” and scattered around the arena by Gov. Rick Perry’s campaign: “Texas is Succeeding,” “Texas Values/Proven Leadership,” “Woman for Perry,” “Homescholers for Perry” (yes, the second “o” was missing).

Perry was brimming with vigor, flashing back to those yell-leader days at A&M, looking like he might commence a “P-A-L-I-N” cheer at any time. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, fresh off her palm-reading episode at the national Tea Party Convention, was smirkingly aloof and resplendent in a lush black-velvet coat, reddish suede boots and a bodacious turquoise necklace from which dangled a cross.

Ladies and gentlemen, here are your populists!

Sigh. I still can’t help thinking, when I hear that good old “populist” word, that it still ought to mean what it once did in Texas and the rest of the South. The sort of thing that Lawrence Goodwyn quotes in his classic book, The Populist Moment, when a member of Texas’ seminal populist uprising, the Farmers’ Alliance of the 1880s, says this: “we have an overproduction of poverty, barefooted women, political thieves and many liars. There is no difference between legalized robbery and highway robbery. … If you listen to other classes, you will have only three rights … to work, to starve, and to die.”

Now, that sounds like populism to me. But there are two sides to what passes for populism in Texas today, and neither one bears the slightest resemblance to the anti-corporate, progressive, biracial roots of that word. So much so, in fact, that even a corporate shill like Rick Perry or a one-person corporation like Sarah Palin gets to claim the populist mantle.

You’ll recall how Perry lit out for the Tax Day tea parties last April and proceeded to wind back the clock to 1963 with his cries for states’ rights and his tantalizing hints about secession. But since then, the governor’s tea-party credentials have suffered, as he’s been avoiding rallies, dodging questions about nullification and secession, defending his corporate giveaways and his Trans-Texas Corridor “land grab.” He’s mostly dropped his 2009 talk about state sovereignty, too, replacing it with a Reaganesque message: “Washington is awful, and Texas is dandy!”

“Who thinks the answer is less Washington and more Texas?” Perry asked the crowd at Cypress’ Berry Center, going about as deep as he was willing to go.

Whoooo! They answered, on cue.

Palin, with a nod to her own most famously dishonest claim, said of Perry: “When Washington came calling, he told ‘em thanks but no thanks.” It was a reference to the federal stimulus money that Perry protested but, for the most part, accepted and used to balance the state budget. It had about as much “truthiness” to it as Palin’s claim about her opposition to Alaska’s “Bridge to Nowhere.”

The latest outburst of populist fervor in Texas was on display the Saturday before the Palin-Perry show in a car lot in Cleburne. Folks there supporting Debra Medina’s insurgent campaign have rejected Perry and Palin’s populist posturing. (See my profile of Medina, “The People’s Republican”) Unfortunately, Medina’s platform revolves around eliminating the property tax and replacing it with a sales tax—a fundamentally regressive idea that surely has the original populists tossing in their graves.

“Debra, I believe she wins the people’s hearts because she is nearest to the people,” Antoinette Walker, a native of Spain and right-wing blogger. “She is honest, she is bold, and she says what she needs to say, and that’s what people want to hear. Because we are tired of listening to—to—”

Her friend, Deborah Teselle of the Fort Worth 912 group, jumped in: “—to the normal rhetoric. They think they can get away with—”

Walker: “—it’s the slickness. They think they can say one thing and mean something else. You want to tell us we are doing bad and we have to work hard to make things good, just tell us. We are looking for honesty. Don’t tell us everything is roses. If somebody says it’s all nice, and this is the best state, and this and that—it’s a lie. It’s a lie.”