As a lifelong Southern history freak, I’ve sometimes wondered what it must have felt like to be there in Montgomery, Ala., on that January day in 1963 when George Wallace uncorked the purple prose that came to epitomize the last big blast of states’ rights agitation. “This nation was never meant to be a unit of one, but a unit of the many,” the newly inaugurated governor hooted from the spot where Jefferson Davis had sworn his allegiance to the Confederate cause. “If we amalgamate into one unit as advocated by the Communist philosopher, then the enrichment of our lives, the freedom for our development, is gone forever. We become, therefore, a mongrel unit of the one under a single all-powerful government. And we stand for everything, and for nothing. … In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny. And I say: Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!”
I was just barely fetal when Wallace spat out those lines, so I missed an epochal moment in American nuttiness. Now I’ve lived long enough to witness at least one re-enactment: I saw Rick Perry at the “Don’t Mess with Texas” tea party in Austin on April 15. I watched Texas’ latest governor with national aspirations do his durndest to call up Wallace’s ghost and audition for the role of 21st century secessionist-in-chief. It was something to see.
About 1,000 flag-waving, sign-carrying (“Honk If I’m Paying Your Mortgage”) citizens had assembled outside Austin City Hall for one of some 50 Tax Day protests in Texas against … well, it was a little hard to say. The lead-up to Perry’s address consisted of a small-government sermon by Railroad Commissioner and U.S. Senate candidate Michael L. Williams (“We came here today to fight, baby!”), followed by a parade of conservative activists, each pointing out one of the “Top 10 Reasons Texas is Number One.” (No. 10: “Texas has the largest electricity market in the country.” No. 1: “We have the best diversity in the Union: beaches, mountains, high plains, Hill Country, deserts, you name it!”) The Top Tenners worked in a few catcalls at Obama, bailouts, welfare and socialist tendencies (“Vice President Biden even said it was patriotic to pay taxes!”). One proclaimed tea party day the start of the “second American Revolution.”
There was little to portend a history-making moment when Perry dude-walked to the front of the stage and drawled, “I gotta say it gives me that thrill up my leg when I see all these people standing out here … with liberty in their hearts and independence on their minds. Plenty of patriots in this crowd today!”
The patriots cheered politely as the governor warmed to his theme, finger-pointing and fist-shaking as he praised Texas, thanked veterans, cursed Washington, and called for restoring “a shared set of values.” Defending his fellow tea-partiers, he commenced to holler: “I’m just not sure you’re a bunch of right-wing extremists. But if you are, I’m with you! ‘Cause you are a true patriot today in this country. And I might add, you’re surrounded by fellow patriots-individuals who embrace the concepts like lower taxes and smaller government and freedom for every individual. I’m talking about states’ rights! States’ rights! States’ rights!”
The folks were raising a fuss now. “Secede!” one hoarse voice from way in the back called out over the ruckus. “Seceeeeeeede!” Duly encouraged, Perry went on: “Since the U.S. Constitution was first ratified, the federal government has slowly, steadily, and successfully eroded the notion of states’ rights. The Founding Fathers understood something: They understood that one-size-fits-all doesn’t work. … I happen to agree with the seventh governor of this great state, Sam Houston. He once said, ‘Texas has yet to learn submission to any oppression, come from what source it may!'”
By the standards of Wallace’s infamous address, it came up a little short on poetry. But the themes were all there: the freedom-claiming, fist-shaking defense of an unjust status quo in the face of Big Government tyranny (communism then, socialism now). The racism that dare not directly speak its name. The stirring-up of folks in a doomed, irrational cause. And most of all, the shameless exploitation of people’s anxieties (integration then, recession now) as a springboard to national prominence. “Maybe it’s Perry for president now!” rally host Jason Moore hallooed to rowdy cheers after the oration, seconding the sentiments of talk-radio hate-meister Michael Savage, who’d begged Perry on his show a day earlier to make a White House run.
It’s tempting to think of Perry, in his states’ rights incarnation, as a new George Wallace. But Wallace, it’s easy to forget, was in some respects a bigot of the people. He built scores of schools and medical clinics, paved oceans of highway, cleaned up waterways, and raised the percentage of Alabamians on state welfare, white and black alike, to the second-highest level in the country. “I’m not one of these ultraconservatives,” Wallace once told a Yankee reporter. “They against everything. The only thing they for is the dollar, that’s all they want to conserve.” In his 1966 campaign, Wallace responded to complaints about his prolific social spending in his best Dixie dialect: “Spendin’ money for the blind and the crippled and elderly and disabled-that’s what we spose to do. That ain’t no giveaway, that’s easin’ sufferin’, that’s heppin‘ folks.”
The only folks you’ll catch Perry heppin‘ are big homebuilders, big oil, his big-money sponsors, and the companies made fat and happy by his idea of a good-gummint “giveaway,” the Governor’s Enterprise Fund. He’s a corporate shill in populist buckskin. Which made him the perfect politician to seize on tea party day and make it his moment.
It’s hardly a secret that the “grassroots” tea parties, which drew upwards of 600,000 protesters across the country, were inspired by the anti-stimulus, on-air rant of CNBC commodities analyst Rick Santelli, and underwritten by shrink-the-government, pro-corporate groups headed by former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Texas Congressman Richard Armey. And of course Fox News relentlessly hyped the parties.
After Perry’s bravura display, I lit out for the largest tea-fest in Texas, at San Antonio’s Alamo Plaza. Here was a different flavor of exploitation: a rally that was essentially one big, roaring stage set for The Glenn Beck Program. An estimated 10-15,000 human props jammed the square, waving miniature American flags, leaping up and down with handmade signs (“Cut Taxes, Fire Congress, Build the Wall”) to attract the cameras. The protesters craned their necks for a glimpse of Beck and special guest pundits Janine Turner, co-star of Northern Exposure (“We don’t want to be the United Socialist States of America!”) and rocker, NRA spokesmodel, and Perry backer Ted Nugent.
During commercial breaks (Fiber Therapy; No More Ruined Food!), the decibel level plummeted to an eerie near-silence. Then, signaled by Nugent’s whanging out another set of chords from “Cat Scratch Fever,” delirium recommenced on cue. “We are not insane extremists,” Beck assured the folks. “We are Americans who actually believe in something!”
But what? Clearly there was a unanimous conviction that the media were bad-“allergic to logic,” Nugent opined-as were socialism, Obama, Pelosi, Democrats, taxes, and stimuli. What was good? God, Texas, and Nugent’s screeching rendition of the national anthem. Also freedom. “I’m stoned on freedom right this minute!” Nugent declared in a scary, off-air rant. “I’m actually high on the defiance of Davy Crockett and Colonel Travis and Jim Bowie, who took on thousands of Santa Ana’s best and killed them like squirrels!” (A sense of irony was also, apparently, bad.)
The people bumping and jumping and jeering and cheering around me, by and large, were as polite and friendly as circumstances would permit. Many had tea bags dangling from their sunglasses and hats. Many more wore glazed expressions of rapturous joy. And why not? Their services seemed sincerely appreciated. “I just want to say: I love you!” local right-wing radio jock Joe “Pags” Pagliarulo gushed after the broadcast. “How does it feel to have been part of a television program viewed by millions today?”
There was much talk from the stage about “not letting this moment die,” about “taking the spirit of this day back to your family, back to your church, your deer camp, your workplace.” But somehow, the message that folks were supposed to take away remained elusive. Until Beck, in a weirdly hushed post-broadcast oration, began comparing the recession to the aftermath of 9/11.
“You know, we all have to be prepared to lose everything,” Beck said. “OK, we lose our job-oh, well. OK, we lose our house-oh, well. OK, it’s gonna be tough-oh, well. We know how the story ends. We know what is real. We knew what was real as Americans on 9/12. Our families were real. Our country was mournful, but it was real. We just need to reconnect and realize that no matter what, no matter what we lose, it’s gonna be OK.”
Go forth and suffer. And blame the other guys.