When I wasn’t working on a migraine, when I wasn’t despondent about the future of the world, when I was feeling halfway brave, I occasionally tuned in to TV coverage of the elections this fall. I watched the Tea Partiers with their shrill denunciations and ragged signs. I listened to how they wanted to take back their country. I studied their flushed faces and gaping mouths.
I don’t recommend this as an exercise in mental health or migraine-avoidance. Worse, the truth is I’d seen and heard it all before. While we were in New York in the spring, my husband and I saw Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, a raucous, sweat-soaked musical about this country’s seventh president and the fervent mobs who took him to power. It was one of the best performances we saw, the perfect musical if you like your history twisted and your irony and irreverence delivered in bulk. (What can I say? We do.)
You remember Andrew Jackson, of course. He was the war hero, the frontiersman, the plainspoken populist. His adoring followers trashed the White House at his inauguration, tracking mud and muck on the carpets and furniture as the spittoons overflowed. Jackson himself was charismatic and enigmatic, a slave owner who wanted to preserve the Union, a champion of individual liberty who signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830.
In the wake of that last act, 45,000 Chickasaws, Choctaws, Cherokees, Muscogee-Creek and Semi-noles were forcibly removed from their homelands in the Southeast to Indian Territory in Oklahoma. Many of them died on the long brutal journey that came to be called the Trail of Tears.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which moved to Broadway this fall, tells the story of Jackson as the first populist-celebrity politician. He’s buff, brazen and sexy, and he sports his “stimulus” in his skin-tight jeans. The crowds who idolize him are rough-hewn, impulsive and volatile. As the chorus to one of the musical’s songs, “Populism Yea Yea” goes, “And we’re gonna take this country back for people like us, who don’t just think about things.”
They sing, they dance, they’re loud, they rage against the sneering elite. According to New York Times drama critic Ben Brantley, they represent America as the “eternal teenager”—forever misunderstood and entitled, with the collective attention span of a gnat.
With their mercurial, anti-intellectual mindset, teeming with a lot more id than I.Q., Bloody Bloody’s rabble-rousers remind just about everybody of the Tea Partiers. You see them up close and it’s ugly. This is what happens, you tell yourself, when people care more about slogans than ideas, when they’re overwhelmed by primal emotions, when democracy becomes mob rule. Everybody’s angry and nobody thinks. Man up! They’re gonna take this country back for people who don’t just think about things. Just like the Tea Partiers, who revere the U.S. Constitution, but have little idea what it really says. (Who knew the First Amendment was about separation of church and state?)
But wait. Sure, Bloody Bloody’s gyrating mob and the Tea Partiers look the same, sound the same, render everybody who’s ever read a book with the same kind of horrified gut-freeze. But, look a little deeper. Their differences are as disturbing as their similarities.
Jackson’s followers—and their Bloody Bloody counterparts—are hardscrabble individuals who struggled to homestead in the wilderness. They worked hard, backbreaking labor. They died young, succumbing to childbirth, deprivation and diseases like cholera that are distant headlines to 21st-century Americans. They had little education and little hope of doing more than saving their families from starvation. To survive, they wanted to expand government and democracy.
Then look at our modern-day Tea Partiers. They show no symptoms of being alarmingly underfed. Their hands are soft and well-manicured, their wardrobes coordinated, their hair is colored and coifed. They’re an affluent, well-educated group with enough leisure time to show up at repeated rallies and wave their signs and scream their slogans. So they and big corporations can continue to thrive, they want to slash and dismember government.
Looking back, you can understand the incoherence and rage of Jackson’s 19th-century followers and their fury at the cultural elites. But how did a well-fixed, well-fed mob of white people with college degrees and SUVs highjack the populism banner and label themselves disenfranchised? Maybe because they don’t understand the term “populism” any better than they understand the First Amendment?