06.15.10

Inside the Origins of the Tea Party

Chris Matthews takes a break from Obama and the Gulf spill to offer a documentary history lesson on the new American right—and shows how little daylight there is between polite Washington conservatives and those on the fringe.

The White House can breathe a sigh of relief—at least for one night. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, host of Hardball, will be taking leave from his recent assault on the Obama administration’s handling of the Gulf oil spill to return to a more familiar pastime: taking shots at the American right.

Placing Pat Buchanan and Dick Armey, as well as Sarah Palin and Rand Paul, in the same space as online radio host Alex Jones is a neat trick.

Matthews is leading a history lesson in the form of a new documentary on the Tea Party brigade and its allies, Rise of the New Right. Perhaps the biggest surprise of Matthews’ special program, which airs Wednesday at 7 p.m., is the sight of Rand Paul in front of an MSNBC camera. Matthews’ interview with the Republican Senate candidate from Kentucky must have been captured before Paul appeared on Rachel Maddow’s show last month and turned himself into a human pretzel over his opposition to the Civil Rights Act, forcing a quick retreat to local media outlets.

Paul tells Matthews that one of the appeals of Sarah Palin as a leader of the Tea Party movement is her fallibility, something he cops to sharing, in so doing foreshadowing his own stumble into the national spotlight.

“I think the other thing about Sarah Palin is that she is like me or like you,” Paul says. “We are imperfect, so we’re not always going to get everything right, so a lot of voters say, ‘Yeah, they got her on this question,’ or, ‘They got me on this question.’ I think they see that that she is one of them.”

Paul, of course, didn’t come out of nowhere, and Matthews recites the now-familiar list of ingredients that, when placed over the heat of our political moment, have formed a heady brew for present-day conservatism. First there was the market crash and then the coming of Obama. Soon came television analyst Rick Santelli, delivering his notorious rant on the floor of the Chicago stock exchange, announcing a tea party as a new form of protest. (That this call was made on CNBC is but a minor hiccup in Matthews’ J’accuse directed at Glenn Beck and his Fox News friends.) Then came the spring 2009 anti-tax rallies and the fall’s march on Washington. Obama’s health-care legislation and a vicious backlash followed. After that, we saw the ugly episode in Michigan when a militia group, said to be plotting the murder of law enforcement officials, was apprehended by the FBI.

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The sense of fear on the right is well captured in the documentary by the appearance of Alan Keyes, whom the Republicans put up against Obama in 2004 as a last-ditch effort to stop his election to the United States Senate.

“He’s going to destroy this country,” Keyes says of his one-time opponent and now full-time nemesis Obama. “We are either going to stop him, or the United States of America is going to cease to exist.”

Matthews’ mission is two-fold. He wants to suggest that there’s little daylight between people who figure in Washington polite company, like fellow commentator Pat Buchanan or Dick Armey, the leader of the activist outfit FreedomWorks, and those who are positioned closer to the fringe, like Beck or online radio host Alex Jones. Placing Buchanan and Armey, as well as Palin and Paul, in the same space as Jones, who warns of a forthcoming “police state” designed “to carry out an orderly extermination of at least 80 percent” of Americans, is a neat trick. It will come in handy for those on the left looking for a compelling storyline heading into this fall’s election.

Matthews’ second aim is to show that the hate and fear on the right is nothing new. It existed before the stock analyst’s rant and before Beck’s chalkboard displays of paranoia. Matthews gathers the whole gang of conservative prophets, who bemoaned the coming totalitarianism of the American state during the last century, for a brief reunion. Father Coughlin, Strom Thurmond, Joseph McCarthy, Barry Goldwater, a young Ronald Reagan, Phyllis Schlafly, and Buchanan, once again, are all invited to take credit for the right’s current hysteria. Matthews’ point is clear: The tea partier, spouting off about her Muslim president who wants to steal her liberties, may be shallow, but her connection to American history is deep.

At last, Matthews offers his own bit of prophecy, pointing to the violence of the recent past in Oklahoma City as one possible path for the American future. When the words of Barry Goldwater—“Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice”—turn up on a brick thrown through the window of a local Democratic committee, the pundit’s history lesson doesn’t seem so farfetched.

Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.