Doggedly Dogmatic

04.23.14

Why The Tea Party Won’t Go Away And More Wisdom From Matt Kibbe

Matt Kibbe’s autobiographical manifesto sheds considerable light—not all of it intentional—on the curious staying power of the Tea Party.

OK, I admit I opened Matt Kibbe’s Don’t Hurt People and Don’t Take their Stuff: A Libertarian Manifesto expecting to hate it. Kibbe is president and CEO of FreedomWorks, a leading Tea Party organization. You just have to read Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein’s extremely even-handed It’s Even Worse Than It Looks to see why the Tea Party wing of today’s Republican Party is largely responsible for Congress’s current dysfunction.

The book is coming at what must be an unnerving time for Kibbe and his supporters. After several years’ upward swing, the Tea Party seems to have jumped the shark with last year’s government shutdown. They found themselves sidelined in the most recent budget and debt ceiling increase. Few of their primary challengers for this fall’s Senate races seem serious.

So we might approach Kibbe’s book from several angles. Anatomy of an implosion?  Blueprint for a renaissance? Personal testimonials from the nihilistic front lines?

Well, it’s all here—and more. Foremost, I was surprised to find Kibbe’s book to be a diverting tour through the personal history of someone who sincerely believes this philosophy is for the common good. For a self-styled “manifesto,” the book is surprisingly personal and transparent. It might be a little choppy for some, not angry enough for others, but the mélange of anecdote, political philosophy, policy wonk bullet points, and Tea Party comfort food—Kibbe’s predictable assault on the Affordable Care Act—meld reasonably well.

Part of the book’s charm arises from Kibbe’s lack of hubris. “I am not a moral philosopher and I don’t particularly aspire to be one,” he admits cheerfully at the book’s beginning. “That said, I have stayed at more than one Holiday Inn Express. That makes me at least smart enough to know what I don’t know.”

The book begins with a tour through a few grounding “rules for liberty” drawn from predictable sources (F.A. Hayek, Ayn Rand) and surprising ones (he cites Saul Alinsky!)  Kibbe is not exactly careful. He whacks Barack Obama for saying that Ayn Rand should primarily appeal to misunderstood 17- and 18-year-olds as a “simplistic configuration,” but he deals not one whit with Rand’s much-lambasted “philosophy” of “objectivism,” which celebrated selfishness as a virtue, just as a teenager might.

The book becomes much more interesting in the second chapter, where Kibbe jumps to pure personal narrative. The Ayn Rand-citing band Rush becomes an avatar for political libertarianism—a courageous artistic spirit that not only channels fears about an authoritarian socialist future, but actually succeeds in the marketplace by defying convention.

Part of the book’s charm arises from Kibbe’s lack of hubris.

True, Kibbe likens Rush both to Mozart and Miles Davis. Right. But fault him for zeal, not malice. The stories of Kibbe stumbling on the disruptive albums, and coming upon a dog-eared copy of Rand’s book Anthem at a garage sale, are oddly affecting. And maybe he’s onto something.  Rush’s album 2112 has sold 3 million copies—who knew?

But alongside all the true-fandom, a whiff of regret lingers. Kibbe wants to be Rush or Ayn Rand, but is not. That’s because he lives and works in Washington, D.C.—a town, he mourns, where “Compromise is the currency, because that’s how everyone gets paid.” The book naturally has a chapter lambasting the IRS, whose agents Kibbe calls “gray-suited Soviets.” Kibbe understandably fails to dwell on the fact that FreedomWorks maintains a (c)(3) federally tax-exempt foundation, where donors receive tax deductions for their FreedomWorks contributions—itself a significant compromise with the principle Kibbe later articulates: “The federal tax code should exist only to fund the necessary functions of government.”

Even weirder is the book’s Martin Luther King Jr. refrain. MLK appears more than a dozen times; the index features seven citations alone divided between two listings: “IRS audits of,” and “targeted by FBI.” But Kibbe never addresses the fact that MLK called for more involvement of the federal government in a broad swath of public life. To somehow claim him as a hero for libertarianism beggars belief.

Kibbe’s sloppiest writing comes when he slips from the ideas and the anecdotes to shrill depictions of his opponents. In one italicized section, he imagines “Others” (oh, those nefarious “others”!) who “argue” that the “fear of runaway government power is outdated.”  These wraith-like straw men mutter the following: “People can’t be trusted with freedom.  Besides, freedom is messy and chaotic, and we won’t always make the right choices.”

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The book is billed as a manifesto, and it’s clearly intended as a runway for the presidential campaign of Rand Paul—the apotheosis of everything Kibbe vaunts in politics. In those anonymous italics again, Kibbe imagines unnamed folks saying, “Check this out: This senator is speaking truth to power.” The story of Paul’s 2013 filibuster against drone strikes becomes, in Kibbe’s retelling, a mirror for Ayn Rand’s defiant fiction and Rush’s proud rock music. “They don’t call it a club for nothing,” Kibbe writes, of the U.S. Senate Paul bucked.  “It’s a privileged cadre unaccustomed to the bright light of public attention. And that’s the way they like it.”

One dissonant note in an otherwise engaging book is the section where Kibbe cobbles together excerpts from six of the “most exciting figures” in the current Congress—Senators Rand Paul (R-KY), Mike Lee (R-UT), and Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Representatives Justin Amash (R-MI), Thomas Massie (R-KY), and David Schweikert (R-AZ). “Because this is my book,” Kibbe writes, he decided to “mash up” the conversations into an “imaginary gab fest.” The result is the book’s dullest and most meandering section.

In the end, Kibbe returns to his roots—his personal sense of embattlement. He tells a bizarre story about being “perp-walked” out of FreedomWorks’ headquarters during a three-day “hostile takeover bid” by three board members “with close ties to the GOP establishment.” The episode is less interesting as inside baseball than as an emblem of Kibbe’s leitmotif about defiance. In the book’s conclusion, he tells a story about getting a new tattoo of a rattlesnake that says, “Join. Or Die.”  “I’m all in,” he says, proudly.

The book might as well have been titled, Rebel With a Cause, Lost. But even if you agree with nothing Kibbe says, it’s a useful road map to the Tea Party’s thinking. Despite the fact that they can’t govern themselves out of a paper bag, and they seem intent on self-destruction, Kibbe’s plucky embrace of his outsider status might help explain their curious staying power.

Michael Signer is the author of Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) and is currently at work on Becoming Madison: The Making of an American Statesman, to be published in 2015 by PublicAffairs. A practicing lawyer, he teaches at the University of Virginia and is a principal of the Truman National Security Project.