The laws and policies of the legislature of the United States of America are now effectively on eBay, for sale to the highest bidder. Are you a Wall Street boss who wants to party like it’s 2007? Are you a Big Coal baron who wants to burn, baby, burn? Are you an insurance company that wants to be able to kick sick people off your rolls? Meet John Boehner, the most powerful Republican and soon-to-be Speaker of the House. But — of course! — you already have. Here’s an example of how you have worked together. In 1995, the House was going to finally repeal subsidies for growing tobacco, because an addictive cancer-causing drug didn’t seem like the most deserving recipient of taxpayers’ cash — until Boehner walked the floor of the House handing out checks from tobacco lobbyists to his fellow elected representatives. They changed their minds. The subsidy stayed. Explaining his check-dispensing, Boehner says: “It’s gone on here for a long time.” So get your bids in: The House is open for business.
To understand what has happened in the midterm elections, the best guide lies in an unexpected place — the dusty vaults of Hollywood. In 1957, Elia Kazan directed a film called A Face In The Crowd that read the tea leaves of the Tea Party back when Sarah Palin was merely a frosty zygote. One morning a poor wandering Arkansas chancer named Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes is lying passed out on a jail cell where the local sheriff has detained him overnight. A pretty young radio producer arrives and asks if he’d like to tell her a story to be played on her show where ordinary folks speak to ordinary folks. He sings and rambles and offers corn-poke homilies. The clip is a huge hit — and he is soon given his own show, filled with country music and country wisdom which then shoots off into the stratosphere.
When Lonesome Rhodes becomes one of the biggest stars on US television, he starts receiving offers. Advertisers say that if he endorses their lousy products, they’ll shower him with millions. He knows how to sell to ordinary people — and he is pushed to go further. They ask him to sell the political causes that will make them richer too. He starts railing against Social Security and the old-age pension and anything that taxes the rich to help the rest. He uses the tunes and language of working class Americans to get them to emotionally identify with the people who are screwing them over. He’s brilliant at it — a gurning hyperactive huckster, saying that support and security for ordinary Americans is a betrayal of America. He makes himself rich by lying to the people he came from.
Fast-forward this DVD to 2010. John Boehner came from a poor family of twelve children, and heroically worked three jobs (including as a janitor) to put himself through business school. But when he got to elected office, it turned out there was much more money to be reaped from serving the interests of rich people than serving the people he came from. He took money from the insurance companies, and voted to deny healthcare coverage to sick children and to the people who hurried to the World Trade Center on 9/11 to try to dig people from the wreckage, exposing them to deadly toxins. He took money from defense contractors, and supported every war going. He tirelessly champions the overdog, while hoovering up their cash and flying on their private jets to some of the most luxury resorts in the world.
In the campaign, Boehner said his priority was to “stand up for ordinary Americans” against “the elite,” and to “cut the deficit as a matter of urgency.” So what has been his first priority as Speaker? To fight furiously to keep the gigantic Bush tax cuts for the elite richest two percent of Americans, even though this alone will add two trillion dollars to the deficit over the next decade. It’s very revealing. He immediately dumps on his propaganda causes — ordinary Americans, and the deficit — while slavishly serving his one true cause: serving the interests of the rich people like the ones who happen to pay for his campaigns and his jaunts.
This is the story of the modern Republican Party. They use the cultural signifiers of the good people of Middle America to get their emotional identification, so they can pillage Middle America and redistribute its wealth to the rich. Sarah Palin is the queen of this cause. She presents herself as a warrior for hockey moms and Mama Grizzlies, while spreading fictions to stop those very people supporting social programs that could save their lives: Remember her claim that Obama’s healthcare plan involved setting up “death panels” to execute the old and disabled? Her true slogan is Shill, Baby, Shill.
This is all made easy for her by the fact that most of the Democratic Party slithers in the same trough of corruption, begging from the same billionaires and corporations, and so can deliver only a tiny notch more for ordinary Americans. This makes left-liberal ideas look discredited, when in truth they are largely discarded. To name just one: the very high unemployment in the US has been presented by Republicans as proof that economic stimulus doesn’t work. But in reality, Obama’s stimulus was appallingly small, and was counterbalanced by the fact that the individual states were slashing spending and laying people off. Once you add the two together, there has been no net stimulus in the US economy at all.
The essence of the Tea Party — and the relevance of A Face In The Crowd — can be seen most plainly in Glenn Beck. Just over a decade ago, he was a drug-taking, pro-abortion, perpetually drunk DJ on morning radio. One of his famous “pranks” was to ring up the wife of a radio-show rival a few days after she had a miscarriage and taunt her about her loss. But then he stumbled into political commentary. After 9/11, Beck began to articulate a blubbery, blubbering hysteria, calling for the shooting of Michael Moore and the poisoning of Nancy Pelosi. He announced that any government program helping ordinary Americans was a step towards “communism”, and prophesied: “The country may not survive Barack Obama… If he does fundamentally transform America, we’re done. You don’t have to worry about a 2012.” He shot up to be the second highest-rated show in cable news, and assembled hundreds of thousands to a rally on the Mall. At times he seems quite conscious of the manipulation: “They’re getting so tired of me saying there’s a Marxist in the White House, I gotta take it up a notch,” he said to one private audience.
But a few years ago, he began to do something stranger still. He announced that the US was going to experience hyperinflation and savings would be rendered worthless — so his viewers should transfer their cash into gold. But not just any gold. No: Obama was probably going to seize gold bullion and nationalize it, he warned, so they should buy gold coins. “I think people are running out of options on what, you know, could be worth something at all. You have to think like a German Jew, 1934,” he said.
At the same time, Beck’s program on Fox News began to be sponsored by a company called Goldline that sells gold coins. In truth, there is no hyperinflation and no Obama plan to seize bullion. Yet Beck’s claims — and constant praise for Goldline — have made him and the company considerably richer. The only people who are worse off are Beck’s viewers: The investigative journalist Dana Milbank looked at 2008 and calculated that they would have seen a higher return if they had kept their money in cash than in golden coins. A court in Missouri ruled a few years ago that Goldline pressured a woman in her eighties to invest $230,000 in gold coins actually worth half that sum. The Securities and Exchanges Commission are investigating the company, and Senator Anthony Weiner says Beck and other on-air promoters “are either the worst financial advisors around or knowingly lying to their loyal viewers.” It’s the Tea Party spirit distilled: Pose as the champion of Joe America while ripping him off.
There is, however, one significant difference from A Face In The Crowd. At the end of the film — spoiler alert — Lonesome Rhodes is finishing a show and, as the end credits roll and the music swells, he rants against his viewers, believing they can’t hear him. But in the control box, a producer deliberately flips a switch. Suddenly millions hear him say: “Those morons out there. I’d give ’em dog food and make ’em think it’s steak. Good night you stupid idiots. Good night you miserable slobs. They’re like a bunch of trained seals — I toss ’em a fish and they lap it up.” John Boehner and Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck are ridiculing their followers just as crudely. Can’t somebody at Fox flip the switch?
Johann Hari is a writer for the Independent. To read more of his articles, click here or here. You can email him at j.hari [at] independent.co.uk
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