Friday, April 05, 2013

The Last White Election in the United States?

Mike Davis
New Left Review

Last September, while Bill Clinton was delighting the 2012 Democratic Convention in Charlotte with his folksy jibe at Mitt Romney for wanting to ‘double up on the trickle down’, a fanatical adherent of Ludwig von Mises, wearing a villainous black cowboy hat and accompanied by a gun-toting bodyguard, captured the national headquarters of the Tea Party movement in Washington,DC. The Jack Palance double in the Stetson was Dick Armey. As House Majority Leader in 1997 he had participated in a botched plot, instigated by Republican Whip Tom DeLay and an obscure Ohio Congressman named John Boehner, to topple House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Now Armey was attempting to wrest total control of FreedomWorks, the organization most responsible for repackaging rank-and-file Republican rage as the ‘Tea Party rebellion’ as well as training and coordinating its activists. [1] Tea Party Patriots—a national network with several hundred affiliates—is one of its direct offshoots. As FreedomWorks’ chairperson, Armey symbolized an ideological continuity between the Republican congressional landslides of 1994 and 2010, the old ‘Contract with America’ and the new ‘Contract from America’. No one was better credentialed to inflict mortal damage on the myth of conservative solidarity. 

Only in December did the lurid details of the coup leak to the press. According to the Washington Post, ‘the gun-wielding assistant escorted FreedomWorks’ top two employees off the premises, while Armey suspended several others who broke down in sobs at the news.’ [2] The chief target was Matt Kibbe, the organization’s president and co-author with Armey of the best-selling Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto. Although Kibbe, originally a protégé of Lee Atwater, is an equally devout Misean (indeed, ‘distinguished senior fellow’ at the Austrian Economics Center in Vienna), he is a generation younger than 72-year-old Armey or, for that matter, most of the Tea Party base. On the FreedomWorks website Kibbe describes himself as living ‘with Terry, his sublimely awesome wife of 25 years’ and spending his leisure time ‘reading Hayek or Rand, watching The Big Lebowski or listening to a killer Grateful Dead show.’ Yet as Armey himself had put it, ‘sometimes you’re the windshield and sometimes you’re the bug.’ [3] 

Although he had support from powerful backers, including former White House counsellor C. Boyden Gray, Armey’s delusional dictatorship over Tea Party Central lasted less than a week. In conference calls with staff and supporters he denounced Kibbe for using the organization for self-publicity and personal profit (especially in the publication of his new book Hostile Takeover: Resisting Centralized Government’s Stranglehold on America) while keeping him—chairman and historical icon—out of the media limelight. Armey was also critical of the million-dollar annual fee that FreedomWorks pays Glenn Beck for publicity and fundraising (Rush Limbaugh reportedly has a similar deal). [4] In addition, Armey accused Kibbe’s team of failing to rally behind the doomed Senate campaign of Todd Akin, the Missouri ignoramus whose remarks about ‘legitimate rape’ had led Romney and other outraged party leaders to demand his withdrawal from the race. According to one staffer interviewed by the Post, ‘It was clear that under Armey’s leadership, the organization as we knew it was going to be driven into the ground.’ [5]

In the end, one of FreedomWorks’ major donors, Richard J. Stephenson, an Ayn Rand fan who operates a controversial but hugely profitable chain of private cancer treatment centres, offered Armey $8 million in instalments to go back to his ranch in Texas. Kibbe resumed control over 400 North Capitol Street NW, but Armey supporters continue to spread rumours about staff wrongdoing. Tea Party blogs, in turn, have accused Armey first of extortion, then of treason after he told his side of the story to Mother Jones’s David Corn. In other circumstances this duel between the black hats and rightwing Deadheads would have been a ‘tempest in a teapot’, akin to the episodic defrocking of a famous televangelist or a Congressional adulterer. But Kibbe, a cool operator in a histrionic milieu, insisted that Armey and his backers were clumsily camouflaging the larger issues at stake. In an internal document he charged that the attempted takeover was just old-guard retaliation for FreedomWorks’ sponsorship of Tea Party activists in primary campaigns against ‘establishment Republicans’ (a term which in Tea Party/Sarah Palin circles can encompass Rick Perry and Lindsey Graham as well as John McCain, Haley Barbour and John Boehner). [6] As an example, Kibbe cited the controversial Arizona primary the previous spring where redistricting had pitted two incumbent Republican congressmen against each other: Ben Quayle, the son of Bush Senior’s vice president, and David Schweikert, a prodigy of Arizona ultra-conservatism. While Boyden Gray and other wealthy trustees donated to Quayle, Kibbe lionized Schweikert for standing up to Boehner and other GOP grandees. [7] 

It was inevitable that defeat in November 2012 would reopen every wound and rivalry amongst prominent Republicans, undoing all the hard work of Karl Rove and his billionaire friends in creating a beauty strip of party unity around the Romney campaign. Across the suburban steppes Republican factions started warring with each other. Since the last GOP ‘moderates’ have been driven into extinction and 1980s-vintage Reaganites are gone to pasture, the current Republican civil war (as illustrated by the events at FreedomWorks) has a distinctly Oedipal dimension: jaded Gingrich revolutionaries versus their own demon spawn. Seldom in the history of the House of Representatives has the majority party so brutally cleaved itself down the middle as did the Republicans on New Year’s Day, when 151 members—including Majority Leader Eric Cantor, most of the freshmen and almost all of the Tea Party caucus—rejected the fiscal compromise (‘Plan B’) submitted by their own Speaker. Some prominent supporters of the rejectionist bloc immediately warned that the 85 Republicans, mainly from Northern and Western states, who had voted for the bill (along with 115 Democrats) could face capital punishment in the 2014 primaries. [8] The rift in Congress continued to deepen a few weeks later—largely along a Mason–Dixon fault line—when an even larger majority of the Republican caucus (179 members) voted against emergency aid for victims of Hurricane Sandy that was eagerly sought by Republicans from Northeastern states. Boehner’s dwindling band of conservative realists are discovering that the small-government fundamentalism of the Tea Party, originally heralded as the third wave of the Reagan Revolution, is actually the road to an elephant graveyard.


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