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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

The Age of Unreason


As the United States slides into the second week of the “Seinfeld shutdown” – the federal government shutdown about nothing – and edges toward the certain financial disaster that would accompany a government default, who would have thought that one clear voice of reason would come with a French accent.

“If there is that degree of disruption, that lack of certainty, that lack of trust in the US signature, it would mean massive disruption the world over, and we would be at risk of tipping yet again into a recession,” said Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund.

Lagarde, who may find she needs her elegant scarves to protect against the frozen politics in Washington, made her doomsday prediction over the weekend in the capitol of dysfunction where the “wacko bird” fringe of the Tea Party, those who precipitated the shutdown – two first term U.S. Senators, one on the job since January the other for a year longer and the “game changer” from Alaska – demonstrated the range of their intellectual gymnastics by protested that “Obama’s shutdown” had forced National Park Service rangers off the job thereby barricading the World War II memorial on The Mall. Meanwhile, the minority within the minority that is the Tea Party, rallied in front of the White House with at least one protester waving the Confederate flag.

As Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg Tweeted, “in many parts of America, waving a Confederate flag outside the home of a black family would be considered a very hostile act.” But, hey, this is America in the 21st Century, an age of unreason where anything goes, including potentially the nation’s credit and the world’s economy.

By broad and deep consensus from the political right and left, the nullifiers in the Tea Party wing of the one-time party of Lincoln, Eisenhower and Reagan will emerge from the last month of sloganeering with lower approval ratings, less chance to take control of the United States Senate, dimmer prospects for winning the White House in 2016 and more determination than ever to take their party and the country in a new direction, even if it is over a cliff.

The Mind of the Tea Party

The modern Republican Party, at least the one we’ve known since Richard Nixon and until George W. Bush, was routinely defined by its opponents as a Chamber of Commerce country club elite, beholden to big business and responsive to Wall Street. But no longer.

A liberal columnist like the Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky suggests the historic “business wing” of the GOP must save us all from the Ted Cruz-Sarah Palin wing because “this is the biggest political issue of our time…because a reasonable GOP would make the country governable again. A critical mass of conservative compromisers, with maybe a few genuinely moderate Republicans thrown in, would end this dysfunction more quickly than anything else.”

But Tomasky and many others, including many Democrats, underestimate the fear – and I use that word advisedly – that has helped create the world view of the current and more populist GOP. The Tea Party not only loathes the president, but also Wall Street, much popular culture, the media “establishment” – other than Fox News – and, most importantly, the leadership of the Republican Party.

Writing in the New York Times Thomas Edsall notes that, “animosity toward the federal government has been intensifying at a stunning rate. In a survey released on Sept. 23, Gallup found that the percentage of Republicans saying the federal government has too much power — 81 percent — had reached a record-setting level.” Combine that sentiment with “the findings of a Pew Research Center survey released four weeks ago. They show that discontent with Republican House and Senate leaders runs deep among Republican primary voters: two-thirds of them disapprove of their party’s Congressional leadership — John Boehner, the speaker of the House, and Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader.” In short, the most Republican of Republicans dislike almost everything about their government, including the strange man in the White House and their own leaders.

Some of the most interesting and insightful research into the mind of the Tea Party voter comes from respected Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg who recently conducted a series of detailed focus groups to try and understand the thinking that has become the driving force in the new GOP politics.

“While many voters, including plenty of Democrats, question whether Obama is succeeding and getting his agenda done,” Greenberg reports. “Republicans think he has won. The country as a whole may think gridlock has triumphed, particularly in the midst of a Republican-led government shutdown, but Republicans see a president who has fooled and manipulated the public, lied, and gotten his secret socialist-Marxist agenda done. Republicans and their kind of Americans are losing.”

And there is this: Tea Party adherents “think they face a victorious Democratic Party that is intent on expanding government to increase dependency and therefore electoral support. It starts with food stamps and unemployment benefits; expands further if you legalize the illegals; but insuring the uninsured dramatically grows those dependent on government. They believe this is an electoral strategy — not just a political ideology or economic philosophy. If Obamacare happens, the Republican Party may be lost, in their view.”

If you embrace the idea, as many Americans quite clearly do, that the country is lost to them, then there is little to be lost from using what little power you have to shut down the government and blow up the economy. It’s the gruesome political equivalent of the U.S. commander in Southeast Asia who infamously declared that the Vietnamese village had to be destroyed in order to be saved.

Nullification

William Faulkner’s great line seems more appropriate than ever: “the past is never dead, it isn’t even past.” And the heart of the Tea Party message – that the country is doomed by the unconstitutional actions of an illegitimate president – is, as novel as it might seem daily on cable television, far from a new phenomenon. Frank Rich is one of the best at connecting the dots of our politics once our tiny attention spans have moved on to the next big thing. He reminds us in his latest New York magazine essay that we’ve seen this movie before.

“The political tactics and ideological conflicts are the same today as they were the last time around [1995].  Back then, the GOP was holding out for a budget that would deeply slash government health-care spending (in that case on Medicare) and was refusing to advance a clean funding bill that would keep the government open. The House also took the debt ceiling hostage, attaching a wish list of pet conservative causes to the routine bill that would extend it. That maneuver prompted Moody’s, the credit-rating agency, to threaten to downgrade Treasury securities, and Wall Street heavies like Felix Rohatyn to warn of impending economic catastrophe. The secretary of the Treasury, Robert Rubin, juggled funds in federal accounts to delay default much as his protégé Jacob Lew was driven to do in the same Cabinet position now. Leon Panetta, then Clinton’s chief of staff, accused the Republicans of holding ‘a gun to the head of the president and the head of the country’ and likened their threats to ‘a form of terrorism.’”

The past that truly isn’t dead is what Frank Rich calls the precepts of the great pre-Civil War nullifier, John C. Calhoun, that have found voice in the 80 or so House Republicans who would destroy the economy to destroy Obamacare and, of course, given the current occupant of the Oval Office there are other factors at play.

“It was inevitable that when a black president took office, the racial fevers of secessionist history would resurface and exacerbate some of the radicals’ rage,” Rich says in helping us understand that rebel flag waving protester yesterday in front of the White House. But he also correctly notes that “to brand this entire cohort as racist is both incorrect and reductive. It under­estimates their broader ideological sway within their party. The unifying bogeyman for this camp is the federal government, not blacks or Hispanics, and that animus will remain undiminished after Obama’s departure from the White House.”

“We are upholding the true doctrines of the Federal Constitution,” the former Senator from Mississippi Jefferson Davis said in 1861 when he took the presidency of the eleven southern states who thought they could leave the Union after the election of a president the rebels considered illegitimate. It is not merely an historical oddity that today many of the highest profile leaders of the Republican Party from Cruz and Rubio to Cantor and Graham represent those eleven states – the true base of the GOP – in the U.S. Congress. Mitch McConnell’s Kentucky never seceded, but rather as the great Civil War historian Gary Gallagher once quipped, “joined the Confederacy after the war was over.” The great geographic outlier in the current GOP leadership is the embattled John Boehner from Ohio, a state that has produced eight Republican presidents, five of whom fought on the Union side in the War of the Rebellion.

Still the nullifiers have had some success because, as Thomas Edsall says, “a determined minority can do a lot in our system. It has already won the battle for the hearts and minds of the Republican House caucus. That is not a modest victory.” The same movement, we should remember, caused state legislatures from Idaho to Arizona to flirt with legislation to “nullify” the federal “tyranny” of Obamacare and many of the reddest states have refused to accept a key aspect of the law, the expansion of Medicare. It will be another victory for this philosophy when the Tea Party selects the next GOP presidential candidate, a Republican disciple one suspects far removed from the party’s last two candidates – John McCain and Mitt Romney.

No one knows the impact of the victory for the hearts and minds of the House Republican caucus more than the combative Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic leader, who has been calling the shut down audibles for the Democrats. Knowing that this great civil war likely won’t be over any time soon, Reid – the former boxer – would love to go for a knockout, but will settle for a split decision. When your opponents think you’ve lied your way to power and believe the country is being destroyed it is not a great leap to say that the Founder’s Constitution is on their side, while they wrap themselves in the battle flag and fight, as another southerner used to say, “until the last dog dies.”

The elegant and precise International Monetary Fund president, Madam Lagarde, a member of the Socialist Party in France, must find all of this enormously confusing, not to say frightening. Like the rest of us, she’d better get used to it. True believers, after all, don’t often change.

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