I understood what the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville was all about as soon as I heard the audience's response to former Colorado congressman and professional xenophobe Tom Tancredo's wistful reminiscences about literacy tests at the polls. He said, "People who could not spell the word vote or say it in English, put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House named Barack Hussein Obama."
In one phrase, Tancredo managed to insult blacks, Hispanics, and the majority of U.S. voters, and the crowd's reaction was startling yet familiar. Tancredo had harnessed the mob's basest instincts and their instinctive response was manifested in a high-pitched banshee wail that I recognized immediately as the "Rebel Yell." There's nothing quite as chilling as being outnumbered in a clamor of Southern yahoos and good old boys when someone lets loose the Rebel Yell. I've heard it all my life, and it means "I've got my blood up, by God," and suddenly the air becomes electric with the potential for violence and "outsiders" find themselves in danger. During last week's Kleagle gathering in Nashville, the Tea Baggers did everything but burn a cross.
And that was before the headliner even showed up. Sarah Palin gave the mob their money's worth while demonstrating that she could star in the sequel to Mean Girls. As I listened to her mocking tone, her empty, bumper-sticker platitudes, and her irrational personal attacks on the president, accompanied by the howls of her receptive audience, I remembered where I had seen all this before. Palin's grim visage and set jaw was reminiscent of her true mentor, George Corley Wallace. The Tea Party crowd is the re-assembled Wallace coalition of 1968 that gathered just enough votes to put Richard Nixon in the White House. Their message was the same then as now: Stop the socialists and their ideas about Medicaid and Medicare, crush dissenters, oppose the federal guvment in favor of "state's rights," and return the Negro to his proper place in society. But even Wallace, in his declining years, saw the immorality of his lifelong convictions and spent his final days visiting black churches in Alabama, begging for forgiveness. Palin is just getting warmed up.
The former half-governor was a red-meat cornucopia to the angry and fearful, but it doesn't take Carl Jung to figure out what's at work here. Palin has a chip on her shoulder like a 2-by-4, and there is a mean-spiritedness that underlies her entire message. She suffers from the inferiority complex of the ruthlessly ambitious but otherwise average. She is in rebellion against those whom she sees as the "elites," as opposed to "hard-working Americans" like herself. Palin boasts that she never attended an exclusive Eastern university but worked her way through a series of community colleges before earning her journalism degree. She got a gig on local news as a sportscaster; she took music lessons; she entered beauty pageants — all attributes of someone who wants to be in front of the camera. When those efforts came a cropper, she and Todd found God and politics. And when Miss Wasilla became the mayor of Wasilla, the cross-eyed girl became a swan. Palin discovered that, like a one-eyed man in the world of the blind, a fairly attractive person could be a star in the realm of the homely. There just aren't that many pretty politicians, and the Republican Party is always looking for the next Dan Quayle.
Disguising hate speech is Palin's forte, but even she surpassed the gag threshold by rhetorically asking Obama supporters, "How's that hopey, changey thing workin' out for ya?" The mob went wild when she said that we needed a commander in chief and not a "law professor speaking at a lectern." Although Palin was likely referring to Obama's professorial "elitism," judging from the Rebel Yell, her Southern audience probably took it in another way. See, in Tea Party world, they don't like it when our Negroes go off to study law and start believing they know everything. But Sarah mindlessly continued to stoke the resentments of her all-white audience, and they responded like a crowd at a monster truck rally.
The degree of racial animus varies throughout the South, but nothing much has changed in the way of visceral attitudes. In Memphis, where there is racial voting parity, public jibes are now couched in prosaic phrases, because it's not acceptable any longer to be openly racist (unless you're former mayor W.W. Herenton, who makes up his own rules). In Nashville, they have no such restraint. I never witnessed more blatant racism anywhere than in my decade of living in the Music City. So it was appropriate that the Tea Party Convention was held at Opryland. The conventioneers have convinced themselves that they are the "real" Americans and the true "patriots" upon whose shoulders falls the duty of purging the government of subversive elements. So did the Dixiecrats, the McCarthyites, and the Wallace devotees. The only difference now is that the reactionaries have a pretty face to follow straight to hell. After a season of slander and worse, this bunch has revealed its true nature, and just like Johnny Nash, "I can see clearly now." But don't attempt to disguise yourselves as "fiscal conservatives" or "small-government libertarians" when you're nothing more than another movement in a long line of misinformed lynch mobs. If knowledge is power, then knowledge of history is the power to avert bullshit when you see it coming. There's an enormous mudslide on the way.