The tea parties and their populist rage, on display in Nashville, are not a new phenomenon in America. This rage often surfaces when times are hard, and also, when there is a crisis of masculinity in the culture. Especially when it concerns white Christian manhood.
When white men can't get jobs--or can't get the jobs they feel they are entitled to, and when they imagine "others" taking those jobs, there is often hell to pay. It's as American as apple pie.
In the 1840s, the Know-Nothing party was made up of working class men who were afraid that Irish and German Catholics were going to take their jobs, and feared that the immigrants were loyal to the pope and not to the republic. (The name came from the fact that they formed secret groups, whose members were supposed to say "I know nothing" if they were asked about their activities.) In 1834, an Ursuline convent that had been established in Boston's Charlestown neighborhood was sacked and burned by an angry mob, forcing the nuns inside to flee for their lives.
Days before the burning of the convent, wild rumors swirled around that were as bizarre as those that came from some tea party members before the 2008 election--death squads were going to kill grannies and concentration camps were going to be set up to educate children as socialists. In 1834, Boston was abuzz with rumors of kidnappings, forced conversions and strange sexual rituals among the nuns.
Later, after the Civil war, populist anger in the south took the shape of the Klu Klux Klan. The Klan was formed in reaction to the efforts of the northern so-called "radical Republicans" to break the social system in the South, and to give former slaves employment and education. Klansmen with their white robes and their flaming crosses terrified, tortured, and murdered blacks throughout the Southern states. White Christian manhood could not stomach the idea of jobs or voting rights for black people--especially after the humiliation of their loss to Northern armies.
After the First World War, the Klan became actively hostile to Jews, Catholics and foreigners of all stripes. That's when my family history encountered that of the "invisible empire." In 1925, my Irish grandmother, Mamie Mangan Rivers, watched as the Klansmen marched through Washington, resplendent in their robes and pointy hats. When two of the marchers paused on the lawn of her house on R Street, she marched out with her broom and chased them away. They were not so fearsome without the lawlessness of Southern states to protect them. And my father, Hugh Rivers, found himself on vacation with some of his law school friends in Virginia Beach when the Klan was having a rally. The young men, most of them Catholics or Jews, marched along the boardwalk with arms linked, chanting, "Hooray for the Negroes, the Catholics and the Jews!" The Klansmen decided not to take on these strapping young men in daylight; it was much easier to grab some isolated and vulnerable black farmer in the dead of night.
It took a long time for the Klan to fade away, and it is not completely gone. When my husband and I were vacationing at an Alabama beach a few years ago, people told us that back in the hills, you could still see the fires of cross burnings on a summer night.
While there have been populist movements on the left--Teddy Roosevelt, the progressive Robert La Follette and Ralph Nader have been called populist--the real gut anger seems to come from the right. George Wallace arrived on the scene in the 60s, when many American men were feeling besieged not only by blacks, but by urban elites that he called "pointy-headed intellectuals." The Wallace rallies I covered were mainly attended by really teed- off men, with their wives and girlfriends in tow. As with many of today's tea party goers, there was sense that the real honest hard-working Americans--themselves--had been cheated out of their jobs and their self-respect by people of color, Jews, Romanists (aka the Kennedys) and the "commies." Wallace projected a manic energy and anger best described by the journalist Garry Wills after watching one of his rallies: "Wallace came, all energy and strut, as if held off the floor by will power. He radiated a gritty nimbus of piety, violence and sex. "
Wallace and his movement faded away, but the anger and resentment he embodied did not. The election of Barack Obama stirred those same ashes. White men are having trouble finding work, and that's an incendiary situation. If ever there was a crisis of masculinity, we have one now.
For white men over the age of 20, unemployment has almost doubled in a year's time to nearly ten percent. And the unemployment rates for high school dropouts and those with just a high school diploma are far higher than those for college graduates. Jobs vanish overseas, union membership is down and even for those who do have jobs, wages are stagnant or falling.
Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, notes "Working-class white men have difficulty doing things they saw their fathers do which they cannot do and so it is easy to go swing a sign at a Tea Party."
This is why creating jobs is the most pressing political issue of the day. If the nation had a 4 percent unemployment rate, Barack Obama's popularity would be soaring. With ten percent unemployment, a president who was a combination of Lincoln, Moses and JFK would be feeling the wrath of disaffected men.
Angry, unemployed white men tend to look around and blame blacks, Hispanics, immigrants and others for taking "their" jobs--even when minority men are unemployed at a high rate as well. They are especially vulnerable to people in the media who exploit their fears. In the 30s, Father Coughlin used radio to stir up anger, especially against Jews. Today, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck go after minorities, spreading bizarre ideas. Glenn Beck told the people of Texas they had a right to secede from the union. (They don't.)
Populist anger is so white hot that it can't be sustained long term--it tends to burn out. But while the flame is hot, it can pull the nation back into bad old days of fear and hatred.
An, unemployed, un-manned white guy is an IED about to explode.