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Obama, Tea Parties, and Apocalyptic Aggression

09/24/2013 06:15 pm ET | Updated Nov 23, 2013

When President Obama talks about the Congressional budget showdown as apocalyptic... what does that mean?

What is Apocalyptic Aggression?

The merger of apocalyptic frameworks and conspiracy-based belief systems spawns aggressive confrontations that undermine civil society in a democracy.

Apocalyptic Aggression occurs when demonized scapegoats are targeted as enemies of the "common good," and a confrontation seen as not just a political necessity but a sacred duty.
Society is portrayed as split between the forces of good and the forces of evil.

This dualistic worldview creates needless confrontations and in its most fanatical forms can lead to lead to discrimination and even physical attacks.

Apocalypticism: The belief in an approaching confrontation, cataclysmic event, or transformation of epochal proportion, about which a select few have forewarning so they can make appropriate preparations. From a Greek root word suggesting unveiling hidden information or revealing secret knowledge about unfolding human events. The dualist or demonized version involves a final show-down struggle between absolute good and absolute evil.

In Christianity there are competing apocalyptic prophetic traditions based on demonization or liberation. Central to Christianity, the tradition also exists in Judaism, Islam, and other religions and secular belief structures. Believers can be passive or active in anticipation; and optimistic or pessimistic about the outcome.

Christian apocalyptic millennialism is a sense of expectation that a significant epochal transformation is imminent, marking either the end of a thousand year period, or signal its beginning, or both. Two major forms of millennialist response are passive waiting versus activist intervention. In Christianity, the Second Coming of Christ is seen as marking a thousand year period: a millennium.

Christian apocalyptic millennialism is a widespread belief system in the U.S. Christian Right, and energizes much of the anger at in the Tea Party movement which they aim at Obama. Republican political operatives for the most part do not share these apocalyptic beliefs, but cynically utilize these sincere if counterproductive beliefs to mobilize political opposition to the Obama administration. They do this by relying on forms of right-wing populism, especially "producerism."

As can be seen in the excerpt below, both right-wing populism and producerism are seamlessly integrated with apocalyptic aggression in the Tea Party movement.

The following is adapted from my chapter "Reframing Populist Resentments in the Tea Party Movement." In Steep: The Precipitous Rise of the Tea Party. Lawrence Rosenthal and Christine Trost, eds. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2012.

Change We Can Believe In.
--Obama 2008 presidential campaign slogan

Radical-in-Chief: Barack Obama and the Untold Story of American Socialism
--Title of a book by Stanley Kurtz of National Review (2010)

"Change" is a word we hear over and over. By "change" these groups mean Socialism.
--Gary Allen with Larry Abraham, None Dare Call It Conspiracy (1971)

The underlying frames and narratives that produce these seemingly absurd tropes popular in the Tea Party movement are actually quite common in conservative, economic libertarian, and Christian evangelical households--and they have been for decades.

The Tea Party movement is a form of right-wing populism that uses a "producerist" narrative, and that this model has reappeared periodically in right-wing movements throughout U.S. history. The signs and statements at Tea Party demonstrations might reflect garbled prose, but the ideas have a clear textual pedigree. In reviewing the frames and narratives of the Tea Party movement, it becomes clear that the Tea Party (and the gravitation of the Republican Party toward its obvious energy and activism) marks the return of previously marginalized theories and policy positions of the ultraconservative and conspiracist John Birch Society (JBS), which was founded in the late 1950s.

Michael Barkun, a scholar who studies apocalyptic and conspiracist movements, puts the emergence of the Tea Party in the context of a middle-class squeeze that has been decades in the making, noting that income "inequality has been rising for nearly 30 years, but was masked for most of that time by the availability of easy credit and rising home values that allowed people to use their houses as ATMs."

After the recession hit, with "credit constricted and home prices collapsing, the reality of income inequality began to sink in" for a lot of people. Attention was focused on the "bailouts," which became "the symbol of the perceived inequitable distribution of wealth." In fact, says Barkun, the "reality has been there for a long time. But the perception is new, a product of the crisis of the last three years, and that perception is shared by both the employed and the jobless."

It is, instead, evidence of the recurrence in the United States of the master frame of right-wing populist movements that use a "producerist" narrative about hardworking people having their wallets stolen by malicious parasitic elites and lazy, sinful, and subversive freeloaders. All this has happened before and in this iteration, the resentment, anxiety, anger, and fear are propelled by economic issues as well as by relatively recent tectonic shifts in racial and gender dynamics.

Right-wing populist producerism allows a set of conservative elites to bash their elite rivals who have at least slightly more egalitarian and redistributive notions of the role of government. Meanwhile, the heroic "producers" in the white middle class frequently fester in frustration. All too often these producers begin to beat up the unproductive scapegoats below them on the socioeconomic ladder.

Populism is complicated, and it remains undertheorized. Nonetheless, there is plenty of current and historic evidence to identify the Tea Party movement as a predominantly white right-wing populist movement that uses conspiratorial, xenophobic, and reactionary rhetoric to reframe and mobilize resentment based on race, gender, and class. The overheated rhetoric about Obama, liberals, and socialists destroying the "American way of life" is a form of demonization used in many social and political struggles, but it is central to right-wing populist producerism.

The economic distress in populist movements can be measurably real, realistically anticipated, or a sense of relative deprivation that is a blend of concrete and imaginary fears. Status anxiety may just be in our head, but that does not mean it is not real in terms of our political or social movement activism. If we want to understand and explain the actions of today's Tea Partiers, we would do well to remember the core sociological maxim: "If people define situations as real, they are real in their consequences."

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First posted at Talk2action.org