10/18/2010 12:33 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Tea Party Rage, Part Two: Grass Roots Movement or AstroTurf Tool of Corporate Power?

In Part One of this three-part post, I argued that the Tea Baggers for all their varied expressions constitute more than a rag-tag band of befuddled but well meaning delusional wackos. They are also, and more importantly, the populist face of a highly organized and well-funded effort to consolidate an anti-democratic form of corporate rule, historically known as fascism.

The Tea Party is not a monolithic movement; it is obviously one comprised of numerous squabbling sects. However, even though those who flock to its rallies might express some heterogeneity, the candidates they vote for under the Tea Party banner take the usual fundamentalist positions on social issues and the predictable "free market" stances on economic and regulatory questions. Except for a few antiwar outliers, disputes among these Tea Party leaders are largely over minor differences. It does not seem unfair to judge the base, and the movement at large, by those it elects to represent them.

One debate among progressives has been over whether this is a grass roots or a corporate AstroTurf phenomenon. In my view, this question is premised on a false dichotomy; Tea Baggers are clearly a hybrid of both, and in fact the bastard children of many influences. But more specifically, the Tea Party represents the meeting of fascism from above with fascism from below, forces that are drawn together like the magnetized lips of kissing dashboard dolls.

In other words, in the US, as in other national contexts, fascism has two somewhat distinct but interacting faces: a tendency among political rulers at the top, and a grass roots movement drawn from the general population. There is a subset of the ruling elite - Republicans, corporate Democrats, and their financial benefactors among the owning class - who seek to erode all impediments to the merger of big business and the government. They don't necessarily believe the paranoid narratives their lobbyists and Fox News shills manufacture for mass consumption. Rather, they're largely driven by the mundane motives that animate most plutocrats, an urge to consolidate and expand their wealth and power.

Then there is a subset of ordinary middle and underclass citizens whose thoughts and emotions are driven by an incoherent but powerful mix of racial anxiety, gender insecurity, misplaced class resentment, a crippling ignorance of history and science, a literal reading of Biblical tales, and a rage born of real oppression and economic frailty. Tragically, their anger, which could be revolutionary, is wedded to self-defeating reactionary ideologies, often facilitated by their limited channels of information, or, in the case of Fox News, deliberate misinformation. They suffer from the class war version of Stockholm Syndrome. Instead of rebelling against their actual oppressors, they've been rendered happy hostages to corporate interests, and view as threats anything, like publicly-funded health care, that impinges on the profits and prerogatives of actual elites, such as big insurance. Identifying with the worldview of their masters, such right-wing insurgents become the enthusiastic foot soldiers of any fascist upheaval, financed and subtly guided by the corporate generals at the top.

In the case of the Tea Party groups, monetary support and guidance from above has been quite heavy handed. As Jane Mayer documented in the August 30, 2010 issue of The New Yorker, two billionaire oil oligarchs, the Koch brothers, have been central to the funding and organization of Tea Party rallies. She quotes Bruce Bartlett, a conservative economist, who once worked for these right-wing libertarian tycoons. He describes how the Kochs saw an irresistible opportunity in the unfocused dissatisfaction and anger of the Tea Baggers: [These are] "people who can provide real ideological power." The brothers, Bartlett explained, are "trying to shape and control and channel the populist uprising into their own policies."

Of course, the Kochs are not alone. Sal Russo is a right-wing political operative and consultant whose elite Republican pedigree goes back to his role in the Reagan administration. According to a September 18, 2010 report in The New York Times, his company is currently the single largest funder of Tea Party candidates, raising more than $5.2 million in donations since January of 2009 (although his firm pocketed $3 million of that stash). The right-wing FreedomWorks lobby has also been busy planting AstroTurf, as well as nurturing and shaping the seedlings of real populist anger. This is a group run by former GOP House majority leader, Dick Armey - a name that sounds so Republican, it's hard to believe it wasn't invented to butch him up.

These Machiavellian maneuvers bring to mind the words of a famous political strategist about how to best exploit the confused rage and fundamentalist thinking of some regular people, and what makes them easy to recruit:

The ordinary man hates nothing more than two-sidedness, to be called upon to consider this as well as that. The masses think simply and primitively. They love to generalize complicated situations and from their generalization to draw clear and uncompromising conclusions. Our agitation has often been called unintelligent and primitive...However, the people think primitively.

While that may sound like Karl Rove behind closed doors or Glenn Beck during a rare moment of frank lucidity, it was uttered by a shrewd manipulator of an earlier era, Joseph Göbbels.

It must be noted that I've made every effort up to now to avoid clichéd Nazi analogies, which is widely and justifiably regarded as the third rail of rhetorical excess. I've even refrained from drawing any larger conclusions about Rich Lott, the Ohio GOP Tea Bagger congressional candidate whose idea of a good time is playing war games dressed as a Nazi. My point is that we don't need Hitlerian references when America has its own fascist traditions to draw on. These include, to name only a few, the "Business Plot" of the 1930s, the various iterations of the KKK, the American Nazi Party, Timothy McVeigh and his Christian Identity allies, the current revival of violent right-wing anti-government militias, and the growing empire of private military contractors that increasingly functions as the enforcement wing of global corporate power. When the old jackboot fits, perhaps it should be worn.

Intrepid Huffington Post reporters recently documented the fidelity with which the Tea Party and its surrogates hew to GOP-generated talking points - often uttering them word-for-word. On the same day a few weeks ago, Sarah Palin, Christine O'Donnell, and Carl Paladino like reborn Marxists, railed against the "ruling class." Of course, like their progenitors among earlier generations of ultra-right populists, they were referring to those "elites" who read books, believe in science, and think evidence should play a role in journalism. Like all fascist ideologues, their delusional class politics are organized around a massive blind spot; they are unable or unwilling to see or name those who actually exercise economic and political domination.

In my concluding post, I will focus on the role the Obama administration and the Democratic Party leadership have played in the emergence of the Tea Party movement, and the related development of what I and other social scientists would call fascism - the merger of private wealth with what used to be institutions of public power.