Last month’s “Restoring Honor” rally (“America today begins to turn back to God”) and the Delaware GOP primary victory of Christine O’Donnell (“We’re not trying to take back our country; we are our country”) reveal that the Tea Party movement isn’t really a revival of Goldwater Republicanism.
Rather, it’s becoming increasingly clear that its nearest antecedent is 1992-era Pat Buchanan. Revisit, if you will, the crescendo of Pat’s notorious convention speech at the GOP Convention in Houston, in which he exhorted the “Buchanan Brigades” to “come home and support” that RINO, George H.W. Bush.
He concluded with a dramatic and jarring anecdote from the L.A. riots: a picture of a phalanx of young state troopers, armed with M-16s, bracing against an angry, cursing black mob. He then called on his fellow Republicans to “take back our cities and take back our culture and take back our country.”
The meat never got any redder.
David Frum, in his book Dead Right, surmised that Republicans had abandoned a belief in the “essential moral and cultural health of American society.”
As families disintegrate, as the poor become ever more dependent, as new immigration weakens the country’s cultural links to Europe, American conservatism seems to be adapting by jettisoning its Reaganite optimism and individualism. A very secular anxiety—a fear that something had gone deeply wrong with the soul of the country, something that tasty Reaganite medicine could not cure—was the true inner meaning of Houston.
The more refined intellectual bent of Newt Gingrich; improving social indicators in the ’90s, including drops in crime, abortion, teen pregnancies, and divorces; a booming economy; George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism”—these factors conspired to drive the anger of Houston underground.
But now it has bubbled to the surface anew.
The difference between then and now, however, is that the glowering face of Pat Buchanan has been replaced by the far more attractive Sarah Palin; his comparatively rigorous study of history by the blubbering conspiracist Glenn Beck. When Palin talks about “real America,” it didn’t sound as menacing as it might have from Pat.
What Palin and the Tea Party movement enjoy that Buchanan didn’t in 1992, of course, is Barack Obama. Sure, Pat had the draft-dodging, pot-not-inhaling Bill Clinton—but let us all agree that President Obama lacks the ingratiating charms of an overweight Southern Baptist from Arkansas.
Obama has proved the perfect foil for Buchananite anger. He enables today’s Buchanan Brigades to avoid the trap described by Frum: They can once again claim that America is culturally and morally healthy; the problem is that Kenyan-Muslim interloper, with his alien cancerous social-democratic parasitic economic theories and his liberation theology.
Over the last 18 months, the truth of this cultural, not economic, anxiety has slipped out, as in Arizona and the “border wars.” But for the most part Obama has been an ideal lightning rod--he’s an easily targeted, solitary vessel of yesterday’s culture-wide decay.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not making this argument out of support for Obama but rather as a Republican who has seen Buchananism get trounced at the ballot box. It may not happen in 2010. But make no mistake. Eventually, it will happen.