A Soldier Criticizes His Army Comrades' Tea Party Ideology

Does the movement's rank and file want to be misinformed by conservative media, or are they the unwitting victims of unscrupulous propagandists?
Chumsdock/Flickr
 
Regular readers know I have a love/hate relationship with the Tea Party. What I love is all the good people participating in the civic process for the first time; the determination to challenge corruption in the GOP establishment; the effort to bring civil-liberties concerns and skepticism of foreign wars back under the Republican tent; the commitment to a republic where people are free to pursue happiness as they see fit; the healthy skepticism of central planning that subverts markets with cronyism and corporatism; and alarm at our national debt. 
 
What I hate about the Tea Party is the epistemic closure that plagues it; the unthinking embrace of obviously unqualified politicians like Herman Cain; the notion that "real American" culture is something other than pluralistic; the unseriousness about governing; its frustrating inability to distinguish between mutually beneficial compromise on one hand and betrayal of principle on the other; the veneration of hucksters like Glenn Beck and blowhards like Rush Limbaugh; the double-think that characterizes its attitude toward the safety-net; and the subset of its rank and file that expresses personal disdain for all non-conservatives even while casting themselves as disrespected victims. 
 
I've always been far more sympathetic to the Tea Party's rank and file than to its elites. In my experience, an American who shows up to a community protest rally tends to be earnest and well-intentioned, whereas the ideological entertainers they tune into on the way home tend to be cynical, opportunistic hucksters who constantly misinform while selling cheap anger and gold at obscene markups.  
 
I've argued in many posts that right-wing media regularly and egregiously misinforms its Tea Party audiences, whose trust in talk radio and Fox News is misplaced, and called on conservatives who know better to affirm as much. As I see it, Tea Partiers would be furious if they understood the degree to which they're misled, and would manage a better movement if better served by conservative media.
 
Today's correspondent, an Army veteran, argues that I am too easy on the rank and file:
I've been thinking a lot about your critiques of right-wing media, and feel I could add something. My grandfather was a war hero, and even though I'm educated, urban, and not particularly interested in giant nation building projects in Afghanistan and Iraq, I enlisted (that is, enlisted rather than becoming an officer) as a special operations soldier in the Army. Before, after, and in between deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, I was stationed in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where I lived with the same white male southerners who make up the majority of the GOP base. They seethe listening to Rush every morning on their commute to the base, they seethe during the day where Fox News often plays in the office from 9-5, and they come back fully believing everything Glenn Beck told them that evening (I left the army in February, and remember Beck having a demonstrable affect on the moods of some of Army leadership while he was still on Fox).  I lived with the Tea Party like Barbara Ehrenreich living with the poor, like that dude who changed his skin color and wrote Black Like Me. I know them, drink with them, and count them as my friends.
 
Before I get into what I think you're missing in your writing about the Tea Party, I want to elaborate where I stand on certain things. I'm a registered Democrat who strongly favors green tech and neoliberal redistribution, as well as drone strikes against Al Qaeda operatives. I'm not very troubled by CIA torture. In other words, my politics are almost completely opposite of yours.  Yet I read you regularly without becoming enraged or offended, because I appreciate your perspective and enjoy smart challenges to my beliefs. The way I engage in thinking about public policy is either out of an earnest attempt to improve my country or an intellectual curiosity that causes me to seek the truth.  
 
This is fundamentally different from the way that Tea Partiers are engaging politics. For them, it's a kind of therapy. A lot of the men I knew who were Tea Partiers were angry for a variety of non-political reasons.  The didn't like military service, but did not feel they could gain employment out of the army or complete a Bachelor's degree (even though their education would be fully funded by the post-911 GI Bill) . Their girlfriend or wife slept with their Facebook friends while they were deployed (sexual inadequacy is a huge part of this. I never met a Tea Partier that got laid a lot).  In short, they are angry folks with problems, and rather than address their own problems they vent through talk radio and Fox News.  It's not their lack of a college education that's holding them back. 
 
It's "nigbama".
 
It's not their lack of charisma and the fact that they live in a town with many more men than women that is preventing them from attracting a female. It's "feminists."   
 
These people really don't care if they are being lied to. Rush, Glenn and Roger Ailes are responding to a market demand for scapegoating. Presumably, they couldn't just bash unnamed liberals for ten years and keep making money, so they expand their targets: immigrants, women on birth control, and now apparently every senator but Ted Cruz and Mike Lee. It's like the old debate about sexuality in art and music. Mass media reflects human promiscuity, it doesn't drive it. Rush and company are reflecting the beliefs that Tea Partiers crave.
 
They are responding to the market need for bullshit.  
 
Before you say, perhaps the Tea Partiers I knew in Fayetteville are not representative, and perhaps they were just more gullible than your average fellow, consider this: My job in the army, and their job as well, was what's known as a 37F, or Psychological Operations Specialist (we are now known as Military Information Support Operations because PSYOP sounded sketchy). In other words, manipulating information to influence a target audience and producing propaganda WAS OUR PAID PROFESSION.  If anyone should be able to realize that Steve Doocy is full of shit, it would be the generators of information warfare. It would be like a UFC fighter not knowing that Professional Wrestling is fake. They all, on some level, know they are consuming bullshit from these media figures, but they not only accept it, they demand it.
 
I'll give you a perfect example.
 
Before the shutdown, one of my friends texts me and says "I bet you're really upset to see [extremely racist terms for Obamacare] about to go away," and we talked shit to each other for a while like army veterans deployed together often do. A few days into the shutdown, I saw Ted Cruz on Hannity seething about how the shutdown—Obama and Harry Reid's shutdown—was screwing military families (who had soldiers that didn't come home from Afghanistan) out of there death benefits. I know the Tea Partiers understood it was Ted Cruz who was responsible for the shutdown, because they were texting me about it before it even happened! I bet your median Fox viewer knows that Ted Cruz was behind the shutdown, because he planned it not in backrooms but openly on talk radio and Fox News. But I bet all of them watched that interview and seethed, "oh that Obama, screwing the troops!"  
 
Even though they know on some level it is bullshit.

What do I have to say in response? I take these to be an intelligent fellow's earnest observations, which isn't to say that he is correct in all his assertions. (It would be fascinating to hear a rebuttal from his Tea Party buddies.) But let's say, for the sake of argument, that he has given us a substantially accurate portrayal of the particular subculture where he lived, worked and socialized. It's totally possible. I've certainly interacted with Tea Partiers like the ones he describes, and he isn't the only reader to insistently tell me that this is the true face of the Tea Party.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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