Peggy Noonan's Advice to the Tea Party: Be Less Gullible

The former Reagan speechwriter sagely points out how much money is spent trying to manipulate the grassroots right. 
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Peggy Noonan, who got her start writing speeches for Ronald Reagan, uses her most recent Wall Street Journal column to offer Tea Partiers some excellent advice: *

I don't like saying this but be less gullible. Many of your instincts are right but politics is drowning in money. A lot of it is spent trying to manipulate you, by people who claim to be sincere, who say they're the only honest guy in the room. Don't be the fool of radio stars who rev you up for a living. They're doing it for ratings. Stop being taken in by senators who fund-raise off your anger. It's good you're indignant, but they use consultants to keep picking at the scab, not to move the ball forward, sorry to mix metaphors. And know your neighbors: Are they going to elect a woman who has to explain she isn't a witch, or a guy who talks about "legitimate rape"? You'll forgive politicians who are right in other areas, but your neighbors and the media will not.

Let's be honest: That's hard advice to give or take. Noonan begins with "I don't like saying this" because telling someone they're being gullible is always unpleasant. And some Tea Partiers reading her advice surely thought to themselves, "To hell with this out-of-touch, Manhattan-dwelling RINO, telling me I'm gullible. And you wonder why Tea Partiers are constantly feeling disrespected?" 

But I'll tell you what. It seems to me that Noonan is showing more respect to Tea Partiers by telling them a truth they don't want to hear than the vast majority of conservative journalists, who know damn well that the populist right is constantly manipulated by huckster entertainers, but won't dare admit it, because they know the bearer of that message is inevitably going to be denounced. 

Disrespect for Tea Partiers is at its most extreme and unforgivable when conservative elites who know better at places like Hillsdale College and the Heritage Foundation lash their brands to Rush Limbaugh's star, and afford him a credibility they deep down don't believe he deserves in return. Blatant disrespect is Roger Ailes broadcasting Glenn Beck's show month after month after month, knowing it was filled with the most ludicrous conspiracy theories. Disrespect is Newsmax sending advertising emails to elderly subscribers on fixed incomes, stating, "When we stumbled upon this weird trick that can add $1,000 to monthly Social Security checks, we knew we had to share it with you." 

When I tell Tea Partiers that these people don't have their best interests at heart, that they're perfectly willing to broadcast lies and to manipulate resentments if it makes them an extra buck, I am not trying to be condescending. Like Peggy Noonan, I make my living in the media, and while that doesn't mean that I have any more expertise than the average Tea Partier when it comes to being a doctor or lawyer or plumber or construction worker or small businessperson (or whatever their profession happens to be), I do have more expertise in mass media, rhetoric, the facts that surround political controversies in the news, and when pundits are telling people things that aren't true. 

And I agree with Noonan.

Many of the people who enjoy the trust of Tea Partiers don't deserve it. It isn't just talk-radio hosts either. Donald Trump. Newt Gingrich. Herman Cain. They too are playing Tea Partiers for fools, and the only way things are going to improve is if Tea Partiers themselves wise up and stop vesting trust in whoever tells them what they want to hear. The Tea Party professes to harbor a high degree of skepticism toward media elites and politicians. It need only apply that skepticism regardless of ideology.

 

__

* The conceit of the column is that she is channeling the advice that Senator Robert Taft would give if he were still alive, so think of it as her idea of what he would say if you like. 

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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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