Steeping Tea and the Rise of the Alt-Right

Steeping Tea and the Rise of the Alt-Right

DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-5433-2.ch002
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Abstract

This chapter explores the rise of the Tea Party, parts of which transitioned into the recently established Alt-Right movement. It is crucial to understanding the Alt-Right and their principles to evaluate the original iteration, the Tea Party, and its devolution into its current form. The chapter analyzes the perceived racist or xenophobic tone of the Alt-Right movement, and how that translates into political action for their participants, including the most recent event in Charlottesville, North Carolina. The chapter examines the use of internet culture, including an adept use of memes, to solidify not only support for their chosen presidential candidate in 2016, but the movement in contemporary American political society. The concept of fake news is considered in the chapter, and the demonstrated effect that not knowing what to believe is having on American society, including the Pizzagate episode from 2016.
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Introduction

There are numerous stories, almost fables at this point, regarding the creation and hostile takeover of American politics by the Tea Party. This author vividly recalls the build-up of the Tea Party as a reaction to the “compassionate conservatism” espoused by Republican President George W. Bush who practiced a foreign policy of interventionism and war, which became a rallying point for self-proclaimed true fiscal conservatives. Yet the official birth of the Tea Party did not occur until February 2009 in protest of President Obama’s economic stimulus package that infused a flailing American economy with $787 billion. The stimulus was signed into law on February 19, and occurred just a day after a $75 billion direct aid package was announced that was intended to rescue homeowners who were caught in the housing bubble, and unable to refinance the risky mortgages (see Meckler, 2009; Stolberg & Andrews, 2009; Timiraos, 2011). While the Tea Party had ample motivation for protesting against what was perceived as frivolous government spending on institutional bailouts over the overwhelming need of the citizens, the collection of indignant people still needed organization and a voice. Enter CNBC television personality (now editor), Rick Santelli, who orated an on-air soapbox rant that became known as “the rant heard round the world” and a clarion call for what would become the Tea Party movement (Meckler, 2009). In this off-the-teleprompter speech, Santelli accused the government of “promoting bad behavior [by] subsidizing the losers’ mortgages” rather than assisting or incentivizing “the people that could carry the water instead of drink the water” (Santelli, 2009). As Santelli ranted on, some very Trump-ian rhetoric was unleashed, he argued, “This is America…the silent majority” as Wall Street traders gathered around Santelli, cheering him on, he announced, “We are thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party” (2009). The collection of traditional, fiscal conservatives – the Reagan Republicans – re-emerged from the ashes of the George W. Bush era to re-claim their nation, and thus, the Tea Party movement was born.

It is worth noting that during Santelli’s speech, he made no mention of the government bailouts of the financial sector, including what Prins estimated to be nearly 7 trillion dollars of support from the government to Wall Street banks and firms (Prins & Ugrin, 2009). Instead Santelli framed the argument as one of losers and have-nots attempting to leach off of the system by applying and being approved for mortgages they could not afford to pay off, rather than blaming a financial system that would even offer the mortgages to high risk buyers in the first place. Santelli and his rant were popular with right-wing purveyors of news, including Drudge Report, and was disseminated via radio by the controversial Rush Limbaugh, as well as more mainstream figures like Sean Hannity, giving Santelli and his Tea Party instant platforms from which to coalesce and mobilize angry, tax-paying citizens from New York to Florida to South Dakota and Alaska. The call for mobilization was met with widespread conservative approval, and even more crucially, funding. An early backer (both ideologically and financially) of the Tea Party movement was former U.S. House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a fiery Texan who founded FreedomWorks, a nonprofit, conservative organization that is still quite influential in American elections and legislative politics. Armey helped organize tea party events on a website that instructed citizens on how to hold rallies of their own and populated a Google map of events occurring around the United States. According to Zernike (2010), as people found the map they contacted FreedomWorks with information regarding local events, which “ultimately allow[ed] the group to compile a list of thousands of Tea Party contacts across the country”. The fluidity of the movement from an utterance by a television commentator to full-fledged events across the U.S. in a matter of months is a testament to the digital age, and use of the internet to coordinate and disseminate information regarding public sphere activism.

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