Recently, ProPublica released a report on the shenanigans of a Tea Party group operating under the name Move America Forward, which was founded by Sal Russo. Russo also helped start the Our Country Deserves Better PAC, also known as the Tea Party Express. Move America Forward has run phony donation drives to send care packages to troops, stolen images of other charitable campaigns and pretended they were its own, and boasted about a nonexistent partnership with Walter Reed Hospital, all while funneling millions to itself. The group is an industry leader at taking Tea Party sentiments and turning them into profits. It couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of people (mainly because those nicer people wouldn’t get caught up in the made-up fervor of hating Barack Obama, gays, and women).
Unfortunately, the continuing success of Sal Russo and the Tea Party Express is the tip of an iceberg of larger failure in the American right. And that’s bad news for everyone… but I’ll address that later.
Earlier this year, Alexis Levinson reported that other Tea Party groups, that had raised millions, spent up to 80 percent of their money on operations, salaries, consultant fees, and mailing list companies, many of which were owned by the people who ran the groups themselves. If this sounds familiar, Rick Scott did something similar with channeling drug-testing money to his wife’s company in Florida. The Tea Party has essentially become a landlord class; its lordship is over the truly-felt convictions of others.
There is nothing new about this; it’s been going on for years. The Tea Party gained traction in an environment on the right defined by massive resentment and fear directed at the Obama presidency, disgust at the bailouts of the Bush and Obama eras, and the disillusioned wreckage of a Republican electoral defeat. All of this, combined with funding and organizing from major conservative forces like the Kochs and big industry, was an environment especially conducive to the growth of parasite groups like the Tea Party Express. In February of 2010, we had a “Tea Party Convention” here in Nashville, hosted by the for-profit group Tea Party Nation. Its leader, Juddson Phillips, left his job as a lawyer to draw a salary from the group. Tickets for this grassroots uprising cost more than $500. The motive behind it was transforming the organizers into richer men and political kingmakers in the state.
People who give themselves to full-time political activism deserve some recompense for their work and expertise. It’s a rare (and generally independently rich) individual who can get by without getting paid for their work. And, of course, even the most populist of political movements will attract, and may even require, leadership from outside professional sources. After all, even bands who scorn the business world require “suits” to handle their business affairs and pay for the soon-to-be-destroyed hotel room. People, to use the modern vernacular, gots to get paid.
But there is something especially galling about the level of self-enrichment and deception at the head of the Tea Party movement, particularly because the movement started as a disgusted response to the self-enrichment and deception in Washington… and unlike with our government in Washington, there are no elections to stand for and no recalls for Tea Party group leadership. Unlike our representatives, these people are responsible to no one, and have zero checks on their behavior, unlike our government.
Profiteering has been an acute problem almost right from the beginning for the Tea Party. It is a revival of the traveling medicine show, but in politics: making money by selling an awful deal to an older, whiter customer base by talking fast and using the right buzzwords, then splitting town just as the fools realize it leaves them with nothing. At least the snake-oil salesman left his victims with an actual product, worthless though it may have been.
It’s easy to write these charlatans off as just another bunch of opportunists. But the systemic corruption of this movement should trouble the American right, as well as the American body politic overall. The conservative diagnosis of Washington’s brokenness is that Americans have outsourced the task of self-government to a managerial class in Washington, a corruption that has transformed our nation’s capital into “the Beltway,” a moniker for Washington’s culture of cronyism. The populist right’s reflexive response immediately became just another added layer of cronyism, twisted into this put-up Tea Party facade. A grassroots corruption; a political weed. If it’s true that the American people have outsourced their self-government to Washington, the conservative movement made another dirty deal, allowing itself to drawn in by carnivals plastered in neon outrage, run by for-profit hucksters. The populist right’s response to dishonesty and graft was to generate another set of swindlers who wear flag-lapel pins, lie to their faces, and help themselves to the cash.
Now, liberals reading this might be nodding smugly, happy to see the Tea Party scourge falling to internal rot, but I have to say, if you’re thinking in those terms, you’re not thinking it through. See, the Tea Party is still going to influence policy and laws and elections for a good while, even as it fades and fails (if it continues to do so). If we’re going to have this additional voice on the right, the nation would be better off if it was a healthy one. If it’s not… well, ponder this: since the Tea Party arose from a disappointment with the GOP and the system overall, and since we’ve seen how crazy it got with that movement, and since American conservatives have, to date, shown no interest in moving toward the middle when disappointed… what do you think would be the fallout from those loons who so love the Tea Party losing faith with yet another political group?
If you think the Tea Party is as crazy as things can get, you have another thing coming. For the health of the nation, one should hope that we never see that next level… but if the corruption of the Tea Party continues, we most certainly will.