Conservatives and Their Pity Parties

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The Wall Street Journal

Conservatives and Their Pity Parties

Out of power and out of touch, they feast on stale slogans and whine.

Just as the financial crisis has created toxic assets and "zombie" financial institutions, so has it transformed conservatism into a movement of the living dead. Its partisans cling to a now-toxic portfolio of discredited notions, rhetoric, gestures and strategies. They lumber comically on, their only goal being to obstruct efforts to save the economy from catastrophe.

These days the zombie right is rallying around CNBC commentator Rick Santelli, who won fame last month when he railed against a rescue of the economy's "losers."

Mr. Santelli claimed he was backed in his outrage by "the silent majority" -- meaning a floor full of traders at the Chicago Board of Trade -- and he called for a "Chicago tea party" to protest the administration's mortgage plan.

Next thing you knew, there were "tea parties" all over the land. When I showed up for one last Friday in Washington's Lafayette Park, however, my suspicions were immediately raised. A fellow in an expensive-looking pinstriped suit came hustling into the gathering knot of the discontented, handing out pink pig balloons. This had to be a put-on, I thought, one of the "Billionaires for Bush" pranksters in his capitalist costume, preparing to lead us in a chant of "Four More Wars."

But no, this was for real: the pigs symbolized "pork," the stuff of which President Barack Obama's stimulus package was supposedly made. Suits were common among the protesters. And the slogans on the signs made their undead politics impossible to misinterpret: "Liberalism Socialism Communism," read a typical one, "What's the Difference?"

Lending proletarian authenticity to the proceedings was the famous Joe the Plumber, who took up the bullhorn to deliver a dose of working-class cynicism that would have been convincing in, say, 1978. "Our politicians up on the hill, Republicans or Democrats, don't give a rip about you, and that's the bottom line right there," Joe Wurzelbacher declared.

Banks are insolvent, asset prices are falling, GDP has taken a nose dive, but what exercised this bunch was the possibility that government -- understood as a force of pure evil -- might get too big.

"America wants people who are gonna come to D.C. and say no," exhorted Andrew Langer of the Institute for Liberty. "No more taxes! No more spending! No more expansion of government!" Another speaker insisted that deregulation was not at fault for our troubles, and that the free market had never really been tried.

As the event wore on, the speakers began to repeat, zombie-like, some version of the famous line from "Network," the 1976 movie, "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore."

I got out of there quick. This was no place to find the changed, chastened conservatism that all the pundits are looking for.

But at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), which was going on in the swank Omni Shoreham hotel on that same day, what I found was merely a smoother version of the same grumbling.

Capitalist self-pity was much in vogue. Former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, looking tanned and groomed and yet strangely mechanical, joked that he needed to get through his speech "before federal officials come here to arrest me for practicing capitalism."

Jim Gilmore, a former governor of Virginia, moaned that the "philosophy" one encountered in the land these days was that "people who succeed and have wealth are bad people, and they're entitled to be discriminated against in the tax code."

Perhaps this was because the current economic crisis was being "overblown," as claimed Lew Uhler, who heads the National Tax Limitation Committee. The administration was trying "to create as much trouble for all of us as possible, and we're here to create trouble back, back, back!"

A little while later, Mr. Uhler lapsed into the same confused zombie cry as the tea partiers across town: "We're not going to stand around and take it anymore! We're mad as hell and we're not taking it!"

They're not going to take it anymore? I guess it's supposed to be obvious that conservatives are history's real victims -- that their imagined suffering at the hands of that Big Deficit to Come trumps the global systemic economic crisis and all the upheaval it may unleash.

Or is it that the mind of the right is running on some spooky kind of autopilot? "Silent majority," "Mad as hell": These are the sayings of the 1970s. Remembering them brings back all the false populisms to flicker across the screen since then, all the stale illusions that brought us to our present disaster -- all the fake cowboys, the folksy radio talkers, the regular-guy billionaires, the middle American tax rebels, the salt-of-the-earth bankers.

There is much to dislike about President Obama's approach to the financial crisis. But opposition, it seems, will have to come from somewhere other than conservatism. The party out of power is also a party out of touch.

Thomas Frank

Thomas Frank is the author of the just-published Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right (Metropolitan Books). His other books include The Wrecking Crew, What's the Matter with Kansas? and One Market Under God. He is the “Easy Chair” columnist for Harper’s Magazine and the founding editor of The Baffler.

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