I can answer that question with a video I shot at Memphis’ first Tea Party rally in 2009. None of this started in Shelby Co., of course, and the machinery responsible for this year’s election has been grinding away for 40-years, at least. But this is the period when gloves came off. When it became okay for America to stop pretending it wasn’t bigoted at the core. So, return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when it was okay to go out wrapped in the flag, wearing a t-shirt depicting Obama caught in gun sights, with a face full of bullet holes.
Often, though not always, the Tea Party was portrayed as a patriotic, Christian movement, and you’ll hear that point of view repeated even today in places like American Family Radio — an allegedly Christian family of stations that, interestingly enough, began its foray into political programming in 2009. In retrospect, it’s difficult to see this movement as anything but a backlash to the election of America’s first African-American President, creating unusually lopsided momentum going into the typically sleepy midterm. And not just any sleepy round of midterms either, but elections that determined which party would get to redraw congressional districts, gerrymandering for maximum advantage.
In the video I’ve embedded audiences will thrill to the same white nationalist urges Trump taps into, and witness unfocused anger at every turn. Viewers will be amazed by anti-regulation speech built to leverage job insecurity against fair wages and worker protection.
What happened in 2009 was a kind of Right Wing tent revival — a renewal of vows exchanged long ago between America’s white working class and industry tools with no history of reciprocity. It’s a queer relationship with roots in the 60’s, when college draft deferment made education suspect — a class signifier separating those who fought for America (regardless of how they felt about it) from those protesting America.
Ironically, the seed that blossomed into Trumpism sprouted in 1968, while the Donald was a student at the University of Pennsylvania. To make desegregation meaningful, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected freedom of choice in the case of Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, ordering the board to end racial discrimination, “root and branch.” Urban bussing policies that followed created backlash among a newly middle class (and newly suburban) set of former New Deal Democrats, bringing them first under the influence of segregationist Dixiecrat George Wallace, then into the trajectory of Richard Nixon, who made good use of America’s oldest cultural fault lines.
Nixon’s not known for being stylish, but he was a smart strategist. When his people observed that acting like a tough guy increased his support among the white working class, he ran with it, pitting America’s conflicted labor force against a crumbling New Deal, setting the stage for Reaganism, and the not-so-subtle messaging of “Morning in America.” And pretty much everything that's happened since, including a pair of two-term Democrats with Nixonesque tendencies to answer the Left and Right with Conservative core policies.
It’s ridiculous how much Hillary Clinton hurt herself in this election cycle with her infamous “basket of deplorables” comment. While it’s undeniable, that the right side of our political spectrum, is responsible for a lot of clearly deplorable stuff, and tends to feel victimized whenever somebody stops them from victimizing others, America’s fucked up white working class isn’t completely wrong about feeling wronged. They’re just terrible at identifying the real enemies. Labor — which should have been a great progressive unifier — failed them in the 70’s, which is important for two reasons. First, it marked the end of anything like solidarity in a nation that was never that united, and always unable to account for class, factoring in the confounding variables of race and gender. This also relates directly to Clinton’s relentlessly uphill battles going all the way back to her 90’s-era work on universal healthcare since Labor’s historic failures frequently illustrated how sexism was more ingrained in American culture than virtually any other ism. Even in the relatively progressive UAW, multiracial coalitions for fairness on the shop floor crossed picket lines and openly mocked women striking for the same basic reasons. To this day women’s apparent advances are misleading, being more related to declines in male earning power than evidence of changing attitudes.
Pundits like to talk about a "values based" urban/rural divide. But that’s not right. When you break down the pieces, Donald Trump’s brand doesn’t align with anything uniquely rural or urban. His values, as they align with supporters, are best understood as, “classy casino” values” and Saturday Night Live brilliantly illustrated this with the “scratch off,” bit in its widely shared Black Jeopardy sketch. Forget about guns, god, and gays — The 3-G issues, framed and cultivated by talk radio, and cable news to suck consumers into a state of daily outrage, quite unable to explore common cause. The culture stuff is still simmering, but it was all pretext and prelude. People are finally ready to go to war for their God-given right to be as bad off as they are now forever — and the remote chance of inheriting a billion dollars from a rich cat lady they never met, but who greatly admired their work in the local newspaper's comment section.
Speaking of comments, few things from this year’s election reveal more than Donald Trump’s double-pronged scare campaign painting undocumented workers as potential rapists, and the “inner city” — an outdated Morning in America euphemism for “urban slum” — as a place where you can’t walk to the store without being shot. This is the fantasy world of TV news and “comment section America,” where everything exists without context and, in the flyover world of bedroom communities and interstates , often without contact.
Please forgive this momentary theater critic’s aside. But the more I ask myself how we got here, the more I’m reminded of the Vampire play Cuddles, a gruesome hit in New York and Great Britain, currently enjoying its first American production outside New York at TheatreWorks on Overton Square. In addition to being many other things, this nightmare before the apocalypse, is also a special kind of class satire. It tells the story of a joyless caregiver who lives in a lonely castle and locks her life’s biggest embarrassment away, feeding it a steady diet of fantasy, jelly sandwiches, and, on special occasions, a few drops of precious bodily fluids. The embarrassment — a young, deplorably dirty girl — is kept in an old, deplorably dirty place to insure her safety. She's a vampire, you see. Or we’re told so. And true or not, the small, pale girl's demeanor changes eventfully when the caregiver — a person responsible for everything the little bloodsucker consumes, from a normalized polluted environment, to information that’s almost exclusively fiction — decides she’s no longer willing to open an occasional vein. It’s not a terrible metaphor for the relationship of mainstream politics Left and Right to base voters. But it’s an especially fine reflection of the GOP and its cultivation of the “Silent Majority,” the “Moral Majority,” and the “Tea Party.”
Eventually, the monsters we make assert themselves. Which reminds me of another line from SNL’s Black Jeopardy, about animals that won’t hurt you — “What kind of dogs don’t have teeth?”
If you want to know how Trump happened, just watch the 2009 video and maybe you can take some small comfort in realizing we aren't recently horrible. It’s short, so there's no big time investment. And it's full of revealing moments like when Conservative talker Mark Skoda starts preaching like John the Baptist, about the evils of regulation, and the need to support big Oil. He says all the right things to scare miners into not noticing nobody gives damn about the quality of jobs they may or may not lose anyway, or their place in a viable future economy. Skoda, who says he “loves being radical,” was absolutely paving the way for the unsuccessful person’s twisted image of a successful person to come along — a real man’s man, tough enough to look into the eyes of people who won't abide anybody running down their country — and tell them he’s going to make America great again.
That's how we got here. That's the easy part. How we get out's another story entirely.
Having said all that, go see Cuddles. It's not perfect, but it's not bad. I'm pretty sure the Halloween-loving New Moon didn't intend to stage the season's most prescient political satire. But boy, did they.