By William H. Westermeyer
Emergent Conversation 17
This essay is part of the series PoLAR Online Emergent Conversation on Aesthetics and Politics of Far Right Movements
While there has been a welcome increase in anthropological research on right-wing social movements and populism, few have highlighted the aesthetic, symbolic, and emotional resources right-wing movements use to organize and maintain solidarity. These qualities were vividly apparent in my research with the Tea Party Movement (TPM), one of the more vibrant, colorful, and emotional American social movements in recent memory. Yet, more than just a visual spectacle, the movement deployed images, songs, and symbols as tools for forging collective political identities and a right-wing populist meaning system (Westermeyer 2019). Social movements are not only aggregations of people acting toward political ends, but they are also producers of what Stuart Hall (1982) called “signifying practice”—they create meanings and establish articulations between concerns, ideology, and action. In another sense, they “order” or figure ideas, people, and history, which in turn help build commitment and participants’ sense of empowerment. And while signifying practices may take many forms and utilize a wide variety of cultural resources, aesthetic cultural resources, those which stimulate emotions such as pleasure or indignation through the senses, have been some of the most potent. From this perspective political art, such as images, songs, costumes, and words act as symbolic mediators (Vygotsky 1978), that, in this case, are shortcuts to understanding and enunciating ideology. In this brief article I will discuss how the political aesthetic of the Tea Party, expressed through attire and visual art, is not simply a form of propaganda but provides resonant frames for the ideology and the collective identity of the participants, and orders people and history into that ideological framework.
The TPM was an American right-wing social movement that emerged shortly after the inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009. On the surface it was motivated by the dramatic increase in government spending in response to the 2008 financial crisis. Composed of primarily middle-aged and older, strongly conservative, white Americans (Skocpol and Williamson 2011), the movement’s primary grievance was the perceived out of control spending by the federal government and the rapidly increasing national debt.
What made the Tea Party so unique and vibrant was the way they articulated their movement goals of fiscal responsibility through a fundamentalist and idealized interpretation of the United States Constitution and the motivations of the founding generation of Americans (Skocpol and Williamson 2011; Westermeyer 2016; Zernike 2010). However, beyond constitutionally limited government, the TPM was engaged in a more subtle and profound cultural politics. Taxes and debt were just the outward signs of a nation that had forsaken the moral principles of the revolutionary generation: responsibility, individualism, love of country, and private property.
From this perspective The TPM is a fundamentalist movement (Westermeyer 2022). It harkens back to an idealized cultural identity and founding myth and supports a literal interpretation of what are seen as sacred texts—such as the Constitution. Finally, as in many fundamentalist movements, it strongly delineates those who belong and those who do not and often frames the latter as dangerous enemies. It is this last point through which we can draw a line from the work of art I described below to the rise of Donald Trump, who while no constitutional scholar, effectively tapped into Tea Party cultural politics.
The aesthetics of Tea Party populism, like the name of the movement, advanced a definition of patriotism as a continuation of the Founding Fathers’ (positive) legacy and connected their struggle to those patriots of the American Revolution (even calling themselves and comrades “patriots”). To emphasize the movement’s link to the American Revolution, Tea Party activists wore revolutionary era costumes to protests and rallies. The most committed of the Tea Party would say that this choice of garb is meant to remind observers of the example set by the revolutionary generation and the Constitution, a nearly sacred document with “founding principles” such as individualism and self-reliance, they claimed contemporary Americans were rejecting. In other words, movement members’ aesthetic expressions invoke the Founding Fathers and the Constitution as solutions to what they see as the nation’s current problems. For example, social programs such as food stamps and “welfare” are not just unconstitutional due to their absence from the document; more significantly, those programs foster dependency and entitlement, the anathema of the “principles” the Founders represent.
In another sense, the wearing of revolutionary era garb “depoliticized” America’s founding narrative and its players, and by extension, Tea Party’s goals. American history has been characterized by conflict (even of course, among the Founders) as well as grave errors and crimes (which many of the Founders participated in) such as slavery and the genocide against Indigenous people. I’ve written elsewhere that the Tea Party is an example of the performance of whiteness, the unmarked and little-examined social identity of being white (Westermeyer 2018). The Tea Party’s success and the resonance of its frames hinged upon a sanitized, white, and primarily Christian interpretation of America and American cultural identity. In this telling of history, the Founding Fathers are unimpeachable, their work done in the best interests of the nation and with the backing of God. And, as I will discuss below, since the Tea Party is a direct extension of Founders’ vision, the Tea Party transcends politics.
This “common sense” demands a particular interpretation and deployment of American history. Historian Jill Lepore (2011) termed this cultural production as “anti-history” what she describes as the elimination of time and the process of historical study. History is conjunctural, meaning historical moments are contingent upon unique arrangements of social forces (Grossberg 2006). An historical circumstance is not modular but would resemble a square peg in a round hole if one were to try to plug it into another moment. Anti-history not only inaccurately connects the past to the present but makes them co-present. “They are here; and we are there”(Lepore 2011:15) sharing the same concerns and beliefs. In this reading, if the founders were here they would of course, not support Obamacare or deficit spending. Since they are not, the founders are, as CNBC reporter Rick Santelli said in the viral tirade that arguably launched the Tea Party, compelled to “roll over in their graves.”(CNBC 2009: 4:47).
In addition to performance and presentation through dress, I observed this anti-history conveyed through images. One of the most potent was a popular YouTube video (Smith 2010) describing a painting called the “The Forgotten Man” by John McNaughton, which was shown at a Tea Party meeting in central North Carolina in 2010. This video is a striking example of how the historical figures of the past speak to the present and how an artistic image can organize emotion and ideology. McNaughton, who was a little known painter of patriotic art when I encountered his work in 2010, has become a popular and prolific artist who vividly illustrates the themes, resentments, and conspiracy theories of the Donald Trump and MAGA (Make America Great Again) movement and now commands tens of thousands of dollars for his original works (Lippman 2022).
The video begins with close-ups of distinct parts of the painting and McNaughton’s hand adding brushstrokes of paint to the work. His voiceover says, “If the presidents of the past could speak to us today, what would they say? How would the presidents of the past feel about the uncontrolled spending and the overwhelming expansion of government?”(Smith 2010: 00:25)
In the image’s left foreground is a despondent young, white male, facing slightly left (his right), who McNaughton describes as a victim of the “unconstitutional acts of government.” In the opposite foreground, facing slightly right, is Barack Obama with his foot placed on the Constitution which is laying on the ground with scattered paper currency and litter. Crouched and reaching toward the defaced founding document is James Madison with body language saying, “Look what have you done!” However, aside from the direct statement regarding Barack Obama defiling the Constitution, it is in the background where the subtle and effective framing of history occurs. Behind Madison (and Washington beside him) stand all the presidents. The artist has distributed them on the canvas as two groups, those whose concerns are with the forgotten man and the Founders or those who are with Barack Obama’s supposed destruction of the Constitution.
It is important to realize that McNaughton has not arranged the presidents strictly as Democrats and Republicans as one might expect. Yes, the Founders are all behind Washington and closest to the forgotten man, as are Reagan, Lincoln, and Grant. However, Andrew Jackson, a founder of the Democratic Party but who could also be considered an early right-wing populist, is with the patriots.
Of those supporting Barack Obama’s destruction of the Constitution are most prominently, Clinton, Franklin Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and “progressive” Republicans Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. But there are other Republicans backing Obama. Richard Nixon who, besides his checkered place in American history, implemented policies such as wage and price controls which were often more liberal than Obama’s. Significant in ordering Tea Party allies and enemies are the modern conservatives seen as betraying “founding principles”—the two President Bushes. The elder Bush broke his “Read my lips; No new taxes” pledge, and the younger expanded Medicare with a massive and costly prescription drug benefit. While their bodies face Obama, their faces are looking toward those supporting the forgotten man. This is most apparent with George W. Bush who most Tea Partyists would label a “RINO” (Republican in Name Only). In the painting we see the forty-third President with an anguished expression marking his ambivalent position as a Republican who betrayed conservative principles.
By reading this painting as a text, we can see the way image and symbol order emotional responses and the vast, and messy trajectory of American history into a simple “us versus them” construction that is familiar in right-wing populism. Slavery, settler colonialism, and even the proper role of government are collapsed into this all or nothing choice. The conflict as noted above becomes depoliticized. One is either a patriot, aligned with the common person, the Founding Fathers, and the Constitution or one is a “progressive” who is ashamed of America and seeks to destroy the values and culture that made America the divinely inspired nation it is. Because of progressives, Americans, as represented by the forgotten man, are now miserable and despondent, and the antithesis of American exceptionalism.
In my study of right-wing populists, I have found anthropologists are best suited to the discussion of style, imagery, and symbols as a quality of political analysis. These cultural resources are crucial to understanding the success of the Right in America. Arguably when considering the left, there is no unifying narrative or suite of symbols. The left, grounded in diversity and democracy, often circulates many unconnected symbols and frames that can be multivocal as well as contested. The right on the other hand, with its powerful media infrastructure of cable, internet, and talk radio, creates an “echo chamber” (Jamieson and Cappella 2008) that circulates remarkably consistent frames, images, and symbols. Due to this consistency, paintings such as the “Forgotten Man” are much more impactful because they reinforce a meaning system that consistently circulates similar frames and meanings, sedimented atop previous and numerous layers of similarly framed grievance and resentment.
William H. Westermeyer is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of South Carolina, Aiken. He is the author of Back to America: Identity, Political Culture, and the Tea Party Movement based upon research among local Tea Party organizations in central North Carolina.
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