Palin, Frum, and the Tea Party

The misunderstandings revolving around Sarah Palin and the Tea Party appear to be ubiquitous. Canada, where I live and write, is no exception to this tarnished rule. Sarah Palin is generally regarded as a hyper-emotional hussy whose message is purely reactive rather than proactive, while the Tea Party is supposedly vitiated by a lowest common denominator of right-wing vehemence, unbecoming religiosity, and a simplistic attitude toward political reality. This is strangely the case among many conservative intellectuals as well. The acclaimed commentator and beltway insider David Frum, a Canadian who makes his home in the U.S. and whose articles frequently appear in the Canadian media, provides one of the most celebrated instances of this dissenting perspective.

Even one of our sanest and most brilliant columnists, Barbara Kay of the (generally conservative) National Post, is highly skeptical of both Palin and the Tea Party’s motives and comportment. In a column for September 29, 2010 (“A Canadian Reverting to Type”), defending Frum who has run afoul of the Republican mainstream, Kay writes that Frum has justifiably objected to “the manner — hostile, inflexible, Palinesque … in which conservatism is increasingly expressing itself.” Frum’s call for conversational civility, it appears, stands in marked contrast to the apparent conservative and Republican bombast he associates with presumably strident evangelists like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh and, from his point of view, the half-baked and feckless maunderings of Tea Party revivalists and their boosters. Similarly, an article by Thomas Walkom of the (left-wing) Toronto Star for September 25 takes it for granted, in the course of an otherwise respectable argument, that the Tea Party is “ultra-right, anti-immigrant, anti-government.” This sort of misconstruction has become standard fare by now, the Canadian legacy press aping the current memes and tropes of the American liberal-left media.

A good example of the American template is furnished by the Izvestian Frank Rich who, in a New York Times op-ed for March 27, 2010, notoriously referred to the “mob” which opposes Obama’s health care program as enacting “its own small-scale mimicry of Kristallnacht” and branded the “Tea Party-Glenn Beck base” as “extremist”— as if the views he ventilates were not “extremist.” Although no one of any reputable standing takes Frank Rich seriously any longer, readers may be susceptible to the marginally more sophisticated Tom Friedman. In an op-ed in the New York Times for September 28, Friedman denigrates the Tea Party as “all steam and no kettle” which “can’t have a positive impact on the country” because it has not generated specific plans for debt reduction and productive growth.

On the face of it, this assessment sounds far more reasonable than Rich’s trademark ranting. But the Tea Party is not a registered political party, like the Democrats or the Republicans, and does not speak in the voice of a supervening committee with the authority to formulate policy. Further, it is still in its infancy and Friedman wants the toddler to get its driver’s license, its credit card, its college degree, and all its grown-up credentials while it is still learning to walk. This is a clever form of disparagement. One would expect no less from an untimely, self-inflated pundit who is prepared to quash the butterfly before it has emerged from the chrysalis.

Let’s consider the assorted actors featured in the current drama of redemption and damnation.

Ideally, David Frum may be right about the importance of civil discourse in contemporary political exchange — I have made similar arguments — but, on reflection, this may not be the time for gentlemanly palaver. It is extremely doubtful that one could reach consensus with Obama and his satellites, with Olbermann, Matthews, Schultz, and the lot, with MoveOn.org, with Counterpunch, with the Daily Kos, with ACORN, with the ACLU, with the SEIU, with Code Pink, with the vast tribe of neo-Marxist academic colporteurs busily canvassing their university clients (aka students), with Soros, with the Tides Foundation, and with innumerable other like-minded individuals and organizations. Indeed, it is totally implausible to infer communicative accord with the left in general where the levels of animadversion, pure hatred, antisemitism, anti-Zionism, reverse racism, sheer vulgarity, character assassination, tractarian defamation, downright lying, all the worst human traits, eclipse by parsecs anything one hears on the conservative side.

To my mind, Frum is tooling about in another galaxy; yet, oddly enough, his mugging of Sarah Palin in a series of newspaper articles belies his own recommendation. According to Frum, Palin is “rambling, angry, and self-pitying.” She self-immolated in the 2008 elections and is guilty of “dereliction of duty.” After having once dismissed her as a “neophyte” — what, one wonders, does that make Obama who, unlike Palin, had no governing experience whatsoever when he came to power? — Frum goes on to suggest that there is a “sexual dynamic at work” in the enthusiasm for Palin among a contingent of conservative men. What other reason, after all, could explain such advocacy? Palin is hot and conservative males are randy. “Whatever impulse it is that so excites Palin supporters,” he opines, “it is not shared by their wives.” Frum’s drearily incessant diatribes steer perilously close to unwholesome obsession, so much so that there seems to be something distinctly “Freudian” about his imagined relationship to the poor woman. It is as if, pace Frum, there were a “sexual dynamic at work” here too. Certainly, when it comes to Sarah Palin, he has not availed himself of the temperate address he solemnly urges upon others.

Furthermore, his criticism of Republican mugwumps like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh seems somewhat misplaced. He does not appear to understand the gravity of the current electoral situation or to realize, as does Lee Harris in his new book The Next American Civil War, that a kind of civil war is indeed brewing, that Thomas Paine is once again the go-to political thinker and Henry David Thoreau the literary source for principled resistance, and that a war is not a debate in which one can serenely abide by Robert’s Rules of Order. Nor does he seem to realize, as I’ve indicated, that Democratic invective rises to a crescendo that outstrips anything we find on the right and so demands, at minimum, to be robustly parried. True, Limbaugh has called Obama an “economic illiterate” and a “jackass” while Oliver Stone maligns Sarah Palin as a “moron” and implies that the suffragettes were “crazy stuff.” But if one studies the plethora of sites, interviews, and outlets on the right and the left, one quickly discovers there is no parity of execration. In the tournament of competing expletives, the left wins hands down.

Frum is way too nuanced about the battle for America’s soul that is playing out before our very eyes. He may ride a bicycle to the Washington Mall — a nice little touch — but he would be far more useful, metaphorically speaking, doing yeoman service in a tank. Frum, I suspect, was always a PRINO, a Prospective Republican in Name Only. It’s consoling to note that Frum seems to be wrong about most things. He predicted that the economy will have improved by this November and that the advantages of Obama’s health care legislation will have become evident by then. He predicted that Sarah Palin’s career “seems headed nowhere positive” with her approval ratings in free fall. Perhaps we should take a cue from Lewis Carroll and “shun the frumious Bandersnatch.”