The Burn-Down-the-House Movement

Thursday, February 18, it was big news – the software engineer with a massive grudge against the government flew his single-engine plane into that IRS building in Austin, leaving two dead and thirteen wounded and setting off a huge fireball – and then it wasn’t news any longer. There was discussion back and forth on whether to call it terrorism, but since his name was Joe Stack, people generally decided that calling him a terrorist just didn’t seem right. Perhaps they remembered the guy who played Elliot Ness in that old television series The Untouchables, the late Robert Stack – who actually grew up in Europe and was fluent in French and Italian, before the family moved back to Los Angeles and he had to learn English. But Stack is an American sounding name. The crazy man in Texas couldn’t have been a terrorist. And there was his suicide manifesto – all anger and paranoia, much of the same sort of stuff you hear all over these days, from the Tea Party libertarian right, but also much of what you’d hear from the folks on the left who think the government can do useful things and should do more of those things. His agenda, such as it was, was eclectic and inclusive – all over the map. The media decided to revert to default mode – Joe Stack, not Robert Stack, was a crackpot, a madman, and that was that.

Of course on the day of the event Matthew Yglesias called Joe Stack a Tea Party populist:

As you probably know, a white guy entranced by an extreme version of Tea Party-style right-populist paranoia deliberately crashed an airplane into an IRS building in Texas yesterday.

And Spencer Ackerman went further:

What Yglesias fails to understand is that the ideology Stack subscribed to is the problem. All across the country are sleeper cells preaching hatred of the tax code, gathering in public to denounce the results of a democratic election and sow the seeds of sectarian violence. They even have a major television network sympathetic to their sick agenda. The threat is there for all to see.

But Steven Taylor called foul:

While his anti-tax, anti-bailout rhetoric might fit broadly under the Tea Party rhetoric, his anti-George W. Bush, anti-religion, pro-health care reform rhetoric decidedly does not. As such, trying to associate him with “Tea Party-style right-populist paranoia” is unfair and incomplete.

But then the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart argued that Stack may have been an ideological mess and all over the map, but still thinks the Tea Party activists matter in all this:

Stack didn’t like much of anything or anyone. He railed against President George W. Bush, Wall Street, insurance companies and capitalism, to name a few. That he ends his suicide note with an apparent nod to communism doesn’t disprove the larger point. Stack was raging against a system he thought was unfair and contributed to his economic insecurity. There are extreme elements on the far right roiling with this same rage that must be called out before they root themselves further in a broader movement that has legitimate concerns about the federal government and the direction of the country. Michael Gerson does an excellent job of that today. Others must follow. We ignore others like Stack at our peril.

Yes, there are those extreme elements out there:

Two deadly confrontations with federal authorities – in Ruby Ridge, Idaho (1992) with white supremacist Randy Weaver and in Waco, Texas (1993) – stoked the conspiracy theories that fueled the animus within the militia movement. The distrust and seething hatred of the federal government took murderous form on April 19, 1995, when Timothy McVeigh with an assist from Terry Nichols used the Waco anniversary to detonate a 4,800-pound truck bomb, destroying the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and killing 168 people and injuring 500 others.

That anger is back.

A long list follows, and the Michael Gerson column is here – “Our political system is designed for vigorous disagreement. It is not designed for irreconcilable contempt. Such contempt loosens the ties of citizenship and undermines the idea of patriotism.”

But Joe Stack fan pages on Facebook have been popping up – he’s a hero to many, it seems. And at Naked Capitalism, Yves Smith is plenty worried:

Note that he sees his violent response to his economic plight as a political act, a blow for freedom. I am certainly not advocating this course of action. But others start connecting at least some of the dots this way, seeing their financial stresses not as the result of bad luck or lack of sufficient effort, but as an indictment of the system. Given the breakdown of communities (for instance, the fall in involvement in local civic groups and shortened job tenures, both of which lead to weaker social ties and greater isolation), the odds that the disaffected will turn to violence is greater than in past periods of stress.

But the Associated Press’ Stephen Ohlemacher offers a backgrounder – this has been going on since the fifties, and it’s a bit of a movement:

Some believe the 16th Amendment to the Constitution, which authorizes Congress to levy income taxes, was not legally ratified; it was ratified in 1913.

Others believe that paying taxes is purely voluntary. Still others believe in fictional loopholes that would exempt large groups of Americans from paying taxes if they were only in on the secret.

Believers aren’t limited to anti-government militia members living off the land out West. Stack was a 53-year-old software engineer in Austin. Other followers include movie star Wesley Snipes and a decorated police detective in the nation’s capital.

And Ohlemacher interviews the director of the Intelligence Project for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups – this is ongoing stuff, and it’s peaking again. In 2006 there was the Utah man accused of threatening IRS employees with “death by firing squad” if they continued to try to collect taxes from him and his wife. And there is the Hollywood actor – “Snipes, star of the Blade trilogy and other films, was convicted on tax charges and sentenced to three years in prison in 2008 after claiming that Americans have no obligation to pay taxes and the IRS cannot legally collect them.”

Yes, you do have that obligation, and the government can legally collect the appropriate taxes. It seems Joe Stack had fallen in with the wrong crowd.

But it seems that crowd is getting bigger, and Saturday, February 20, gave us the climax of the four-day Conservative Political Action Conference convention in Washington – capped by a straw poll on who should be the next president, according to Real Americans, as they fancied themselves. Cheney had already told them Obama was obviously a one-term president, which was exactly what Dan Quayle had said about Clinton back in 1994. But no matter, Ron Paul won the straw poll in a landslide – you know, the aged antiwar purer than pure libertarian from Texas. Ron Paul – not to be confused with Rue Paul the famous cross-dressing drag queen model and singer-songwriter – wants pretty much no government at all, so there’d be no need for taxes – we’d be free and happy. Joe Stack would have felt right at home, were he not dead.

And Spencer Ackerman said these guys “have a major television network sympathetic to their sick agenda.” Well, they sort of do, as the closing speaker, giving the ultimate speech, was Fox News’ Glenn Beck. Fox had hired Sarah Palin the month before – she’s a regular Fox analyst now, giving her free national airtime in her run for president. Actually they pay her big money, so it’s that airtime and direct campaign contributions. But then Fox News is run by Roger Ailes – media advisor for the Nixon campaign in 1968, political strategist for Reagan, and the man who, with Lee Atwater, got the first Bush elected, by destroying Michael Dukakis with that Willie Horton ad he and Atwater cooked up. Ailes doesn’t mess around. He sent Glenn Beck to the CPAC convention, and Fox News carried the Beck speech live, preempting all other news, and followed it with an hour of analysis of what he said.

But then it got tricky, as Dana Milbank of the Washington Post explains in his day-after column:

After three days of liberal bashing, 10,000 right-wing activists attending the Conservative Political Action Conference used their final night in town to give a sharp rebuke to … the Republicans?

It was bad enough that the runaway winner of the Presidential Straw Poll was Ron Paul, “the antiwar libertarian gadfly who is only nominally a Republican.”

At 31 percent, he polled far better than more conventional candidates such as Mitt Romney (22 percent), Sarah Palin (7 percent) and Tim Pawlenty (6 percent). A majority of voters said they wished the Republicans had a better field of potential candidates.

The real Republicans sank like rocks, and then came Glenn Beck:

“I voted Republican almost every time,” he said, and “I don’t even know what they stand for anymore. And they’ve got to realize that they have a problem: ‘Hello, my name is the Republican Party, and I’ve got a problem. I’m addicted to spending and big government.'”

The audience in the Marriott Wardman Park gave a huge cheer.

“But as of yet I haven’t heard anyone say that,” Beck added. “All they’re talking about is: ‘We need a big tent. We need a big tent. Can we get a bigger tent? How can we get a big tent?'”

“What is this, a circus?” Beck asked.

It seems Obama, congressional Democrats, the media and Hollywood were just a given – they’re evil and that’s that. Beck went after the Republicans. Beck’s agenda, such as it was, was eclectic and inclusive. And Joe Stack would have understood. Beck captured the hate-them-all zeitgeist, shown in a second poll:

Approval for Obama was, naturally, all of 2 percent – and those people probably like him because he’s been helpful to Republican electoral chances. But 37 percent said they disapprove of congressional Republicans. And Michael Steele, the Republican national chairman, was viewed favorably by only 42 percent.

In overall popularity, Beck and Rush Limbaugh, at 70 percent apiece, were second only to Senate conservative Jim “Waterloo” DeMint (73 percent) and well ahead of Republican leaders John Boehner and Mitch McConnell.

And Beck rode the wave:

The Ron Paul victory got a mixed reaction of cheers followed by boos in the hall. But there was no such division when Beck, likened to Babe Ruth in the introduction, entered the room to pounding music and a strobe effect from flashes. He had a roving microphone and called for his blackboard to teach his listeners about the evils of progressivism.

“It is still morning in America,” Beck said. “It just happens to be kind of a head-pounding, hung-over, vomiting for four hours” morning. “The question is what made us sit there in the john vomiting for four hours?”

He scribbled “progressivism” on the board and said it afflicts Republicans as well as Democrats. “I’m so sick of hearing people say, ‘Oh, Republicans are going to solve it all.’ Really? It’s just progressive-light.”

“It’s like somebody sticking a screwdriver in your eye,” he continued, “and somebody else pulls it out and puts a pin in your eye. I don’t want stuff in my eye.”

And he was on a roll:

In an apparent reference to John McCain, Beck condemned a “guy in the Republican Party who says his favorite president is Theodore Roosevelt.” He then read disapprovingly the Roosevelt quote that “we grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it is honorably obtained and well used … so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community.”

“Is this what the Republican Party stands for?” Beck demanded. He was answered with boos and cries of “no!” “It’s big government, it’s a socialist utopia and we need to address it as if it is a cancer.”

Beck made his major point – “It’s not enough just to not suck as much as the other side.” That line got a standing ovation. Roger may have to have a talk with Glenn, who added more fuel to the fire:

“I’m a recovering alcoholic, and I screwed up my life six ways to Sunday,” Beck said. “I believe in redemption, but the first step to getting redemption is you’ve got to admit that you’ve got a problem. I have not heard people in the Republican Party yet admit that they have a problem.”

But George Bush was an alcoholic who had screwed up his life six ways to Sunday, before he, at forty, found Jesus and went dry and his friends made him president. And Bush was okay with being a Republican. The party that requires that its leadership all be recovering alcoholics saved by Jesus needs to work this out.

There is more from Mike Madden at with Beck brings the crazy:

The overarching theme of Beck’s speech was that someone was out to ruin America, but by fighting the enemy the way addicts fight their problems, doom could be averted. Exactly who that someone was, though, was a little murky. It was not President Obama, the villain for most of the rest of the speakers throughout the three-day conference. “What is it that’s caused us this problem?” he asked. “If you say Obama, it’s too simple an answer, because it’s not just Obama.”

One thinks of the inclusive and eclectic Joe Stack, only Beck was deep into the Roaring Twenties:

It didn’t take long before he had scrawled the real menace’s name onto his chalkboard: “Progressivism.” Woodrow Wilson and his allies have their tentacles deeply wound around today’s politics, it seems; after all, liberals call themselves progressives, and if Wilson’s bunch can be discredited, so can modern liberalism. QED! “After the Progressives got into office with Woodrow Wilson… he gives us the Fed – how’s that working out for us?” he said. “Then he gives us the – let’s remember this, America – progressive income tax.” He drew the word out into three or four extra syllables’ worth of S’s, sneering as he drew his theories out in chalk. “Everything’s changed since the Progressives came,” he said.

And if Wilson is the bad guy, Calvin Coolidge had to be the hero. Beck roused the crowd into a lengthy ovation for tax cuts Coolidge advocated nearly 90 years ago, which brought the nostalgia at CPAC to new highs. He mocked the media, accusing reporters of some sinister conspiracy to cover up the fact that the Roaring Twenties were good. And then suddenly he was jumping back to the modern day, bashing U.S. bond sales to China. It was hard to follow if you were trying to find any logic to it all, but that didn’t seem to be a problem for many of the people in the room. It certainly wasn’t for Beck.

And the rest was like his television show:

There were the obligatory tropes about the free market; Beck said his education as a child had been free, in the library (which presumably wasn’t funded by any tax money). “We have a right to fail,” Beck said. “What we don’t have a right to is healthcare, housing or handouts.” There was the strange pro-rich populism that Beck has mastered – at one point he seemed to say the people who are really suffering amidst all the current economic turmoil are the small business owners who, with great regret, have to lay off their workers. There were the extended metaphors using the language of addiction and recovery, which harkened back to his mawkish Christmas tale. The Republican Party was like Tiger Woods, and it had to admit its mistakes before it could be saved. The entire country was like an addict; we have to get over our selfish insistence that the world doesn’t really work like the plot of an Ayn Rand novel before we could be saved.

The whole thing didn’t exactly hang together, but neither did Joe Stack’s manifesto. And it seems someone didn’t get the screw-the-Republicans-too message:

George W. Bush is back – at CPAC, at least. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) got a big cheer Friday for putting up a picture of the former president with the caption “Miss me yet?”

“I like it too,” she proclaimed. The image first appeared mysteriously on a billboard in her state earlier this month. It turned out to be the work of a group of small business owners.

Shirts bearing the Bush image are also selling well online, according to the New York Daily News.

Go to the link for tales of the rehabilitation of George Bush, and the embrace of Dick Cheney. Someone didn’t get the burn-down-the-house memo. Or was it blow-up-the-building? And then, just who is going to be the hero that burns down the house or blows up the building – Ron Paul? It seems these folks are confused and conflicted.

And one could imagine Sunday at the White House as the political team met for doughnuts and coffee and strategy. Hey, they’re comparing our guy to Teddy Roosevelt, the hero of San Juan Hill with the Rough Riders and all that, the hunter and sportsman who gave us the National Parks System, and whose Great White Fleet sailed the world and kept our enemies quiet, and the president who inspired the Teddy Bear, the classic toy that has meant security and comfort for most every small child in the last hundred years – and asking America to hate our guy as much as they’ve always hated Teddy Roosevelt. Cool. And they’re telling everyone it’s time to burn down the house and start over – gridlock followed by chaos and collapse is a good thing. And they think that’s a winner. And there are hints they think they guy who flew the plane into the Austin IRS building did a good thing. That’s odd. And half of them are saying everyone really wants George Bush back – now. We can work with that.

You can imagine they smiled. Sometimes it’s too easy.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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