Profile: Jonathan Kay
Jonathan Kay was a participant or observer in the following events:
Conservative author Jonathan Kay covers the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville, Tennessee (see February 4-6, 2010), and publishes a column that states: “[I]t has become clear to me that the movement is dominated by people whose vision of the government is conspiratorial and dangerously detached from reality. It’s more John Birch than John Adams.” Kay, who is writing a book on alternative theories about the 9/11 attacks, is astonished at the breadth and depth of the conspiracy theories that many tea parties, and tea party organizations, seem to embrace. The “villain list,” as Kay calls it, includes banks; bailed-out corporations; Republican Party leaders such as RNC chairman Michael Steele, whom they feel ignore the tea parties; colleges and universities; CNN’s Anderson Cooper; Fox News pundits like Bill O’Reilly who scorn them; “big media” outlets such as the Washington Post; and even moviemakers like James Cameron, who make movies that they feel contain “hidden messages” to fool Americans into supporting gay rights, cuts in military spending, and the like. The central figure in their net of conspiracy theories, Kay writes, is Barack Obama (see May 7, 2010). The convention is opened by anti-environmentalist Steve Malloy, who accuses Obama and his administration of working to control every aspect of Americans’ lives, from the colors of their cars to the temperatures to which they set their home heating units, all to comply with what Malloy says is the United Nations’s greenhouse gas-reduction program. According to Malloy: “Obama isn’t a US socialist. He’s an international socialist. He envisions a one-world government.” Kay is particularly concerned that, based on what he hears at the convention, the tea parties are affiliating themselves with far-right, white supremacist ideology such as that espoused by the John Birch Society (see March 10, 1961 and December 2011). They seem particularly enamored of the “New World Order” conspiracy (see September 11, 1990, November 5, 2008, March 17, 2009, March 18, 2009, March 24, 2009, March 24, 2009, and April 6, 2009). A convention speaker, former judge Roy Moore, tells his listeners that Obama intends to station “a UN guard in every house[hold].” Radio host Alex Jones is a favorite among tea partiers, Kay writes; Jones claims that Obama’s presidency is a plot by the leaders of the New World Order to “con the Amercican people into accepting global slavery.” One conventioneer tells Kay that Washington liberals “engineered the financial crash so they could destroy the value of the US dollar, pay off America’s debts with worthless paper, and then create a new currency called the Amero that would be used in a newly created ‘North American Currency Union’ with Canada and Mexico.” Shortly thereafter, the convention shows a “documentary” entitled Generation Zero that makes similar claims. The claims that Obama is a Kenyan who is ineligible to be president is a favorite theory, Kay writes; WorldNetDaily publisher Joseph Farah (see August 1, 2008 and After, December 5, 2008, May 28, 2009, July 21, 2009, and August 1-4, 2009) tells the crowd that the circumstances of Obama’s birth are more mysterious than the birth of Jesus Christ, and says, “My dream is that if Barack Obama seeks reelection in 2012 that he won’t be able to go to any city, any city, any town in America without seeing signs that ask, ‘Where’s the birth certificate?’” (see May 18, 2009). Kay concludes: “Perhaps the most distressing part of all is that few media observers bothered to catalog these bizarre, conspiracist outbursts, and instead fixated on Sarah Palin’s Saturday night keynote address. It is as if, in the current overheated political atmosphere, we all simply have come to expect that radicalized conservatives will behave like unhinged paranoiacs when they collect in the same room. That doesn’t say much for the state of the right in America. The tea partiers’ tricornered hat is supposed to be a symbol of patriotism and constitutional first principles. But when you take a closer look, all you find is a helmet made of tin foil.” [National Tea Party Convention, 2/2010; Newsweek, 2/8/2010]
Entity Tags: Steve Malloy, Sarah Palin, Washington Post, United Nations, Roy Stewart Moore, Joseph Farah, Alex Jones, Michael Steele, Anderson Cooper, Bill O’Reilly, Barack Obama, John Birch Society, Jonathan Kay, James Cameron
Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda
Mother Jones columnist Kevin Drum compares the “tea party” movement to earlier organizations, each formed, he writes, to oppose Democratic presidencies. “[T]oo many observers mistakenly react to the tea party as if it’s brand new, an organic and spontaneous response to something unique in the current political climate,” he writes. “But it’s not. It’s not a response to the recession or to health care reform or to some kind of spectacular new liberal overreach. It’s what happens whenever a Democrat takes over the White House. When FDR was in office in the 1930s, conservative zealotry coalesced in the Liberty League (see August 23, 1934 and After). When JFK won the presidency in the ‘60s, the John Birch Society flourished (see November 1963). When Bill Clinton ended the Reagan Revolution in the ‘90s, talk radio erupted with the conspiracy theories of the Arkansas Project. And today, with Barack Obama in the Oval Office, it’s the tea party’s turn.” While differences between the various groups are substantive, Drum writes, the similarities are overwhelming. Drum notes that industrialist Fred Koch, an early backer of the Birchers (see 1940 and After), gave way to his sons, David and Charles Koch, who helped launch the organization that would become FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, both of which are major funders and organizers of the tea party movement (see 1979-1980 and 1984 and After). Tea partiers rely on a 50-year-old radical reinterpretation of the Constitution, W. Cleon Skousen’s The 5000 Year Leap; Skousen’s anti-Communist polemics were popular with the Birchers. And Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society (JBS—see March 10, 1961 and December 2011), believed that the 17th Amendment, which affirms the direct election of US senators, was what Drum calls “a poisonous concentration of power in the federal government.” Tea partiers and Fox News hosts hawk this same theory today (see October 16, 2009, April 8, 2010, and June 11, 2010). Drum writes that, far from being motivated by personal economic hardship (tea party supporters tend to be more affluent and less affected by the economic downturn than the average American—see April 14, 2010) or even because of a dislike of President Obama because of his race, the tea party exists because “[e]ver since the 1930s, something very much like the tea party movement has fluoresced every time a Democrat wins the presidency, and the nature of the fluorescence always follows many of the same broad contours: a reverence for the Constitution, a supposedly spontaneous uprising of formerly nonpolitical middle-class activists, a preoccupation with socialism and the expanding tyranny of big government, a bitterness toward an underclass viewed as unwilling to work, and a weakness for outlandish conspiracy theories.”
Constitutional 'Purity' - One similarity is the focus of each group on what they term the “purity” or “sanctity” of the US Constitution, even as they apply their sometimes-radical reinterpretations of constitutional mandates. “The Liberty Leaguers… spoke of it with ‘worshipful intensity,’” Drum writes. “The John Birch Society—which is enjoying a renaissance of sorts today (see July 22, 2007, August 4, 2008, October 10, 2008, April 13, 2009, April 19, 2010, and August 24, 2010)—says of itself, ‘From its earliest days the John Birch Society has emphasized the importance of the Constitution for securing our freedom.’ And… study groups dedicated to the Constitution have mushroomed among tea partiers” (see May 2010).
Fear of 'Creeping Socialism' and Tyranny - Drum writes: “Other shared tropes include a fear of ‘losing the country we grew up in,’ an obsession with ‘parasites’ who are leeching off of hardworking Americans, and—even though they’ve always received copious assistance from business interests and political operatives—a myth that the movement is composed entirely of fed-up grassroots amateurs” (see 1984 and After, Late 2004, January 2009 and After, February 17, 2009, February 19, 2009 and After, March 13, 2009 and After, April 14, 2009, April 15, 2009, May 29, 2009, July 27, 2009, August 4, 2009, August 5, 2009, July 3-4, 2010, and August 30, 2010). Above all, though, is the recurring theme of “creeping socialism and a federal government that’s destroying our freedoms.” The American Liberty League fought to stop the Roosevelt administration from establishing Social Security, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and what Drum calls an “alphabet soup of new regulatory agencies.” In the 1960s, the John Birch Society (JBS) felt the government was being overrun by Communism and “collectivism.” Drum notes that JBS founder Robert Welch’s mantra, “Less government and more responsibility,” echoes central tenets of tea party beliefs. In the 1990s, then-Representative Newt Gingrich (R-GA) became House Speaker in large part because of his opposition to the Clinton administration and his leadership in the right’s battle to defund federal social-net programs. Today, tea partiers echo the JBS in their insistence that Obama is a closet Marxist or socialist, and echo fears from earlier groups that Obama, the Democrat, intends to turn American democracy into a tyranny.
Conspiracy Theories - Drum echoes conservative writer Jonathan Kay by noting the tea partiers’ “insatiable appetite for conspiracy theories” (see February 4-8, 2010). Welch argued that the federal government was bowing to Communist manipulation by fluoridating the water supply (see 1945 and After), but more importantly, promoted the idea that a mysterious group of “insiders” had been running the world since at least 1776, when the Illuminati took over most European governments. The “insiders” continued their influence, Welch avowed, through the years, taking over France after the French Revolution, Russia and other nations after the advent of Communism, and continued to exercise control through such organs as the United Nations, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Trilateral Commission. The same groups are at the center of many conspiracy theories embraced by numerous tea partiers. Drum points out the fondness of the “anti-Clinton zealots” for their “colorful and ever-growing bestiary of shadowy plots,” most surrounding their belief that Clinton was a rapist, a murderer, and a drug peddler. Similar conspiracy theories were promulgated by the JBS about John Kennedy. “Today’s conspiracy theories are different in detail but no less wacky—and no less widespread,” Drum writes. The “birther” conspiracy theory, which holds that Obama is not a natural-born citizen, is quite popular with tea party supporters, and many more believe that Obama intends to place conservatives such as themselves in internment camps, a theory peddled by the JBS in the early 1960s. And many believe that ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), the now-defunct community service organization, somehow took control of the Democratic Party, destroyed banks by forcing them to make loans to indigent minorities, crashed the economy, and installed Obama into power.
Effectiveness Improving over Time - Drum writes that each iteration of this right-wing phenomenon is more successful than the last. The Liberty League made no impact whatsoever on President Roosevelt’s 1936 re-election attempt. In 1964, the JBS succeeded in helping right-wing libertarian candidate Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) win the Republican presidential nomination. In the 1990s, Gingrich rode the wave of far-right activism to become speaker of the House, and the activism culminated in the impeachment of President Clinton and the election of President George W. Bush. Drum predicts that the latest wave, the tea party movement, will for all intents and purposes take over the Republican Party. In each iteration, moderate Republicans resisted the wave of right-wing change, but, Drum believes, not enough moderate Republicans exist in any position of power to resist the tea party transformation. The GOP has been shifting ever rightward since the 1970s, Drum notes, and the tea party movement has profited from a transformed media environment, where it can present its ideology almost nonstop on Fox News and rely on social media such as Facebook to connect with new recruits. Drum calls the paradigm shift “the mainstreaming of extremism.” In 1961, Time magazine disparaged the JBS as “tiresome” (see March 10, 1961); in 2009, it hailed Fox News personality Glenn Beck as “gifted.” Moderates have virtually no chance in today’s environment of pushing back against the tea party’s rightward surge. “Unlike the Birchers, or even the Clinton conspiracy theorists, the tea partiers aren’t a fringe part of the conservative movement,” Drum writes. “They are the conservative movement.” Drum believes that even with all the tea party’s current success, it will eventually burn itself out, “while its broader identity becomes subsumed by a Republican Party that’s been headed down the path of ever less-tolerant conservatism for decades. In that sense, the tea party movement is merely an unusually flamboyant symptom of an illness that’s been breeding for a long time.” [Mother Jones, 9/2010]
Entity Tags: Robert Welch, Newt Gingrich, W. Cleon Skousen, Kevin Drum, Charles Koch, Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, Jonathan Kay, American Liberty League, Fred Koch, John Birch Society, Fox News, David Koch
Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda
Receive weekly email updates summarizing what contributors have added to the History Commons database
Developing and maintaining this site is very labor intensive. If you find it useful, please give us a hand and donate what you can.
If you would like to help us with this effort, please contact us. We need help with programming (Java, JDO, mysql, and xml), design, networking, and publicity. If you want to contribute information to this site, click the register link at the top of the page, and start contributing.