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The Promise of Patriotism in a Reactionary Time

In this latest edition of our AdvocacyLabs interview series with academic experts, 50CAN CEO Marc Porter Magee talks with Christopher Parker, professor of political science at the University of Washington, about his research on the Tea Party and the importance of understanding political opponents’ motivating beliefs. Parker is co-author of Change They Can't Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America and author of Fighting for Democracy: Black Veterans and the Struggle Against White Supremacy in the Postwar South.

Porter Magee: One of the hallmarks of your work is taking a counterintuitive idea and systematically working through the data to understand what's happening.

The idea is to interrogate the conventional wisdom from different perspectives, and that's why I'm doing this work. I enjoy the degree of difficulty of trying to understand things that aren’t one dimensional.

In my book Change They Can’t Believe In, the conventional wisdom was that the Tea Party could be understood as either a small government movement or driven solely by racism. What I found was something much more complicated.

What did you learn about the Tea Party movement?

If you look at it from a variety of perspectives—historical, survey data, content analysis, interviews—what you see is a modern version of a long American tradition that dates back to groups like the John Birch Society and the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s. It is a reactionary movement that emerged in response to all the racial, gender, and lifestyle fissures in American life, and those kinds of movements can remake American politics.

The Seattle Times called you the professor who predicted Trump because your analysis led you to conclude in early 2015—when almost everyone was ignoring him—that Trump had a clear path to victory if he activated this reactionary base.

The key thing to understand is that the people who make up the Tea Party aren’t fearful. The response to fear is to withdraw from the threat, which makes one less politically engaged. I found that the central emotion among Tea Party members was anger. They felt like they had been violated, and the response to that violation was a strong desire to take action.

If you feel like people from traditionally marginalized groups are stealing your country, you aren’t going to sit on the political sidelines. So what I concluded was that this movement was bigger and more powerful than one grounded simply in racism or philosophical conservatism. It’s about race but it’s also about gender. It’s about nativity. It’s about same-sex rights. It's about all these things that are just different from “mainstream” America. It’s a complex mix of reactions to the way the world is changing, and that is what led me to believe that Trump was going to be successful.

Why did Trump see the potential in tapping into this anger when so many other Republican candidates didn’t?  

I think the other Republican candidates saw it and understood it. They just didn't want to tap into it. Trump was willing to do something that mainstream Republican candidates weren’t willing to do.

Why did this reactionary movement emerge when it did?

The short version is: Bush messed up so bad it got a black man elected and then this black man got us Trump. If we don't have President Obama, we don't get President Trump.

Why would Obama being president have such a big impact if his policies weren’t much different than Bill Clinton’s?

Because for a reactionary movement, the spark is not any one policy or position, it’s the symbolism of your world changing. Having a black man in the White House caused a lot of people to lose their minds, not just because he was black but because of the larger societal changes that his success represented.

Now, knowing that, would one be willing to trade not having Obama if it means we don't get Trump?

I wouldn’t. In fact, I think you can argue that Trump getting elected, at least this one time, was a good thing because it revealed all these fissures in American society. You can't deny them anymore, and maybe that makes it easier over time to address them.

When Obama was elected, there was a lot of talk that we had crossed some threshold of progress and many people were dumbfounded by the Trumpian backlash. One of the more common refrains you hear from progressive white people is: “This isn't the country I know.”

And my response is: “You have not been paying attention, my friend, because this has always been that country.”

I have seen a lot of stories about how white progressives are living in a constant state of anxiety and depression because Trump is president. And I think that one good thing about Trump getting elected is that now these white progressives have a small sense of what it’s like to be a person of color in America.

What advice would you give to progressive advocates who are struggling to figure out how to navigate in this new environment?

Some of the work I'm doing right now has led me to believe that there are more Republicans who are willing to partner with the left and compromise to get things done than many on the left may think. There are a lot of Republican patriots who will put country over party when given the chance.

And the left needs to take patriotism more seriously. Not the kind of patriotism that’s “my country, right or wrong.” When people on the left hear patriotism, they think about Joe McCarthy. And I think it’s a shame because if people really, truly understood the roots of patriotism, more people would embrace it in their politics.

Patriotism is a commitment first of all to the common good, but even beyond that, a commitment to the values on which the country was founded. And if you really take it to its logical conclusion, these values are really progressive values. Patriotism is not about “my country, right or wrong.” Patriotism is more like, “What can I do for my country and the values on which it stands?”

And offering a way to sacrifice for the common good might provide a path to bring people together?

That is exactly the case. If you want to beat the reactionaries and build a broad coalition for change, it can’t be just about materiality. You can’t do it just with a healthcare plan. You need to have a sense of common American identity and a shared feeling of patriotism to hold it together.