Beast of the Month - April 2009
Pseudo-populist Cable Shill
"I yam an anti-Christ..."
John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) of The Sex Pistols, "Anarchy in the UK"
Populism in America is a funny thing. When it comes from the mouths of guys like Michael Moore, Jim Hightower or Greg Palast who focus their energy defending the little guy against corporate abuse and the collusion of big business and big government, the work gets either ignored or relentlessly attacked. When so-called populism focuses its ire on lesser (and often uglier) targets, on the other hand, it gets highlighted as something to take notice of.
Take Glenn Beck, for example. (And we really mean it, PLEASE take him.) He has become a leading doomsayer in the Obama hackathon that takes place daily on Fox News, and a ratings champ on the "We report, you decide" network. This despite (or perhaps because of) the fact any examination of Beck's rants would reveal a man who isn't a populist like often hyped, but rather someone who is utterly psychotic. Stephen Colbert recently had fun with this on his show, urging Beck to "crank up the crazy and rip off the knob!" He did so after Beck presented an apocalyptic scenario Colbert described as "the most terrifying fictional future I have ever heard yanked right out of someone's ass." He summed up Beck's future vision of America as a land of "ignorant, illiterate, whacked-out hillbillies with nothing to lose. Terrifying! But, more viewers for Fox News!" It's hard to believe that Fox, already the home of borderline personalities such as Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity, could actually lower the bar for unhinged behavior, but, by golly, we gotta hand it to them, they have.
Then there's good old Rush Limbaugh, who is being touted as the new leader of the GOP. Limbaugh, much like O'Reilly, has long portrayed himself as a champion against the establishment, though already unconvincing after any comparison of his deranged oxy-fueled radio rants with Republican talking points memos. Besides this, it's hard to take seriously a multi-millionaire who has never worn blue jeans his entire life when he feigns to be a common man, especially when he froths about right-wing economics that screws the working class in favor of the rich.
Speaking of the working class, how about Joe Wurzelbacher, AKA Joe the Plumber, who was made into a working class hero near the end of the desperate McCain campaign? This after Joe whined to Obama about plans to raise taxes on people making over $250K a year (not a major working class concern.) To be fair, Joe W. deserves some sympathy after the Obama machine began illegally digging into his private files in order to uncover dirt after McCain used him as a political prop. However, Plumber Joe has since exploited his faux-celebrity status as a tool for reactionary political forces. Recently, he was hired by the Orwellian-named Americans for Prosperity to speak at rallies against the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers to unionize. Actual blue collar workers managed to sneak in to the events and heckle Joe while wealthy right-wingers cheered on his anti-worker pandering. Plumber Joe, hope you're enjoying your Warholian fifteen minutes while they last.
Still, the most offensive faux-populist moment of recent has not come from Rush, Beck or even Joe W. Instead, the award must go to CNBC's Rick Santelli, The Konformist Beast of the Month.
Santelli was, until February 19th, a fairly unknown third-rate correspondent for the minimally watched CNBC business news network. That all changed when discussing Barack Obama's Homeowner Affordability and Stability Plan to help nine million families avoid foreclosure with a $75 billion fund. On the network, he blasted the plan: "The government is promoting bad behavior... Why don’t you put up a Web site to have people vote on the Internet as a referendum to see if we really want to subsidize the losers’ mortgages, or would we like to at least buy cars and buy houses in foreclosure and give them to people that might have a chance to actually prosper down the road and reward people that could carry the water instead of drink the water... It's time for another tea party!"
(As he said this, Santelli was on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade, and the traders who cheered him on appeared to be the wimpiest, most pasty-skinned mob since the Brooks Brother riot in Florida during the 2000 election.)
The so-called "Rant of the Year" was curious in many respects. Imagine, for example, if a cable news correspondent had pulled something similar about the Iraq War being a scam right before it was launched. Just what would've been the reaction to that? No doubt he/she would've been blasted for lacking journalistic objectivity and likely would've lost their job. Or perhaps for an even more recent comparison, when the Wall Street $700 billion dollar bailout was being debated in September and October, where were the Rick Santellis blasting the promotion of bad behavior and declaring the recipients of the boondoggle to be losers? Instead, all objectivity was thrown out the window and the swindle was pushed through with establishment media hysteria behind it, promoting bad behavior be damned. Yet suddenly, when the issue becomes providing $75 billion in aid to help victims of subprime loan scams keep their homes, outrage becomes acceptable. This, of course, is the bigger point: attacking trillion-dollar war rackets and Wall Street handouts isn't kosher, but calling poor and middle-class home owners "losers" while they struggle to remain afloat is okely-dokely.
The hypocrisy in this case is even worse: on the Website The eXiled, Mark Ames and Yasha Levine reported that General Electric, the parent company to CNBC, received $139 billion in government-backed loan guarantees to keep GE Capital from going bankrupt and sinking the GE empire, CNBC included, with it. That amount, incidentally, is $64 billion more than what nine million subprime victims Santelli mocked as losers are to receive in the Obama plan. Noting these facts, Ames & Levine sarcastically dismissed Santelli as a bailout welfare queen.
The response to Santelli's rant proves just how okay the media establishment was with his hypocritical stand. As Santelli frothed, the folks in the CNBC anchor booth chuckled as though it was entertaining truths. Quickly, the rant went "viral" on YouTube, which is quite unusual since media/entertainment oligopolies such as NBC normally ruthlessly suppress any free distribution of their copyrighted work over the Internet. The "viral" nature of the video was pushed on cyberspace by Matt Drudge, who seemed flushed with an excitement he normally gets only from gay porn. On CNBC's big sister MSNBC, it was promoted by smiling mouthpieces who gushed about the - here comes the "P" word - populist nature of his rant.
Of course, perhaps the fault here lies in the continuing promotion of the George Magazine philosophy which has turned politics into entertainment, reducing actual debate about substance and ideas into shallow celebrity cults of personality. In that context, Santelli is indeed a "populist" hero, as his manufactured celebrity status qualifies him for the name brand certification.
But laying the blame at the feet of poor John-John (who even in death has been the most influential man in journalism over the last decade, though that is definitely influence to the worst) wouldn't be honest. For it wasn't mere celebrity narcissism behind the promotion of the Santelli rant, but rather a heavily financed right-wing machine. A Playboy article by Ames and Levine links Santelli's demand for a "tea party" with a project backed by the deep pockets of the ultra-right Koch family. Santelli’s call for a "Chicago Tea Party" was a mainstream push for an Astroturf "grass-roots" campaign for “tea parties” nationally protesting Obama's economic policies from the right. The case made by Ames and Levine is pretty simple: if Santelli wasn't pimping out his minimal journalistic cred for major Koch bucks, he was definitely selling himself short.
Here's another case study to show how out of whack the framing of "populism" is in the USA: the telling reaction to the AIG bonus scandal. When it was revealed that AIG had paid $165 million out of $170 billion in bonuses to employees, there was legitimate widespread outrage in the public, outrage that was neither orchestrated nor anticipated. (And yes, let's ignore for a second that, at this point, $165 million is chump change for Wall Street.) Establishment politicians chimed in, feigning outrage as well, including Barack Obama, who unconvincingly pretended to be upset, even though his administration directed legislation allowing the bonus loophole. Faced with mass anger, Congress originally pushed for 90 percent surtaxes on Wall Street bailout company bonuses for anyone making over $250K, but after Obama declared opposition to the plan, it appears to be dead on arrival. (Obama's excuse, that to stop the bonuses from going through would interfere with legal contracts, oddly wasn't used when he forced UAW members take massive pay cuts in Detroit.) Quickly, the korporate media, rather than helping the AIG outrage go viral, tried to squash it, with Michael Gerson of the Washington Post decrying the controversy as "demagoguery" rather than genuine.
To be fair, there was some backlash against Santelli as well. Still, it seems the main source of any mainstream outrage against him was not for his crude dismissal of struggling homeowners, but rather for how his rant was an attack on Barack Obama, the patron saint of yuppie liberalism. (Tellingly, it was Jon Stewart, the leading media mouthpiece of yuppie liberalism, who smacked up CNBC the most, using Jim Cramer of the news network's Mad Money as a stand-in after Santelli wimped out on a Daily Show appearance.)
Meanwhile, after Team Obama later announced their trillion dollar "toxic asset" bailout for Wall Street, there was again no populist rant on cable news against subsidizing losers and promoting bad behavior. Putting it all together, let's note the pattern:
* $700 billion TARP bailout deal for Wall Street: Mass cheerleading for the plan
* $787 billion Obama Stimulus Plan that was somewhat aimed at the middle and lower class: Controversy and vigorous debate
* $75 billion Homeowner Affordability and Stability Plan fund to help homeowners avoid foreclosure: Smug “journalist” denounces it as a plan to help "losers"
* Attempt to tax $165 million in bonuses at bailout recipient AIG: Controversy is denounced as "demagoguery"
* $1 trillion plan to bailout Wall Street's "toxic assets": No controversy whatsoever
It seems the only time any controversy is hyped in the mainstream press is when the recipient of the money is even partially the poor, the working class and the middle class. Meanwhile, though the public is indeed outraged by the massive swindle over the last year by Wall Street (with up to $9 trillion in government resources pumped in to these korporate parasites) blowhards like Santelli are trying to intentionally confuse the public, equating the Wall Street bailout with the stimulus package and focus the ire of rage against the poor and disenfranchised rather than the bankers.
Perhaps most important, there appears to be a concerted attempt by the right wing to frame Barack Obama's positions as far left, even though he has pushed more to give handouts to Wall Street than even the Bush Administration. With unemployment at 8.5 percent and rising, hopefully the image of Obama as the great progressive champion will soon be gone (and good riddance.) Until then, it appears that even Santelli isn't the worst example of phony populism coming from Chicago.
In any case, we salute Rick Santelli as Beast of the Month. Congratulations, and keep up the great work, Ricky!!!
Ames, Mark and Levine, Yasha. "Backstabber: Is Rick Santelli High On Koch?" Playboy 27 February 2009 <http://www.playboy.com/blog/2009/02/backstabber.html>.
Ames, Mark and Levine, Yasha. "'Slick Rick' Santelli Is A Bailout Queen." The eXiled 3 March 2009 <http://exiledonline.com/%E2%80%9Cslick-rick%E2%80%9D-santelli-is-a-bailout-queen-tea-party-mascot%E2%80%99s-company-took-139-billion-in-bailout-funds-ge-uses-taxpayer-money-to-censor-its-critics-destroy-bailout-program-f/>.
Ames, Mark and Levine, Yasha. "Victory Gloat: Ames & Levin Serve Up Santelli's Head on The Daily Show." Huffington Post 5 March 2009 <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/03/05/jon-stewart-eviscerates-c_n_172057.html>.
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Grey, Barry. "Wall Street Celebrates Government Windfall for Banks and Big Investors." World Socialist Web Site 24 March 2009 <http://wsws.org/articles/2009/mar2009/toxi-m24.shtml>.
Oswald, Rachel. "Union Plumbers Heckle and Jeer 'Joe the Plumber' at Rally." Raw Story 31 March 2009 <http://rawstory.com/news/2008/Union_plumbers_heckle_Joe_Plumber_at_0331.html>.
Ritholtz, Barry. "Rick Santelli’s Planted Rant?" The Big Picture 28 February 2009 <http://www.ritholtz.com/blog/2009/02/rick-santellis-faux-rant>.
Sirota, David. "Welcome to Double-standard America." Salon 21 March 2009 <http://www.salon.com/opinion/feature/2009/03/21/sirota>.
Spitzer, Eliot. "The Real AIG Scandal." Slate 17 March 2009 <http://www.slate.com/id/2213942/>.