Episode 148: The GOP’s ‘Rightwing Populism’ Rebrand (Part II) — Messaging Wars in “White America”

Citations Needed | November 10, 2021 | Transcript

Citations Needed
59 min readNov 10, 2021


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

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Nima: “The elites are out to get you and your hard-earned pay.” “We’re spending too much on protecting foreign nations and not enough defending our own borders against immigrant invaders.” “China is taking your job and will soon take over your phone.” We are consistently fed this type of right-wing populist rhetoric, sticking up for the working man against an array of villains: coastal elites, liberal media and foreign boogeymen, but replete with seamy audience flattery, xenophobic and anti-Semitic dog whistles and confusing, ever-shifting definitions of what exactly constitutes “the elite” or “the media.”

Adam: With the rise and eventual presidency of Donald Trump there’s been no shortage of pontificating and reporting about the appeal of so-called “right-wing populism” but one aspect worth dissecting is the way in which wealthy Republican-funded media deliberately seeks to win over confused and sometimes even lefty media consumers with a clever mix of faux class warfare, vague appeals to post-partisanship and piggybacking off legitimate discontent with the Democratic party to sow nihilism and suppress voter turnout.

Nima: From the Jacksonian producerism of the 19th century to Trump’s fake anti-imperialism of this decade to today’s shameless grifts by billionaire-backed hucksters like J.D. Vance, the right has long tried to soapbox about the beleaguered working man and rail against the mysterious, often urban, Black, brown or Jewish authors of his pain and suffering.

Adam: This is part two of our two-part episode on so-called “right-wing populism.” Last week we talked about three common tropes — the co-option of class conscious language, third positionism, and producerism — and today we’ll dissect three more, detailing the ways the Republican messaging apparatus seeks to rebrand their stale platform every 10 years with a new, tweaked version of warmed-over John Bircherism.

Nima: Later on the show will be joined by the Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival alongside the Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II. She is also the director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary.

[Begin Clip]

Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis: You’d have some of these white supremacist racist organizations that were pulling forward and organizing something sometimes folks that call themselves the Tea Party, and then have three people in a room and they’d get, you know, weeks and weeks and months of media attention, but you’d have two hundred folks across racial lines, but especially a lot of low income white people, in the same mountains of Kentucky, who are organizing a kind of unity rally with hundreds of people and it gets no attention.

[End Clip]

Adam: So the first trope we’re going to be discussing today is my personal favorite.

Nima: Starting out strong.

Adam: We’re not supposed to have personal favorites, but you know, we often do on the show, because it sort of a textbook example of smarm, and once you sort of see it, you can’t unsee it, you sort of see it everywhere, and that’s self-helpism or excessive flattery of the audience. ‘You pay your taxes, you play by the rules, you are the world’s greatest lover, you have an IQ of 250, not like those other people.’

Nima: ‘You know what’s really going on.’

Adam: ‘You know what the score is.’

Nima: Right.

Adam: ‘And I’m going to see your, we’re gonna expose their lies together.’

Nima: We’ve been seeing this for decades. I mean, there’s newer versions, you know, Trump talking about how people who like him are the best people, but this has also been going on for decades. For instance, Nixon strategist, Kevin Phillips, in the ’60s, borrowed directly from George Wallace’s aggrieved-white-worker rhetorical frame. In his Republican nomination speech in 1968, Richard Nixon, in somewhat coded language — somewhat — pitted a so-called “forgotten” white working and middle class.

Adam: Ah, the forgotten man, abandoned by society, the silent majority.

Nima: I know. Yes, and also to the extent that those terms “working” and “middle class” have any meaning in this context anyway. But that forgotten class against the perceived — what? — liberal elites, as well as the antiwar and civil rights activists of the ’60s, and let’s not forget the quote-unquote “dependent poor.” Now specifically, Nixon described his much-ballyhooed “silent majority” and “middle America” as quote, “good people. They’re decent people. They work hard and they save and they pay their taxes,” end quote. These were, in Nixonese, the “forgotten Americans.”

[Begin Clip]

Richard Nixon: They’re decent people, they work and they save and they pay their taxes and they care. When the strongest nation in the world can be tied down for four years in a war in Vietnam with no end in sight, when the richest nation in the world can’t manage its own economy, when the nation with the greatest tradition of the rule of law is plagued by unprecedented lawlessness, when a nation has been known for a century for equality of opportunity is torn by unprecedented racial violence, and when the President of the United States cannot travel abroad or to any major city at home without fear of a hostile demonstration, then it’s time for new leadership for the United States of America.

[End Clip]

Adam: So you pay your taxes, you’re law-abiding, this was a common rhetorical device. Ronald Reagan did this very often. A major practitioner as well was Ross Perot, and you’ll see this a lot around deficit scolding, which Ross Perot really kind of refined and was hugely instrumental along with Pete Peterson into making it mainstream in the 1990s. By often evoking you yourself as, ‘You balance your books, you balance your credit card statements and your house budget, you can take care of this, why can’t the politicians down in DC? Why can’t the bureaucrats in Washington?’

Nima: ‘You are superior to those that are put in a position of power over you.’ So for instance, you have this part of a speech from August 18, 1996 when Ross Perot was receiving the Reform Party nomination for president. Incidentally, Ross Perot founded the Reform Party just a year before. This is his speech.

[Begin Clip]

Ross Perot: In the last ten years, you add up our trade deficit for the last ten years, it exceeds a trillion dollars. Study history, study what all economists say, we cannot exist with that. We’re the biggest market in the world for goods and services. Everybody wants to sell to us. Europe doesn’t make dumb trade deals with Japan. We’re the only industrialized nation in the world with a trade deficit with China. We’d better find somebody that knows how to horse-trade, don’t you think? Well, God bless my dad. He taught me as a boy. Thank you.

But, now, everywhere I go, people ask me, ‘Ross, what’s the problem with Medicare and Medicaid?’ In 1965, when we created Medicaid, the spending forecast for 1990 was $9 billion. The actual spending was $98 billion. The reason it’s in trouble is that they never designed it to work.

Now let’s go to Medicaid. It was a noble goal; massive legislative, massive funding failure. You wouldn’t make a screwdriver that way, right? Medicare and Medicaid are more complex than putting a man on the moon. But in the 1960s, when Medicaid was created, they told the taxpayers, ‘In 1990, it won’t cost you more than a billion dollars.’ It costs you $41 billion. The annual cost of Medicare and Medicaid today is at $250 billion a year. The two parties let this happen. Why? And they let it keep on happening. The special interests who fund their campaigns are making huge amounts of money at your expense.

[End Clip]

Adam: So this is sort of a classic example of, ‘You’re the taxpayer, you pay for them to waste your money.’ Of course, of one of the classic framings around privatizing and gutting Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security was this idea that they’re insolvent and that we need to privatize them in order to save them, which is what Ross Perot was proposing, probably because he himself wanted to and many, many of them hedge funds and investment banks, wanted to privatize the sort of sticky public institutions like education, Medicare, Social Security, postal service, they’ve been wanting to do this for years, and to do that, you would have to say, ‘Well, you can balance your books, why can’t they?’ You know, never mind that he doesn’t adjust for inflation in any of these numbers, which I find hilarious. ‘You can balance your book, why can’t they balance their, you know, my daddy taught me to horse trade.’

Nima: Right. ‘These are stupid deals. They’re spending a billion dollars on nonsense.’

Ross Perot in 1996. (AP / Reed Saxon)

Adam: Yeah, ‘You and I got common sense. They don’t have common sense. They’re a bunch of Washington bureaucrats.’ This kind of rhetoric is very popular with a kind of freeloading language. In 2010, in the thick of the Great Recession, Rush Limbaugh constantly fear mongered about quote, “parasites of government” and those, quote, “freeloaders . . . [who] live off of your tax payments and they want more. . . . They don’t produce anything. They live solely off the output of the private sector.” Now who was he talking about? Was he talking about the banks or the CEOs or some other powerful entity? No, he was railing against public-sector workers which were a huge target of the so-called astroturfed Tea Party movement, which we will get into more detail later. We saw this from Scott Walker, Tim Pawlenty, they constantly refer to this sort of parasitic public sector unions, and in doing so what they do is they pander to this idea that there are producers, taxpayers, who are of course their audience, those who vote for them, and they’re constantly reminded of how they’re carrying the burden of society versus those parasites, which everyone loves to hear, right? People want to view themselves as being producers who create and work hard, while others mooch off their hard work, specifically, public-sector unions, teachers’ unions. A sort of perfect example of this around that same time, 2010, was Glenn Beck with the highest rated show on cable for several years for those who are too young to remember.

Nima: Yeah. Remember when that was a huge thing, like the biggest thing going on?

Adam: And what he did really well is he sort of took Alex Jones’s shtick, but took away some of the more, you know, fringy 9/11, Illuminati, Bohemian Grove elements, but had the same kind of carnival barker, tent revivalist preacher elements mixed with this kind of insurrection his language, he was standing up to elites.

Nima: Now, of course, to be fair, Adam, he did have plenty of connect the dot boards of donors and organizations that you’re not supposed to trust and these liberal elites that are running the world, there was a lot of that as well. But yes, he kind of stripped away some of the more Infowars-y stuff and made it Fox News palatable.

Adam: Yeah, it was as fringe as you can go while still being approved by Rupert Murdoch. But one thing he was exceptionally good at was this self help, evangelical self-help flattery, and I want to listen to this clip where he does such a good job of doing this.

[Begin Clip]

Glenn Beck: Hello, America. They’re waiting. I’m backstage right now at Fox, I’m getting ready to show you that you are not alone. This is your country, you’re still in control, but it seems today, like nobody gets it. You know, you’ve lived your whole life in a responsible way. You didn’t take out a loan that didn’t require any kind of proof of income. Yet, now you’re being forced to bail those people out. You’ve been concerned about this country through the last administration and this administration, if you’re like most people, both administrations, it’s not about politics, you actually believe in something. And you thought for a while there your politicians did as well, and now you kind of realize, well, maybe, maybe they don’t. When you come home after a hard day at work, all you want to do is put your feet up, all you want to do is just relax and just watch a little television, catch up with what’s happening in the world. But every time you turn that television on, it just seems like the whole world is spinning out of control.

War, Islamic extremism, Europe on the brink, even pirates now. Closer to home, Mexico isn’t saved for vacations or our kids anymore. 6,000 were killed or beheaded on our border just last year. And Phoenix now has the second highest rate of kidnapping in the world. Our company’s face new union mandates, global cap in trade and the second highest corporate tax rate in the world. All the while politicians wonder why jobs are going overseas. And yet on the other side, some global corporations only see America as a market and you as a consumer. Meanwhile, over 4 million friends and neighbors have lost their jobs in the last four months alone. Names that we always thought described American strength and stocks that are now worth less than a frappuccino, and we’re all told they’re just too big to fail yet 70 percent of all jobs are created by the small businessman and nobody seems to even notice.

[End Clip]

Adam: Okay, so this is great.

Nima: Yeah, that’s like literally this entire episode right there.

Adam: Both episodes wrapped into one clip. So, we got a lot going on here, aside from the fact that the statistic about 6,000 dead or beheaded — which is my all time favorite set stat — obviously totally fake.

Nima: They have pirates now.

Adam: But he does this really great thing here, he does a couple of really impressive things that you see why he was the highest rated show. He does the flattery, which we talked about, it’s the sort of trope we’re talking about, but in addition to that he does the fake third positionism, it’s not about Republican/Democrats.

Nima: This isn’t about politics.

Adam: Anytime a white man says, ‘I’m not Republican or Democrat,’ they’re a Republican. There is a 100 percent chance, take it from a white man, I’m telling you, if someone says, ‘Oh, I don’t, you know, I don’t like parties,’ and it’s such one of those great, everyone sort of views themselves as this rogue independent, and what he does is he is sort of appealing to this narcissism that the listener is sort of above politics, that they all they were critical of Bush too — of course, they weren’t, they were just total lever pushers for Bush, almost without exception. But Bill O’Reilly did this, you know, Bill O’Reilly first started his whole shtick was that he wasn’t a Republican/Democrat, he was an independent, and then he had eccentric views that he supported some Democrats.

Nima: ‘I believe in what I believe in.’

Adam: Right, because that sort of sets you up as this, it’s the definition of smarm, it’s the smarmiest two minutes I’ve ever listened to, and the key is, Nima, is that you work hard. ‘All you want to do is come home and put your feet up. But when you turn on the news, all you see is things going wrong.’ Which is hilarious, because that’s what he’s doing, he’s scaring the shit out of you.

Nima: Right. He’s on that news.

Adam: He’s the one on the news deliberately frightening grandma, because he wants, and the best part of the video is when he goes from — aw man, it’s so good — he goes from the quote-unquote, “crisis at the border” and beheadings at the border and then shifts to high corporate taxes. I mean, that is just like —

Nima: Yeah, yeah.

Adam: Because who is sitting around going like, ‘Oh, man, I really, I’m upset that the capital gains tax for Bain Capital is too high.’ And then he throws it in there and then pivots to, like, small businesses.

Nima: That’s the main thing I think of when I come home from my hard day on the railroad and put my feet up.

Adam: Oh, it’s so good. That is again, you could just skip these episodes and just listen to that two minute clip, it has every single trope we’re talking about. But the thing he was really good at was the flattery which is that, ‘You’re hardworking, you pay your taxes, you play by the rules.’

Nima: Right. It was kind of a version of the John Boehner crying shtick. ‘We just care about this place so much, and we’re so ashamed of our quote-unquote “politicians” or our quote-unquote, “media,” except it’s, you know, obviously, like John Boehner is a politician. Glenn Beck is in the media. It’s so obvious.

Adam: Well, no, Fox News doesn’t count as the media. Fox News does not count as the media, even though it’s the highest-rated corporate news network.

Nima: Fascist entertainment.

Adam: Yeah and so that kind of, it’s common in a lot in evangelical circles, which I think is where, you know, Glenn Beck’s Mormon, but it’s very heavily borrowed from a certain thread of self-help, evangelical culture, which is very much about buttering up the audience for the first third of whatever sermon you’re giving, ‘You’re discriminate, you’re hardworking, you are virtuous.’

Nima: ‘You’re not the one who’s to blame or has to change.’

Adam: Right, which is the opposite of what we do on our show. We just call everyone a pay pig and tell him to shut up, no. Maybe we could do more flattery, you’re smart, you’re discerning. NPR does this all the time, NPR, obviously for different political ends, but NPR constantly does the, ‘You’re a smart media consumer, you don’t listen to that loud talking tablet garbage on those other stations, now give us $50.’ But that’s a huge element of driving populism, which is a constant reminder that you are the productive, hardworking taxpayer.

Nima: The second trope, though, that we want to shift to now, was actually teased a bit in the earlier Nixon quote, and Glenn Beck did this as well, especially coming off the Bush years, this idea of an anti-war, even sometimes anti-imperialist, populist-right posture. It’s incredibly grating this idea that these conservative right-wingers are somehow anti-U.S. Empire are the ones calling out, Nixon said, you know, ‘A war without end in Vietnam,’ or you heard after the Bush years, ‘Oh, we’re spending all this money overseas.’ This is a trope we hear all the time.

Adam: And it’s always bullshit. Like, the thing is people love to gesture towards anti-war rhetoric. I mean, the perfect example of this is Donald Trump, obviously, someone who realized you can have two completely contradictory opinions about a war, and people hear what they want to hear. So he said he opposed the war in Iraq and criticized it, but of course, if you look at his comments at the time he supported, he said he opposed Libya, of course, if you look at the comments at the time he supported it, or at least he only opposed it to the extent to which Obama was involved.

Nima: Yeah, exactly. I mean, he did this during the debates in 2016, even after his inauguration, when he spoke at the CPAC convention in 2017, Trump said this, quote, “We’ve spent trillions of dollars overseas while allowing our own infrastructure to fall into total disrepair and decay. In the Middle East we’ve spent, as of four weeks ago, $6 trillion. Think of it! And by the way, the Middle East is, you know, it’s not even close. It’s in much worse shape than it was 15 years ago. If our presidents would have gone to the beach for 15 years we would be in much better shape than we are right now. That I can tell you.”

Adam: Yeah, but then, of course, he assassinates the leading military commander of Iran, trying to provoke a war with them, escalates the war in Yemen, escalates the war in Afghanistan, sort of signs a peace agreement, but probably wouldn’t have stuck to it anyway. And one of the more popular avatars of this total hypocrisy, which is, you know, not something we like to point out a lot, but it’s useful here because I do think that what they’re trying to do with the anti-war rhetoric is, again, they’re trying to pick off, they understand that most people’s politics don’t exist on a sort of perfect, linear, polar gradient. It’s not that everyone has the perfectly left positions or the perfectly right positions. A lot of people have eccentric politics — they can be pro-Medicare, but anti-immigration, you know, or Medicare for All and, you know, anti-immigration, they can be pro-war against this country, but maybe not like war against, I mean, various pro high minimum wage but low corporate taxes — and to some extent, I think people know this, and they know that if you poll things like war, imperialism, they’re not popular at all, and so as long as you sort of do the rhetoric of that, you can kind of get away with not having follow through.

And a perfect example of this is Josh Hawley, the senator from Missouri who during the Trump administration constantly said, ‘I support Trump’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.’ Early Biden years, Biden announced they were pulling out and he criticized him for this, as Alex Shepard, who wrote in The New Republic, his headline pretty much sums it up, quote, “Josh Hawley Was in Favor of Withdrawing From Afghanistan Until Joe Biden Did It. For a hot minute, the Missouri senator and insurrection advocate was a critic of the forever war. But something changed!” I would not use “hot minute” in a sub headline, but whatever. Josh Hawley, for months, had boosted Trump’s May 1 withdrawal deadline, tweeting in April 2021, quote, “President Biden should withdraw troops in Afghanistan by May 1, as the Trump administration planned, but better late than never. It’s time for this forever war to end.” This is after Biden announced that they were going to pull out troops at the end of August.

So Biden actually did pull out troops, and of course, this was where things, this just goes to show you that it then reverts back to partisanship. So Tucker Carlson, Josh Hawley, all these people who claim they supported the withdrawal of Afghanistan when Trump did it or sort of in theory, when Biden actually did it, withdrew the military — obviously, they still have drone strikes, but that’s not what he cares about — they revert back to their default state, which is a partisan hack, because they’re fundamentally Republican messaging organs and they couldn’t praise the president for doing it. So what did they do? They did the process criticism, where, ‘Oh, shit, he actually did it. I can’t believe it didn’t see that coming. I guess now I have to reverse engineer to hate or oppose him,’ because they can’t say anything positive about the president, because that’s not an option, so he actually did it wrong or he didn’t do it racist enough, he was too woke to refugees. So they sort of go find these little things to pick on, which politically is utterly useless. This is why you can’t really build a coalition with these people, outside of maybe some explicit legislation, because rhetorically, or at least from a sort of PR standpoint, or kind of moral standpoint, they’re always gonna find some bullshit reason to throw you under the bus, because you’re a Democrat, even though had Trump pulled out with the exact same conditions and the exact same outcomes, they would have absolutely defended him, because they’re fundamentally just partisan hacks.

When Biden finally pulled out, he said, quote, “Biden has now overseen the deadliest day for U.S. troops in Afghanistan in over a decade, and the crisis grows worse by the hour.” So they tried to create a sort of Benghazi scenario, another sort of, supposed people who supported to withdraw like Matt Gaetz, and Tulsi Gabbard, who also claimed support pulling the troops out of Afghanistan did the same Benghazi routine as well, because using a sort of thin process criticism, and as we talked about on our News Brief on Afghanistan, there was no way you were going to ever pull out of the war, which you lost, without there being some confusion, chaos, and people dying. There’s just no way that was going to happen.

Now we can, again, I think there’s some debate about whether or not you processed enough refugees, whether or not you gave enough forewarning, but the whole thing was based, and has been for several years, was based on a house of cards, it was always going to fall, and so it’s not totally clear what the political utility of this supposed support for withdraw. If there was no plausible scenario where there was going to be withdrawal they would have supported it.

Nima: Tucker Carlson has done this a lot, you know, during the Trump years, he was allegedly in favor of pulling out of Afghanistan. But then, of course, when Biden finally did earlier this year, Carlson dedicated countless hours of his Fox News show to criticizing Biden on flimsy process critiques, as we’ve discussed, and of course, on the refugee issue, as you mentioned, Adam, not being adequately discriminatory.

Adam: And one thing people like J.D. Vance always do is they always, again, J.D. Vance jumped on this to criticize, he tried to Benghazi it as well, they all did, because they all read from the same talking points. They constantly talk about needing to refocus on China, which of course, is not really an anti-imperialist, or anti-war position, it’s simply refocusing our largest empire in the history of the world away from bombing Muslims into building up hostilities in some kind of cold war, presumably, some proxy war with China, who are viewed as a more meaningful threat or kind of a new, sexier threat from the right. Don’t get me wrong, they still want to keep our military bases in the Middle East and, and they still want to help support Israel carpet bomb Gaza, all that goes without saying, but maybe let’s shift some focus away from Afghanistan to the eastern part of China and Japan and Taiwan. So, again, this supposed anti-war rhetoric is always coupled with, the reason we know that is because things like the NDAA votes, the National Defense Authorization Act, where you basically vote for $800 billion to a trillion dollars in military spending. People like Josh Hawley, supposedly anti-military Josh Hawley, support the bill. His major objection to the bill, Nima, was — what? — it was two things: It was new policies around the inclusion of trans people and renaming military bases named after Confederate generals. This is what he was opposed to, and before that had always voted for NDAA. So, our supposed anti-war right, when it comes to actually funding the military, always votes yes.

Nima: Now the final trope that we want to discuss is this idea of the ever-renewed, same-old same-old that we’ve been seeing from the John Bircher right. So the kind of repackaging of these tried and true right-wing tropes as something now new, this kind of new populism that is emerging. And we saw this, of course, via the astroturfing of the Tea Party patriots in 2009 and 2010, very early in the Obama administration.

Adam: Yeah, because here’s the deal, right? The fundamental problem with right-wing ideological production and reproduction is that a lot of people don’t want to feel like they’re defending the big guy, the big corporation, very few people, except for your kind of Alex P. Keaton types that people go and intern for Marco Rubio, those like Georgetown psychos, get internships, the Heritage Foundation and pictures of Ronald Reagan on their wall growing up. You know, outside of those people, I feel like a lot of people sort of want to view themselves as being supportive of the little man.

Nima: Yeah, fighting the good fight.

Adam: And one of the fundamental problems with American Empire is the same for the Republican Party, which is how do you make the big bad guys who are well funded seem like the underdogs? Just like how do I write a TV show and make America the sole superpower of the world? How do I make them seem like the underdogs? It is one of the hardest parts about writing an action movie for the last 20 years or writing for 24 or writing the various Rambo sequels.

Nima: Yeah, that’s why Aliens became so popular.

Adam: How do you write, how do you make the big guy seem like the little guy is the fundamental propaganda question they have to figure out. We’ve talked about numerous ways to do that, including this kind of warped class language, a total ontological trick with respect to how we define elites, the sort of taking vague anger towards the media and channeling it into hatred for very specific subset of media, MSNBC, NBC News versus again, Fox News, right? And the way they do that is they kind of redo the same things over and over again. Now there are twists and there are other more organic currents, but what we saw with the Tea Party, which we think is worth honing in on when talking about this kind of repackaging John Bircherism, because it was so obviously bullshit and astroturfed, and also racially “charged” — as The New York Times would say, I would say racist — is they took this genuine outrage and anger after the financial collapse in 2008, which, of course, the recession in 2009, and this is largely, which we’ll talk about later, and talk about with guest, is largely a failure of liberals and the left, so-called Democratic Party, to sort of capture that anger, and they swooped in, and they just did a warm door version of John Bircherism, with the Tea Party, largely funded by in many ways, the Koch brothers, whose father Fred C. Koch founded the John Birch Society in 1958, along with other right-wing millionaires like the Bradley Foundation — of the Bradley Family Foundation that you’ve heard a lot about on the show, they fund a lot of the charter school stuff — that these tropes and these images and this language and this rhetoric were just recycled from other astroturfed right-wing populist movements, up to an including many of the people who financed the rise of Ronald Reagan, and the way you do this, as you sort of make it seem like it’s this spontaneous thing. And I want to say that in many ways the Tea Party fed off of and basically co-opted much of the Ron Paul support in 2008, which as odious as I may find it to be, I think was probably a little bit more organic, again, the anti-war stuff people latched onto, skepticism about the Fed people latched on to, these things are never entirely astroturfed, but I do think that the degree to which the Tea Party movement was astroturfed by billionaire donors, was continuingly downplayed and obscured by corporate media for reasons we’ll get into. But we think that with the latest iteration, the kind of Oren Cass, J.D. Vance, the Hudson Institute, the Claremont Institute, even the American Enterprise Institute, the way that these forces are trying to talk about this new right, this new pro labor right, new populist right, I’m looking at myself and I’m like, this is the same shit we did 10 years ago the last time the Republican brand took a hit, right? Because the Republicans didn’t do that well in 2020, obviously, they lost The White House, they have been overrun by QAnon Trump weirdos, just as in 2008 they were sullied by Bush and his wars and the economic recession in his name. So there’s a bunch of people in a whiteboarding session like, ‘How do we sort of rebrand our party?’ Which is all they’re doing. Now, there are various currents, various interests, these things are never that binary, but that’s basically what the Tea Party was and why the Tea Party is sort of a good thing to reexamine from that context, because you see the ways in which they took this genuine anger and confusion about the state of the economy, and they swooped in and they took this mantle of quote-unquote “populism,” while Democrats sat there and twiddled their fucking thumbs.

Nima: Yeah. So one of the supposedly inciting incidents, you know, alleged catalyst for the Tea Party movement occurred on February 19, 2009 when CNBC’s Rick Santelli delivered this ramp on air.

[Begin Clip]

Rick Santelli: How about this president and new administration? Why don’t you put up a website 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? This is America. How many people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills? Raise their hand. (Audience “boos”) President Obama, are you listening?

[End Clip]

Adam: This is a very short version, it goes on. But this on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, noted bastion of populist sentiment, and it sort of went viral in right-wing circles.

Nima: We heard that it was legit, Adam, because you heard the “booooooo.”

Adam: Yeah, but the populist, the sort of right-wing media promoted it, because again, this is less than a month after Obama has been in office, right? You have a Black, somewhat liberal Democrat, who is viewed as being the enemy, per se, right? He’s sort of viewed as being suspect by virtue of his skin color, and by virtue of his party, and all this gets, this perfect storm emerges where you have this rant, which provides a vehicle for pre existing efforts to basically make his first term his only term and to make the midterms a Republican change election. The way you do that is you you need to get rid of the dirty stench of Bush, and the way you do that is to take these currents, specifically the Ron Paul currents, which do seem organic and have been in opposition to Bush, and you direct them into the sort of typical FreedomWorks model of astroturfing. So, there was a lot of evidence that the Tea Party was astroturfed and in many ways predated this rant. Mark Ames and Yasha Levine uncovered a lot of these connections for a Playboy article that they later had to take down because there was a lawsuit that threatened them. General Electric, which on CNBC threatened to sue Playboy, so they took it down. But several players in the anti-Obama funding universe had planned astroturfed, anti-tax marches in the months following Obama’s inauguration. Lee Fang also did excellent work on this before he himself became subject to many faux right-wing populist tropes.

Nima: Yeah, so early on in 2009, April 9, 2009, Lee Fang wrote this for Think Progress, in an article headlined, “Spontaneous Uprising? Corporate Lobbyists Helping to Orchestrate Radical Anti-Obama Tea Party Protests,” and he wrote this, quote:

Despite these attempts to make the ‘movement’ appear organic, the principal organizers of the local events are actually the lobbyist-run think tanks Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Works. The two groups are heavily staffed and well funded, and are providing all the logistical and public relations work necessary for planning coast-to-coast protests:

FreedomWorks staffers coordinate conference calls among protesters, contacting conservative activists to give them ‘sign ideas, sample press releases, and a map of events around the country.’

“– FreedomWorks staffers apparently moved to “take over” the planning of local events in Florida.

Freedom Works provides how-to guides for delivering a ‘clear message’ to the public and media.

Freedom Works has several domain addresses — some of them made to look like they were set up by amateurs — to promote the protests.

Americans for Prosperity is writing press releases and planning the events in New Jersey, Arizona, New Hampshire, Missouri, Kansas, and several other states.

This type of corporate ‘astroturfing‘ is nothing new to either organization. While working to promote Social Security privatization, FreedomWorks was caught planting one of its operatives as a ‘single mom’ to ask questions to President Bush in a town hall on the subject. Last year, the Wall Street Journal exposed Freedom Works for similarly building ‘amateur-looking’ websites to promote the lobbying interests of Dick Armey, the former Republican Majority Leader who now leads Freedom Works and is a lobbyist for the firm DLA Piper.

Adam: DLA Piper, for those who don’t know, if there’s an evil corporation or Middle Eastern dictator or Satan himself needs a lobbyist they work for DLA Piper.

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: DLA Piper is the eighth circle of hell, but it pays well. So, you know, for you kids getting out of law school definitely check out their booth at recruiting day.

Nima: (Laughs.) Yeah, exactly. If you have that, you know, Ronald Reagan framed 8 x 10 on your wall, it’s the place for you.

Adam: You’re a little, mini psycho Alex P. Keaton, that’s where you want to go. Don’t think, Democrats, too, they don’t give a shit. They’ll take anyone.

Nima: That’s true. Lee’s article goes on, quote:

Americans for Prosperity is run by Tim Phillips, who was Ralph Reed’s former partner in the lobbying firm Century Strategies. The group is funded by Koch family foundations — a family whose wealth is derived from the oil industry. Indeed Americans for Prosperity has coordinated pro-drilling ‘grassroots‘ events around the country.

End quote.

Adam: So, we’ll have a lot of this in the show notes for patrons, you can check it out, but basically, there’s a ton of evidence, both contemporaneous and since, a lot of work by Jane Mayer, who’s documented the way the Koch brothers fingerprints, and other right-wing billionaires, I know there was a bit of a divorce between FreedomWorks and the Koch brothers around that time, the way their fingerprints were all over the Tea Party, because again, these things are not, sort of organic, and obviously, it’s a feedback loop, but they’re kind of not really, and they need this sort of support, again, this kind of financial support, and lobbyist groups, 501C4s, you know, left-wing, you may be around the sort of Soros-y partisan stuff, if you can get that kind of support, but like actual left-wing, of course, you’re not going to do any of that, for obvious reasons. You don’t get vegan food at a barbecue restaurant, in a capitalist system you’re not really going to get any meaningful support for actual left-wing causes. Now, because again, the sort of organic outrage at that time was so easily co-optable, then you had sort of someone who was very cozy with the banks and Barack Obama as President, someone who got more Wall Street money than John McCain did, who was understandably viewed as being part of that system, again, in a sort of warped and racialized way, but nevertheless, the Democratic Party’s inability to meet the moment, to use a lefty phrase, created the opportunity for these astroturfs to blossom without any meaningful pushback. But one of the other culprits was the way that the media, the legacy and corporate media, refused to sort of drill down on the astroturfed nature of the Tea Party because they viewed it as, again, one of the sort of professional norms of media and academia and the think tank world is everything is in good faith.

Tea Party “activists” in Washington, DC in 2010.

Nima: Right. Everything is organic, just folks getting together to do good together.

Adam: And if you talk about funding, that’s like a faux pas, because it’s a slippery slope to you talking about, you know, the billionaire who owns your newspaper, so you’re not allowed to do that, and so in retrospect, we have one of the all time credulous media accounts ever written, this was from March of 2010, so this was sort of the height of the Tea Party, this was a built up to the 2010 primaries. The New York Times’ Kate Zernike, on March 12, 2010, wrote this article, quote, “Tea Party Avoids Divisive Social Issues.”

For decades, faith and family have been at the center of the conservative movement. But as the Tea Party infused conservatism wth new energy, its leaders deliberately avoid discussion of issues like gay marriage or abortion.

God, life and family get little if any mention in statements or manifestos. The motto of the Tea Party Patriots, a large coalition of groups, is ‘fiscal responsibility, limited government, and free markets.’ The Independence Caucus questionnaire, which many Tea Party groups use to evaluate candidates, poses 80 questions, most on the proper role of government, tax policy and the federal budgeting process, and virtually none on social issues.

Adam: This goes on and it gets worse. Now, again, this is sort of the height of literal minded liberal uselessness, where, first off, obviously, when they did get elected in 2010, both on a state and federal level, what are the first two things they did, Nima? And this is well documented. Voter ID laws to prevent Black people from voting and abortion.

Nima: Right.

Adam: In fact, that was the first thing many state legislators, quote-unquote “Tea Party,” who were not concerned with divisive social issues, that things like limited government, fiscal responsibility had no, they have no cultural subtext at all. I just fucking fell off the cabbage truck and have a job at The New York Times writing about politics and I had to take everyone at their word, everyone’s in good faith, there is no ulterior motives, doesn’t matter who funds them, doesn’t matter that 90 percent of these fucking zombies were in Ralph Reed’s Coalition 10 minutes ago talking about why we need to chain women to the refrigerator. Forget all that, this is a new Republican Party.

Nima: That’s right. There’s new energy now.

Adam: And this kind of credulity is similar to the kind of rhetoric we see around people taking the bait with Josh Hawley or even Marco Rubio, god forbid, and Oren Cass and the supposed J.D. Vance, these white working class whispers want a new Republican Party who is pro labor, yet they don’t support the PROAct, they don’t support a higher minimum wage, they support high corporate taxes in theory, but not really in practice, again, they will sort of throw a bone now and then as far as rhetoric goes, but they’re just rebranding the same shit. They’re feeling the pulse of the country, they have marketing firms that go out and they poll the pulse of the country, and they see certain ways in which Bernie Sanders can appeal to this or that kind of rhetoric and, and then they go back and they tweak their message.

Nima: They’re like, how do we do Goldwater messaging but, like, with a Bernie Sanders vibe?

Adam: And they all end up back at the exact same place, which is how do we elect more Republicans to lower corporate taxes and chain women to the fucking stove? That is all they care about.

Nima: Right, and make sure that fewer and fewer people of color vote.

Adam: And fewer people vote, because that’s the only way they can maintain their grip on the state legislators especially, right? They have to disenfranchise people, and so this is all very marketed, it’s all very white boarded, you could see the fucking strings to all this shit, and this kind of default state of assumption of good faith and default state of credulity is how this shit keeps working, and so one of the purposes of this episode is, they’re doing it now with a lot of the post-Trump rebranding, which I think they put the pause on because I don’t think they actually think they’re post Trump anymore. I think they realize that he’ll probably absolutely run in 2024. But again, if and when Trump runs and loses, or he’s out in 2028 — my God, I can’t even think about that — that they’ll do another rebranding, right?

Nima: Yeah don’t. Don’t even.

Adam: They’ll do another rebranding, and they’ll use these six tropes in all their rebrandings and we must be aware of this because, again, who’s funding it and who ultimately ends up being elected and what do they do when they’re elected is all that matters, everything else is fucking smoke and mirrors.

Nima: To discuss this more, we’re now going to be joined by the Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival alongside the Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II. She is also the director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by the Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis. Reverend Liz, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis: Thanks for inviting me.

Adam: So to begin, I want to talk about the kind of basic premise of the Poor People’s Campaign and other groups that you’ll work with. On Twitter, I know after the election day in Virginia where the governorship lost to the Republicans, your organization tweeted out, quote, “It’s not enough to just be anti-Trump and appeal to middle class swing voters. The potential to grow a fusion coalition for transformative changes is among poor and low income voters.” Which incidentally happens to be the whole theme of the episode. As a kind of big picture starting place for our listeners, can we start off by talking about what your vision is for the quote-unquote, “populism,” how does it sort of differ from the current messaging that you see from Democratic leaders, which I know has shifted a little bit lately, and what does the coalition of voters in your mind and what y’all work for, what does that look like in terms of creating a majority supermajority moving forward, you know, obviously, this is all very theoretical, but how do you envision that?

Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis

Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis: Yeah, so being in the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, you know, we’re focused on issues, the interlocking injustices of systemic racism and poverty, ecological devastation, militarism, and this false moral narrative of religious nationalism. We kind of reject, actually, using the terms “populism,” or the kind of dichotomy between right and left or Democrat versus Republican, most of the work that we’re setting ourselves to do is to kind of build a movement led by those that are most impacted by injustice, the 140 million people in the United States who are poor, or one healthcare crisis, job loss, storm emergency away from economic ruin, into a powerful force to be reckoned with. I mean, in the United States, currently, one third of the electorate is poor and low income voters. In some places, especially in the 2020 election, that was as many as more than 40 percent of those who showed up to vote were poor and low income voters, and so we’re talking in our work about what does it look like to enliven and to enlarge the electorate by pulling poor and low income people from across race, across region, across geography, across issue area, into a powerful moral movement from below. And what we’ve found is that people are out there, ready and willing and able to form what we call fusion coalition’s bringing poor white and poor Black and poor native and poor indigenous and poor Latino and poor Asian folks together into a powerful force. And so that vision of a movement, a movement that kind of puts forward the priorities and the needs of poor and low income people, and says that it’s when we lift from the bottom, that everybody in this society can rise, that’s really the movement and the vision of the work that we’re trying to do, again, it has the potential, already has shown in 2020 and other times throughout US history, to actually shift the entire political landscape and put forward not just a vision, not just good ideas, but the implementation of life that’s better for everybody.

Nima: You’re talking about history. I want to take us back not too far, but about a decade. Earlier in this episode, we were speaking about the way that the Tea Party in 2009, 2010, certainly with the help of a credulous media, branded itself as capturing the so-called “populist” anger of recession era America. Now, The New York Times said that the so-called movement of the Tea Party didn’t really care so much about social issues, but as you yourself have noted, writing in The Nation magazine, the first thing that Tea Party candidates did after being elected, aside from restricting abortion, was pass laws making it harder for poor and Black and brown people to vote. Now, can we just talk about how this faux so-called “populist” appeal played out back in those heady days a decade ago, in 2010, how the Tea Party’s large, mostly Republican funders were either obscured or ignored at the time, not really spoken about, you know, and the Tea Party was kind of seen, or at least written about as being grassroots, right? And kind of what that era tells us about how moments of popular anger can actually be channeled so often into really terrible things, as well as as you’ve been talking about, potentially really good things.

Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis: Yeah, I mean, I think the first point I would make is, I would really challenge the notion that the Tea Party was a movement, especially, I think, if it was a movement, it was an astroturfed movement, with those funders that you were referring to, with the help of a credulous media like you talked about, because I think, too often, we actually put more people behind these forces then really exist. We spent some significant time in Kentucky around those years, and then also since then, and what many of the folks in Kentucky would say, would be that you’d have some of these white supremacist racist organizations that were pulling forward and organizing something, sometimes folks that call themselves the Tea Party, and they’d have three people in a room and they’d get, you know, weeks and weeks and months of media attention, but you’d have 200 folks across racial lines, but especially a lot of low income, white people in the same mountains of Kentucky, who are organizing a king of unity rally with hundreds of people and it gets no attention. Or, you know, you have the Forward Together Moral Movement out of North Carolina, that really rises in a moment when the so-called Tea Party is trying to shift politics in the state of North Carolina, and you can have 100,000 people on the streets of Raleigh and it doesn’t get the kind of attention that, again, you know, a couple of people with some racist signs do. And so I think that that’s one place that we have to begin when it comes to this is that these are not movements, these are the rich and elite with a particular ideology, being able to manipulate because of the funds that they have and because of the control of the media that they have, making it seem like these are wildly popular ideas, and I think we’ve seen a similar thing in the midst of this pandemic, in the midst of these debates around critical race theory, you mostly have these afroturfed kind of examples. When we spend time in a bunch of these communities, what we find is folks that are organizing even more against the kind of racist, nativist, nationalistic kinds of views, but getting very little attention for the kind of powerful fusion organizing that they’re doing.

Now, it is true that there is a core of people in the nation and have been, that put forward a very problematic racist set of ideas, and are very threatened by a multiracial democracy from the bottom up having any kind of real sway and power, and those folks have been very successful in suppressing votes, and questioning elections, and then pulling some different kind of hot button issues and getting a lot of attention around them, and then therefore, setting the conversation, setting the debate around those issues. And for too long and too often, many in our political landscape have not challenged that or not raised the issues that actually the majority of people are impacted by. And so I think what we’ve seen in the Poor People’s Campaign, is that when you start talking about moral issues, the real moral issues of our day, and that’s healthcare, and that’s living wage jobs, and that’s a decent education, and pushing back against the resegregation of our schools and that’s, you know, addressing systemic racism, and it’s saving the Earth and having clean air and clean water, that when actually people put out that vision of society, many people, you know, come towards it. And so, we’ve just gotten away from actually, for a generation at least, of actually bringing those ideas into the common political discourse and landscape, and yet when they do arise that way — guess what? — people are very responsive and we see something like the turnout, especially, again, amongst low income and poor voters in 2020, for instance.

Adam: So let’s talk about this for a second. There’s entire server farms and oceans of ink written about this kind of so-called “white working class,” right? And on the one hand, you have, I think, a sort of consultancy class, which keeps insisting that there’s sort of a fixed number of just inextricably racist Trump voters, which is at 45 percent. Now, the other extreme is people say, ‘Oh, well, you know, we need to sort of pander to these so-called culture wars,’ which is obviously also very bad. We sort of argued in this episode is that and maybe this is a bit pat, but like, yes, clearly, there are some percentage of white working class voters who are just inexorably racist, and are never going to join a multi class coalition no matter what you do, even if their house was on fire, and a multiclass coalition came with a hose, they would tell you to go to hell. But clearly, some percent, even percent of Trump voters, right, have to be convincible to vote either for some kind of progressive policy, again, without necessarily endorsing a particular party, and that, to me, seems fairly obvious, because otherwise sort of what are we doing? What’s the point of politics? What’s the point of this conversation, right? The whole point is to sort of convince people, and I guess, for someone who’s done a ton of work on the ground, I’m curious how you sort of approach this issue, I assume, you know, ironically enough, the term we used last episode was that politics is a fundamentally, not to abuse the metaphor here, is a fundamentally evangelical exercise, you want to sort of convert people to be part of a coalition part of a movement, right? So the question is, in your work, how do y’all approach that? And I know, that’s a big question so forgive me, I assume you don’t just sort of write people off. What are the kinds of, the vectors if you will of coalition building? What are the issues that you find kind of bridge these gaps? Obviously, unions are one way that happens historically, I know that there are other other ways people do that, can you kind of talk about where y’all start with those issues?

Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis: So, I love that you actually use the word evangelist and evangelical in here, because my training is in Biblical Studies, and the Greek word for evangelist, evangelion, you know, means good news, and it’s always connected to good news to the poor, and righteousness and justice, and so one of the things that I think is actually very true about the kind of organizing model that we have really developed and spread is that you talk about the issues that are impacting people and you talk about the solutions that are at hand to those problems and we have the same message everywhere we go and we actually start with the problem of systemic racism. And so in a poor white working class community, we’re talking about systemic racism, and how that systemic racism, whether it’s through voter suppression, whether it’s through mass incarceration, whether it’s through the resegregation of our schools, whether it’s through poverty wages, and the denial of healthcare, that obviously disproportionately hurts people of color the most, but it’s impacting people of all races, and so we don’t shy away from taking on systemic racism and talking about race and race issues, and we always connect it to the other issues that are impacting people’s lives, and so that’s the denial of healthcare, that’s what living wages, that’s poverty issues. And again, we often will say, we aren’t just about cursing the darkness, it’s not just all of the problems that are facing society. It’s not just all the doom and gloom, because there’s a lot of it, especially amongst poor and low income people, but it’s also holding out this hope, this possibility that it does not have to be this way, that we are actually living in a society in a world of abundance, that has the capacity, the capability to actually address all those issues. And that so often, what happens in the politics of our day, especially the politics of white supremacy and racism, is this idea of scarcity, that there isn’t enough and so that, for somebody to get something, it means that you’re going to have to pay more taxes or something’s going to be taken away from you or your kids are going to live a less good life and this is just not economically true. And so when you start from a place of abundance, when you start from the fact that actually, this is not as good as it gets, but that also that we have solutions at hand to be able to lift the load of low wages and of poverty and of the inequalities that people are experiencing, then that is good news indeed and people come towards that. I think, you know, for sure, as you’ve said, throughout, you know, the last decade especially, there’s been a lot of conversation about the backwardness of white working-class voters, and I think, I mean, our experience is that in many of the states that people would call red states, and this might be true in some of the states that people would call blue states, they’re not red states or blue states, they’re mostly especially in the case of quote-unquote “red states,” they’re unorganized states, and you have a whole huge population of people who have either had their vote suppressed, or who have not heard the issues that concern them in any significant way, and who are taking themselves basically out of politics. And so we did this study, looking at 2016, and at the participation rate, basically, of poor and low income voters and said, and saw that actually, in 2016, if poor and low income voters had turned out at the same rate as higher income voters, we wouldn’t have had Trump. And so it’s just a fallacy that it’s poor and working class white people who have put Trump in office, and then what we saw in 2020, and we did a lot of organizing around this now in a very non partisan way ourselves, but we reached out to more than 2 million poor and low income, low propensity voters in 15 key states and what low propensity meant was folks that hadn’t voted in multiple elections, or if they were so young, they weren’t likely to vote using other calculations, and what we found having done some analysis done, that we had a statistically significant impact, and that actually, it was poor and low income voters across race, who were the deciding kind of votes, most likely, in the 2020 presidential election. And that, you know, again, in the battleground states, it was upwards of 40 percent of low income voters, who were the folks that were turning out and made up that much of the electorate and those were not just poor Black people and poor Latino people, it was also good numbers of poor white people. And so what we already have seen, not just in the organizing of the Poor People’s Campaign is doing, we’re seeing this multiracial, kind of democratic, not big “D” democratic, because the work we do is about talking about the issues that impact people and trying to push politicians on both sides of the aisle and independents as well to take up the the needs and priorities of poor and low income people, and we have found that when you do that, and you don’t shy away from race and racism, that — guess what? — it actually is very effective, and some people move their positions, you know, some folks said to us, they voted a different way, you know, other elections. But even more than that, we heard people participated in politics that hadn’t before because they had never thought that they had the power to do something about it.

Nima: Now, when you talk about these coalitions, you know, one thing I’d love to add in here is talking about the widespread kind of labor movement, and you know, I think some of the genuine pro worker politics that we’re seeing right now is the spread of strikes in various parts of the country. Now, of course, without overstating how widespread the strikes are currently, there does seem to be a certain kind of shift in work gratitude right now, in this moment, resulting from I think, what a lot of observers view as being, you know, kind of coming off of the pandemic and the huge economic and obviously, health crisis, that that was, and still very much is. Now, Reverend Liz, how do you view the current state of, say, the labor movement, but also these, you know, moments, maybe leading to movements of labor unrest and how can it be maybe channeled these pockets of strikes of uprisings here and there into something larger, more positive, and certainly, hopefully, more sustainable?

A healthcare worker is applauded in 2020. (Via Northeastern University)

Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis: Well, I surely think that one of the things that became very clear in this pandemic was, especially low-wage workers, seeing how expendable they were viewed by their bosses and you can’t take that back. You know, folks got a new label, they were starting to call essential workers, but you know, we had McDonald’s workers that we’re organizing with, who had worked at the same job for 17 years and not gotten a raise, didn’t get one in COVID, but got a little button that says, “I am essential.” You know, you have healthcare workers who were applauded here in the city where I live in New York City, but who, again, were the first to be sent back to work, were the first to get sick, were the first to die, and, you know, we still, this many months into a new administration and a new Congress, despite folks running on the idea of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, we still have not seen that, right? And so I think it’s in that context that we do have, you know, some labor uprisings happening across the country, and they are, again, we don’t need to overestimate what they are, but they are significant, and I think even the fact that that folks are refusing to go back to work until they can get the kind of wages that people need to actually make ends meet is all a part of a, I think, a consciousness that is raising in the country around, you know, the rights of workers, the rights of people. I think there’s some pretty inspired labor leadership in the country right now, and I think that is exciting. I think folks are seeing the importance of organizing in the South. I think folks are seeing the importance of organizing, you know, poor and low wage workers and not shying away from poverty issues. You know, I think we in the Poor People’s Campaign have been able to forge some very powerful relationships and connections with labor leaders and with labor movements, and I do think it is a positive sign, and more needs to happen and people need to come together across these lines, not just the labor movement over here, and the environmental movement over here, and folks that are working around racial justice over there, but really into a bigger tent, where we see that we are more powerful together. And so that’s a lot of the work that we’re trying to do in the Poor People’s Campaign. We do not claim to be the only folks doing that work but being able to pull these kinds of unlikely alliances together and pull folks across all these different lines, and even in silos that haven’t worked together as much that is what it’s going to take to be able to, you know, in the words of Dr. King “make the power structures of this nation say yes, when they may be desirous of saying no,” and, and I think that that’s what we’re seeing with some of these labor uprisings, with some other racial justice protests, with some of the climate strikes and other powerful mobilizations and protests that are happening, but especially people starting to see their kind of common cause with each other and say, you know, we’re in this together, and let’s fight it that way.

Adam: And one of the things, I think, the sort of, we’ll say Democratic Party, the kind of left, has struggled from in recent years, I think, largely since the the co option of the party by marketing PR people and lawyers, is that they sort of moved away from the language of morality. I’ve always found it far more attractive. We do it a lot on the show, I do a lot of scolding and sanctimonious rants because I think it’s sort of how people understand and kind of make the world intelligible, and I guess I’m sort of curious, when y’all do your work you speak in moral terms, you have moral framing to this, do you find that when it comes to sort of combating these dark forces we talked about on the right who are trying to win many of the same voters you are — you know, you have J.D. Vance saying he is Mr. Appalachia, so forth — do you find that the language of morality has more purchase? And I don’t, I don’t mean that in a patronizing way, I think it’s probably cross class, and in what ways do you feel like activists could maybe — again, I say this as a dead eyed atheist — how can we sort of better use those terms and use that framework when it comes to these kinds of organizing efforts?

Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis: Yeah. So I think that the question of the kind of moral crisis that we’re really in, is not the idea that Jesus was a card-carrying member of the NRA, and it’s not, who’s marrying who, but that, you know, what our Constitution and what are sacred and religious texts have the most to say about is, are you paying your workers a living wage and are you making sure that people have the healthcare that they deserve and are you organizing society around the needs of those that are at the margins and at the bottom and who are struggling? And I think there is a power in both that rhetoric and that framing, and then also in the actual boots on the ground pulling people together and saying, you know, the real issues that are impacting you, well, we can do something about it, and that it’s wrong that something hasn’t been done up until this point, because in addition to really shying away from these kind of, quote-unquote “moral issues,” the Democratic Party and other progressives, have shied away from, you know, really talking about poverty. I mean, the word poor became a four letter word and we heard lots of folks in the 2020 elections, and before then, we went through debate cycle after debate cycle where folks would just not mention, you know, morality and wouldn’t mention poverty.

Adam: Yeah, I did a study in FAIR of that, of the 10 Democratic debates in 2016, that no single question was asked about poverty.

Data from FAIR study on presidential debate topics. (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting)

Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis: Not one, right? Not one, and not one around voting rights, even though, you know, we were going through a presidential election where the full power of the VRA was under attack and there’s something wrong about that and people resonate with that, and I think it is, folks are looking not for religion, but folks are looking for a moral clarity about this is not okay, this is not right, this is not just what is happening to me and my family and my neighbors, and something different as possible, and I think what we have found is, you know, we’ve been doing a lot of organizing in West Virginia, the West Virginia Poor People’s Campaign has been really trying to call out Senator Manchin in this moment for all the kind of moral obstructionism that he represents, right? And he claims to be a person of faith and, and yet, in some of the revivals that we’ve basically been holding in West Virginia, folks have been, especially faith leaders, but also regular folks, some who identify as religious and many who don’t, talking in the moral terms and saying, you know, which side are you on and are you on the side of the people or are you on the side of the corporations? And that is clearly, plainly a kind of question of morality, and our folks see it that way, and respond very positively to that. Because, again, some things are just right versus wrong and not necessarily the dichotomy of right and left that so often kind of dominates our politics.

Nima: So you mean, the biggest moral issue of our time is not Critical Race Theory being taught to kindergarteners? That’s shocking to me.

Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis: I mean, just like every piece of this, right? I mean, for one, there’s no conversation about what Critical Race Theory in terms of a law school curriculum is and then — guess what? — people in Texas want to learn about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King and want to learn about the history that has gotten us to this moment, and people need to know that history, and when we are not able to kind of have grown-up conversations about the real issues that are impacting people, people want those kind of grown-up conversations, and they want also real grown-up action on it. Meaning that — guess what? — we need wages to be raised, we need healthcare to be expanded, we need childcare to be, you know, free and cheaper, we need college to be accessible, all of these things that we can have and if you spend your time talking about and implementing those, what we’re seeing is really positive impacts.

Nima: Something you’ve been talking about in terms of not only morality, but also what people really care about, what actually matters to people — and you know, Adam, actually, you’ve been writing about this a ton and we’ve talked about it a couple times on some episodes, and also some of our News Briefs lately — and you were just mentioning the work being done in West Virginia, but the idea that the conversations that people want to have are not conversations that I think many in the media, and we are a media focused show, are interested in having for, I think, obvious reasons, but that’s why you see talk about horse race politics, who is going to come down on what, what is the budget number that will get so and so to vote a certain way, as opposed to say in this Reconciliation Bill, what the actual fundamental human stakes are. And so what do you see as the media conversation as distinct from your conversations, as organizers, as movement builders, as people proximate to other people in a way that I think, you know, media decisions are just fundamentally different, divorced from that, what are you seeing in the way that even coverage of these very fundamental human stakes, moral issues are just being omitted in favor of horse-race politics reporting?

Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis: Yeah, I mean, we’ve been making this critique, you know, for a long time now, but especially when it comes to this kind of agenda, both Build Back Better plan, the conversation around infrastructure, the kind of denial of protecting voting rights, I mean, all of what’s been happening in our congressional debates right now, and especially, as you’re saying, the media coverage of it is all a spectacle, and it’s not both talking about, and I think we would call out those that have been putting forward this agenda and some of its proponents, for not actually making the issue what’s included in this, whose lives are going to be impacted, and not putting front and center, the very poor and low income folks that have the most to gain from this and also the most to lose. Instead, we’ve had a conversation around abstract costs and dollars, and yes, when you hear the word $3.5 trillion, that sounds like a lot of money, especially to the average person, but when you think about that over 10 years, when you think about how much of that would have been in the budget anyways, and when you think about, given what’s been going on in people’s lives, what it looks like to expand childcare, to make prescription drug prices a little bit lower, what it is to expand healthcare and to perhaps even include paid sick leave, and then especially like who is going to benefit from this, you know, we’ve heard some analysis that the Infrastructure Bill that Senator Manchin and folks are so excited about that 84 to 89 percent of the money in that is going to go to richer white men. But when you look at the Build Back Better plan, and we think it’s too little before it was even being cut and whittled down it was too little, what the Economic Policy Institute said was that it needed to be $10 trillion even just to get back to where we were pre-pandemic, and we’ve been talking in the Poor People’s Campaign about all of the investments that need to be made, but still, if we, if we look at, you know, the $3.5 trillion Build Back Better plan, in that you have, you know, tens of millions of folks receiving the child tax credit, you have millions of people getting healthcare that didn’t have healthcare before, and you when you break it down, and aggregate it by race and poverty, you see how many poor people, low-income people, how many Black people, Latino people, poor white people are benefiting from this, but also how many folks that are kind of middle-income folks that are also benefiting from this and how actually, this can improve people’s lives for the better for so much, and so to have allowed the conversation just to be kind of a show between a couple of politicians abstractly debating numbers and using words like what’s “responsible,” and to not include the kind of life-and-death matters that are included, you know, not just in this bill, but in any kind of investments and in people’s lives, it’s just completely wrong, and something’s got to change. You know, what history has shown is that, that’s where movements are born and that’s where people assert, like Frederick Douglass talked about, “those who would be free must strike the first blow, those in pain know when their pain is relieved,” and we see this kind of life-saving action taking place in poor low-income communities today and it’s what has the power to save the democracy, save the nation, and make life better for everyone.

Nima: Yeah, it’s almost like materially improving people’s lives could be a winning political strategy, maybe.

Adam: No, Nima.

Nima: I don’t know.

Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis: Imagine that.

Nima: (Laughs.) So before we let you go, can you just tell us a little bit about what you are up to, what the Poor People’s Campaign, what folks can look out to, how folks listening can get involved, give some support, that’d be great. We’d love to hear about it.

Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis: Yeah, so the Poor People’s Campaign is organizing towards a massive declaration of intent. On June 18, 2022, it’ll be a mass poor people and low wage workers assembly and a moral march on Washington, it will be in DC, where just thousands upon thousands of people will come from all across the country. What we’ve seen, you know, in the recent months, has been that we need a powerful force of people coming together and organizing, and so hopefully, people who are listening in can not just plan to join us on June 18, but can help organize and mobilize, you know, busloads, car loads, train loads, plane loads with a worth of people. We’re organized in more than 40 states across the country and if folks are not involved yet in the Poor People’s Campaign, I encourage people to code a Poor People’s Campaign dot org and find out who is organizing locally in your state. And we have big plans of continuing to enliven, enlarge this electorate of poor and low income people in this kind of multiracial, democratic coalition of people who can shift the kind of politics of the country and come forward with a positive, proactive agenda that really puts forward a vision of prosperity and abundance for everyone and civil rights and human rights and economic rights and Earth rights and immigrant rights and everything kind of connected, and so I hope that that folks will get involved if you’re not already because we need to build a movement in these times and and we need to cry out a theme that we have in the campaign. Somebody has been hurting our people for far too long and we won’t be silent anymore and so I hope that folks will come and be involved and join us in building a movement.

Nima: Well, I think that’s a perfect place to leave it. We have been speaking with the Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival alongside the Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II. She is also the director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary. Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis, thank you so much again for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis: Thank you. Great to be with you.


Adam: Yeah, you know, I think it’s good to sort of critique the sort of bad. I feel like I can’t cuss now that we’ve had a Reverend on.

Nima: She’s not on the line anymore, we can say bad words again.

Adam: I know but for the remainder of the episode I don’t want to. We talked about how s-h-i-t-t-y the Republican populists are. It seems wrong, I don’t know.

Nima: (Laughing.) What, is your kid sitting there?

Adam: No, I don’t know. It just seems wrong. That there’s also people doing things, obviously, they’re not the only ones doing this type of work, but they are a major player and that kind of multi, you know, sort of multiracial working-class coalition is, it’s the only thing that can even come close to saving us. What form that takes we can debate, but there is no other option. There simply is no other way around it just by the pure demographics and the class nature of our country, and so it’s good to see like, okay, here’s how we do this counter messaging, and it’s very refreshing that, you know, they don’t shy away from things like racism and white supremacy.

Nima: Right.

Adam: Because like they said, you know —

Nima: But actually center that and lead with it.

Adam: Center it because you can talk about the way those things are propped up by that and say, ‘Look, the plurality of people on death row are white, the plurality of people shot by police are white, because they’re 70 percent of the population is white,’ right? Disproportionately, it’s obviously it’s Black people, but these things still affect white communities in many ways, and it’s not downplaying the racist element by putting it in those terms, because people need to have a sense that they have a stake in these things as well, and I think that, especially when it comes to labor organizing, union organizing, Fight for $15, which really should be Fight for $25 at this point, that that kind of work does exist, and that it’s not just, you know, if I’m the sort of proverbial, we’ll say, white kind of rural voter, they have their door knocked on by the Poor People’s Campaign versus and then two hours later, they have their door knocked on by someone campaigning for J.D. Vance, I don’t know why anyone would do that, unless you’re getting paid a lot of money, that those two messages are actually kind of essential to building any meaningful coalition just by virtue of the population of this country, like how it works.

Nima: But I mean, I think it also has to do with filling a void, and you know, in these past two episodes about right-wing populism, as we’ve been discussing, Adam, there’s a kind of, I don’t want to be too lame about it, but a rhetorical void that then obviously reflects, has everything to do with the actual void of substance of what is being talked about to the people that need to be motivated to get out and vote, and I’m not saying that elections are the savior. That’s not the thing that’s, I’m not trying to say elections are the value, I’m saying, but even what’s going to get people out in streets? What’s going to get people as part of coalition’s as part of movements, right?

Adam: Part of union strikes.

Nima: Right, exactly, as part of unions, what is being talked about? And I think it’s some, you know, something we talk about on the show all the time, is the bankruptcy of so much of liberal, even often progressive, posture, right? Policies.

Adam: Yeah, there’s a lot of consultancy speak, a lot of nonprofit speak, a lot of abstract or difficult concepts. It’s not, you know — not that I’m mister, you know, suspender-wearing country lawyer, I delve in many of those indulgences as well — but it is true that steering away from the language of morality, I think you do that a great cost, because I think human beings are just fundamentally, we need narratives, we need moral narratives to sort of understand the world and understand why I would wake up at, you know, eight o’clock in the morning on a Tuesday in the middle of November and go vote or why I would take the risk of going on strike at the local John Deere plant.

John Deere employees picket in Davenport, Iowa, in October. (Quad City Times via AP / Meg McLaughlin)

Nima: Or why would it matter to you that in your name, or people you know, are controlling drones or flying planes or invading countries, right? So it’s this gap that I think allows these fucking hucksters like Josh Hawley, or J.D. Vance to just come in and fill this nothingness that, I think, you know, the kind of big “D” Democratic, liberal side, just doesn’t say anything about, there is nothing that is being talked about.

Adam: I mean, but it’s filled with just nastiness. You know, I don’t want to play up the whole dark and light side, this isn’t Star Wars, but like, you go through J.D. Vance’s media feed, you go through his Twitter feeds, you go through his bookings on cable, and we talked about him a lot, but this is true of a lot of the sort of Trump clones we see popping up now, and it’s just nasty, it’s just mean, it’s talking about Pete Buttigieg not being able to go on paternity leave because he’s gay. It’s just trans this and trans that and it’s obviously all this critical race theory bullshit. It’s about why women who don’t have children shouldn’t be determining, it’s just nasty, it’s just mean, and, again, I think where those voids exist, and, you know, this is someone’s backed $10 million from Peter Thiel, right? This is someone who has unlimited resources to spew the shit, who has a direct phone line to the most popular cable show on network television, this is someone with tremendous media and financial backing, and there’s a cruelty to it that I think emerges when people become disillusioned with politics. When people are disillusioned with politics, they’re going to push themselves away from the so-called elite, they’re going to fill that void with either a message of nastiness or a message of hope to put it in corny ass terms, and I really do believe that.

Nima: Yeah, no, but it’s true. It’s like cruelty, scarcity and fear are so potent, and those narratives are able to be harnessed so well by these charlatans.

Adam: Whereas you know, ‘I’m sorry, the local air conditioning manufacturing plant closed, you need to go back to community college and learn to code and we’ll give you a $500 tax subsidy.’ I mean, that just isn’t going to do it. Whereas the the grand narratives of kind of racial conspiracy theories out to get you are far more compelling and I guess that’s sort of the the thrust of this episode, which is, you know, sort of the counter messaging of it, and it was great to talk to the Reverend Doctor talking about people actually going and trying to have those conversations and convert souls.

Nima: That will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Of course you can follow us on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded. And as always, a very special shout out goes to our critic level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone, we’ll catch you next time.


This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, November 10, 2021.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.