An appropriate metaphor for the conservative revival is the classic switcheroo, with one fear replacing another, theoretical emergencies substituting for authentic ones, and a new villain shuffling onstage to absorb the brickbats meant for another. The conservative renaissance rewrites history according to the political demands of the moment, generates thick smokescreens of deliberate bewilderment, grabs for itself the nobility of the common toiler, and projects onto its rivals the arrogance of the aristocrat. Nor is this constant redirection of public ire a characteristic the movement developed as it went along; it was present at the creation. Indeed, redirection was the creation.
The call that awakened the rebellion came not from some itinerant IWW organizer but from a TV “rant” delivered on February 19, 2009, by one Rick Santelli, a business reporter standing on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade— a reporter ranting, let us be clear, not against the traders who surrounded him but on their behalf. In retrospect, there would be few better examples of the spirit of inversion that drives the conservative revival.
Rick Santelli had criticized many aspects of the bank bailouts over the preceding months, but on that day in February when he had the ear of the nation, the part of the TARP that drew his disgust was, significantly, the element designed to help homeowners modify the terms of certain underwater mortgages, making payments more affordable and thus preventing foreclosures. It was the only part of TARP that was intended to directly benefit individual borrowers rather than institutional players, and thus it was supposed to help make the program popular. Instead, it brought down the wrath of this man Santelli, who found it inconceivable that such an initiative was even under consideration. “This is America!” he yelled, working himself into a rage.
And in Santelli’s trading-floor “America,” such a program was “promoting bad behavior,” “subsidiz[ing] the losers’ mortgages” with public money that, were it directed to society’s winners, would presumably be spent on better, shinier things. Santelli’s outrage at these “losers” was inexhaustible, incandescent. They “drink the water” while others “carry the water.” Raising his arms and turning to his friends, the Chicago traders, he asked, “How many people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?
Boo, went the traders: Down with neighbors! To hell with their extra bathrooms, their arrogant water-drinking, their hard luck.
The next step, should government proceed along the mortgage-modifying paths of tyranny, the reporter reported, would be communist Cuba. But before Big Brother clapped us in statist irons, he’d have to deal with Rick Santelli, friend of the trader and scourge of the thirsty. Santelli was going to defy the Obama administration with a “Chicago Tea Party,” and he invited “all you capitalists.”