What populism isn’t

WHAT POPULISM ISN’T…. About a week ago, in a rather classic example of why I think the notion of conservative populism is silly on a fundamental level, Glenn Beck urged his followers today to start sending donations directly to corporate interests so the U.S. Chamber of Commerce can buy more elections for far-right candidates. The minions took their orders well — the Chamber’s online donation page crashed after regular folks tried to give their money to the already-extremely-wealthy business lobby.

Dana Milbank fleshes this out today in a little more detail, and explains just how twisted the larger political dynamic really is.

It was one of the more extraordinary events in the annals of American populism: the common man voluntarily giving money to make the rich richer.

These donors to the cause of the Fortune 500 were motivated by a radio appeal from the de facto leader of the Tea Party movement, Glenn Beck, who told them: “Put your money where your mouth is. If you have a dollar, please go to . . . the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and donate today.” Chamber members, he said, “are our parents. They’re our grandparents. They are us.”

They are? Listed as members of the chamber’s board are representatives from Pfizer, ConocoPhillips, Lockheed Martin, JPMorgan Chase, Dow Chemical, Ken Starr’s old law and lobbying firm, and Rolls-Royce North America. Nothing says grass-roots insurgency quite like Rolls-Royce — and nothing says populist revolt quite like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In describing the big-business group as “us,” Beck (annual revenue: $32 million) provided an unintended moment of clarity into the power behind the Tea Party movement. These aren’t peasants with pitchforks; these are plutocrats with payrolls.

Karl Rove recently conceded that the Tea Party crowd just “is not sophisticated,” and I’m inclined to agree. We’re dealing with a group of sincere but deeply confused ideologues who are just ignorant enough to be exploited, shamelessly, by interest groups and corporate lobbyists who’d never be able to earn genuine grassroots support. They’ve found a group of energetic suckers, and they’re manipulating these folks for all their worth.

That Beck stunt was, however, truly extraordinary. The Chamber didn’t even have to lift a finger — a deranged media personality told his audience, many of whom are middle-class and having a tough time in a struggling economy, to start throwing money at one of the nation’s wealthiest lobbying groups. And these folks did as they were told, voluntarily handing over donations to some of the country’s richest corporations.

Why? So these corporations could elect candidates who will, in turn, favor policies that hurt the middle class, undermine workers and consumers, and boost these businesses’ profits.

Better yet, these same Tea Partiers — folks who feel like they’ve been getting screwed by unaccountable, powerful interests — are also rallying behind multi-millionaire candidates this year, who’ll work on issues like eliminating the estate tax for the extremely wealthy.

Milbank concluded, “A movement of the plutocrats, by the political professionals and for the powerful: Now that’s something Tea Partyers should be mad about.”

And maybe if they were, in Rove’s words, more “sophisticated,” they would be. As things stand, I can only assume Republican leaders and their far-right allies spend most of their time laughing hysterically at these zealots, wondering how in the world they managed to find such dupes.