Remember when Chuck Norris was a harmless list of absurdist statements that your roommate read aloud to you from his laptop in 2006, and then your dad emailed to you yesterday? Well, he’s a real person now, and that person is completely, totally, scrambling-naked-out-of-the-shower-to-chase-his-marbles-across-the-kitchen-floor-during-your-dinner-party insane. Chuck Norris has a regular column over at Townhall.com, and he’s using it to push his agenda of radical socialism inspired by Fourier and inflected—nah, I’m just messing with you. All he cares about is taxes, guns and making sure everybody prays.
That’s a little reductive, I guess. As his most recent column indicates, Chuck Norris is deeply concerned about the “tyranny and oppression” inflicted upon us by our elected representatives, and he thinks that we should stop using the contemporary American flag. Instead, he urges his readers to fly the thirteen-star Betsy Ross flag, the Navy Jack, or the Gadsden flag,* all of which represent the stronger, better United States that existed before states stopped printing their own money or black people were allowed to vote. By flying one of those flags, you’ll show your neighbors that you stand with the Founding Fathers’ vision of America. “Of course,” Norris acknowledges, “patriots know that the 50-star flag truly represents one nation under God and our Founders’ republic, but modernists simply don’t get it.”
By “modernists,” I assume he means Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso, but that’s not important right now. The Patriots/Modernist dichotomy Norris sets up captures nicely the spirit behind Glenn Beck’s 9/12 Movement, Fox News’s Tea Party protests, Dick Armey’s Town Hall disruptions, and the larger, possibly fake, possibly real groundswell that I’m going to call Reactionary Populism. Norris, like Beck and anyone else likely to be found standing next to Griff Jenkins, is deeply concerned with the degree to which the United States has moved away from the year 1789. He quotes liberally (if you’ll pardon the term) from George Washington, John Adams and Patrick Henry, none of whom lived long enough to see the invention of the federal income tax or the limited liability corporation. Somewhat confusingly, Norris asserts that Reactionary Populism is a “nonpolitical” movement, despite the fact that it is primarily concerned with the workings of the US government. Instead, he says, “It represents patriots who are fed up against modernists who seek to overturn almost every principle and tenet laid down by our country’s Founding Fathers at the inception of our republic.”
It is in that quote that we find the elusive political platform of Reactionary Populism, which is often frustratingly against many things (Obama, taxes, spending, gun control, health care, existence of federal government, cancellation of The Golden Girls, women) and for very few (flags, God.) Basically, Reactionary Populism is in favor of everything covered in the first three weeks of your ninth-grade American History class, and against what came after. The George Washington quotation Norris counterposes against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, is from his Farewell Address in 1796. The chronologically latest quote Norris cites in his column is from 1816, when the United States was a preindustrial nation where men who did not own land weren’t allowed to vote, slavery was legal, and California was part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain.
The reactionary part of Reactionary Populism is baffling in its degree, but it makes sense in light of the Populism part. The distinguishing feature, historiographically speaking, of Norris’s beloved post-Revolutionary era is that it’s easy to understand. You’ve got your Constitution, your dozen or so Founders, your $8.7 million federal budget, and that’s about it. Once you’ve read Washington’s Farewell Address and Jefferson’s various libertarian screeds, you pretty much have all the historical viewpoints you need. The political concerns of a country with no public schools** and seven million people were comparatively narrow, which explains the startling redundancy of the Reactionary Populist critique. Consider some of Norris’s lists of problems with the current state of the nation:
“Outrageous borrowing, excessive bailouts, massive spending, speedball stimulus plans, universal hell care and swings toward socialism are just a few of the things that were protested [on September 12th.]”
“We’ve bastardized the First Amendment, reinterpreted America’s religious history, denied our Christian heritage, and secularized our society, and now we ooze skepticism and circumvent religion on every level of public and private life.”
Wait—he’s against borrowing, spending, bailouts and the stimulus plan? And in addition to reinterpreting our religious history, we’ve also denied our Christian heritage? I had no idea the American crisis was so, you know, two-thinged. The RP complaint is essentially that 1) taxes are too high and 2) church attendance is too low. You can throw in guns and some vague threat of socialism, but basically you’ve got a political platform that can be fully understood in the time it takes you to gas up your Tahoe. This simplicity is a big part of Reactionary Populism’s appeal. The signature feature of most of our present political problems is that they’re extraordinarily complex—so complex, in fact, that the majority of normal Americans with full-time jobs do not have time to understand them. H.R. 3200, for example, is 1,000 pages long and takes fifteen hours to read aloud. By comparison, you can skim through the Constitution in about 40 minutes. Why read one when you can just go to your local rec center and bludgeon Barney Frank with the other?
Somewhere in that calculus of understanding lies the true appeal of Reactionary Populism. By applying the political principles of men who didn’t live to see the steam engine to an era in which nuclear weapon specs can be found on the internet, RP creates the comforting illusion that we live in simple times. “What I loved about the 9/12 idea is that it was a nonpolitical, nonpartisan movement,” Norris writes. “[On] Sept. 12, 2001…we were not concerned then with red states, blue states or political parties. We were united as Americans, standing together to protect our nation.” The day after September 11th, the primary obligation of the US government seemed totally clear: prevent ultra-religious hillbillies from flying planes into buildings. It was as if things like road maintenance and debt-to-liquidity ratios and maintaining a favorable balance of trade while ensuring that corporate interests did not over-consume natural resources in a way that hobbled future growth didn’t exist. On September 12th, anyone could understand policy just as well as the President of the United States.
That was an illusion, of course. America’s problems will continue to threaten us whether we’re aware of their existence of not, and Reactionary Populism is an expression of nostalgia more than a valid political movement. It’s like wishing you could still move to Wyoming and hunt buffalo for a living. You can’t, and blaming the disappearance of the American buffalo hunter lifestyle on the federal government of 2009 is stupid. Mourn the extinction of the original America if you want to, but don’t pretend that we could all load up with buck knives and rifles and wander out onto the high plains instead. There is nothing out there to eat.
* You know, the yellow one with with the snake that says “Don’t tread on me” and looks like it was designed by a child. If you were an eighteenth-century British person, would you be worried after seeing that flag?
** Okay, Massachusetts. This is what happens when your blog is likely to be read by James Erwin.