Geoff Rips: Louie Gohmert’s Bread and Circuses

(U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert of East Texas accused U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder during testimony of casting “aspersions on my asparagus.” That helps President Obama, says Geoff Rips, but given all the problems the nation and Texas face, this is a sideshow we could do without.)

Molly Ivins used to say Texas was a laboratory for bad government. And she was writing about the good old days when Shrub was a tiny privileged sapling. But Karl Rove swung the door wide on that laboratory, and the demons he’s loosed upon the world cannot be called back.

Look at this mean-spirited Texas lineup. Ty Cobb couldn’t make this hateful team. There’s the governor recruiting gun companies from California to relocate to our trigger-happy shores. While some states pass new gun control laws, the Texas Legislature considers 12 pro-gun bills, including one letting college students carry on campus. Under these rules, the police at Virginia Tech couldn’t apprehend the killer until he shot somebody.

But Rick Perry’s being overshadowed by the next guy up—the junior senator from Canada, Ted Cruz. Joe McCarthy in cowboy boots wearing a red-baiting sneer, governing by innuendo, cynicism oozing from every pore. A champion of the P.T. Barnum school of political practice. In his oratory, the Seven Deadly Sins become the Seven Virtues: Greed becomes Courage; Wrath becomes Justice.

And let’s not forget the power of Stupidity. Lately even Cruz is ceding important media acreage to the Congressman from Texas’ First Congressional District, Louie Gohmert. Here’s the man who during a Congressional hearing this week accused Attorney General Eric Holder of casting “aspersions on my asparagus.”

The Gohmert litany is pretty well known by now. He told us that Muslim terrorists are sending pregnant women to the U.S. to give birth to “terror babies” in order to destroy our country in future years. He said gun control leads to bestiality. He nominated Newt Gingrich to be House Speaker 13 years after Gingrich left Congress. When Sen. John McCain took issue with Gohmert’s declaration that the Muslim Brotherhood was trying to infiltrate the highest levels of government, he called McCain “Numbnuts.” And he was the only vote in Congress to keep the word “lunatic” in federal law dealing with mental illness, prompting “takes one to know one” comments from his colleagues.

Clearly he’s an embarrassment to those with any brains left in Texas, including some in the GOP, and many of his Congressional colleagues. But he’s adored by the Texas Tea Party. And his sideshow is welcomed into the big tent by the Obama administration. How better to make the government confiscation of AP phone records appear to be a trivial matter than to have Louie Gohmert denounce it in front of news cameras in the same way he alerted the press to “terror babies?” He becomes the Administration’s useful fool. But he’s also a useful distraction for those benefiting from increasing income inequality.

Louie Gohmert’s sideshow is probably welcomed into the big tent by the Obama administration.

Now for those readers fortunate enough to not be held hostage by the current politics in our benighted state, you must wonder how Texas is able to produce these hate-mongers and launch them into the wider political universe. Does Louie Gohmert get elected and re-elected by a Congressional district that never learned to turn on a light switch? Well, he does represent deep East Texas, home to murderous 1950s Night Riders and to chicken plants that depend on undocumented workers while supporting harsh immigration laws so they can turn their workers over to ICE when they ask for fair pay.

But this is also the bedrock of what was once Texas populism. The first district was represented for 47 years (until 1976) by the distinguished progressive Congressman Wright Patman, a New Deal Democrat who railed against the power of banks. Progressive Democratic Senator Ralph Yarborough and former House Speaker Sam Rayburn, also a New Deal backer and longest serving Speaker in U.S. history, came from the same East Texas woods.

The populist political momentum nurtured in the New Deal and supported by an electorate who believed in government has been replaced by a politics run by oil and finance industries. That’s who populates Gohmert’s contributor list while the average household income in his district is less than $50,000.

It is the growing class divide experienced across this nation, but in extremis. Racism, including fear of the growing Hispanic plurality, the absence of regulation of major industries—oil, finance, you name it—has created a race to institutionalize privilege in Texas before it’s too late.

At this point, the race isn’t even close.

We’re getting bread and circuses that Juvenal decried during the decline of the Roman republic. Only we’re not even getting the bread.

So we have Gohmert, Cruz and Perry with no one reining them in. The Koch brothers, the finance industry, the fracking oil industry, and the NRA are feeding the frenzy and helping finance their appearance on the larger stage. As former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower has said, “If ignorance is bliss, these people must be ecstatic.”

And they are.

We have some kind of dogged faith in this country that Texas and this nation will come to their senses. Bloviated politicians will meet their Edward R. Murrows. The growing Hispanic majority will overwhelm the power of money in Texas. The Tea Party will be thrown overboard. The welfare of the poor and the struggling middle class will become the primary goal of public policy and budgetary action. Global warming will be reversed. Institutionalized greed will be undone.

But we’re getting the bread and circuses that Roman poet Juvenal decried during the decline of the Roman republic. Only we’re not even getting the bread. With the rapid redistribution of wealth and power to the upper echelons, there is no guarantee that the clowns will pile back into the clown car and drive away.

 

Geoff Rips, a former editor of the Texas Observer, is a Special Correspondent for The Washington Spectator.