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TRB: Mad Men

Before last week, few of us had ever heard of Rick Santelli--despite Santelli’s best efforts--and fewer still had any particular affection for him. Santelli is a CNBC TV personality whose most distinctive assets are a near-continuous state of agitation and a Billy Mays-like ability to project his voice, drowning out other shouting heads with ease. His persona is meant to make you pay attention to him, not to love him. But, in one short outburst last week, Santelli made himself the latest darling of the right.

Santelli was reporting--or shouting, anyway--from the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade when he began to denounce the Obama administration’s foreclosure-prevention and economic stimulus plans. Santelli announced that Americans do not want to “subsidize the losers’ mortgages,” a sentiment to which traders standing nearby, within camera shot, wholeheartedly agreed. Santelli kept going. “These guys are pretty straightforward,” he said, gesturing around him, “and my guess is, a pretty good statistical cross-section of America, the silent majority.” By the end of his disquisition, Santelli had announced a “Chicago Tea Party” of disgruntled arch-capitalists to be held in July.

The Santelli rant instantly made him a right-wing hero. His video went viral, and Dickensian news aggregator Matt Drudge labeled it “The Rant Heard Round The World,” featuring it in a screaming all-red headline. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs felt obliged to rebut Santelli (while, characteristically, inviting him for coffee). National Review online editor Kathryn Jean Lopez raved, “The reaction to Rick Santelli’s Chicago-trading-floor incident this morning echoes the emotional reaction my inbox had to Sarah Palin’s convention speech this summer.”

Lopez called the phenomenon “deja vu.” She’s right. As George W. Bush has passed from the scene, figures like Santelli and Palin seem to be arising with increasing frequency. Bush endeared himself to conservatives by projecting the sense that he, and therefore they, represented the authentic America. The 2000 election, which Bush won by a mere negative 0.5 percent of the popular vote, made the task of majoritarian mythmaking a complicated one, and conservatives threw themselves into it with gusto. The endless invocations of coastal elites versus regular folks made it seem as if Bush had won a sweeping majority. September 11 and the 2004 elections made it easier to imagine their folksy president as the incarnation of middle America.

The collapse of the Bush presidency, however, left conservatives without a powerful symbol of their connection to the heartland--a void promptly filled by Palin. When her famous Katie Couric interview exposed Palin’s unpreparedness, this simply constituted further proof of liberal alienation from real America. “Those Washington elite,” Palin remarked, “don’t like the idea of just an everyday working-class American running for such an office.” It’s true, we don’t. On the other hand, we don’t like the idea of an everyday upper-class American potentially assuming the presidency, either. Our ideal president would know much more about public policy than an everyday American of any social class.

The emergence of Samuel “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher took the premise of Palin’s candidacy to the next logical step. He represented a more concentrated form of the same basic type--Plumb and Plumber. In both cases, conservatives held up liberal antagonism toward their chosen working-class hero as evidence of liberal antagonism to their class writ large. In the current issue of Commentary, Yuval Levin writes that Palin’s critics “see lower-middle-class populists like Palin and their supporters [emphasis mine] as profoundly ill-suited for governance, because they lack the accoutrements required for its employment.” So now we’re snobs unless we accept not only Palin’s credentials for national office but her supporters as well? That’s tens of millions of people.

CNBC’s Santelli represents a slight variation on the form. While he has a regional accent, signifying a working-class background, he puts himself forward more as a spokesman for the working class than as a representative member. But he has excited the same basic conservative erogenous zone.

Certainly, any number of commentators have denounced Obama’s program in more coherent terms. In a later interview, Santelli demanded that the government help the 92 percent of “responsible” homeowners who don’t have trouble paying their mortgage, rather than the “losers” who do. “I think the administration needs to help everybody, so they don’t disenfranchise the confidence of the 92 percent. Send everybody a check,” he shouted. On the other hand, he denounced the program as unaffordable: “There’s a lot of zeroes and trillions of dollars. Aren’t you worried about your kids and your grandkids?”

If the government can’t afford to help out the 8 percent of strapped homeowners, how can it afford to (let alone why should it) mail a check to the other 92 percent? Santelli did not say. At one point he expressed both, utterly contradictory, notions in consecutive sentences: “Maybe everybody ought to get a check. I think that we need to be more equitable in the money we’re spending that we really don’t have.” We don’t have the money to spend, so let’s spend more of it. Brilliant.

In a follow-up interview, Santelli described himself as an “Ayn Rander.” This certainly explains his distinction between those who “carry the water” and those who “drink the water”--he sees all victims of economic misfortune as inherently parasitic. I’d like to see Republicans try running on that philosophy during a recession.

The only thing that separated Santelli’s rant from any other similar outburst that could be found on Fox News or talk radio was that it seemed to represent the vox populi. Santelli was not previously known as a right-wing ideologue--mainly because he was not known for much of anything--so he came across as a fed-up investor, just as Wurzelbacher initially cast himself as an undecided voter skeptical of progressive taxation. And Santelli was surrounded by actual people who dug his message, people he described (absurdly) as a representative sample of American opinion. His rant thus appeared like a genuine expression of popular revolt.

In fact, both Obama and his housing plan remain wildly popular (the latter by a 30-point margin in the latest Washington Post poll.) But that popularity is what makes the populist illusion conjured by the Wurzelbachers and the Santellis all the more necessary.

Jonathan Chait is a senior editor of The New Republic.