The Tea Party movement, which staged an impressive gathering in Washington last week, has often been celebrated as an outpouring of spontaneous populist rage, with hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans taking to the streets to protest against government meddling in the economy.
In a widely noted recent article in The New Yorker, reporter Jane Mayer calls this populist storyline into question by bringing to light the largely hidden role of Dave and Charles Koch, two brothers whose personal fortune, rooted in the oil industry and manufacturing, puts them in the same league as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.
As hard-core libertarians who oppose most government social policy, the brothers Koch have given tens of millions of dollars over the years to right-wing think tanks and political-action groups. Their largesse has been instrumental in turning the Tea Party movement into a force in U.S. political life. An adviser to Barack Obama has described it as "a grassroots citizens' movement brought to you by a bunch of oil billionaires."
The idea of populist billionaires seems, on its face, absurd. The original U.S. populist movement arose in the late 19th century in opposition to big business, especially banks and railways, to argue for greater communal control of key economic decisions. This is exactly the tradition the Kochs have spent a lifetime fighting, spending a king's ransom.
There are two ways to think about their plutocratic populism. One is to see it simply as a well-executed con game: Using shell organizations and slippery rhetoric, the Kochs have duped many ordinary Americans into thinking that they are fighting powerful vested interests when the result will allow big business to be further entrenched. This is the implicit thinking governing Ms. Mayer's article and there is truth to it.
But it doesn't do justice to the emotional power of the Kochs' pitch. Despite its seeming absurdity, right-wing populism is a brand that has been marketed successfully for nearly 80 years. So we might want to ask why plutocrats have been allowed to style themselves as avatars for the common man and woman.
The original plutocratic populist was William Randolph Hearst, the great pioneer of tabloid journalism whose newspapers were once a byword for sensationalism.
In his youth at the end of the 19th century, Mr. Hearst was a full-throttle supporter of left-wing populism. Amid lurid accounts of murder and sex scandals, his newspapers championed the labour movement and small farmers while sharply attacking big business. He wrote in an 1897 editorial that he believed that "the multitude that are individually helpless against the rapacity of the few could be armed against their despoilers."
Mr. Hearst's politics went through a startling flip-flop in the mid-1930s, partly in response to what he saw as the radicalism of the New Deal, but also because he started to feel financially threatened for the first time in his life. Hard hit by the Depression, he came close to losing his newspaper empire.
Suddenly he saw himself not as the champion of the common people fighting against big business, but as a hard-working property owner who needed to defend his interests against a rapacious government that was overtaxing him.
In moving from left to right, Mr. Hearst held on to the language of populism, simply changing the names of the villains. John Q. Public, the grandfather of Joe the Plumber, was no longer the victim of greedy bankers and gouging corporate monopolists, but rather of the liberal elite, consisting of egg-headed professors, corrupt union bosses and tax-happy demagogues.
Looking back on the Hearst newspapers of the 1930s as well as like-thinking peers such as the Chicago Tribune and Reader's Digest, it is interesting to notice how often they focus on the stories of supposedly persecuted millionaires, rich men whom they portrayed as the victims of a malicious state. In The New Republic in 1934, journalist Richard Neuberger, who would go on to become a U.S. senator, complained about "the current crusade to create martyrs out of millionaires."
These stories of harassed and beleaguered millionaires were echoed in popular culture. In the comic strip Little Orphan Annie, billionaire Daddy Warbucks didn't just have watch over the pupil-less waif, he also had to fend off attacks from envious politicians and malicious do-gooders. Although not published until 1957, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged grew out of the ideological debates of the 1930s and survives as one of the most influential stories of the ill treatment of the overclass.
In her New Yorker article, Ms. Mayer states: "Charles Koch, in a newsletter sent to his 70,000 employees, compared the Obama administration to the regime of the Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez. The Kochs' sense of imperilment is somewhat puzzling. Income inequality in America is greater than it has been since the 1920s, and since the 1970s the tax rates of the wealthiest have fallen more than those of the middle class."
Here, Ms. Mayer comes close to the heart of the matter, but she misses the emotional logic. It is precisely because billionaires such as the Kochs see themselves as beleaguered and threatened - and are able to convince many other people that their country's economic success is under attack - that they are able to mobilize the Tea Party army.
Everyone loves to root for the underdog. The mystifying thing about the success of right-wing populism is the way it can cast even jowly, cigar-chomping plutocrats in the role of David (or rather Dave) fighting the Goliath of big government.
Jeet Heer is a writer based in Regina and Toronto.