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The Taco Belletrists
by Tat Maibbi

Among the crumpled paper taco wrappers and flattened packets of sauce, amidst the grease-stained napkins and tables sticky with spilt Mt. Dew, a new brand of corporate-minded laissez-faire writers whose aesthetic sensibilities and right-wing politics have combined to create a Safire-rific literary movement that is busily revitalizing the deflated intellectual bubble of American conservatism.

These men—and they are almost exclusively men—have resisted but not shaken this moniker: the Taco Belletrists, considered accurate because of their preference for corporate hangouts over small, local joints. They purposefully choose processed fare shipped in from the warehouse over locivorous organics. This is by design: “Our choice of meeting place is a statement,” notes D'nosh D' Salza, one of the group's luminaries and a primary spokesman. “No flaccid lettuce or over-flavored namby-pamby heirloom tomatoes for us—we support America's god-given right to high-fat, low-nutrition food flown in from a safe and secure central factory and grown by workers who know their place. I mean, can you really trust garnishes grown in cow poo over ones grown in chemicals? At least here we know what we're getting,” D'Salza explains as he motions over the plastic benches and cluttered menu board. He pauses as if reflecting, “We even have discussions about how horribly the cows died as they were rendered into ground beef. We feel it somehow, well, enhances the experience.”

As unlikely as all this might seem to the mildly left-coast liberal set, to appreciate it, one must understand the intellectual ferment of movement conservatism over the last few decades. As the brilliance of William F. Buckley and William Safire began to fade and was drowned out by explosive lightshows of Limbaugh and Hannity and Beck, conservatives who have aspirations towards expressions beyond nonsensical bombast have been bereft of significant beacons. Beginning with a modest $20 million grant from the Center for Responsive and Enterprising Entrepreneurship and Patriotism (CREEP), which is funded in part by billionaire brothers Chaz and Davey Kroch, small groups of young libertarian literati began organizing impromptu salons at the nation's fast-food joints. From their beginnings at a Plano, Texas, Burger King, these groups are part meetings of 18th century philosophes and part writing workshops, with participants sharing essays and short fiction and, rarely, poetry (there are strictures against free verse in most Taco Belletrist charters).

At a recent meeting at a Taco Bell in Fairfax, Virginia, shared work as varied as “Nattering Neighborhood Organizations of (N)Obamaism,” “Legitimation Station: Feminism as Violation of Patriarchal Individualism” and “Voter Id: Conspiratorial Counterrevolution as Counter-Evolutionary Psychology.” The atmosphere was collegial—almost fraternity-like, but without the bacchanality, a sort of wild nerdishness fueled by Dr. Pepper and Baja Blast. These are the guys for whom The Fountainhead was 4th grade reading, who have moved on to wading through Adam Smith and St. Aquinas. The writing itself, as they regaled one another with excerpts, evinced a studied sort of elegance, a cerebral reformulation of the status-quo:

Our living arrangements were vaguely communitarian; community organizing was, apparently, about the art of capitulation: no loud noises after 10:00 p.m., no sexist language, quinoa should always be available in the pantry for the vegans. The time we spent actually organizing, on the dime of a hefty federal grant, was actually quite limited: 6 hours a day on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. The rest of the time was spent on paperwork, playing Frisbee golf, and for most of my compatriots, banging away at those white Macs so ubiquitous among the hipster set in those dark days prior to the advent of the iPad.

Every day I could feel myself growing weaker, my will-to-power and self-service atrophying to nearly nothing.

I will here admit a tiny temptation to succumb, to slide disastrously into bleeding-heart lassitude. But leading to what? Empty-headed essays in the Chomsky style? A fixie and a porkpie hat? Changing my major from business administration to art history? In a panic I called the pater familias, an executive at the local branch of a major petrochemical manufacturer. “Hello, Dad? For goodness' sake, let's go hunting!”

The preceding was delivered by a well-scrubbed young man in tan Dockers and a polo shirt. His loafers shone in the halogen light. Later, we made introductions. Andrew Bratbite, author of “Nattering Neighborhood Organizations of (N)Obamaism,” had spent a year as part of a community organizing crew practicing a right-wing version of “gonzo” journalism. “It was mind-blowing,” he recalled, “Fixies, facial hair, cardigans, Fall-Out Boy—neighborhood organizers live in complete cesspools of self-indulgent socialism.” When asked what brought him to writing instead of the almost ubiquitous YouTube uploads, Bratbite recounted a transformative experience with a fifth of Chivas Regal, a tin of caviar, and George Will's book on baseball. “I realized in one shining moment that good writing was not merely a tool of the Steinbecks and the Upton Sinclairs; it could serve the conservative cause as well. After that, I was committed.”

Bratbite Googled “conservative writing group” and up came a link to CREEP's home page—and its funding stream. “First hit,” he said. Inspired by an entrepreneurial spirit he claims he inherited from “a long line of job-creators,” he “jumped all over it,” starting the Fairfax chapter and organizing it flash-mob style through Facebook and Twitter. “The group's membership doubled overnight, then doubled again the next day. We had to open up a new chapter after the first six weeks.” He paused, looking wistful, his high-and-tight haircut offsetting a prominent brow. “There's a real hunger out there for a final, aesthetic solution to the liberal problem in America today.”

Mustang, Oklahoma, would seem an odd spot for a hopping little writer's colony, but that is exactly what CREEP's dollars have wrought in a tiny, disused-and-now-converted tin shed just off Route 4. Here, crude cowboy poetry has been replaced by heroic couplets based on the career of Francis Fukuyama and folksy sayings about cattle and rough weather have been supplanted by sensitive essays on the erstwhile exciting world of oilfield wildcatting rendered tame by coming from a boardroom point-of-view.

Bob-Lynn Brooks, blue-blazered and perfectly coiffed, took the mic at a recent reading and delivered a narrative he called “The Beauty of the Tranche: Collateralizing Debt Obligations as an Expression of Game Theory—Honing the Competitive Edge.” You can think of it as a sort of jargon-laden mashup of the Wall Street Journal editorial page and Game of Thrones: lots of spilled red ink between bouts of furtive bedding.

Brooks claims the story as his own, and the evil regulators are drawn as surprisingly complex—except when they're viewed as sex objects, of course.

A slavish commitment to reality notwithstanding, Brooks' attempts at something beyond rude caricature is indicative of how the Taco Bellestrists operate. If these writers' ideological loyalties are clear, so are their literary ambitions. But one wonders how “belle” their letters can be to the half of the population who consistently get out to vote the other way. Would they feel a bit manipulated by sweeping vistas, hot love scenes, and florid eloquence that contained within them the hard-hearted mentality of America's free-market class? Take, for example, this:

The course exuded the heady scent of chemical fertilizer, intoxicating us as we teed up, and seeming to buoy up the balls as we thwacked them aloft. Beyond, on the Interstate, a rusty pickup broke down, belching steam. God's clockwork ticked on, infusing the righteousness of this course, too, with the breath of heaven: from our bright green, the truck, its pudgy, brown owner now poking his head beneath the hood, showed that all was Right with the world: our golf the reward for all our hard work, his struggle his burden of being born to an inferior class, incapable of even the simplest maintenance. “This,” the Lord seemed to be saying, “is why those people cannot have nice stuff.”

The heaven here described seems to shine with quite a cold light. The author of this work, Raul Payan, tacitly Castillian and properly Cuban-American, sees the Taco Belletrists as literally doing the work of God, of telling what he sees as the Good News to rich and to poor alike: “This point of view is nothing we just made up,” he contends, “but the divine order of things. We thrive because of our superior industry and are blessed; their poverty is a clear indication of their iniquity—no matter how carefully they try to hide it.”

It's doubtless that not all Taco Belletrists believe their work to be a recapitulation of the Great Chain of Being. Mostly they are more mainstream conservative. But it's easy to wonder what the implications of such a literary movement may be. Will the already splintered world of fine writing be further rent between the left and right? Will such movements manage to save the nation's conservatives from their recent forays into Tea Party idiocy? Will any of these groups survive when the money that funds them fades into the inevitable twilight of efficiency?

As I left the meeting in Mustang, I noticed one of the group's members entering data into a spreadsheet. “It's for our funder,” he explained. “They want to gather data—metrics that measure the overall effectiveness of the group. Our people want an ROI.”

I asked the young man, who asked not to be named, if the information-gathering would be tied to whether or not the group would continue to get CREEP money. He was silent for a while, looking tired, and said, “I guess even art has to pull its weight. If the market speaks ill against us, who are we to argue?”