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At the Tea Party

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Melina Mara/The Washington Post/
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Tania Ashe, a member of Team Sarah from Orlando, Florida, carrying a poster of Sarah Palin at the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville, Tennessee, February 4, 2010

People who watched the Tea Party Convention in Nashville on television in early February saw and heard an angry crowd, unanimous in its acclaim for every speaker. Standing ovation followed standing ovation, the fiery crackle of applause was nearly continuous, and so were the whistles, whoops, and yells, the Yeahs!, Rights!, and cries of “USA! USA!” Inside the Tennessee Ballroom of the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, it was rather different: what struck me was how many remained seated through the ovations, how many failed to clap, how many muttered quietly into the ears of their neighbors while others around them rose to their feet and hollered.

It wasn’t until the last night of the event, when Sarah Palin came on stage, that the Tea Party movement, a loose congeries of unlike minds, found unity in its contempt for Barack Obama, its loathing of the growing deficit as “generational theft,” its demands for “fiscal responsibility,” lower taxes, smaller government, states’ rights, and a vastly more aggressive national security policy. “Run, Sarah, Run!” everyone chanted, though if Palin could have seen inside the heads of the 1,100 people at the banquet, she might have felt a pang of disquiet at the factional and heterogeneous character of the army whose love and loyalty she currently inspires.

I went to Nashville not as an accredited reporter but as a recently joined member of Tea Party Nation. (I had my own quarrels with big government, especially on the matter of mass surveillance, warrantless wiretapping, and the rest, and I counted on my libertarian streak to give me sufficient common ground with my fellow tea partiers.) When I presented my Washington State driver’s license at the registration desk, the volunteer said, “Thank you for coming all this way to help save our country,” then, looking at the license more closely, “Seattle—you got a lot of liberals there.” I accepted his condolences.

As we milled around in the convention center lobby, we might easily have been mistaken for passengers on a cruise ship. We belonged to a similar demographic: most—though by no means all—of us had qualified for membership of AARP a good while ago; 99.5 percent of us were white; in general, smart leisurewear was our preferred style of dress. (The TV cameras made far too much of the handful of exhibitionists in powdered white pigtail wigs and tricorn hats, and of the peculiar, bug-eyed gentleman from Georgia, who was sometimes costumed as an eighteenth-century American revolutionary, sometimes as a kilted Highland chieftain, his copper tea kettle lashed to both outfits, and spoke to his many interviewers in a hokey and ponderous English accent.) Few of us would see much change from the $1,500–$2,000 we’d spent on travel to Nashville, the $558.95 convention fee with service charge, a room at the hotel, and a couple of drinks at the hotel bars, where a glass of the cheapest wine or whisky cost $12. Seen as a group, we were, I thought, a shade too prosperous, too amiably chatty and mild-mannered, to pass as the voice of the enraged grassroots.

I asked one woman whether she’d been part of “9/12,” as tea partiers call the great taxpayer march on Washington, D.C., last September. No, she’d missed it, she said, and “felt really guilty” about doing so, but she and her husband had been on vacation.

Where did you go?”

We spent a week in Amalfi, then we toured Tuscany, then we spent a week in Rome.”

Another woman, hearing my accent, told me about her and her partner’s second home in Torquay, England, which they visited three times a year from their base in Atlanta, and about their thirty-five-foot powerboat, in which they’d crossed the Channel to Le Havre and cruised down the French canals to Marseilles.

Most of us were political novices. When we were asked how many attendees had never been involved in politics before joining the Tea Party movement, roughly four out of every five people raised their hands. On the outside balcony where the smokers gathered, I was joined at a table by an intense, wiry, close-cropped, redheaded woman from southern Virginia who dated her conversion to hearing Sarah Palin for the first time.

She was me! She’s so down-to-earth! If Sarah was sitting here with us now, she’d be just a normal person like you and me. You could say anything to her. She’s not like a politician—she’s real. And Sarah always keeps her word. If Sarah promises something, you know she’ll do it. She’s just amazing.”

Before Sarah, the woman said, her interest in politics had been limited to voting in general elections. Her one big involvement was with her church. Now she was traveling around the country on behalf of Team Sarah and Conservative Moms for America, a fundamentalist group whose “Conservative Moms Pledge” begins with a quote from the first epistle of Saint Peter:

Wives, likewise, be submissive to your own husbands, that even if some do not obey the word, they, without a word, may be won by the conduct of their wives, when they observe your chaste conduct accompanied by fear.

In the last year, she’d marched on 9/12, gone to CPAC—the Conservative Political Action Conference—and attended a string of acronymic events, which she recited to me. Soon she’d be off to New Orleans for the Southern Republican Leadership Conference.

Lighting her second cigarette in ten minutes, she talked about missing her family on these political jaunts. After their own children were grown, she and her husband had adopted two infant daughters, now aged six and nine. The girls were the light of their sixty-ish lives. One was autistic, the other severely developmentally disabled: her birth mother was an “alcoholic” and a “drug addict,” and the baby had suffered a series of strokes in the delivery room, where her heart had twice stopped beating.

The hospital said they doubted if she was salvageable. Salvageable! Imagine talking about a human life as ‘salvageable’! You see why I love Sarah? We have so much in common.” She rattled on about her girls’ accomplishments—how nearly normal they were, how happy, how responsive to the warm climate of affection in which they now lived. “Here, I’ll show you….” She found her cell phone in her bag and treated me to a slide show of family photos: her husband, a heavily built man in plaid shirt and jeans, playing with their daughters in a well-kept backyard. She hadn’t bothered to mention that both girls were black.

Her crowded freshman year in politics made her a veteran by comparison with most people I met, whose experience was limited to membership of a local Tea Party group and attendance at rallies, in which everyone seemed to have found a mirror of his or her own temperament and character. A dour man from Hilton Head, South Carolina, said of the 9/12 march, “You didn’t see one person—not one!—with an adult beverage, and when we left the Mall there wasn’t a single cigarette butt on the ground.” He eyed me, no doubt scenting these vices on my own clothes and breath. “And they call us a bunch of radicals.”

Although much of the convention was designed to stoke our wrath at the iniquities of the Obama administration, its less reported half was meant to teach us how to take our first baby steps in the new world of politics. One session I attended, on “How to Organize a Tea Party Group,” nicely reflected both the innocence and the age of so many of the conventioneers. The speaker, Lori Christenson, was a retired corporate trainer from Evergreen, Colorado, a small, wealthy, lakeside town in the foothills of the Rockies, thirty miles west of Denver. Her PowerPoint presentation was a handy vade mecum of hints and tips for absolute beginners. How to open an account at Meetup.com. How to name your group. Why alliterative phrases like “Tea Party Tuesdays” or “Tea Party Thursdays” work better than other days of the week, because they are more easily remembered by older people. Why school gyms are to be avoided as meeting places (the elderly will have difficulty climbing the risers). Ms. Christenson advised against using churches because too many people associated the movement with the Christian right; she suggested booking a room at the local public library as a more neutral territory. If you set up a card table outside a grocery store to recruit new members, you must remember to call yourself a “community group,” not a political one. Everybody was nodding and taking notes.

She took us through the ins and outs of 501(c)3s and 527s, and for-profits versus nonprofits. She told us how to make fliers and hide them inside “conservative” library books, like those of Glenn Beck, and put them on the windshields of cars with old McCain-Palin bumper stickers. With a note of plaintiveness that I heard often at the convention, she said, “We’ve got to work on the youth.”

At question time, someone stood up to say, “We did Obama Bingo at the State of the Union address—did you guys do that?” Good idea, said Ms. Christenson. Someone else suggested entering floats in town parades, so that members could sing patriotic songs from them. It was a restful hour, like being back in nursery school.

We said prayers, recited the Pledge of Allegiance (with the words “under God” pronounced as if they were underlined and in bold type), and clapped in time with the beat of country music. Lisa Mei Norton, a former Air Force senior master sergeant, sang, “The shining light, on the right, the left just doesn’t get,/Sar—ah Palin for change you won’t regret….” It would have taken a finely calibrated stopwatch to measure how very rapidly such folksy piety and patriotism could swivel into crude nativism, conspiracy theory, and xenophobia—and to measure, too, the dawning discomfort at this switch of tone registered by a sizable part of the audience.

The first night’s speaker, Tom Tancredo, ex-congressman from Colorado and no-hope presidential candidate in 2008, gave a taste of what was to come as he warmed up the audience with a show of self-deprecating, clownish good humor. He told stories—some of them extremely tall, as when he described visiting a new high school in the richest Denver suburb, where the students all drove new BMWs and, on Monday mornings, were fresh from skiing weekends in Vail. He had, he said, picked up their textbook on American history, whose first sentence was—“and this is exactly what it said”—Columbus came to America and ruined Paradise. Shaking his head, he repeated the sentence, which I took to be a fantastic, garbled invention, loosely inspired by Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. But we were still in the realm of good, relatively clean, political fun.

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EPA
William Temple (left) and Jim Linn (right), dressed as the revolutionaries Button Gwinnett and Samuel Adams, at the National Tea Party Convention, Nashville, February 6, 2010

The drollery vanished as he climbed aboard his old anti-immigration hobby horse. “The revolution has come. It was led by the cult of multiculturalism, aided by leftist liberals all over, who don’t have the same ideas about America as we do.” Since George H.W. Bush’s administration, RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) had been conspiring with Democrats to boil us like frogs in the “cauldron of the nanny state.” “Then something really odd happened,” Tancredo said, “mostly because, I think, we do not have a civics literacy test before people can vote in this country. People who could not spell the word ‘vote,’ or say it in English, put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House. His name is Barack Hussein Obama.”

Though a ripple of cheers and applause spread through the ballroom, I was taking my cue from a middle-aged couple sitting immediately in front of me. When they clapped, I clapped. When they rose to their feet, I did too. Now they exchanged a hard-to-read glance and their hands stayed in their laps.

My guess was that few in the room were offended by the association of the “literacy test” with the Jim Crow laws, though some may have been. But everyone I’d met so far was in a position to know immigrants, legal and otherwise; they employed them in their houses and businesses, to look after their children and work on their yards. The idea that Maria and Luis, or Tatyana and Dmitri, had somehow subverted the political system to bring about Obama’s election struck them as insulting and absurd.

Something very similar happened the next night, when Joseph Farah, the author and impresario of the right-wing news site WorldNetDaily, took to the stage. Farah, self-consciously handsome, with his swept-back gray hair and bootblack chevron mustache, spoke in that tone of patient, inexorable, commonsensical logic that seems equally distributed between long-tenured professors and certified lunatics. He took us on a quasi-scholarly tour of the first chapter of Saint Matthew’s gospel, where Christ’s genealogy is traced from the patriarch, Abraham, down through many generations to “Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ,” then invited us to compare Jesus’ unassailable ancestry with Obama’s dubious family tree. “I have a dream,” Farah said. “And my dream is that if Barack Obama even seeks reelection as president in 2012, he won’t be able to go to any city, any town, any hamlet in America without seeing signs that ask, ‘Where’s the Birth Certificate?’” Again, I saw as many glum and unresponsive faces in the crowd as people standing up to cheer.

Having established Obama as a Kenyan imposter, Farah went on to explain how his administration is using 1960s Marxist theory to bring about the destruction of the “American free-enterprise system.” The President and his red henchmen are employing the “Cloward-Piven strategy”1 —“turning make-believe crises into real crises” to paralyze capitalism, as, for instance, when they manufactured crises and bailouts, like those of the banks, AIG, and the auto industry. Farah seemed untroubled by the implication that, since these crises and bailouts dated back to September 2008 and before, George W. Bush must have been in on the plot too. Proof of his argument, Farah said, had come when Rahm Emanuel inadvertently let drop the secret of this master plan by saying, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” This was Cloward-Piven strategy, succinctly stated. “It is the only paradigm that makes any sense,” Farah told us.

I was off to the smokers’ ghetto after Farah’s speech, so missed the confrontation in the lobby between him and Andrew Breitbart of Breitbart.com, another prominent and forceful speaker at the convention. But David Weigel of The Washington Independent, who was live-blogging from Nashville, was himself caught up in the row, and captured it on audiotape. Breitbart attacked Farah for raising the “birther issue” because it was “divisive.” Here’s a snatch of Weigel’s transcription, with Farah speaking first and Breitbart second:

It is a winning issue!”

It’s not a winning issue.”

It is! It becomes even more of a winning issue when the press abrogates its responsibility—“

You don’t recognize it as a fundamentally controversial issue that forces a unified group of people to have to break into different parts? It is a schism of the highest order.”

Out with the smokers on the freezing balcony, I was feeling sufficiently at home with my fellow attendees to voice, as mildly as I could, my own impatience with the birther stuff and the Cloward-Piven strategy. I wasn’t surprised to find people agreeing with me. “Stupid,” a woman said. “My first thought was, ‘This guy’s a liberal plant.’ I thought we came here to talk about taxes and government spending and national defense.”

The rhetorical extravagance of Tancredo, Farah, and other speakers was in tune with the extravagance of our surroundings. The convention had begun in discord and controversy, with the last-minute withdrawals of two star performers, the Republican congresswomen Michele Bachmann and Marsha Blackburn, and sniping from rival Tea Party groups who accused Tea Party Nation and its proprietors of trying to hijack the movement for personal profit. Much of the criticism was directed at the cost of the event and the choice of the gigantic Opryland resort hotel as a venue.

The scenic route from my hotel room to the convention center led through nine acres of jasmine-scented tropical rain forest, contained by interlocking atriums that resembled London’s 1851 Crystal Palace. Bridges and winding pathways ran past waterfalls and fountains through a dense jungle of banana trees, palms, hibiscus, bougainvillea, cannas, ferns, vines, and orchids. “Mississippi flatboats” took passengers on circuits of the shallow canal that looped around Delta Island, and on my walk, I’d pass Epcot-style recreations of old French New Orleans; an antebellum planter’s mansion; a bit of Italy; a quaint village street, possibly English; and a Dublin pub. Such a concentrated dose of surreality, taken before breakfast, helped to prepare one for life in the alternative world that was on offer in the ballroom.

Obama’s election was “our Pearl Harbor.” We were now living in “the Third Reich”: the first two Reichs were FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society. Liberal environmentalists were leading us into “socialist totalitarianism disguised as polar bears.” Luxuriant and overreaching metaphors bloomed like the tropical foliage just outside. I suspected that few of the cheering tea partiers took them very seriously. They were, rather, the floor show, a contrived entertainment, meant to add spice and dazzle to proceedings that would otherwise have been tedious in their emphasis on modest, neighborhood politics. The same speaker who roused us with talk of Pearl Harbor and the Third Reich later told us to run for our local school board, and be careful to avoid “divisive social issues.”

Only once did I find myself with a group of people from whose company I was glad to escape. At dinner on Friday, our eight-person table was talking—somewhat facetiously—about emigration. “We may have to leave this country sooner than we thought,” a woman said, and laughed. Australia was mooted as a possible destination. “Well, you could have gone to Australia once,” said a beefy man in his sixties, with coiffed silver hair and matching beard, the alpha male of the table; “but now they’ve got another liberal in charge—even in Australia.”

The woman’s husband shook his head, and said, “It may still come to shooting,” the tone in which he made the remark delicately balanced between eagerness and regret.

Then conversation swerved on to the subject of Obama, “the idiot,” “missing a few marbles up here,” “that nitwit.” (It’s curious how the Tea Party view of the President exactly mirrors the way the left talks about Palin: both are self-evidently stupid.) Obama was an unknown quantity when he was elected. He had no record, no experience; he was an empty suit about whom we knew nothing.

Well,” said the alpha male, producing his ace of trumps, “we knew he was black.”

I heard—and joined in—some grumbling about the religiosity of the event. “It’s Tea Party Nation,” a woman said. “They’re a very religious group. You notice how they won’t serve alcohol at dinner?” Another told me that several people had left a “breakout session” she’d attended, apparently because they’d taken offense at the copious prayers. “It’s a regional thing. This is the Bible belt. You don’t see this at Tea Party groups in the Southwest.”

This wasn’t a trivial issue. It’s one thing for pro-life evangelicals and secular libertarians to march shoulder to shoulder behind banners saying “Kill the Bill!” and “Oust the Marxist Usurper!” or displaying a portrait of Obama rouged up and kohled to look like Heath Ledger’s Joker in the Batman movie Dark Knight. It’s quite another to coop up the same people for three days in a hotel, where they must talk to each other through breakfast, lunch, and dinner. At the march on D.C., there were T-shirts proclaiming “I am John Galt” and “Atlas Has Shrugged” alongside others that said “Obama Spends—Jesus Saves” or had the legend “Yes, He Did” beneath a picture of Christ on the cross. At Opryland, devout, abstemious Christians were breaking bread with followers of Ayn Rand’s gospel of unbridled and atheistic self-interest. The convention, designed to unite the Tea Party movement, was helping to expose fundamental differences of belief and mindset between people who, before Nashville, had appeared as interchangeable members of a single angry crowd.

For the Saturday night banquet and Palin’s speech, I was assigned a seat beside the woman who told me about people quitting a meeting because of the prayers. Had we been strangers on a plane together, we would have had nothing politically in common (she liked to refer to Obama as “the idiot”), but here we were confidential allies, in harmonious agreement about the birthers, the Marxist conspiracy, the demonization of immigrants, and the churchiness of the convention.2

That evening, our prayer was led by Laurie Cardoza-Moore, the founder and president of a Christian Zionist organization called Proclaiming Justice to the Nations. We were asked to join hands with our neighbors while Moore delivered a long, impassioned appeal to God, imploring Him to compel the United States to show unwavering loyalty and devotion to the State of Israel. I felt an increasingly steady pressure on my right hand from the woman holding it, as she sang out her “A-mens!”; but my left hand, lightly held by my new partner in skepticism, registered a quick double-blip from her forefinger and thumb that unambiguously said, “Uh-oh.”

As we sat down to our steak-and-jumbo-shrimp dinner, my neighbor said, sotto voce, for my ears only, “You know, I phoned my husband last night. I told him that being here has made me realize that I am a liberal conservative.”

Whatever cracks and fissures had begun to open beneath our feet during the convention were instantly healed by Palin’s appearance on the platform. A great wave of adoration met the small, black-suited woman, as she walked to the microphone with a sheaf of papers. The entire ballroom was willing Sarah to transport us to a state of delirium with whatever she chose to say, and perhaps our expectations at the beginning of her speech were a guarantee that we’d leave feeling rather let down at the end.

From the start, she struck me as off-form, speaking too hurriedly, sometimes jumbling the words in her script, saying that “Alaska” was a beacon of hope to the world (she meant to say “America”), and generally using a tone of voice and style of delivery that seemed too low-key for the size of the audience in the ballroom. Whoever writes Palin’s speeches now is clearly not a patch on Matthew Scully, her speechwriter on the 2008 campaign. This speech lacked structure, memorability, and direction. Its best bits were Palin’s slaps at Obama, like “How’s that hopey-changey stuff workin’ out for ya?” Most of it was a rambling tour d’horizon of policy issues—national security, defense, Iran, the economy, bailouts, and debt—on which Palin had little more to offer than humdrum remarks like, “So, folks, with all these serious challenges ahead, we’ve got private-sector job creation that has got to take place and economic woes and health care, the war on terror.”

Some of what she said was inaudible in the ballroom. When she said, “We need a commander in chief! ” the audience stood to applaud. Through the din, I watched Palin’s lips continue to move on the giant monitor screens mounted on either side of the stage. An hour and a half later, watching a replay of the speech on C-SPAN, I heard the rest of the sentence: “…not a professor of law standing at the lectern.” When she was speaking live, plowing through her text, I thought she must be late for her plane to Houston, where she was due to address a rally for Governor Rick Perry the next morning, and was gabbling to save every second that she could, in order to get to the airport. Later, I’d see that I was wrong.

The huge standing ovation (“Run, Sarah, Run!”) at the end was more for the concept of Palin, her epiphanic appearance among us in the flesh, than it was for the lackluster speech she’d just delivered. On the way out of the convention center, I heard no one talking about how fired up they were by what they’d heard. In the elevator, a man said, “She messed up some of her lines. She’d’ve been better with a teleprompter.” I reached my room in time to see a reporter from C-SPAN interviewing a young woman in the ballroom lobby about her response to the speech. She thought about the question for a while, and said, carefully, “Well, I didn’t disagree with anything she said.”

Then I watched the replay of the speech on television and was surprised by how much more effective it sounded in my room than it had in life. Palin wasn’t so much speaking to the convention as she was addressing the nation, in its millions of separate rooms like mine. Her rapid, self-interrupting style of delivery was meant for the small screen, where her jokes worked better, and her banalities about policy had the pitch of kitchen-table conversation. It was far from a great speech, and I doubt if it won her many fresh converts, but it sounded a new note in her ever-surprising career: she was trying to find a “presidential” voice, and this was her State of the Union.

It happened that a Washington Post /ABC poll was being conducted as Palin was speaking (the convention ran from February 4 to 6, the poll from February 4 to 8). Palin’s numbers were down across the board, among Republicans, Democrats, and independents. More than 70 percent of respondents said that she’s unqualified for the presidency, up from 60 percent in November last year. Even among “conservative Republicans,” only 45 percent think her qualified, down from 66 percent in November. No significant shift of opinion was observed between the 6th and the 8th. But it’s the provenance of the poll that tea partiers will have seized on. The Washington Post and ABC News? What else would one expect of the liberal, lamestream media?

  1. 1

    Named for Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven’s article, “The Weight of the Poor: A Strategy to End Poverty,” The Nation, May 2, 1966. According to Wikipedia, “The two argued that many Americans who were eligible for welfare were not receiving benefits, and that a welfare enrollment drive would create a political crisis that would force US politicians, particularly the Democratic Party, to enact legislation ‘establishing a guaranteed national income.’” Since Obama’s election, the Cloward-Piven piece has been widely cited on the American right as “a malevolent strategy for destroying our economy and our system of government.” (James Simpson, “Cloward-Piven Government,” The American Thinker, November 23, 2009.)

  2. 2

    After her speech, taking soft questions from the convention organizer, Palin remarked that “it would be wise of us to start seeking some divine intervention again in this country, so that we can be safe and secure and prosperous again”; the applause that met this line was intense but conspicuously scattered.

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