Something New on the Mall

Michael Reynolds/epa/Corbis
Protesters’ signs at the ‘9/12’ rally on the National Mall, Washington, D.C., September 12, 2009

We have never seen, at least in the modern history of the United States, a right-wing street-protest movement. Conservatives who oppose Roe v. Wade march on Washington every January 22, the anniversary of that 1973 decision; but aside from that single issue and that single day, the American right over recent decades has, until this summer, carried out its organizing in a comparatively quiet fashion, via mimeograph machine and pamphlet and book and e-mail and text message, and left the streets to the left.

So we have something new in our political life—the summer’s apoplectic and bordering-on-violent town-hall meetings, and the large “9/12” rally on Washington’s National Mall that drew tens of thousands of people to protest America’s descent into “socialism” (or “communism,” or, occasionally, “Nazism”). How extreme is this movement, and how seriously should we take it?

The September 12 rally, the culminating (for now) event of the “Tea Party” movement that sprouted to life earlier this year, was organized chiefly by FreedomWorks, a conservative lobbying organization founded in 1984, and supported by nearly thirty conservative organizations, ranging from the well known (Club for Growth, Competitive Enterprise Institute) to the obscure (Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights). It was also promoted heavily on the Fox News Channel, especially by the hard right’s new man of the moment, Glenn Beck.

Much of the sentiment on display expressed a genuine fury on the part of citizens who believe in limited government and are opposed to the bank bailout, the auto bailout, health care reform, the deficit, and other policies of the administration. But another kind of anger, less respectable, was also expressed, and most of it was directed at one person in particular. “Parasite-in-Chief” read one sign, showing Barack Obama standing at the presidential lectern. “TREASON” read another, the “O” rendered in the familiar Obama campaign poster style, with the receding red lines suggesting a horizon. Another maintained that “Obammunism Is Communism.”

Many placards reproduced the widely circulated image of Obama as the Joker character played by Heath Ledger in last year’s Batman film The Dark Knight. On Pennsylvania Avenue, a group of marchers I was walking with spontaneously began chanting “No You Can’t!” I did not see any overtly racist signs (although a TV reporter showed a poster of a largely naked African, and the Joker placards have affinities with old Sambo cartoons).

There was also plenty of animus toward Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Ted Kennedy—I saw several attendees carrying a sign that said “Bury Obamacare with Kennedy,” which had been printed by a group called the American Life League, a leading Catholic anti–abortion rights group. Its motto is “From Creation to Natural Death,” and its president wrote recently that the fact that the “pro-abort” Kennedy received a Catholic burial was…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.