At the Tea Party

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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…

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